The fem­i­nist icon, the ’70s TV sen­sa­tion, and why all other fe­male su­per­heroes owe ev­ery­thing to Won­der Woman

Comic Heroes - - Complete Guide -

It wouldn’t be fair to say that there hadn’t been at­tempts to mod­ify and im­prove Won­der Woman dur­ing the slap­dash Robert Kanigher era, but they were few and far be­tween. At one point in the late ’50s, for in­stance, artists Ross An­dru and Mike Es­pos­ito had tried to give her a sexy new ap­pear­ance, with more ex­otic fea­tures and wilder, more wind­blown hair – but her “slutty” look was soon nixed by a con­ser­va­tive DC, who wanted her de­mure curls back. The worry had been that this made Diana look too sex­u­ally avail­able, and she was back to nor­mal by #106.

Mean­while, writer/edi­tor Kanigher had re­de­fined her pow­ers as spe­cial gifts from the gods, mak­ing her a su­per-Ama­zon with strengths above and be­yond those of her fel­lows. “Won­der Girl” and (yes, re­ally) “Won­der Tot” flash­back sto­ries had even showed a young Diana with spe­cial pow­ers, which make her feel more unique, yes – but stripped away what­ever was left of the orig­i­nal Marston idea that “any woman can be like Won­der Woman”.

But as her pow­ers ex­panded, her as­pi­ra­tions nar­rowed, and Diana ac­tu­ally started to be­come the “good lit­tle house­wife” she’d al­ways strug­gled against – now she day-dreamed about mar­ry­ing the Ken Doll-es­que Steve Trevor con­stantly, while fret­ting that she would never be good enough for him.

Soon Won­der Girl and Won­der Tot were get­ting more play, first as “Im­pos­si­ble Tales” – like Su­per­man’s “Imag­i­nary Sto­ries”, but nar­rated by Queen Hip­polyta, now call­ing her­self “Won­der Queen” – then, with­out real ex­pla­na­tion as to where they came from, as mod­ern day Ama­zons, liv­ing on Par­adise Is­land. With #159 they tried to take her back to her World War 2 roots, and not for the first time; it was an­other fail. By 1967, Diana was still bat­tling “The Trap Of The De­mon Man-Fish” and be­ing told by a gi­ant spaceape that she was “Pretty enough to be a go­rilla – so I’m go­ing to turn you into one of us!”, while over at Marvel Peter Parker was throw­ing his Spidey duds into a trash can and Jim Ster­anko was wow­ing ev­ery­one on Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Some­thing had to change – and it did, dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly ex­per­i­men­tal pe­riod at DC…

For­get the old!

The so-called “rel­e­vance” ex­plo­sion hit in the late ’60s, as books like Bat­man and

Green Lan­tern/Green Ar­row got darker, grit­tier and more real­is­tic – and Won­der Woman would now get her big break too. Re­vamp-king Denny O’Neil would at­tempt to save the char­ac­ter by chang­ing her to­tally, his re­vamp kick­ing off with Won­der

Woman #178 (Sep-Oct 1968). “I’ll lose him for­ever if I don’t do some­thing to keep him in­ter­ested in me,” Diana says – and, yes, she’s bang­ing on about Trev again – and so be­gan a se­ries of events that would com­pletely rein­vent the char­ac­ter. First Diana would quit her job at mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence, and her frumpy se­cret iden­tity look; then all the other Ama­zons would dis­ap­pear, ap­par­ently off to an­other di­men­sion to stock up on mag­i­cal en­er­gies. Robbed of her amaz­ing pow­ers and weapons, a newly kick-ass, high-fash­ion Diana would be forced to fight as a nor­mal hu­man girl.

“The New Won­der Woman” wore Op Art Emma Peel cat­suits and, in­creas­ingly, a suc­ces­sion of all-white out­fits, while shar­ing the mast­head with, first, her new men­tor – a slightly em­bar­rass­ing blind mar­tial arts mas­ter called I Ching, years be­fore Dare­devil ever ran across Stick – and then her own al­ter ego, Diana Prince.

Artist “Big” Mike Sekowsky, a vet­eran of Stan Lee’s 1940s girls comics, is ac­tu­ally the hero here, for O’Neil was gone al­most im­me­di­ately, and it was Sekowsky – aided by the slick so­phis­ti­ca­tion of Dick Gior­dano’s ink­ing – who’d mix su­per­nat­u­ral, es­pi­onage and slice-of-life el­e­ments in such gen­er­ally deft fash­ion, cre­at­ing a warm, mod­ern Diana, one who rev­elled in a sly wit rarely (if ever) seen be­fore. His new Won­der Woman – a sort of soft­ened ver­sion of Mod­esty Blaise – was de­signed to be a sym­bol of em­pow­er­ment and self­de­ter­mi­na­tion, a woman of vast power and wealth who loses it all, but rein­vents her­self and takes charge of her life again.

The vil­lains were quite fresh too, a mix of in­ter­na­tional crime car­tels, ur­ban sadists who prey on run­aways, witches, as­sas­sins, even ghosts. Okay, so they were no Chee­tah or Dr Psy­cho, but the strip was more lively than it had been for years. The art was stylish and ki­netic too, lend­ing en­ergy and move­ment even to scenes where folks were sit­ting around chat­ting, of­ten in the mod cloth­ing bou­tique Diana was now run­ning in her spare time, few dresses more bizarre than the shit she sold. It may not have been the “proper” Won­der

Woman – and it never quite pulled off the goofy-cool Avengers TV show charm – but it was a good comic, and the best Won­der

Woman had been since Marston’s death. De­spite all its qual­i­ties, how­ever, this wasn’t a proper hit. Male read­ers – what there still were – pulled away in hor­ror, and things never quite clicked with the girls ei­ther. Plus, Sekowsky suf­fered health

prob­lems, and was soon turn­ing in his sto­ries late, the fill-in is­sues be­com­ing legion. By 1971 Won­der Woman had been taken from him, and Sekowsky gave up on the in­dus­try for good, leav­ing for Cal­i­for­nia to work in an­i­ma­tion – but his part­ing shot, the cover for #196, proved the new Diana Prince had in no way given up on her favourite fetishes. Top­less, chained spread­ea­gle and with a tar­get painted on her back, she glances over her shoul­der with a look that could be read all sorts of ways…

Won­der Woman for Pres­i­dent

Now, with #197, Den­nis O’Neil was back to fin­ish what he had barely started. Famed fem­i­nist Glo­ria Steinem had been very vo­cal that this hero­ine of her child­hood, the strong­est of pop cul­ture fe­males, had been robbed of her pow­ers and cos­tume – she’s be­come a mere fe­male James Bond, she said, made even more bor­ing be­cause “she was de­nied his sex­ual free­dom” – and O’Neil saw win­ning her over as some­thing of a chal­lenge.

He had just the se­cret weapon to do it with too, bring­ing famed gay SF nov­el­ist Sa­muel R De­laney on board as writer – a bold plan that col­lapsed al­most im­me­di­ately, de­liv­er­ing a sin­gle two-part Fem­i­nist story. (Se­ri­ously: above the logo it read: “Spe­cial! Women’s Lib Is­sue!”) Here Diana’s home­less and work­ing in a depart­ment store, when she re­alises the all-fe­male staff are earn­ing be­low min­i­mum wage; Won­der Woman fights back, but there’s a twist in the tale when the shop’s forced to close – and now Diana has 250 job­less women bay­ing for her blood. It’s to­tal rubbish, of course, and

Sekowsky cre­ated a warm, mod­ern Diana, one who rev­elled in a sly wit

its no­to­ri­ous-even-by- Won­der-Woman

stan­dards bondage cover got people gig­gling – but the thought was there. Briefly Won­der Woman was play­ing the Green

Lan­tern/Green Ar­row “rel­e­vance” game, and get­ting a cer­tain amount of ku­dos for it.

It was around now, too, that a stil­lun-im­pressed Steinem and the Ms Mag­a­zine staff would put the Golden Age Won­der Woman on their cover (“Won­der Woman for Pres­i­dent” read the leg­end), and bring out a hard­back an­thol­ogy collection of the hero­ine’s Golden Age ad­ven­tures, com­plete with top-notch es­says on the char­ac­ter.

“Queen Hip­polyta founds na­tions, wages war to pro­tect Par­adise Is­land, and sends her daugh­ter off to fight the forces of evil in the world,” Steinem would write. “Won­der Woman sym­bol­ises many of the val­ues of the women’s cul­ture that fem­i­nists are now try­ing to in­tro­duce into the main­stream… a di­min­ish­ing both of ‘mas­cu­line’ ag­gres­sion and of the be­lief that vi­o­lence is the only way of solv­ing con­flicts.” Two con­flict­ing ver­sions of what Won­der

Woman might be were very much in the pub­lic spot­light, but though all this ker­fuf­fle got the strip no­ticed, sales didn’t in­crease that much, and soon this en­tire “rein­ven­tion” pe­riod was be­ing seen as some­thing of a fail­ure across the board; af­ter all, even Bat­man’s hard-hit­ting sto­ry­lines and glo­ri­ous art couldn’t dis­guise the sim­ple truth that over­all sales were down. By the time 1973 swung around, the su­per­heroes were tak­ing back their silly pow­ers and bright cos­tumes, and Won­der

Woman was no dif­fer­ent – soon the stars­pan­gled knick­ers re­turned, I Ching

would be dead, and (hor­ror of hor­rors) Robert Kanigher was back writ­ing the book again. On #205 Won­der Woman is strapped to a bright pur­ple nu­clear mis­sile crash­ing to­wards New York, and it was back to busi­ness as usual, it seemed.

In your satin tigh ts

Ex­cept else­where, things were start­ing to get in­ter­est­ing again. As the ’70s rolled on, DC was get­ting more and more in­ter­ested in li­cens­ing out its char­ac­ters and there were nu­mer­ous stabs at mak­ing Won­der

Woman work as a TV movie. Hopes were high, but Diana’s smallscreen in­car­na­tion was in no way an overnight hit. ABC’s first at­tempt, in 1974, had fea­tured the un­de­ni­ably beau­ti­ful Cathy Lee Crosby, a slim blonde with an an­gu­lar, slightly cold face and rel­a­tively short hair – prob­lem­at­i­cally, she looked bug­ger all like the comic book ver­sion, and the story she starred in had pre­cious lit­tle to do with DC’s golden girl ei­ther.

But ABC and Warner Bros per­se­vered, and now Stan­ley Ralph Ross, who’d writ­ten Cat­woman-cen­tric episodes of

Bat­man, came up with a stronger take on the sub­ject. Now we’d have a World War 2 set­ting, loyal to the first comic books; we’d en­joy a ver­sion of Marston’s ori­gin story; and, best of all, we’d have a bril­liant star in strug­gling ac­tress Lynda Carter, who cap­tured the char­ac­ter per­fectly. ABC named the sec­ond TV movie The New, Orig­i­nal Won­der Woman, and though many fret­ted over Carter’s in­ex­pe­ri­ence, the im­por­tant people backed her – in­clud­ing ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Dou­glas S Cramer. “To tell you the truth,” Carter later said, “I couldn’t pay my next month’s rent when I got the part.”

Two one-hour TV spe­cials fol­lowed be­fore, in late 1976, ABC fi­nally launched a full se­ries of weekly hour-long ad­ven­tures. Amaz­ingly, many of Marston’s themes were present and cor­rect. The comic books were ref­er­enced in the car­toony open­ing cred­its, while cap­tions cropped up through­out the show it­self. Mean­while, a bril­liantly hummable theme song summed up the “re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion” vibe of the Marston comics in thrilling fash­ion: “Make a hawk a dove, stop a war with love, make a liar tell the truth,” it trills, then, “stop a bul­let cold, make the Axis fold, change their minds – and change the world.”

Pro­duc­tion val­ues were cheesy but ser­vice­able – the cel­e­brated spin, glasses in hand, wherein Diana Prince changes into cos­tume was a ge­nius TV-only in­no­va­tion – and Carter threw her­self into the fights en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, even­tu­ally be­com­ing an hon­orary mem­ber of the Stunt Women’s As­so­ci­a­tion for her ef­forts.

The re­sult was an un­usual ad­ven­ture se­ries, but an un­de­ni­ably dis­tinc­tive one, with its fe­male lead, pe­riod set­ting and strange camp-but-se­ri­ous sen­si­bil­ity. When the sec­ond sea­son was picked up by CBS the ac­tion was up­dated to the present day.

Fans still ar­gue about the qual­i­ties of the two sea­sons – and while mak­ing it “mod­ern” def­i­nitely turned Won­der

Woman into more of a generic ’70s ac­tion show, for Carter the CBS episodes were an im­prove­ment. “I think I was much bet­ter in the part,” she’d later say. “I tried to play her just like a reg­u­lar woman who hap­pened to have su­per­pow­ers. I fig­ured she’d lived with it ev­ery day of her life.”

Won­der Woman was big news, at last, but while the TV se­ries shone in its thrillingly tacky fash­ion, the comics re­mained in­creas­ingly dire. The Fem­i­nists had em­braced her, and Won­der Woman im­agery was every­where, but it would take an­other decade, and an­other man, to drag the comics up where they be­longed…


Above: Won­der Woman as a strong, sexy sec­re­ta­gent type, in the style of

The Avengers’ Emma Peel.

Above: By now Miss Prince was busy run­ning a mod cloth­ing bou­tique.

Left: Mike Sekowsky quit comics soon af­ter this cover for #196.

Above & Right: Whether she’s bound and gagged, or chained to a wall, bondage has been a con­stant theme.

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