Getting to Know the Princess of Power: Four Biographies of Wonder Woman

A Facebook friend shared this photo with me:


Meg from the blog Happy Looks Good on You handcrafted these ornaments for her husband, Curtis, to celebrate Christmas 2011.  Her blog entry details her process, and the comments resound with praise and awe.  Not one person asked, “Why Captain America and not Wonder Woman?”  Captain America is more than worthy, of course, but he belongs to Marvel Entertainment, and he’s an Avenger, not a Justice League member.  Why the substitution?

My best guess: nothing but male heroes for Curtis.  Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, I and other neighborhood boys frequently played “Justice League of America,” drawing lots to decide who would play whom.  Never was there a Popsicle stick representing Wonder Woman.  We were men, after all.    And forget about recruiting a girl.  Girls don’t like comics, right?   No, how very wrong.

Granted, Meg’s blog features party hints and home décor.  Her readers differ greatly from those frequenting Jezebel or The Mary Sue.  Still, someone should have asked, “Why not Wonder Woman?”   The experience I relate above provides one answer.  In 1970, I wouldn’t have blinked at this omission.  Now I want my Wonder Woman ornament.  I want no Justice League without Wonder Woman.  Wonder Woman every time!  In fact, I might make ornaments next year, but mine will be the Avengers – Black Widow, She-Hulk, the Wasp, Captain Marvel, and, in the spirit of crossing corporate boundaries, Wonder Woman.  A few smartasses will say, “But, Chuck, that’s the poorly named A-Force.”  No, my friends, that’s the Avengers.

I largely ignored Wonder Woman until the mid-1980s, when George Pérez reignited her for DC’s new post-Crisis universe.  No more was she the two-dimensional figure on Super Friends or the semi-campy, satin clad Lynda Carter.  Pérez imbued her with power.  He introduced a marvelously rich version of Paradise Island, now Themyscira, and paid much respect to Greek mythology.  Sure, I knew as all fans do that Wonder Woman always bore a mission, to bring Amazonian virtues to “Man’s World,” but for the first time in my estimation she seemed able to complete the job.  Pérez, bless him, unleashed a mighty badass onto the world!  Now I realize that Pérez dipped into the Golden Age, into a vision that were occluded after her creator had died.

This memory and my contact with those ornaments inspired me to revise my views regarding Wonder Woman, and I began exploring past eras, which then reminded me why she never really grabbed me until Pérez.  During my childhood, Wonder Woman fared poorly.  Her stories were laden with gooey romance and insipid plots.  No mystery, then, why I passed on her and picked up Doctor Strange at my local Stop and Go market.  Surely the deficits weren’t due to poor writing and scripting only.  What had happened?  And how had she survived?

Four recent studies contain the answers to these questions and so many more.  These aren’t encyclopedias, concordances, or outlines.  Instead, each delves behind the scenes, presenting history, biography, social commentary, and critical interpretation to explain why Wonder Woman matters and why she endures despite cultural ignorance, damaging market trends, and wrong-headed creative decisions.   I now present these volumes to you.  I cite heavily throughout this article, because my journey represents not so much review as it does reading notes.   I focus on what stands out for me.   Each informs abundantly on the various illustrators who contributed to Wonder Woman titles, but I lean toward discussing writers and history.   Finally, unless otherwise noted my citations refer to pages from the book under consideration in the moment.  Now, let’s meet Wonder Woman.

 The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore


Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s account blends biography, feminist history, and early twentieth-century psychology to reveal underlying elements that went into the creation of our favorite Amazon.  The secret history, then, becomes the history of William Moulton Marston – psychologist, feminist, and creator of Wonder Woman.  No fanboy, Marston wanted more than to create enduring superheroes.  He infused Wonder Woman with purpose.  Through her, Marston would deliver his message of a feminine Utopia to young audiences across America.

Lepore includes all the major players and inspirations that would lead Marston to Wonder Woman.  Readers meet his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and his assistant-companion, Olive Byrne.  The three lived polyamorously, producing children, maintaining a family, but keeping the relationship secret.  Byrne’s aunt, Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood, deeply influenced Marston’s attitudes toward women.  Also important was the suffragist movement at Mount Holyoke, where Elizabeth Holloway Marston — who stopped using her girlhood name, Sadie, as an adult — attended college.  Lepore outlines the importance of Amazons from Greek mythology to women pursuing higher education: “By the time Sadie Holloway packed her bags for Mount Holyoke, in 1911, an ‘Amazon’ meant any woman rebel – which to a lot of people, meant any girl who left home and went to college.  ‘New Women,’ they were called, and they meant to be as free as men: Amazons all (17).”

Marston studied psychology at Harvard, hardly a feminist-friendly campus.  One professor, Hugo Münsterberg, greatly opposed women’s education.  Marston later transformed him and his attitudes into the great villain, Dr. Psycho, who plagued Wonder Woman throughout many adventures.  Lepore reveals more about how the interplay of college experiences and Wonder Woman stories:

Much of the action in Wonder Woman comics takes place at “Holliday College”: the name’s a mash-up of “Holloway” and “Holyoke.”  Once, disguised in a varsity sweater     with an H on it – an unmissable allusion to a Harvard varsity sweater – Wonder Woman   attends a lecture at Holliday College given by Dr. Hypno.  Holliday College is full of sinister professors with names like “Professor Manly” whose chief villainy is their opposition to feminism.  Wonder Woman’s arch-nemesis is Dr. Psycho, an evil professor of psychology whose plan is the “to change the independent status of modern American women back to the days of the sultans and slave markets, clanking chains and abject captivity.” (26)

Fair enough.  Marston injected elements from his life into Wonder Woman.  So did Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman.  What separates Marston from Siegel and Shuster or other creators such as Gardner Fox, Jack Cole, or Will Eisner?  Again, Marston strove to initiate a feminist Utopia based on his psychological theories.

In November 1937, Marston announced a prediction – one day women would rule the world.  A matriarchy was inevitable:

“Women have twice the emotional development, the ability for love, than man has,” Marston explained.  “And as they develop as much ability for worldly success as they already have ability for love, they will clearly come to rule business and the Nation and      the world.”  There would be a new race of Amazons: “The next 100 years will see the beginning of an American matriarchy – a nation of amazons in the psychological rather than the physical sense,” he predicted.  “In 500 years, there will be a serious sex battle. And in 1,000 years women will definitely rule this country.” (170)

His audience most likely thought Marston had left the planet, and one easily could understand why.  During the 1920s, he, Elizabeth, and Olive took part in meetings with Carolyn Marston Keatley, the leader of a “cult of female sexual power – specifically a “clinic” involving ‘Love Leaders,’ ‘Mistresses,’ (or ‘Mothers’), and ‘Love Girls’” (119).  Lepore uses the term “cult” when describing these meetings and explains how Marston’s later formulations of dominance and submission emanated from such earlier experiences.

Yes, “dominance and submission,” which provokes notorious questions about Marston’s early bondage imagery.  What did this say about his feminist Utopia?  Years later, his son Byrne opined that his father only meant these representations metaphorically, since he’d “never seen anything like that in our house” (237).  Marston employed this recurring trope to symbolize woman’s throwing off the chains of male oppression.  Then the bondage of males, with Wonder Woman’s truth-forcing lasso, stood for male submission to female love, the stronger power.  Nonetheless, Marston did admit to the allure of female bondage.  Editor Dorothy Roubicek especially objected to the bindings.  Marston’s reply reveals what he wanted others to perceive:

As for the charge of sadism: “Binding or chaining the fair heroine, in comics strips, or the  hero like Flash Gordon et al, is not sadism because these characters do not suffer or even feel embarrassed.”  Wonder Woman teaches the enjoyment of submission to loving  authority: “This, my dear friend, is the one truly great contribution of my Wonder Woman strip to moral education of the young.  The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound to kind authority, wise authority, not merely tolerate such submission.  Wars will only cease when humans enjoy being bound. (238)

Humankind must bow not only to authority but to loving authority, to kind authority.  Additionally, humankind must enjoy it.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman ranks among the best books I’ve read so far this year.  Lepore weaves feminist history, psychology, anecdotes about the comics industry during the Golden Age, all profoundly influential to Marston.  Was Marston a huckster?  Lepore provides evidence for this conclusion, but her dispassionate tone throughout allows for other interpretations.  Yes, she covers Marston’s role in developing the lie detector as well.  She enjoyed unprecedented access to Marston’s private correspondences and records.  In the end, the “secret history” is Marston’s history, so Lepore stops at Marston’s death by cancer in 1948.  Other recent studies, however, would chronicle developments related to Wonder Woman over the ensuing decade

Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine by Tim Hanley


Hanley’s volume has netted decent press coverage for reasons other than his book’s punning title.  Wonder Woman Unbound, of course, conveys the author’s intention: to free Wonder Woman’s history and share it with interested parties everywhere.  It also refers to the recurring bondage element that so fascinates any soul studying the mighty Amazon.  Hanley, in fact, applies informal science to show how often bondage imagery appeared in early issues of Wonder Woman.

Remember that above I mentioned Marston’s claim that Wonder Woman’s bondage scenes are no different than those occurring in, for example, Flash Gordon stories?  He doesn’t address frequency, however, so Hanley handles that by comparing Wonder Woman to Captain Marvel, who, according to Trina Robbins, got tied up more than any other hero.  To support her point, Robbins counted incidents where Captain Marvel, as Billy Batson, is tied up within the first ten issues of Captain Marvel Adventures.  Then she compared this total to the number of times both Batman and Robin are bound in the first ten issues of Batman.  The unfortunate Captain Marvel wins the prize with two times more.  Hanley replicated this experiment, replacing Batman with Wonder Woman.  He even graphed his results.  Here’s what he found:

Wonder Woman’s lowest percentage of personal bondage in Wonder Woman was the same as Captain Marvel’s highest percentage of personal bondage in Captain Marvel Adventures.  When your worst is the same as the other guy’s best, that’s a substantial amount.  The averages show the same divide; Captain Marvel was tied up about 2 percent of the time in his books, and Wonder Woman was tied up 11 percent of the time in hers. Captain Marvel doubling Batman and Robin’s personal total was fairly impressive, but Wonder Woman trumps Captain Marvel more than five times over. (45-6)

Hanley then specifies why Marston excessively utilized bondage, mirroring Lepore’s description of the psychologist’s utopian prediction discussed above, adding more that divulges the self-promotional tactics leading many to dub him a huckster:

For Marston, bondage was about submission, not just sexually but in every aspect of life. It was a lifestyle, not an activity, and he used bondage imagery as a metaphor for this   style of submission.  In 1942, Marston conducted a fake interview with his domestic partner, Olive Byrne, for Family Circle magazine.  Byrne used the pseudonym “Olive Richard” and pretended to be a casual friend of Marston and his ideas behind her.  The article was called “Our Women Are Our Future” and it allowed Marston to spell out his theories on the coming matriarchy.  Byrne, still upset over Pearl Harbor, asked Marston, “Will war ever end in this world; will men ever stop fighting?”  He replied, “Oh, yes.  But not until women control men.”  (47-8)

After Marston’s death, these features vanished from Wonder Woman.  Other authors cover what happened next more completely, which I’ll consider in later sections.

But Hanley, it seems, shares my enthusiasm for the Wonder Woman who burst forth directly after DC’s universe-altering Crisis on Infinite Earths.  In 1987, George Pérez would instill a feminist flare to Wonder Woman, presenting arguably the most powerful version, one moored firmly to Greek mythology, and somewhat inspired by her Golden Age roots:

Pérez’s new origin story for Wonder Woman had a framework that was similar to her Golden Age origin and retained a feminist message, but it was also more involved.  The story began in 1200 BCE, when the Olympian goddesses finally and enough of the constant war and violence of mankind.  They proposed a new female race of humans who would be “strong . . . brave . . . compassionate” and set an example for the rest of mankind.  (228)

The goddesses journeyed to Hades, to Gaea’s womb, where the souls of women slain by men resided.  These became the Amazons.  The goddesses “told them they were a ‘sacred sisterhood,’ a ‘chosen race – born to lead humanity in the ways of virtue” (229).  Hippolyte, the first to emerge, became queen, and since her soul was pregnant upon death, she longed for a daughter.  Next, Hippolyte fulfills this need.  She molds Diana from clay and the infant receives gifts of power and virtue from various gods and goddesses.

Golden Age sidekick Etta Candy returns, now an Air Force lieutenant and enjoying a relationship with Steve Trevor.  Pérez blends also real-world issues with mythological threats to Wonder Woman’s mission in Man’s World.  How could I not love these augmentations to a character long enervated due to societal trends, artistic misfiring, and outright sexism?  After Pérez left the title in 1990, Hanley feels that Wonder Woman again lapsed into mediocrity.

Wonder Woman Unbound is the most chatty and accessible of the four books in this review.  Hanley’s title pun sets a tone he continues with chapter headings like “Focus on the Family, or Superman Is a Jackass.”   Hanley’s cheek has been well honed over years writing for his blog, Straitened Circumstances, and for his monthly column on Bleeding Cool, “Gendercrunching.”  The same wit permeates his output here.

A Golden Thread: An Unofficial History of Wonder Woman by Philip Sandifer


Sandifer’s unofficial history contains chapters dedicated to specific instances from Wonder Woman’s life, beginning with her origins, then on to her adventures during World War II, later exploring the controversial I Ching period in which she loses her powers, and finally examining Brian Azzarello’s recent interpretation.  Sandifer holds a Ph.D. in English Literature, focusing on film and media studies, so, of course, he devotes significant time to the Amazonian princess on television and in other media as well.

Why psychologist William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman, his psychological theories, and all that bondage interests Sandifer too.  We now know that critics and observers have discussed Marston’s predilection for bondage, his role in developing the lie detector, his long-time polyamorous relationship with two women, and his theories of personality.  Fans also understand that Marston concocted his character to illustrate and promulgate his views on women, which are central to his utopianism.  Sandifer summarizes this purpose as follows:

She’s not just a popular response to Marston’s psychological theories, nor is she just a  product of his fetishes.  Rather, she’s part of a concentrated effort to advance a technocratic worldview that comes not from the hard sciences but from the field of psychology at a point when it was caught between two competing approaches.  She’s more than propaganda; she’s the most populist edge of a broad and thoroughly considered philosophical system. (52)

Readers once again see that Marston hoped Wonder Woman, the embodiment of his feminist Utopia, would convey a liberating message to our real-life man’s world.

Sandifer moves beyond Lepore, however, by detailing Marston’s personality theory, called “DISC theory,” and by conveying how later professionals reacted to Marston’s output.  The first, deeming Marston a “brilliant huckster who managed to fool DC Comics into letting him slip his kinky propaganda into their comics,” comes from Les Daniel’s authorized history of Wonder Woman.  Grant Morrison presents the opposing view.  Sandifer quotes from Morrison’s Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, where Morrison declares that after Marston, “The erotic charge left the Wonder Woman strip, and sales declined, never to recover.  Once the lush pervy undercurrents were purged, the character foundered” (54-5).

Next, Robert Kanigher – who wrote and/or edited numerous characters including the Flash, Batman and Lois Lane to name a few — took over writing duties for Wonder Woman.  Thanks to edicts stemming from the Comics Code Authority and a retail shift toward romance comics, Wonder Woman suffered just as Morrison remembers.  Kanigher did reinstall her vitality briefly in the mid-1960s, but more on that below when I regard Joseph J. Darowski’s critical anthology.

Then in 1968, beginning with Wonder Woman #178, Kanigher left and Dennis O’Neil introduced the I Ching era and stripped Wonder Woman’s powers.  The Amazons’ magic has run out, and they retreat for another dimension to renew themselves.  Wonder Woman, however, elects to remain behind, forfeiting everything, not only her abilities, but her costume, her invisible plane, the works.  Even Steve Trevor is shot and killed.   What makes Sandifer’s analysis of this era interesting is his willingness to defend it:

The “fannish critique is deeply undermined by how good some of the people involved in this period actually are.  O’Neil is a rock-solid comic-book writer with a number of  classic runs to his name, and a reputation for dealing well with progressive issues.  The final two issues of the era were written by Samuel Delany, one of the best-regarded science-fiction writers in the country, and who is particularly famed for his treatment of gender and sexuality. (105)

O’Neil’s Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow are legendary.  Like Sandifer, I’m an enormous fan.  Unlike Sandifer, I don’t think he fared very well with Wonder Woman.  All greats have questionable moments.  Even Gustave Flaubert, who penned Madame Bovary, stumbled with Salammbo.

In 1972, the I Ching era ended abruptly when Gloria Steinem demanded that DC sack the entire creative team working on Wonder Woman.  Sandifer recounts Delany’s take:

In Delany’s account, [Steinem] didn’t read the issue.  Instead, she asked what happened to the costume, and implored DC to consider the importance of Wonder Woman as an image.  The next day, apparently, the edict came back to restore Wonder Woman’s powers and pull the plug on Delany’s arc.  (123)

Sandifer admits that Delany wasn’t an eyewitness to this occurrence, and perhaps his account might be a bit self-serving.  Steinem and Warner were preparing to launch Ms., the famous feminist magazine, the first issue of which featured a now classic rendition of Wonder Woman on the cover.  Additionally, Steinem had written several essays to accompany an anthology of Golden Age Wonder Woman stories.  She may not have read issues of Wonder Woman produced at that time, but she did have experience with Marston’s writing, with the period in which Wonder Woman reflected the psychologist’s vision for a feminist (as he saw it) Utopia, before Robert Kanigher eliminated these elements in reaction to 1950s America, and to appease the Comics Code Authority and market trends that leaned sharply toward romance comics.  Steinem’s outrage exploded against women’s containment throughout the 1950s, how they were relegated to submissive roles in relationships and pinned to the home.  Perhaps Sandifer doesn’t understand that Steinem wasn’t just reacting to the comic, but to what it represented about the state of women in general.

While Sandifer strongly criticizes Steinem’s actions as well as flaws in second-wave feminism – for example, oversights regarding women of color and transgendered women – his stance in no way indicates a male backlash.  Sandifer’s name might seem familiar, and for good reason if you’ve been following the Sad Puppy/Rabid Puppy brouhaha.  His recent blog entry in reaction to the 2015 Hugo Award nominations published on his website and quoted in Entertainment Weekly and The Daily Telegraph shows unequivocally where he stands politically.

Instead, Sandifer defends what he sees as O’Neil’s craftsmanship.  No backlash against women is was intended.  Nonetheless, O’Neil’s watered-down Wonder Woman doesn’t play, because it’s difficult to see anything other than backlash when you remove a major heroine’s potency.  Unfortunately, Delany, no White male oppressor, took the brunt and lost his job.  His plans for Diana might have been worth exploring.  Fans will never know.

Sandifer’s history covers all major developments and disasters in the life of Diana, and he’s never shy about adding passionate commentary while walking us through all her iterations in various media.  Although writing for a general audience, his voice mostly reveals his background in literary criticism and scholarship.  Other voices from other disciplines provide different perspectives, like those included in the next book up for discussion.

 The Ages of Wonder Woman: Essays on the Amazon Princess in Changing Times Edited by Joseph J. Darowski


Joseph J. Darowski, a professor of English at Brigham Young University, gathers an impressive array of academics from various fields – literature, sociology, media studies, and history – who explore how changing trends in American culture have impacted creator efforts at various times.  That Darowski includes so many authors, each tackling a different period in Wonder Woman’s history, enhances the usefulness here, because the narrative becomes dialogue instead of monologue, with competing viewpoints generating the aura of a symposium rather than a lecture.

The authors in Darowski targeting the 1950s and 1960s provoke the most scrutiny.  Above, I mentioned how Wonder Woman’s feminist potency waned during the Robert Kanigher era.  Soppy romantic themes dominate his stories.  Additionally, Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot enter the scene, further weakening the title’s punch.  In his essay, Containing Wonder Woman; Frederic Wertham’s Battle Against the Mighty Amazon, Craig This outlines causes for these insipid stories, citing from Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent:

Anti-comic book crusader and psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, however, saw Wonder Woman in a completely different light [than Marston].  “Wonder Woman,” wrote Wertham, “is physically very powerful, tortures men, has her own female following, is the cruel, ‘phallic’ woman.  While she is a frightening figure for boys she is an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to be” (Wertham, 34).  This being “opposite of what girls are supposed to be” became the basis of Wertham’s argument and attacks against Wonder Woman.  Wertham’s attempts to censor and limit the appeal of Wonder Woman and her feminism fall into the broader theme of containment, particularly the “domestic containment of women” in the 1950s. (30)

Wertham’s anti-comic screed led to the oppressive Comics Code Authority.  The Comics Code’s encroachment blended with Kanigher’s creative decisions brought about a containment of Wonder Woman that mirrored the containment of women in 1950s society, the relegating of women to filling submissive roles in society.  Indeed, Kanigher “worked hard to show that Wonder Woman was a heterosexual, interested in men [especially Steve Trevor], marriage, and family” (38-9).  Craig This concludes:

Wonder Woman emerged in the 1940s just as America entered World War II.  As women entered the war production in various capacities, the image of Wonder Woman spoke to the promise of the future for women: strong, independent and career-minded.  When the war ended, Fredric Wertham fought to contain that image of the strong, independent career-minded woman for he felt it threatened the American family and American society.  His attempts to contain Wonder Woman forced her, like so many women during the 1950s, to struggle with the tension between family and career.  In the end, Wertham  may have contained the symbol of the 1940s Wonder Woman – strength and independence – but the 1950s Wonder Woman – having to choose between marriage and career – spoke to and inspired another generation.  (39-40)

“Spoke to and inspired another generation?”  That inspired both girls and boys to absorb the images of women in comics affected by containment trends in society, by Wertham’s purge and by market trends favoring romance comics over super-hero comics?  It’s no mystery then why Gloria Steinem and others reacted so strongly when in 1968 DC decided to pull the plug on Wonder Woman’s physical powers.  When comics speak, more than a few choose to listen.

By the mid-1960s, Kanigher quickly abandoned romance.  Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot, collectively known as the “Wonder Family,” vanished too.  With her contribution, Retiring Romance: The Superheroine’s Transformation in the 1960s, historian Francinne Valcour provides possible answers for this change:

By the mid-1960s significant factors brought the 1950s perception of women’s ideal as wife and mother into question.  By eliminating the Wonder Family and placing emphasis on the superheroine’s mission and Amazon skills, the comic book reflects the changing role of women in American society. (66)

The American zeitgeist shifted, fans strongly criticized the Wonder Family, and so Kanigher “enacted dramatic changes that transformed Wonder Woman’s emphasis on domesticity and romance into stories high-lighting the title character’s Amazon skills and adventures” (67).  Had Kanigher experienced a Road to Damascus moment and embraced gender equality?  No.  Again, culture and market forces ruled the day.  Kanigher stopped writing Wonder Woman in 1967, handing the reins to O’Neil who introduced the I Ching period starring the powerless Wonder Woman I discussed above, and so much for her return to Golden Age glories.

Darowski’s contributors understand that Wonder Woman’s strength and feminist oomph have risen and fallen throughout her career.  These contributors address more directly society and market forces, however, in addition to the creative milieu infusing collective energies over the decades.   The academic language that permeates each essay might turn off readers, but I appreciate the more serious approach.  Individuals seeking facile fanboy or fangirl writing need not peruse these pages.  As with the other three books I’ve outlined, herein lies enthusiasm combined with careful thought.  I’m now better acquainted with Wonder Woman than ever before.  Should you decide to follow suit, I hope you enjoy getting to know her as much as I have.

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