STOP A WAR WITH LOVE
The feminist icon, the ’70s TV sensation, and why all other female superheroes owe everything to Wonder Woman
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.