[30 April 2010]
It’s possible that Wonder Woman taught me to read. A very vague memory of a Saturday afternoon staring intently at the images in a comic book has, in my own mind, become a kind of religious experience. The mysterious symbols swam in front of me and then, mystically, became recognizable as words and ideas. The panel featured Wonder Woman holding overhead a gigantic tree that somebody must have been buried under. “I must save them!” became the sentence that initiated me into the fraternity of readers.
She did come to save us. Or at least to become a different kind of superhero. Wonder Woman: Amazon, Icon, Hero celebrates Diana Prince, the Amazonian Princess known to the world as Wonder Woman. This book, featuring page after page of eye-popping art from every major Wonder Woman artist (and a few minor ones) will thrill fans of both the character and of the history of the comic’s medium.
If you are new to the Wonder Woman mythos, Robert Greenberger’s text provides a fluid introduction. Rather than simply rehearsing the chronology of the character, Greenberger uses thematic elements to guide the Wonder Woman fan, both novice and expert, through almost 70 years of comic book history. A chapter on “The Opponents” introduces the bizarre villains that Diana has had to contend with, including a misogynistic dwarf, a femme fatale Nazi agent and Circe the sorceress. Another section focuses on “Friends and Allies” including a discussion of the Trinity series with Batman and Superman.
A section on Alternate realities explores the role played by Wonder Woman in DC’s Elseworld series and the mammoth Crisis on Infinite Earths. Notably absent in the discussion of Wonder Woman’s alternate realities is Mark Millars Eisner’s award winning Superman: Red Son in which Wonder Woman saves a Soviet Superman only to become horribly injured and badly embittered by the experience. Conflicts with Millar over editorial issues generated a fair amount of bad feeling at DC, possibly explaining his absence from this volume.
Fangirls and fanboys will be delighted to see that legendary comic artist George Perez (perhaps best known as the pencils behind Crisis on Infinite Earths) writes a short introduction. Perez helped to reinvent Wonder Woman in the mid-‘80s, paring down her complex history and reemphasizing the mythological elements in her story. In the brief foreword, Perez emphasizes how Wonder Woman has changed over the decades while remaining “a star spangled amalgam of fantasy, American patriotism, ancient myth, science fiction, and even a not-so-subtle hint of kinkiness”.
Let’s talk about the kinkiness. Readers will get a full and uncensored introduction to the creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston. As most fans know, Wonder Woman, and many of her Amazon allies, found themselves tied up with remarkable rapidity in their first decades of existence. Moreover, this theme did emerge out of Marston’s own interest in bondage and S&M culture, a surprisingly vibrant sexual subculture in American life during the ‘40s and ‘50s. Told by editors to tone this theme down, Marston refused. Bondage continued to be a theme in the books and even surfaced occasionally in the ‘70s television series.
Aside from his interest in alternative sexual practices, Marston arguably had the most interesting personal life and ideology of any of the early comic book creators. Before becoming a creative advisor at DC, Marston had been a high-profile psychologist best known for inventing the prototype for the lie detector test, an obvious influence on Wonder Woman’s “Lasso of Truth”. Marston was also an outspoken feminist and advocate of alternative lifestyles who himself had “complex marriages” to two very strong women.
Marston brought his ideological views into comics with Wonder Woman, a character he hoped would serve as “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman, which should, I believe, rule the world”. Wonder Woman has remained “psychological propaganda” in the best sense, even gracing the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine in July of 1972.
Speaking of Gloria Steinem, one shortcoming of this volume is that the famous feminist gets only a brief mention for her integral role in saving the Wonder Woman franchise in the early ‘70s. DC had, it thought, modernized the character in 1968 by taking away the characters powers, giving her training in martial arts and turning her into a unwieldy combination of Emma Peel-like super-spy and owner of a mod fashion boutique.
Steinem, who had long had an interest in the character, wrote an introduction to a Wonder Woman compilation in 1972 that openly criticized DC’s decision to take away Wonder Woman’s superpowers and urged a return to the roots of the character. The first issue of Ms., with Wonder Woman on the cover, contained the same criticism. Public pressure from Steinem and a dwindling fan base convinced DC of their error. Wonder Woman soon returned to her full glory, a super-powered and star-spangled hero who could hold her own against Superman himself.
More discussion of Wonder Woman’s role as “Icon”, as the book’s subtitle suggests, also would have been in order. Spending all its time on the how the character changed in the context of the comics gives Greenberger no time to discuss how she influenced representations of women in comics, film, television, and popular cultural more generally. Even the truly iconic 1975-76 television series starring Linda Carter receives little mention and no images.
This beautiful and informative book is, of course, primarily for Wonder Woman devotees and those who love comic book history. Neither group will mind most of the book’s shortcomings. At the end of the day, it’s a book is a love letter to Marston’s “psychological propaganda”, a study of an iconography that has become a powerful modern archetype.