Comic Heroes - - Complete Guide -

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?

Great Hera!

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.

Nep­tune’s tri­dent!

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

Sen­sa­tion Comics.

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

Comics #95.

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.

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