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Wonder Woman Unbound
The Curious History of the World's Most Famous Heroine
By Tim Hanley
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2014 Tim Hanley
All rights reserved.
The Utopian Alternative
Origin stories are an integral part of superhero comic books, repeated and referenced so often that they've become as iconic to the characters as the logos on their chests. Some origin stories have remained the same from the very beginning: in every telling of Batman's origin, Bruce Wayne witnesses the murder of his parents when he's a boy and dedicates his life to fighting crime. Other origin stories changed when new characters took on the mantle of an established hero: the original Golden Age Flash, Jay Garrick, gained superspeed by inhaling hard water vapors, while the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, gained the same powers from electrified chemicals.
Unlike the Flash, Wonder Woman remained the same character, but unlike Batman, each of her incarnations had its own distinct origin story. Her first came from her creator, William Moulton Marston, a man whose lofty goals made him stand out among his fellow comic book creators in the early 1940s. He wanted to impart to his readers a specific message about female superiority. Most of the first superheroes had origins rooted in some sort of tragic event that motivated their crime-fighting career. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, was rooted in a feminist utopian vision. Her mission was not to resolve tragic personal issues but to help facilitate a coming matriarchy. Marston rejected the conventions of the burgeoning superhero genre and set up Wonder Woman as a new, unique brand of hero.
The Golden Age
The beginning of the comic book industry wasn't anything auspicious; publishers had a lot of paper and wanted to keep the presses running, so in the early 1930s they began reprinting newspaper comic strips as comic books. One of these new publishers was National Allied Publications, founded by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson in 1934. National's first series was New Fun, which premiered in February 1935. It was the first comic book to have only new material, most of which was written by Wheeler-Nicholson himself. National launched a second series with an even less imaginative title, New Comics, in December 1935. But Wheeler-Nicholson didn't have enough money to finance his third series, Detective Comics, so he turned to Harry Donenfeld, a publisher and distributor who headed the Independent News Company.
Donenfeld was a fierce businessman with a less than reputable history. His associations with gangsters and the mob dated back to the Prohibition Era, and in the early 1930s he published lurid, erotic pulp magazines. This new partnership with Wheeler-Nicholson led to the creation of Detective Comics Inc., and Detective Comics debuted in March 1937. Detective Comics Inc. was soon renamed National Comics when the crafty Donenfeld forced Wheeler-Nicholson out of the company. Finding comics quite profitable, Donenfeld teamed up with another new publisher, Max Gaines, to form a sister company called All-American Publications in 1938. Both companies used a logo based on the original partnership of Detective Comics Inc., the encircled initials "DC," and they were commonly known as DC Comics. Detective Comics did well, but it was National's new series, Action Comics, that changed the industry forever and marked the beginning of the Golden Age of comic books.
When comic books hit the newsstands in the early 1930s, two young men in Cleveland, Ohio, started submitting stories to every publisher they could find. The duo, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, had a few scattered stories published, but they had one pitch that was continuously rejected for five years. In 1938, editor Vin Sullivan came across this pitch while trying to find a cover story for the first issue of Action Comics, and he hired Siegel and Shuster to do a story and provide the cover art.
Action Comics #1 premiered in June 1938. Its cover showed a strongman in blue tights and a red cape, with an S-shield emblazoned on his chest, lifting a car and smashing it onto a rock. The story identified this man as Superman, "champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need," and the first superhero was born.
The character was an instant success; soon he was headlining Action Comics and his own eponymous series. His origin story, told briefly in Action Comics #1 and expanded upon in Superman #1, explained that Superman was actually Kal-L, a baby sent to Earth in a rocket just before his home planet of Krypton was destroyed. Kal-L landed in Kansas, where he was found and later adopted by an elderly couple, the Kents, who named him Clark. Kryptonians had evolved to physical perfection, and because Earth was a smaller planet with weaker gravity, Clark developed superstrength and superspeed. His adopted parents taught him to use his powers for good, and when they died he decided to become a hero and fight crime as Superman. As Clark Kent, he was a reporter at the Daily Star, alongside the ambitious Lois Lane, but whenever trouble came up he would duck out and Superman would shoot off to save the day. The enormous success of Superman made every comic book publisher want their own superhero, and they all told their editors to "get me a Superman."
National Comics won the race for the next big superhero, striking gold again with Detective Comics #27 in May 1939. The issue featured the Bat-Man (soon to be known as Batman), a vigilante in a bat-inspired costume with a dark cape and cowl. Created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, Batman took to the streets to fight crime dressed like a bat because "criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts!"
Other superheroes soon followed, like Fawcett Publications' Captain Marvel in February 1940. Created by Bill Parker and C. C. Beck and first appearing in Whiz Comics #2, Captain Marvel was really a boy named Billy Batson who transformed into a powerful caped superhero when he said the name of the wizard Shazam. Captain Marvel soon expanded into the Marvel Family with Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr., and regularly outsold Superman. Another "captain" continued the successful trend when Timely Comics published Captain America Comics #1 in March 1941. Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the comic featured the scrawny Steve Rogers, who volunteered to be a test subject for the army's super soldier serum and turned into the superpowered Captain America, the army's best weapon in World War II. The superhero craze continued for years, flooding the newsstands with new heroes every month.
Tragic Genesis and Violence
Superheroes in the Golden Age of comic books were somewhat maladjusted. A person would have to be powerfully motivated to dress up in a costume and fight crime, and for many of these heroes this motivation came from a tragic event.
Superman was the last of his race: his entire family, species, and planet were destroyed when Krypton exploded. His superpowers, and thus his ability to be a superhero, were tied to this destruction, and to the knowledge that he wasn't like other people. His adopted parents' deaths spurred him to become Superman, suggesting that he took up crime fighting as a way to deal with his loss.
Batman's origin story was told in Detective Comics #33: Bruce Wayne witnessed the death of his parents at the hands of an armed robber when he was a boy, and he pledged his life to avenging them and fighting a war on crime. Bruce used his family's wealth to become a master scientist and train his body to physical perfection.
Captain America's parents weren't part of his origin story, but Steve Rogers signed up for the super soldier program because he was deemed unfit to join the army. Steve Rogers's biological parents may not have been mentioned, but the man who was the "father" of Captain America, Dr. Josef Reinstein, was murdered by Nazis right at the hero's birth. Steve channeled his anger into patriotism.
Captain Marvel was yet another orphan. His uncle who was supposed to take care of him kicked him out and stole his inheritance. Lesser-known superheroes followed this tragic trend. Alan Scott became Green Lantern when a magical device allowed him to survive a train wreck that killed everyone else onboard. The Human Torch was an android buried away by his creator, manipulated by a racketeer, shot at by police officers, and exploited for financial gain by the first man to ever show him kindness — all over the course of just sixteen pages in his very first issue!
Several of these origin stories, including the very well-known tales of Superman and Batman, center on a character losing his parents at a very young age. The shock of this loss colors the rest of his life, and ultimately as a man he becomes a hero to resolve his feelings about this tragic event. This deep loss is at the core of his superhero identity, and while he can't get his own family back, he fights crime so that other families will be spared from tragedy.
When we look at the men who created the first generation of superheroes, this idea of dealing with tragic events becomes more pronounced. When Jerry Siegel was in junior high, his father died of a heart attack while his store was robbed. That he cocreated Superman, a hero powerful enough to stop any and every crime, seems appropriate.
World War II had a considerable influence on Jewish comic book creators as well. Many of the young creators in the early days of the industry were the sons of Jewish immigrants from Europe, or immigrated themselves, including Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Joe Simon, and Jack Kirby. All of these men created superheroes before the United States entered the war, and while the full extent of the Holocaust wouldn't be discovered until years later, the anti-Semitic beliefs of the Nazis were common knowledge in the late 1930s.
Superman was the first to deal with the war in Europe. The Man of Steel captured both Hitler and Stalin, scattered their troops, and delivered the two dictators to the League of Nations in a special two-page spread in the February 1940 issue of Look magazine. Captain America followed in March 1941, famously punching Hitler square on the jaw on the cover of the first issue of Captain America Comics, and then surprised a frightened Hitler by busting into a Nazi bunker on the cover of the series' second issue. America didn't even join the war until December 1941, so American comic book superheroes fought the war far before the nation's soldiers did, perhaps in their creators' stead.
For Golden Age comic book villains, there was only one way their felonious adventures could end: a superhero smashing through a wall or swinging through a window and rapidly dispatching a squad of goons before taking down the villain himself. Superheroes never calmly entered a room and politely informed the villain that he was under arrest. Violence was their only means of conflict resolution, and each character had his own particular methods.
Captain Marvel had a fondness for throwing people, for throwing things at people, and for swinging people around as if they were rag dolls, while Superman liked to mix in threats with his violence. In Action Comics #2, Superman confronted munitions magnate Emil Norvell and told him, "You see how effortlessly I crush this bar of iron in my hand? — That bar could just as easily be your neck!" Then after telling Norvell to leave town, Superman suggested that if Norvell decided to stay, "I swear I'll follow you to whatever hole you hide in, and tear out your cruel heart with my bare hands!"
Captain America's primary weapon was a shield, and he could simply hit bad guys with it, throw it, or use it as a battering ram to plough through goons. He also tended not to intervene when villains were about to kill themselves. When Dr. Reinstein's assassin, dazed by a mighty punch from Cap, stumbled toward dangerous lab equipment, Captain America did nothing, and after the assassin was electrocuted he noted that there was "nothing left of him but charred ashes ... a fate he well deserved." Later in that issue, the Red Skull rolled onto his own poison-filled hypodermic needle and died. Captain America's sidekick, Bucky, was appalled and asked Cap why he didn't do anything to stop it, to which Cap replied, "I'm not talking, Bucky."
Batman tended to "accidentally" kill villains. A strong punch would "unintentionally" send a bad guy reeling backward through a railing and into a vat of acid. A defensive maneuver "just happened" to flip a goon over the edge of a roof. A strong kick to stop a gun-toting villain from taking a shot "inadvertently" broke his neck. A gas pellet thrown into the cockpit of a plane "unwittingly" resulted in a fatal crash.
In the years following the dawn of the Golden Age, violence toned down and most superheroes developed codes of conduct for humanely dealing with villains. But it was in the first few years of this brutal environment that Wonder Woman was created.
William Moulton Marston and the Origins of Wonder Woman
William Moulton Marston was most definitely not a typical comic book creator. The majority of Golden Age superhero writers were young men: Jerry Siegel was twenty-three when Action Comics #1 premiered, Bill Finger was twenty-five when Detective Comics #27 hit the stands, and Joe Simon was twenty-seven when Captain America Comics #1 was released. Marston was forty-eight years old when Wonder Woman first appeared in All Star Comics #8. Superman's Joe Shuster, Batman's Bob Kane, and Captain America's Jack Kirby were all twenty-three when their respective heroes debuted, but H. G. Peter, the established cartoonist Marston handpicked to draw Wonder Woman, was nearly three times the age of his counterparts.
Many of these young creators worked in comics in hopes of parlaying their work into a "real" job, like advertising, but Marston already had a job. In fact, he had several. Marston was thrice a graduate of Harvard University, earning a BA in 1915, a law degree in 1918, and a PhD in psychology in 1921. He taught at several universities, published books, worked as an advisor for a film studio in Hollywood, and regularly wrote articles for magazines like the Rotarian and Ladies Home Journal.
Before Wonder Woman, Marston was best known for helping to invent the lie detector test, or polygraph, which was based on his research in systolic blood pressure. He was both an academic and a bit of a huckster, using his lie detector for noble purposes by assisting in criminal trials while also appearing in ads for Gillette razors to definitively prove they were the superior brand. Outside of the lie detector, Marston's psychological work had lasting effects as well, and his DISC theory on human behavior is still widely used as a template for personality assessment tests today.
Marston dabbled in many fields, but all of his work was connected through the common theme of his focus on the untapped potential of women. Less than a decade after women gained the right to vote, Marston argued that they were in fact psychologically superior to men. In the 1920s and 1930s, women made only slight gains in the workforce, and often in jobs with little opportunity for advancement. Although they could now vote, in many states women continued to fight for years for the rights of full citizenship, like serving on a jury. Those interested in higher education often faced oppressive caps that severely limited the number of women allowed in postgraduate studies. Nonetheless, in a 1937 interview in the New York Times, Marston declared that women were poised to "take over the rule of the country, politically and economically" within the next hundred years.
Marston's high opinion of the innate power of women was likely influenced by the women he was closest to. He lived in an unconventional polyamorous relationship with two well-accomplished women, Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne, both of whom embodied the feminism of the day. Elizabeth, his wife, earned a BA in psychology from Mount Holyoke College, a law degree from Boston University, and a master's in psychology from Radcliffe College, an all-female subsidiary of Harvard, paying her own tuition for her law degree when her father refused to support her. She worked alongside Marston on his systolic blood pressure research, coauthoring the findings, and had jobs at universities, magazines, and in insurance, continuing to work even after she had children.
Olive, Marston's domestic partner, was also well educated, and she had extremely close connections to the birth control movement. Her mother, Ethel Higgins Byrne, opened America's first birth control clinic in 1916 alongside Olive's aunt, Margaret Sanger, birth control's most famous advocate. That Marston was the de facto son-in-law of such a pioneering feminist likely strengthened his own feminist leanings. He saw the women in his life achieve great things and thought that all women could do the same if given the chance.
Excerpted from Wonder Woman Unbound by Tim Hanley. Copyright © 2014 Tim Hanley. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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