Thursday Comics Hangover: Done in one

You'll rarely encounter a truly conclusive conclusion in superhero fiction. Everything is endlessly serialized, presumably under the assumption that a too-pat ending will inspire readers to drop off a title. All this inconclusiveness gets tiring.

And in an age in which every superhero story is collected in a trade paperback, comics have gotten even more endless. Decades ago, when a creator was late with a title, editors would reach into their back catalogs and pull out a one-shot story — meaning one with a beginning, a middle, and an end — they could plug into the scheduling hole. Often, these stories served as training wheels for up-and-coming talent, and many of them were...well, not good.

But every once in a while, a good one-shot story gets to the heart of a superhero, explaining in a kind of mission statement why the character matters and providing a blueprint for creative teams for years to come. This week, DC Comics published one of those rare comics, in Wonder Woman issue 51.

The basic premise is not original: Wonder Woman sends a criminal to prison, and then Wonder Woman continues to visit the prisoner over the span of months and years. At first, the prisoner is aggressive. Over time, their relationship gets more complicated. Author Steve Orlando isn't reinventing the wheel, here.

But unpredictability is not the charm of the story. Orlando's script is warm and patient, and artist Laura Braga deftly straddles the line between superhero comics and the expressive character work. You know how it's going to end, but you can't wait to get there.

Way too often, Wonder Woman is presented as nothing more than the female version of Superman, or a generic powerful hero who happens to be a woman. Braga and Orlando in one issue manage to explain what it is that makes Wonder Woman a unique character, and to establish a precedent for creators in the future. She doesn't just vanquish crime; she rehabilitates criminals. Hopefully, Seattle author G. Willow Wilson, who recently was announced as the new writer on Wonder Woman, will expand on the themes of this story, to give a new purpose to the never-ending adventures of Wonder Woman.