Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia by Greg Rucka and J.G. Jones

This comic is very much a re-read for me.  Suffice it to say, this has been a long time coming, and it’s a pleasure to review it.

So let’s do this properly, shall we?  A little background…

According the post-Crisis / pre-New 52 mythos that I call “home” in DC Comics, Princess Diana of Themyscira represented her island nation and her people as ambassador to the United Nations beginning fairly early in her career.  By this well-established point in her career, the Themysciran Embassy was established in New York City so that Diana could be seen to be closer to the people, both those she was interacting with at the UN, and with those at street level.  The purpose was to make her culture less strange and more familiar, and thus more accepted.  Pay no attention to the fact that the embassy is guarded by Amazons, is protected by magic, and employs a minotaur as a chef.  Instead, focus only on the idea that the ambassador is one of the most tactically-skilled, and highly-trained individuals on the planet, with her skills being augmented by the powers of the Olympian deities who gave her life.

She has also ascended for a brief time as a goddess, specifically the Olympian Goddess of Truth.  This means she knows even more of what will be required by the dictates of this entire setup, both from the mortal and immortal perspectives.

Aside from this last tidbit, these are points that people in the DCU of this time are now accustomed to.  Diana has no secret identity.  The embassy is recognized, and she makes herself a target of her own free will, going out of her way to protect those she employs and those she calls friend, to say nothing of any innocent bystander who needs her help.  This is a world of superheroes.  They come in all shapes and sizes, with all manner of abilities and agendas.  Known throughout the world as Wonder Woman, Diana is one of the elite circle that forms the core of the Justice League, standing alongside Earth’s Greatest Heroes to fight off or protect against any number of disasters, be they natural, man-made, extraterrestrial, or supernormal.  But of them, she is one of the few who can claim royalty or direct connections to deity.  She is one of the few remaining followers of the gods of Olympus.  She is their champion, chosen by trials of combat and confirmed through her works in Man’s World.

And she stands alone in dedication to her mission of peace.

With this understanding, and before I properly get into this review, let me share something I found on the internet a while back regarding the ritual as quoted above.  Sadly, I completely forgot to note the website forum when I swiped it, so if that person ever comes across this, please speak up so I can accredit you properly.  As I stated, Wonder Woman steps out of Olympian mythology, and the ritual of the Hiketeia comes to us from none other than Homer’s The Iliad, among other sources.

Pausanias, Assius, Homer and others speak about it.

Lyceon (from Lyceo = bright) was son of Pelasgus. He built the city of Lykosoura at the mountain Lyceo. Lykosoura was considered the first city ever built. In the Kretea [Crete] region of the mountain Lyceo it was believed by some, Zeus was born and raised. In the top of the mountain there was an altar for sacrifices. It is said even people were sacrificed there. Lyceon did sacrifice a child once and was turned into a wolf (therefore Lycos = Wolf).

There was also an altar of Zeus where it was believed matter lost its shadow and projected light. The animals there were protected by the gods and mortals were not allowed to enter. Pausanias says it was a holy zone where Pleostoanax, king of Sparta found protection along with the Messinian refuges. An inscription was found in the area that records a place called Heketeia (Ικετεία) which means “protection from the gods”. Basically the animals that were supposed to be protected were the humans, who whenever seeked protection could enter the altar.

And that’s how this story comes to be.  A world where Wonder Woman exists is going to have a few new scholars in Greek mythology and custom.  One of them is a young woman named Danielle Wellys.  Consider carefully these words, for this is where Danielle’s life changes forever.  This is the first page of the book.

I offer myself in supplication,
I come without protection.
I come without means.
Without honor, without hope,
With nothing but myself to beg for protection.

In your shadow will I serve.
By your breath, will I breathe.
By your words will I speak.
By your mercy will I live.

With all my heart
with everything I can offer
I beg you, in Zeus’s name,
who watches over all supplicants:

ACCEPT MY PLEA.

Let’s not mince words.  This is about slavery, but it’s not as we understand it today.  Not completely.  There is no abuse involved at any level from either side, lest the terms of supplication be violated.  This means the supplicant cannot be abused by the one she petitions, nor can the generosity of the host be abused.  Anyone who’s ever read Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files knows that in the ancient world, the laws of hospitality are amongst the highest laws and are vigorously enforced.  The same holds true pretty much anywhere, fact or fiction.

Keeping in mind all we know about Wonder Woman, Danielle’s words must be the absolute truth.  Diana is a divinely-powered lie detector.  The Lasso of Truth is just a focus.  Diana doesn’t need it to know your heart.  The tiniest hint of insincerity would be instantly known, and it would be an insult both to her and to the gods she represents.  Also keep in mind that Diana comes from a world where a true warrior does not kneel.  The Hiketeia is a ritual of hitting rock bottom with a desire to be whole again, with the supplicant saying outright “I’ve lost everything, and I am shattered.  I’m willing to be your slave, knowing that you will take the broken pieces and reforge them anew in your image.”  And it’s such that if the ritual is completed properly and with honesty, it MUST be accepted by the one being petitioned.  Then if it is violated on either side, the gods will mete out their vengeance accordingly, “the most savage of punishments.”  In the DCU, this is not an empty threat.

Really think about this from a modern perspective, if you can.  This is powerful stuff.  As someone who follows a personal code of chivalry, I appreciate what’s going on here in a way most maybe cannot or will not.  Place yourself in Danielle’s shoes, in the DC Universe, in a world of superheroes of all kinds, where suddenly this sort of thing carries far more than the kind of weight as swearing an oath to the armed forces.  The beings who will bear witness are thought to be real, and they, like so many others, will be more than capable of stripping bare your soul to find the truth of your words.  It’s truly humbling.  It chokes me up to consider just how bad it must have gotten to drive a person to do this.  And think about Diana’s side of this.  If this young woman is true in her plea, Diana must accept her supplication.  This means the laws of man are now put aside, and Diana will do whatever she must to protect Danielle from absolutely anything while providing for her every need — physical, mental, and spiritual — and helping her to regain her honor and basic humanity.  To most people, this is unthinkable and unacceptable at every level.  And it would require professor-level scholarship to even know of it.

So who is Danielle Wellys, and why would she choose to supplicate herself in this most wretched manner to Princess Diana of Themyscira?

And more importantly… don’t you think this level of understanding and scholarship requires premeditation on Danielle’s part?  This suggests that while her words may indeed be true and heartfelt, her motives may not be pure.  She knows what’s coming after her, and she needs Wonder Woman to protect her.

Protect her from what?  Well, one look at the cover, and you know what.  Danielle is running from the Batman.  More than that, because she’s become knowledgeable of the old ways, she’s running from old world justice as well, in the form of the Erinyes, aka the Furies.  And this means Diana must face off against vengeance from both her gods and from her comrade-in-arms.  No matter what happens, Diana will be judged.  But why?

It’s because Hiketeia is never about the supplicant.  It’s about the supplicated.  To rebuild a person from shattered remnants requires the most exacting standards, and the supplicated must live up to those standards at every conceivable level.  It’s the kind of thing that makes the codes of chivalry look like a school recital of the “Pledge of Allegiance.”  The reason for supplication is ultimately irrelevant.  It’s about the ritual.  But these things asked of Diana — her protection, a plea for help — these are things Diana would do even without ritual or judgment.  It’s who she is.  Even knowing the Erinyes were there, and even knowing they only come for the most vile offenders, Diana would protect her charge and help her to the bitter end.  It’s Greek tragedy at is very core: “the conflict of personal desire versus the demands of society.”

Now the kick in the gut that you know has to be coming.  What’s the story here?  Danielle has committed a series of murders in Gotham City, and if anyone knows anything about the Batman, then you know how personally he takes that.  He is by the very definition of his being relentless in his pursuit of justice.  If anyone knows this, it’s Diana of Themyscira.  And yet… there is Hiketeia.  Unless Danielle releases Diana from her vow, there is but one course of action.  Justice will not be denied, for either of these of veteran heroes, no matter how they define it.

Unstoppable force, meet the immovable object.

ww-punches-batman

 

Danielle’s story is one I won’t spoil for anyone who wants to read it.  Suffice it to say, it’s sympathetic, and it’s the kind of thing that can and does happen right here in the real world every single day with frightening alarm.  This young woman had options where many in our world do not.  And those options led to friend fighting friend.  It leads Diana to question what she would do in Danielle’s place.  It leads to Batman understanding his personal line in the sand that he absolutely will not cross, the path that might have been had he chosen to become one with the abyss that pushes him forward.  It is the most personal look at the very things that define these magnificent characters on a level that virtually nobody understands anymore.

I think almost everyone here knows how incredibly biased and exacting I am when it comes to character, especially those whom I classify as favorites.  Wonder Woman is my favorite character, with Darth Vader and the Shadow coming up pretty close behind.  Diana’s 4-color adventures over the decades have been incredibly hit and miss, with very few writers ever knowing quite how she works, and fewer still being able to demonstrate it.  Author Greg Rucka first blipped on my radar during the massive “No Man’s Land” story arc running through the Batman titles, and he proved himself to be an incredible writer, capable of doing amazing things with the most absurd of concepts simply by keeping true to the characters and pushing the boundaries of what we knew about them.  He got the Batman, which in itself seems to be a dying commodity that Hollywood will never understand.  This book represents his first attempt to write for Wonder Woman.  I remember when it hit shelves, I was nervous beyond belief because most Bat-writers tend to skew the Dark Knight’s abilities to the point where he can beat anyone.  I know what these characters are capable of.  I know their limits.  In the DCU, there’s a rock-paper-scissors kind of thing going on with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.  They are the best of the best for a reason, not only in the DCU, but in virtually every universe you can name.  They are the greatest heroes who ever lived when they are written properly and to spec.  Each brings something to the table that the other two cannot.

This book remains in my top five of all-time best comic books ever written.  That’s how incredibly special this is.  The first time I read it, shed a little tear because it’s rare when somebody can demonstrate an absolute command of the skills needed to bring either Batman or Wonder Woman to life.  Rucka nailed it on both counts.

In the years since J. Michael Stracynzski (yes, that guy, the creator of Babylon 5, which I love so much) single-handedly  destroyed Wonder Woman and DC decided it was so awesome they should do that to everything and everyone else in the universe with the New 52, I have become an incredibly jaded and bitter man.  I’m no stranger to continuities being wiped and started over.  But what they did with the New 52 is nothing less than a hatchet job that undermined my faith in the comics industry as a whole, and in DC in particular.  And the reason is because of books just like this one that demonstrate that new talent can come along and prove beyond the shadow of all doubt that it CAN be done, that it should be honored, and above all, that these characters are as human as any of us, regardless of what abilities they may or may not have, and regardless of the fact that they don’t exist in our world.  It’s the kind of thing that builds legends.

It’s the kind of thing that chokes me up with a mix of happiness at seeing these characters treated with respect and sadness over their situation even as I write this.  When people claim that I’m being too unfair, that I’m sucking the enjoyment out of life, that I’m not allowing the new generation to have their own versions… this is why I rebound and take a counteroffensive.  Books like this.  Books like this prove to me that my standards and loyalties are right.  Books like this will forever mock the leadership at DC that allowed all that back there to crumble into so much wasteland.  I weep for what the new generation is being told is acceptable today.  As the Joker says, “Brave new world, that has such yutzes in it.”

But as I remind people, these gems of yesteryear are still out there, awaiting rediscovery.  The good old days weren’t always this good, but there was still a legacy being honored that stretches back decades, and it’s still as entertaining now as it was then for all the right reasons.  This book is a shining example of that.

It has been an honor and a privilege to read this one again after far too long.

5 stars

ww-hiketeia

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