Not exactly a landslide, but this week the Spotlight shines on…
Wonder Woman: The Golden Age Volume One
Writer: William Moulton Marston
Artist: Harry G. Peter
Cover: Michael Cho
With a hundred times the agility and strength of our best male athletes and strongest wrestlers, she appears as though from nowhere to avenge an injustice or right a wrong! As lovely as Aphrodite – as wise as Athena – with the speed of Mercury and the the strength of Hercules – she is known only as Wonder Woman, who she is, or whence she came, nobody knows!
In the interest of full disclosure, this is a relatively weighty tome, collecting a total of nineteen comics, so I haven’t gotten all the way through it yet.
Still, there are some high (and low) points I can hit upon, based on what I have read, and on the general tenor of these early adventures of the Amazing Amazon.
Much has been written about Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston – who wrote under the pseudonym of Charles Moulton – a psychologist who created the systolic blood pressure test, which is a component of a polygraph test.
Most of what’s been written about him focuses on the more…salacious aspects of his unconventional romantic life, and how they influenced his work on Wonder Woman.
I’m not going to delve into that here other than to note that when people talk about the preponderance of bondage imagery in the early Wonder Woman adventures, they’re not kidding, as there is plenty.
Marston believed in a principle of “loving submission,” in which the chaotic, wild impulses of masculine nature are restrained by the “love allure” of women.
Marston created Wonder Woman as something of a counterpoint to the male heroes of the day, intending to provide girls with a role model who could go toe-to-toe with the male heroes, but who followed a belief system that was less dependent on resolving conflict through the simple expedient of socking someone on the jaw (though she did plenty of that).
As he wrote in an issue of American Scholar:
“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”
In the stories contained in this volume, most of the standard parts of Wonder Woman lore are present from the get-go, though many are not introduced until several issues in.
Still, to recap: On a hidden island, the Amazons live eternally in a utopian paradise, led by their queen, Hippolyte, far away from the world of men. The Amazons are smarter, stronger, faster, and just plain better than any man, and the best of them all is the princess, Hippolyte’s daughter. One day, a strange plane – one that’s considerably less-sophisticated than the kind of planes the Amazons have – crash-lands on the island. The pilot – the first man in history on Paradise Island – is rescued and tended to by the princess, until one of the Amazon’s informs Hippolyte that her daughter is falling in love with the handsome Captain Steve Trevor, and Hippolyte orders her daughter to stay away.
Learning that Steve had crashed while in the course of chasing after evil men, Hippolyte decides that an Amazon should return Steve to man’s world so that he can complete his mission. A tournament is held to decide which Amazon will be granted this honor. Though her mother forbade her from entering the tournament, the princess disobeys, and, in disguise, easily defeats the competition. Though Hippolyte is sad to see her daughter go, she gives her blessing, and so Wonder Woman makes her way to the world of men.
After arriving, and bringing Steve to a hospital, she kills time waiting for him to recover by performing in a stage show in which she demonstrates her skill at deflecting bullets with her bracelets, as she realizes that she needs some money, and a promoter approaches her after she foils a robbery. Once she receives word that Steve has awoken, she decides to give up show business. The promoter has other ideas, and tries to abscond with her share of the till but…well, she’s Wonder Woman. She gets her money.
Unable to get close to Steve, she spots a crying nurse who looks a lot like her (Except she wears glasses, which makes her something of an uggo.)
Turns out that the nurse – a woman by the name of Diana Prince – has a problem that Wonder Woman can solve with her recent earnings, as the nurse doesn’t have enough money to join her fiancé in South America (which is why she was crying). In exchange for providing enough money to allow her to relocate, Wonder Woman takes her identity. (As an Amazon, she is, of course, qualified to perform any and all nursing duties.)
I knew that was how she acquired – like, literally acquired – the Diana Prince identity, but I had forgotten until rereading that first adventure in man’s world. And while it’s quite the coincidence that the former Miss Prince is also named Diana, it’s worth noting that apparently Wonder Woman herself wasn’t named Diana until she left Paradise Island – before she left, Hippolyte told her to refer to herself as Diana. (On the island, she was only ever called “Princess” by the other Amazons, or “Daughter” by Hippolyte.)
With the new civilian identity in place there is some aping of the Superman/Clark/Lois love triangle, as Diana Prince finds herself unable to compete for Steve’s affection with her more glamourous alter ego.
This actually becomes something more of a thing here than it did in the Superman comics, as Diana Prince finds herself spending a lot more time dwelling on her jealousy of herself (as Wonder Woman) than Clark did in his role as his own rival. (I mean, he did that, but not to the same extent.)
From there, Steve and Wonder Woman – and Diana Prince – have various adventures, encountering the evil Dr. Poison and various other Nazi spies. Every adventure ends with Steve coming out as the apparent hero, greeted by an adoring public, but objecting to the adulation and insisting that all the credit goes to his beautiful angel, Wonder Woman, though his objections go unheeded by all.
(Except for Diana Prince, who is well on her way to wanting to scratch that Wonder Woman hussy’s eyes out!)
After Steve leaves the hospital, Diana follows, getting herself hired on as the assistant to Steve’s boss, Colonel Darnell. She still can’t get Steve to spare plain old Diana Prince a second glance, though, as he only has eyes for Wonder Woman.
In addition to making enemies, Wonder Woman also picks up some allies in the form of Etta Candy and the Holiday College Girls. (In one adventure, they help her rescue Steve from the Nazis holding him prisoner by just showing up at the secret hiding place and asking the guys there to dance, then, when Wonder Woman gives them the signal, they handcuff all of the men.)
The introduction of Etta kind of comes out of left field, as Wonder Woman just shows up at the college looking for her. Apparently, in some off-page conversation, the former Diana Prince told Wonder Woman all about this patient she’d had named Etta Candy.
It’s…well, there are a lot of odd little moments of, “Oh, uh, okay, if you say so” like that in the storytelling, but comics were still in their infancy, so it’s difficult to judge them by too harsh a standard.
While the invisible plane – here referred to as simply “transparent” – is present from the start, so far the lasso, which is an obvious nod to Marston’s work in lie-detection, has not made an appearance. There is actually a bit in one story in which Wonder Woman (as Diana Prince) determines that someone is lying by checking her blood pressure (an even more obvious nod).
It also takes several issues for Wonder Woman’s weakness – having her bracelets chained together by a man – to be revealed. I had forgotten about the specificity of it – I thought it was just being bound by a man that caused her to lose her strength – and was surprised to see her easily break free from a rope than some men bound her with in one of the earlier issues.
What I find particularly interesting is that as much as Marston’s ideas ran counter to the prevailing mores of the time, he was still very much a man of his time, and for all his high-minded ideas about the essential superiority of the feminine, his work in Wonder Woman remained very much informed by the stereotypes and sexual politics of the day.
For example, as someone else would put it decades later, “(Wonder) Women be shoppin’.”
Of course, while it seems almost Victorian by contemporary standards (and definitely by the 1990s’ thongtastic standards), Wonder Woman’s original outfit was rather scandalous for the time, which is something that many people comment on, either approvingly (men) or disapprovingly (women).
The “skimpiness” of her outfit (and also some of Wonder Woman’s confusion/consternation about how much clothing people wear), brings to mind the not especially sly or subtle commentary of the fact that Dr. Poison initially disguises herself as a man to be taken seriously, despite her – admittedly evil – genius. The commentary kind of falls apart, however, once the ruse is revealed and her key weakness is her vanity…kind of. It gets a little weird here, as Wonder Woman gets Dr. Poison to cooperate – they need an antidote for some U.S. soldiers she poisoned – by threatening to strip her naked and march her to Washington in full view of all assembled, and of any yokels they encounter along the way. She seems less concerned at the prospect of people seeing her dirty pillows, though, than the prospect of losing face in front of her troops.
It’s unclear to what extent the stereotypical behavior of women is the result of editorial interference and which is straight from Marston, and, if it is from Marston, it’s additionally unclear as to what his intentions are. After all, despite some of the odd bits of loose story logic and continuity, it’s clear that most every aspect of the stories serves some illustrative and educational purpose and is written with intent. (Indeed, that focus on “the message” could go a long way towards explaining the lack of focus on a coherent narrative; it’s a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has watched any sort of explicitly Christian movie, or really any sort of PSA.)
So, is it just a kind of blindness on Marston’s part in which, despite his otherwise revolutionary ideas he’s not able to get past some of the commonly-held notions of gender essentialism that leads him to include things, for example, like women – even Wonder Woman – feeling threatened by the presence of other women, and instantly viewing anyone who’s at all pretty as a rival? (Wonder Woman avoids this with Etta because, being overweight, Etta is viewed as being non-threatening in that regard.) Or is it instead some kind of commentary about the type of behavior women should learn to avoid?
In many ways, Etta comes a bit closer to being the kind of ideal woman that Marston aims to describe; she’s smart, strong, not overly-concerned with the shallower aspects of life, will stand up for what is right, is quick to support other women rather than tear them down, and is not afraid to reach out and take hold of what she wants out of life. Of course, what she wants out of life is candy, but even so.
Ultimately, reading old comics like this – any old comics – is largely an exercise one undertakes for academic purposes, or to mine for potential story ideas that build on some forgotten ideas from the past, or just for the sake of goofy fun.
And comics like these are fun, if you can get past all of the head-scratching and head-shaking, and even if you’re not a comics historian, it can provide an interesting glimpse into the past, not necessarily as it was, but as the people who lived in it imagined it to be.
WARGOD: WORLDTAMER – In case you weren’t aware, I’ve got a new comic of my own that I’m working on. Check it out. (Please?)
WONDER WOMAN: A CELEBRATION OF 75 YEARS – Collects more than 400 pages of the iconic heroine’s best stories, from her first appearance by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter, to her mod ’60s redesign by Denny O’Neil and Mike Sekowsky, to her present-day adventures by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang. Other legendary talents featured include George Pérez, Darwyn Cooke, Robert Kanigher, Gene Colan, Phil Jimenez, Mike Deodato, Greg Rucka, Gail Simone and more.
WONDER WOMAN UNBOUND: THE CURIOUS HISTORY OFTHE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS HEROINE – I haven’t read this, but I really enjoyed the author’s book about Lois Lane, so it’s probably worth checking out.
Action doesn’t make it into this Bonus section, as a new arc has started, so that just leaves Wonder Woman #35.
Honestly, this isn’t a bad issue, but I’d kind of prefer to keep reading the goofy old stories.
In any case, as this is another issue that moves away from the main storyline and focuses on the past, Diana herself doesn’t directly appear in this. Last time, the focus was on Grail. This time it’s Jason, and we see his story, as he learns that he has powers, that the simple fisherman raising him is neither his father nor a simple fisherman, and that he, himself, is the son of Zeus and Hippolyta.
We also see that his brother, Hercules, stops by every so often to teach Jason how to fight, and that he feels a growing sense of resentment for Wonder Woman, whom he recognizes immediately as his sister, as she is able to operate freely in the world, whereas Jason is forced to live in hiding, with his one attempt at being a (masked) hero, leading to him getting a major talking to from his “father.” Ultimately, Hercules stops visiting, and Jason’s “father,” the immortal Glaucus, takes his leave of Jason, stricken by the periodic wanderlust that comes upon him every century or so.
The issue ends with Jason, aboard the fishing boat Glaucus left him, getting his first real taste of battle as he encounters the villainous Deep Six, the aquatic servants of Darkseid.
That does it for this week’s Spotlight Sunday.
Thanks to everyone who voted, and be sure to come back for the next Weigh In Wednesday.