There are few comic book heroes as intriguing as Wonder Woman, the first important female superhero, and certainly the most enduring. If we ignore the briefest of mid-’80s hiatuses, she’s been in continuous publication since early 1942, and a stalwart of DC’s most prominent superteams for almost as long.
On top of that, Wonder Woman is the only woman in comics with name recognition to rival that of Batman and Superman, the male heroes she’s most often grouped with as part of DC’s “Trinity” of core characters. And although confused (and often clueless) creators have messed with her powers and personality enough over the decades to make it sometimes hard to say exactly who Wonder Woman is, certain traits have endured – and everyone, comic book reader or not, knows what they are.
The lasso, the bracelets, the stars-andstripes outfit – they’re icons as powerful as any to be found in fiction, giving Wonder Woman a visual punch to rival the rich, confusing stew of issues she’s come to symbolise. But more than this, it’s Wonder Woman’s seemingly contradictory approach to crime fighting that makes her one of the most unusual, most admirable, most multi-faceted of heroes.
You see, at times Diana of Themyscira, Princess of Amazons, is shown to be as violent as Wolverine – willing to kill where other long-underwear types will not. Equally often she’s shown to be as patriotic as Superman, with a similar immigrant’s idealistic regard for America; perhaps more of one, in fact, as even he doesn’t wear the flag on his perfectly formed rump. Plus, she’s almost constantly pressed into service as a feminist icon, giving her a real-world political weight and meaning no other superhero can match. An unbreakable regard for women, their lives and their struggles, is a theme that’s been front-andcentre in Wonder Woman comics from the beginning, and from the ’70s onwards her image was co-opted in dramatic fashion by the feminist movement too, giving Diana another life well outside of DC’s control. In the right context, the image of Wonder Woman holds power in a way Batman or Superman never could.
But more than this heady mix of the warrior and the progressive, the creature of the past – for Diana is a mythological figure of sorts – fighting for a better future, what really makes Wonder Woman unique is her commitment to love.
Alone amongst the major superheroes, she exhibits an unshakable commitment to more than just bringing wrong-doers to justice; she’s out to rehabilitate them too. Wonder Woman seems to genuinely care for her foes, and goes out of her way to resolve their issues, remove them from malign influence, show them a better way.
Next to the long-term commitment of Wonder Woman, the darkest of knights and steeliest of men start to look like violent, half-hearted little boys. Can she really be the only one who’s properly thought this thing through?
So who is this lass, and where did she come from? Wonder Woman certainly has the most peculiar backstory. She was created by William Moulton Marston, a psychologist and (amongst other things) “free love” enthusiast fascinated with the female psyche. Her early adventures are similar to those of her contemporaries (Superman first appeared three years before she did, and Batman two) in that they’re full of life and invention, yet often play fast and loose with credibility and common sense.
In other ways, however, they’re very different, not least in that Wonder Woman regularly heaved with fetishistic details and sexual overtones almost entirely absent from the lives of the other heroes (Bruce and Dick sharing a bedroom in Batman aside). Early Wonder Woman is packed with phallic symbols and “bondage games” – to the extent that, when Fredric Wertham would call her “a veritable lesbian recruitment poster” in his notorious 1954 book The Seduction Of The Innocent, it wasn’t hard to see what he meant.
Marston was a celebrated academic who’d taught at Columbia, Tufts and Radcliffe, and had invented the lie detector – he’d gleefully demonstrate it
on visitors to his house – but he was also a pop psychologist with a high media profile. He’d written numerous works of historical fiction, usually set in ancient Greece or Rome, and tons of self-help articles with titles like “Obey That Impulse” and “Take Your Profits From Defeat”, many of which echoed the themes of Wonder Woman long before he came up with Princess Diana and her giggly, Sapphic-tinged life on Paradise Island. One had been called “The Natural Superiority Of Women”, and Marston’s early feminist beliefs – he felt it only right and proper that a woman should be US President one day – provided a clear, dramatic theme that Wonder Woman’s adventures set out to explore.
No great fan of the comics, Marston had actually campaigned against the infant medium, decrying its violence, its emphasis on criminality, and what he’d later call a “blood curdling masculinity”, wherein women were mere decoration, trophies to be scrapped over by men – when they showed up at all.
All-American publisher MC Gaines (the company would soon be one of three that came together to form DC) had spotted one of these pieces and, doubtless a tad cynically, had figured Marston might be persuaded to shut up if invited to join the new “advisory board” of educators created to nominally supervise his output. They met at New York’s Harvard Club in 1941, and an agreement was swiftly reached – initially Marston would come up with ways in which Gaines could make comic books more psychologically beneficial to young readers, but soon he was lobbying to be allowed to create a new series too, one designed to sum up his views on the relationship between the sexes, and in doing so offer a counterweight to what he saw as a tidal wave of brutal male heroes.
“It’s too bad for us literary enthusiasts,” Marston would write, “but it’s the truth nevertheless – pictures tell any story more effectively than words.” Perhaps comics – so disappointing and potentially corrupting – could be rebuilt, he decided, turning superhero fantasies into something that might actually be good for the kids. “Feeling big, smart, important and winning the admiration of their fellows are realistic rewards all children strive for,” he said. “It remains for moral educators to decide what type of behaviour is to be regarded as heroic.”
Sha des of Pluto!
Marston – initially worried about putting his name to such low art, and so using the pseudonym “Charles Moulton” – created Wonder Woman with artist Harry George Peter and his four assistants; Peter was a newspaper humour illustrator in his early sixties who’d not worked on superheroes before, but his oddball style would prove invaluable. Marston had apparently picked him because he knew what “life is all about”.
Their creation debuted as a mystery figure in the anthology title All Star
Comics, home of the Flash, Hawkman and others – “She is known only as Wonder Woman, but who she is, or whence she came, nobody knows!” – but Marston had actually already cooked up one of the most elaborate origins in comics for her. Diana’s first eight-page adventure in
All Star #8 (January 1942) would set the stage for 70 years of adventure. It told of a mysterious hidden Utopia, Paradise Island, populated entirely by enlightened women where Princess Diana and her pal witness a plane crash, and rush to help.
These are the legendary Amazons of Greek myth, part historical and a larger
Dramatic, intriguing, and somewhat incoherent, the strip was an immediate hit
part pure fantasy, and men are unknown in their world – until now. The chap they rescue, a US Army intelligence officer called Steve Trevor, is saved from almost certain death by superior Amazon medical tech, leaving their ruler, Queen Hippolyta, with a problem. Steve needs to be returned to the outside world, and the ancient Greek goddesses – whom the Amazons still worship – order her to send a champion with him, a powerful woman to join the fight for freedom that’s tearing apart “Man’s World”. She’s to battle for “America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women.” (Though, actually, Marston’s attitude towards Wonder Woman’s new home seems mixed – one minute he’s praising the USA wholeheartedly, the next he’s slamming it on gender issues.)
Soon various Amazons – immortals who dress like Roman-themed showgirls – are competing for the honour in a series of athletic events, but none can stand against a mysterious, masked figure – soon revealed, of course, to be a disguised Diana. She’s won her chance, and is rewarded with a new costume, one incorporating the stars and eagle of her new nation. (“Why mother, it’s lovely,” Diana grins – though she’d soon replace the initial skirt with a more practical shorts-cum-swimsuit affair.) Now she’ll fly to the USA – in an invisible plane, for these ancient world chicks seem pretty special at sci-fi invention – as Wonder Woman.
Dramatic, intriguing, and somewhat incoherent, the initial Wonder Woman strip was an immediate hit, and our heroine soon graduated to the lead story in a new anthology title, Sensation
Comics. It was here that we first learned that her secret identity would be Diana Prince – and, by the summer of 1942, she was headlining her own book too. Before long she’d return to All Star
Comics as the only female member of the Justice Society of America, the first real superhero team – though, embarrassingly, she was relegated to a secretarial role in many early JSA tales, despite selling more comics than any of the individual male members.
Within a year of her debut, Wonder Woman had become one of the most popular and visible characters in comics, but from the beginning this was a highly unusual strip. For a start, Marston’s storytelling was unusual, with some of his tale told picture book style. Yet more strikingly, the themes were very different to most comics, with Wonder Woman’s mission being not just to help smash the Nazi menace – though this was certainly part of it – but to break the chains of prejudice, man’s superiority and prudery.
And chains were certainly part of it – ropes, too – with characteristic bondage imagery firmly in place from the off. Writing in the magazine American
Scholar, Marston explained his approach. “A male hero,” he wrote, “at best lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness which are as essential to the child as the breath of life.” His Wonder Woman would be as “tender, submissive, and peace-loving as good women are,” combining “all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”
Wonder Woman had to walk a fine line, of course. The problem was that, then as now, boys – of all ages – read comics, and certainly superhero comics; girls not much. Marston was writing a proudly feminist book, but both he and All-American knew that the audience he could expect would be largely male.
Not that he was overly worried. “Give [men] an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to,” he said, “and they’ll be proud to become her willing slaves.” And there was certainly a lot of submitting going on in Wonder Woman,
with our girl soon proving herself as enthusiastic a “Bottom” as she was a “Top”. In time, critics would have a field day.
Wonder Woman was always a little strange, then, but what made it special? For one thing, Marston had been right in his selection of creative partner. Both he and Peter were mature men, and brought with them an intellectual weight that most comic creators – just young boys, in the main – couldn’t compete with. Wonder
Woman had a complexity, a gravitas and a depth that made it stand out. It looked different too, the art clear and simple, but with an organic, rounded aesthetic that felt like you were looking at old woodcuts.
And Wonder Woman was inventive too, not least in its villains, who would make up one of the most bizarre rogue’s galleries. Some, such as the multiple-personality society girl Cheetah and the misogynistic dwarf Dr Psycho are still major figures in the current DC Universe, but others were sadly culled and forgotten in the postMarston years.
Amongst the most memorable: the Duke of Deception, a treacherous, shape-shifting minor god; Zara, Priestess of the Crimson Flame, who’d suffered abuse as a child slave; Hypnota, a woman disguised as a man, and gifted with the “Blue Rays of Dominance”; and the Mask, beaten wife of a top industrialist who now trapped her victims in BDSM-style gas masks. Then, in the very last story written by Marston, we would meet Villainy Inc, the first ever all-girl supervillain team – Cheetah, Doctor Poison, Hypnota, Giganta, Eviless and others, all now escaped from incarceration on the Amazons’ Transformation Island (a specialist rehabilitation refuge, the sort of facility no male hero would think of).
Themes quickly developed. Many villains were occultists, out to beguile the general population to their own selfish ends. More were abused women with a grudge to bear – an ugly ballerina passed up for plum roles became the Silver Swan, for instance – or appeared to be blokes, but were actually girls in disguise: Blue Snowman was one of these, as was Doctor Poison. And a great many – the Duke of Deception, Lord Conquest, the Earl of Greed – were agents of the war god Mars, who became Wonder Woman’s “Big Bad” of the Golden Age, a symbol of ugly übermasculinity.
This said, of course, anything that could be considered a genuine hatred of men is a rare beast in classic Wonder Woman; bullies and abusers of both genders are the real targets, and Diana encourages true love between equals wherever she finds it. The problem is, of course, that she doesn’t find it all that often – and, regularly, we see her explaining that romantic love is just another weapon men use to get women to do what they want, and that marriage is often a soul and brain destroying padded cell. Heady stuff for any kids’ story, let alone one first published 70 years ago…
Th underbolts of Jove!
There was clearly a lot going on here, and though everyone could see that it worked, few – and certainly not DC editors such as Sheldon Mayer – could quite understand what Wonder Woman was on about. “Marston’s idea of feminine supremacy was the ability to submit to male domination,” Mayer would later say, and it seems like
arguments about just how kinky Wonder
Woman could get were constantly running behind the scenes. “That was one of the things that Marston fought to keep in.”
Even a casual observer could see that Diana’s adventures were increasingly dominated by images of women in ropes and chains – one 1942 short story had 15 separate bondage-themed panels, and a longer one published in 1948 boasted no fewer than 75. (Often, of course, these hapless victims included Steve Trevor – handsome and capable, but a role reversal hunk if ever there was one, always needing to be rescued by Diana.)
“There was a certain symbolism that Marston engaged in which was very simple and very broad,” Mayer said. “I suspect [that stuff] probably sold more comic books than I realised.” But could it be that the writer was doing something very deliberate here, ramming home this imagery to work on his audiences’ subconscious in an almost clinical way, using sexual symbolism to create emotional response?
Sensations Comics #6 (June 1942) was a landmark issue for fans of adult rope tricks, as it introduced the kangas – strange horse-kangaroo things ridden in one of the most popular Amazon games, a “girl-roping contest”. Wonder Woman is the best at yanking her sisters to the ground and tying them up, of course, and her reward is a lasso, made from tiny links of magic chain, which gives her complete domination over anyone she traps with it. “I can change character,” says Diana. “I can make bad men good, and weak women strong.”
Diana’s origin was largely rooted in “genuine” Greek myth and magic
The lie detector guy had now found a way to get his heroine to compel her enemies to tell the truth, a humane way to incapacitate them – and equipped her with a great bondage aid. It’s a further confusing, compelling bit of symbolism.
There was more to Wonder Woman, however, than oddball villains, slightly schizophrenic social commentary and bondage, for on top of all that was another layer yet – and it was one Marston had already exhibited an enthusiasm for. Unlike the pseudo-science of most superhero origins, Diana’s was largely rooted in “genuine” Greek myth and magic; it didn’t just suggest stories, but allowed her adventures to (reasonably convincingly) roam far and wide too. One month she’d fight aliens, the next some historical menace, then a modern day evil – and it all seemed authentically
Wonder Woman somehow. (Not that Marston didn’t play fast-and-loose with historic reality. One time our girl went back to help Boadicea throw the Romans out of Britain, which would raise eyebrows amongst all the real-life Legionnaires still there some 350 years later.)
Everything changed, of course, when Marston died in 1947 – though not immediately, as he was so far in advance on his scripts that new ones were still being published two years later. Still,
without him Wonder Woman’s star would slowly fade, and it was soon clear that the self-empowerment text was falling by the wayside, along with most of the bizarre supervillains.
Mayer left too, retiring from editing to go back to cartooning, apparently when he heard a young artist refer to him as “the old man” – he was just 30 years old – while Peter’s art began to deteriorate noticeably, becoming more cluttered and old fashioned. Increasingly, Diana would only use her superpowers off-panel or, at best, in extreme long shot.
Eventually Wonder Woman would fall into the hands of legendary DC editor Robert Kanigher – master of the gritty war story – and his lack of interest and commitment was plain to see. Kanigher resented and despised the superhero genre at the best of times, and seemed to retain particular scorn for Diana Prince, this glamour-puss to whom the “problems and feats of men are mere child’s play”. As writer and editor from 1947 on, he introduced a dreary stream of aliens and ill-thought-through new bad guys, and systematically stripped out the political and psychological themes that had made the strip so intriguing. There was no underlying theme to
Wonder Woman any more – no questions about ancient myth co-existing with the modern world, or the ability of women to bring peace and sanity to the world of men – but instead merely a crazily bouncing shopping list of barely-connected events: a single issue might contain dinosaurs, time travel and alien robots, with only the thinnest web of coincidence holding them together.
And where the old baddies were weird, the new ones were almost deliberately stupid: Angle Man, a smirking underworld type who always had a sort-of-clever “angle” or plan; Mouse Man, who’s sixinches tall and controls rodents; and the infamous Egg Fu, a Chinese Communist agent who’s shaped like a giant egg and – oh dear – can’t say the letter “r”.
Destiny ca lling
Perhaps because she was the only surviving female hero (almost every other superhero title had been cancelled at this point, with only a few Batman and Superman titles remaining), Wonder Woman continued to sell reasonably well throughout the ’50s – or did she? There were rumours that DC only kept her in print because, if it didn’t, rights would revert to the Marston estate – and they had too much tied up in licensing the character to allow that to happen.
Meanwhile, the anti-Kanigher brigade became increasingly vocal on the letters pages and elsewhere. When Roy Thomas and others formed the Academy of Comic Arts and Sciences and presented the first ever comic book awards in 1961, Wonder
Woman grabbed “Worst Comic Book Currently Published”.
And, amazingly, it would get worse before it got better…
Above: After her debut in
All Star Comics #8 in 1942, Wonder Woman was promoted to the lead in new anthology title
Right: This Golden Age Wonder Woman sports shorts and practical Gladiator sandals.
Above: The Invisible Plane was WW’s pre- Crisis flying machine, before she developed the ability to ride wind currents.
Left: Diana battles a robot version of herself in
Wonder Woman #48.
Above: Give that boy a medal! Wonder Woman is unmasked in Sensation
Right: Steve Trevor’s set a
Blind Date- style challenge.
Above: After a brief outing in All Star Comics and nine appearances as the lead in Sensation
Comics, Wonder Woman gets her very own book.
Left: Wonder Woman comes up against the particularly rubbish Angle Man, whose “angle” here is the power to animate objects.
Above: The huge ovoid Egg Fu, with his whip-like moustache, talked a bit like Charlie Chan.