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wonder woman: the hiketeia

10 june 2017

Getting ready to see Wonder Woman at one of the 25,000 co-ed screenings this week, I wondered if I had any Wonder Woman comics on my bookshelf. You really never know. And there it was, a 2002 graphic novel called The Hiketeia, written by primo comic creator Greg Rucka, drawn by veterans J.G. Jones and Wade von Grawbadger. Rucka would go on to write Wonder Woman for three years, but The Hiketeia was his first story for the Themysciran superhero.

Hiketeia, as you might expect from Greg Rucka, is an actual classical word that I would spell in Greek here if I had better coding skills. It means "the prayer of a suppliant," and it was used by Plato, Thucydides, and others. Rucka imagines hiketeia as a formalized ritual that binds suppliant and benefactor in mutual obligations. These obligations are enforced by the Erinyes, three goddesses you don't want to meet in a dark alley. Though in the world as drawn by Jones and von Grawbadger, that's the only place you are likely to meet them.

Like any good Greek tragedian, Rucka sets up the story as a no-win situation. We see a young woman named Danielle Wellys commit a cold-blooded, hideous murder. We see Batman chase her down afterwards. Wellys gets away. She goes to Princess Diana (called "Wonder Woman" here only with a touch of scare quotes) and performs the ritual of hiketeia. This is serious stuff – no matter what Wellys has done, Diana has to protect her, even if it means smacking Batman upside the head a few times.

But of course, the Furies want it both ways, or indeed every possible way. They will avenge Wellys if Diana betrays her. They won't be happy with Bruce Wayne if Diana succeeds. But they wouldn't have been happy if Wellys had left her victims unmurdered, because vengeance was due. In such an eye-for-an-eye world, it's a wonder anybody can see straight.

We learn early on that only the suppliant can break the bonds of hiketeia. So you're waiting for that shoe to drop the whole time, but meanwhile the plot is tense, the dark visual mood is atmospheric, and the action is occasionally splendid. Many critics admire the double-page spread (56-57) where Diana throws Batman off her apartment balcony. This isn't just some sort of feminist revisionism, either. Batman is a particularly vulnerable superhero: he is undeniably buff and has some excellent gadgets, but almost alone in the DC and Marvel universes, he is essentially just some guy in a cape. Diana has family connections to the Olympian Gods themselves. She is overqualified to kick Batman's ass.

Even though he invents elements of hiketeia for his purposes, Rucka's Greek religion is more authentic, less sensational than that in Patty Jenkins' 2017 film. In Wonder Woman, screenwriter Allan Heinberg recasts Greek mythology in a distinctly Miltonic vein. Zeus creates mankind happy and free, but the jealous Ares corrupts humans and sets them at one another's throats. To police the whole situation, Zeus creates the Amazons, somewhat uselessly hiding them on the invisible island of Themyscira. In the film, that leaves Diana to play the role of the Son, or of course, Daughter, of God. She wins a satisfying battle with Satan/Ares. The role of Adam is taken by Captain Kirk … well, it isn't a remake of Paradise Lost, it just borrows an idea or two.

But it's the big hit of summer 2017 (so far), and Wonder Woman owes a lot to the reimagination of Diana that began with Rucka's Hiketeia. One hopes that the influences of this reimagination will continue to percolate through the inevitable sequels and reboots over the next couple of decades.

Rucka, Greg. Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia. Penciller J.G. Jones. Inker Wade von Grawbadger. Letterer Todd Klein. Colorist Dave Stewart. New York: DC Comics, 2002.