Although many people believe she is, Wonder Woman was not the first superheroine. Several other female superheroes predate her, including Fantomah, Invisible Scarlet O'Neil, Miss Fury, Phantom Lady, Black Cat, and Nelvana of the Northern Lights, among others. She was not even the first female superhero published by one of the companies that would become DC Comics (namely, All-American Comics). Granted The Red Tornado was not to be taken seriously (she was one of the first superhero parodies), but she was one of the earliest female characters to don a costume and fight crime. While Wonder Woman was not the first superheroine, it seems likely that she is the most popular. Indeed, Wonder Woman is only one of three superheroes to be published continuously from her first appearance in the Golden Age to the present day (the other two are Superman and Batman). Over the years there has been a plethora of merchandise bearing her image, everything from coffee mugs to t-shirts to notebooks. This month her image even graces United States postal stamps.
|William Moulton Marston|
Having developed an early "lie detector" (as mentioned above, the systolic blood pressure test) and written books, William Moulton Marston had a small degree of fame in the late Thirties. Olive Byrne developed a fairly good career as a freelance writer using the pseudonym "Olive Richard" She was a regular contributor to Family Circle. Not surprisingly, many of her articles dealt with Dr. Marston, although she always pretended they were mere acquaintances. In fact, her first article for the magazine dealt with him and his lie detector. It was one of Olive Bryne's articles (published, as always, under the name "Olive Richard") that would lead directly to the creation of Wonder Woman.
The October 25 1940 issue of Family Circle featured an article by Olive Richard entitled "Don't Laugh at the Comics" in which "Olive Richard" interviewed William Moulton Marston about the relatively new medium of comic books. Dr. Marston defended comic books, as well as discussed their untapped potential. The article attracted the attention of M.C. Gaines, publisher and co-owner (with Jack Liebowitz) of All-American Comics, one of the companies (along with Detective Comics and National Allied Publications) that would become the modern day DC Comics. M.C. Gaines asked Dr. Marston to join the advisory board shared by All-American Comics, Detective Comics, and National Allied Publications. The advisory board consisted of prominent educators, child study experts, and psychologists. Unlike other members of the advisory board (such as Josette Frank of the Child Study Association and psychometrician and educational psychologist Robert Thorndyke), William Moulton Marston actually pitched a new comic book character to M. C. Gaines.
Dr. Marston's idea for a superhero was one who would not use violence to defeat evil, but love instead. It was reportedly his wife Elizabeth's idea that this new superhero should be a woman. Dr. Marston then developed the idea for a new superhero, Suprema the Wonder Woman. She was equipped with a golden lasso (later called "the Lasso of Truth") that could compel anyone roped with it to obey her. She also wore a pair of bracelets (the "Bracelets of Submission") with which she could deflect bullets and other projectiles. If her bracelets were chained together, she would lose her powers. Both the golden lasso and the bracelets were rooted in Dr. Marston's theories on submission, which he felt was superior to dominance. He felt that submission, the willingness to give oneself over to others, was the path to happiness, love, and a healthier psyche. Of course, Suprema the Wonder Woman also had strength comparable to Superman at the time.
It should come as no surprise that Dr. Marston most likely drew upon the women in his life as inspiration for Wonder Woman. Elizabeth Marston not only had a masters degree in psychology, but a law degree as well. She worked at Metropolitan Life Insurance for 65 years, continuing to work after she had her first child at 35. Like Elizabeth Marston, Olive Byrne was also an independent woman. She had a fairly lucrative freelance writing career. Dr. Marston took inspiration for the Bracelets of Submission from a pair of bracelets that Olive Byrne owned.
|An early H. G. Peter cartoon|
In consultation with Dr. Marston, it was H. G. Peter who designed Wonder Woman's costume. While the United States had not yet entered World War II, patriotic heroes such as The Shield and Captain America were all the rage, so it was quite natural that Wonder Woman's costume would have a patriotic theme. Her bodice boasted an eagle, while her culottes were blue and spangled with stars. The culottes would soon be replaced by shorts.
Wonder Woman's next appearance was not long in coming. She was the lead feature in the anthology comic book Sensation Comics. Sensation Comics #1, January 1942, told of how Diana returned Steve Trevor to the United States. It also told how Wonder Woman adopted the identity of "Diana Prince." It was in Sensation Comics #1 that Wonder Woman's invisible plane first appeared. The reasoning behind the invisible plane was that it could avoid detection and thus not be shot down. The invisible plane was also much faster than other planes of the era, being able to travel 2000 miles per hour.
In writing Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston used the pseudonym "Charles Moulton", a combination of his own middle name and that of M.C. Gaines. While Dr. Marston wrote Wonder Woman using a pseudonym, it was fairly well known to the general public that he was the creator of the character.
Much like Superman or Batman, Wonder Woman had her own supporting cast, including Steve Trevor. Both Diana Prince and Steve Trevor's commanding officer was General Phil Darnell (initially a colonel in his first appearance, he was later promoted). Wonder Woman's best friend and sidekick was Etta Candy, an overweight college student and member of the Beeta Lambda sorority at Holiday College. Etta was pretty much the leader of the Holiday Girls, who often helped Wonder Woman on cases. Although Etta was often used for comedy relief, she was an independent, intelligent, and resourceful young woman who could pretty much hold her own in most situations.
While Wonder Woman was popular, she would also be a source of controversy. In March 1942 the National Organization for Decent Literature (essentially the literary equivalent of the National Legion of Decency) placed Sensation Comics on its list of "Publications Disapproved for Youth". The reason was quite simply that in their opinion Wonder Woman was "not sufficiently dressed". M. C. Gaines was able to get NODL's decision overturned. That having been said, there would be controversy over Wonder Woman within All-American Comics itself.
In February 1943 Josette Frank of the Child Study Association of America, a member of All-American Comics, Detective Comics, and National Allied Publications' advisory board, and one of comic books' staunchest defenders, sent a letter to M. C. Gaines telling him of her concerns regarding "the women's costume (or lack of it), and partly on the basis of sadistic bits showing women chained, tortured, etc." Josette Frank was not the only person at All-American Comics with concerns about the sheer amount of bondage in the Wonder Woman feature. Dorothy Roubicek (better known today as Dorothy Woolfolk) was an editorial assistant and the first female editor at what would become DC Comics. She is widely credited with the creation of Kryptonite in Superman comic books. In a memo from the same month as Josette Frank's letter to M.C. Gaines, she expressed concern about the number of times in which Wonder Woman is chained up or tied up. She also suggested that perhaps Wonder Woman should not be allowed to return to Paradise Island where some of the kinkiest situations occurred, as well as a more modest alternative to the costume Wonder Woman currently wore Dr. Marston refuted Josette Frank's charges regarding the Wonder Woman feature and dismissed Dorothy Roubicek's concerns.
Dorothy Roubicek then talked to Dr. Lauretta Bender, neuropsychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital, associate professor of psychiatry in New York University, and a member of All-American Comics' advisory board. Dr. Bender reassured Miss Roubiceck stating that she did not think the Wonder Woman feature tended towards either sadism or masochism, that she thought well of the way William Moulton Marston was dealing with feminism in the feature, and that she thought the Wonder Woman feature should be left alone. Lauretta Bender would later testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954 in defence of comic books.
Even today it is easy to understand Josette Frank and Dorothy Roubicek's concerns over Wonder Woman. Anyone who has read even a few Wonder Woman stories from the early to mid-Forties will soon realise one thing: there are many scenes in which Wonder Woman or others are chained up, tied up, or otherwise incapacitated. In the book Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World's Most Famous Heroine author Tim Hanley estimated that on average 27% of the panels in Wonder Woman depicted bondage scenes. While today it might be tempting to chalk this up to kinkiness on the part of William Moulton Marston, there were more likely two reasons that bondage played such a significant role in Wonder Woman's early adventures. First, the iconography of the suffrage movement made frequent use of chains as a symbol of the oppression of women. Imagery of women breaking free of chains was frequently used to symbolise breaking free of that oppression. In having Wonder Woman chained or tied up and then breaking free, Dr. Marston was then simply using the same symbolism employed by early feminists. Second, the bondage was a metaphor for Dr. Marston's theories regarding submission.
Far greater changes would be in store for Wonder Woman once her creator died. In 1944 William Moulton Marston contracted polio and lost the use of his legs. Still worse, he later developed skin cancer and died on May 2 1947. Robert Kanigher would take over writing Wonder Woman with issue #22, March–April 1947. Mr. Kanigher would change the Wonder Woman feature dramatically. He utilised Etta Candy and the Holiday Girls much less frequently than Dr. Marston had. He also somewhat domesticated Wonder Woman, with Steve Trevor playing a bigger role as a love interest. In the Fifties Wonder Woman would often be more concerned with marrying Steve Trevor than combating evil. Starting with Wonder Woman #23, May 1947, there would be adventures featuring Wonder Woman as a teenager (Wonder Girl). Still later there would be adventures featuring Wonder Woman as a toddler (Wonder Tot, who first appeared in Wonder Woman #122, May 1961). As to the bondage scenes so common in Dr. Marston's stories, they largely disappeared.
Strangely enough, even as Robert Kanigher domesticated Wonder Woman, he endowed the feature with a rather strong lesbian subtext. While one has to suspect that William Moulton Marston realised the potential for lesbianism on Paradise Island, Robert Kanigher was as blatant about it as one could be in comic books in the late Forties, Fifties, and Sixties. Wonder Woman's exclamation, "Suffering Sappho!" was first used in Wonder Woman #20, November 1946. While the issue is usually credited to Dr. Marston, given his illness it seems possible it might have been rewritten or written entirely by either Joye Hummel or Robert Kanigher. Regardless, from 1948 to 1958 Robert Kanigher had Wonder Woman exclaim, "Suffering Sappho!" very frequently. Of course, Sappho was a Greek poet known for her works devoted to the love of other women (she lived on the island of Lesbos, from which our modern term lesbian is derived). Not surprisingly, Robert Kanigher would later say in interviews that he thought all of the inhabitants of Paradise Island were lesbians.
At least one person who saw a lesbian subtext in Wonder Woman in the Fifties was Dr. Fredric Wetham, the author of Seduction of the Innocent and a psychiatrist who crusaded against comic books in the belief that they were harmful to children. Today many of Dr. Wertham's views would be considered both misogynistic and homophobic, which should perhaps not be surprising given homosexuality was still listed as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders issued by the American Psychiatric Association. In Seduction of the Innocent Dr. Wertham states bluntly, "The homosexual connotation of the Wonder Woman type of story is unmistakable." He concludes that Wonder Woman is "anti-masculine" and that the relationship between Wonder Woman and the Holiday Girls was essentially homoerotic. Curiously Dr. Wertham fails to mention the bondage content in Wonder Woman's early adventures, although given he began his campaign against comic books in 1947 he might have missed it entirely. Amusingly enough, Dr. Wertham wrote in Seduction of the Innocent, "For boys, Wonder Woman is a frightening image." During the Golden Age it was estimated that as many as 90% of all readers of Wonder Woman were male.
The comic book industry would see a more positive change in 1956 with the publication of Showcase #4, October 1956. It saw the introduction of a new version of The Flash, which would lead DC Comics to create new versions of other Golden Age characters, such as Green Lantern and Hawkman. It also marked the beginning of the Silver Age, a time when superheroes were once again popular. There were still many readers who loved the heroes of the Golden Age, so that eventually it would be established that the Golden Age characters lived on an alternative Earth, Earth Two (this was in The Flash #123, September 1961). The Flash #129, June 1962 established that there was a Wonder Woman on Earth Two as well.
With the Silver Age Wonder Woman would see yet more changes. H. G. Peter, the original artist for Wonder Woman, retired in 1957. His last issue was Wonder Woman #97, April 1958. He died not long afterwards at the age of 78. The following issue Wonder Woman #98, May 1958 would see some revisions to her origin. It also introduced a new power for Wonder Woman. She was now able to ride air currents so long as there was some wind or the air was not completely still. The Silver Age would see Wonder Woman develop yet more powers. Her earrings allowed her to breathe in outer space and underwater, while her tiara could be used as a thrown weapon. It was also with the Silver Age that Wonder Woman would become one of the founding members of the Justice League of America with the group's first appearance in The Brave and the Bold #28, March 1960.
It was in 1972 that Wonder Woman appeared on the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine, accompanied by an essay on the character by Gloria Steinem. Gloria Steinem was not particularly happy that Wonder Woman no longer had her powers and no longer wore the iconic costume, even though Wonder Woman probably had more feminist content than it had since the Golden Age. It was ultimately because of this that in Wonder Woman #204, January–February 1973 her powers were restored and she once more began wearing her classic costume. Eventually Steve Trevor would be brought back from the dead by the goddess Aphrodite. He assumed the name "Steve Howard".
With the popularity of the TV series Wonder Woman, the first season of which was set during World War II, Wonder Woman # #228, February, 1977, saw the focus of the magazine shift to the Wonder Woman of Earth Two and her adventures during World War II. This would last for the next fifteen issues. The late Seventies would once more see Wonder Woman appear in multiple titles. Starting with World's Finest #244, May 1977 Wonder Woman appeared as a back up feature in that magazine. Unlike Wonder Woman, World's Finest centred on the Wonder Woman of Earth One with her adventures set in the present day. Once her run as a back up feature in World's Finest ended, starting with Adventure Comics #459, October, 1978 she appeared as a back up feature in that magazine for the next five issues.
The Eighties would see dramatic changes at DC Comics, as well as some dramatic changes to Wonder Woman. The limited series Crisis on Infinite Earths merged the multiple Earths of DC Comics into one, single Earth, which meant major changes for most of the characters DC published. Wonder Woman was then rebooted in 1987 by writer Greg Potter and writer/artist George Pérez. Wonder Woman was returned to her roots as a feminist character, and Mr. Pérez incorporated much more mythology into the feature than there had been before. The alter ego of "Diana Prince" was dropped, with Wonder Woman having no secret identity. Steve Trevor appeared once more, although this time there was no romance between the two. Etta Candy was also revived, although this time as a military officer.
Surprisingly enough given her popularity, Wonder Woman did not receive a lot of exposure in media outside of comic books for about the first quarter century of her existence. There was no Wonder Woman radio show, nor a Wonder Woman serial. She did appear in the aforementioned, short lived newspaper comic strip that ran from 1944 to 1945. Wonder Woman's first appearance in a medium outside of comics books and the newspaper strip was in a five minute presentation film entitled "Who's Afraid of Diana Prince?", produced by Batman producer William Dozier for a prospective "Wonder Woman" TV show. Unfortunately, in "Who's Afraid of Diana Prince?" Wonder Woman is played strictly for laughs. Diana Prince (played by Ellie Wood Walker) is portrayed as a shy plain Jane whose mother (who is not Hippolyta of the Amazons) nags her about not having a boyfriend. When she dons the Wonder Woman costume, she sees herself in the mirror as being more attractive than she really is (the Wonder Woman in the mirror is played by Linda Harrison, later of Planet of the Apes fame). That Diana Prince isn't entirely delusional is borne out by the fact that after preening in the mirror she flies out the window. She then at least has the power of flight. "Who's Afraid of Diana Prince?" was never broadcast nor did a Wonder Woman TV series emerge from it. Much of the reason may have been that by 1967 the superhero fad was in decline. The ratings for Batman had dropped and The Green Hornet was not doing well in the ratings. I have to suspect most of the reason that the proposed Wonder Woman series was not picked up was simply that "Who's Afraid of Diana Prince?" was not very good.
Fortunately, "Who's Afraid of Diana Prince?" did not put an end to Wonder Woman on the small screen and the Seventies would see Wonder Woman on television very often. Wonder Woman made her television broadcast debut in an episode of the Saturday morning cartoon The Brady Kids (a spinoff of the prime time, live action sitcom The Brady Bunch) entitled "It's All Greek to Me". It aired on December 2 1972. The plot involved the Brady kids travelling back in time to ancient Greece at one of the times the Olympic Games were held. Starting in 1973 Wonder Woman was a regular in every incarnation of the Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends, which ultimately ran until 1986.
Not only did Wonder Woman appear in cartoons in the Seventies, but in live action shows as well. One of her stranger appearances was on the February 28 1973 episode of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in the recurring sketch "Vamp". The sketch had Wonder Woman (played by Cher), Superman (played by Sonny), and Batman (played by Don Adams) all trying to use the same phone booth to change into their superhero identities.
A more important live action appearance for Wonder Woman would be a 1974 television movie and pilot for a proposed TV series titled Wonder Woman. The pilot was very loosely based on the comic book character and owed a good deal to the late Sixties and early Seventies run of Wonder Woman in which Diana Prince had no powers. Cathy Lee Crosby played Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, who had superhuman agility and athletic skills. Her costume was a far cry from the original, consisting of a red top with blue sleeves and blue trousers. The pilot did respectively well in the ratings, but was not particularly well received by critics. Ultimately ABC passed on the proposed TV series. It aired on March 12 1974.
|Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman|
Unfortunately ABC would not do well by the series. The network moved it all around their schedule throughout the season. Despite this, it still received fairly decent ratings. Unfortunately Fred Silverman, then president of ABC Entertainment, thought the superhero cycle on television had run its course. As a result Wonder Woman was cancelled at the end of the season. The series was the picked up by CBS. It was retitled The New Adventures of Wonder Woman and updated to the present day. Ultimately the series would run for two more seasons.
Wonder Woman would later guest star in a 1988 episode of the animated series Superman. In 2001 she was one of the regular characters on the animated series Justice League. She would appear in various Justice League TV series and animated films afterwards.
In 2011 there was another television pilot for a proposed Wonder Woman series, ordered by NBC. It was written and produced by David E. Kelley, best known for such legal dramas as The Practice and Ally McBeal. Adrianne Palicki starred as a corporate executive who also fights crime as Wonder Woman. Adrianne Palicki wore a costume that was a cross between the classic costume and the one from Wonder Woman #600 with blue trousers. She also had the traditional Bracelets of Submission (although they are never referred to as such) and the golden lasso. NBC never broadcast the pilot, nor did they pick up the proposed series. It was perhaps just as well, as the pilot was not well received by either critics or fans.
In 2012 there was news of another potential Wonder Woman TV series in development by the CW, Warner Bros., and DC Comics. Amazon would essentially detail the origins of Wonder Woman. It was in January 2014 that it was announced that the CW has passed on a second script order and it was unlikely the network would revisit the project.
|Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman|
In many ways the lasting popularity of Wonder Woman is remarkable. Even before the television series of the late Seventies, she was the one superhero besides Superman and Batman that the average person, who may have never read a comic book, could name. What makes this all the more remarkable is that, unlike Superman and Batman, Wonder Woman received very little exposure in media beyond comic books. Until the Seventies outside of comic books Wonder Woman had only appeared in a short lived newspaper comic strip and a rejected television presentation film that no one outside of the television industry ever saw. While Superman and Batman had serials, TV shows, a radio show, and animated cartoons to bolster their popularity, Wonder Woman's popularity was entirely dependent upon comic books.
As to why Wonder Woman has remained so popular for the past 75 years, much of it may be tied to the feminism that William Marston Moulton infused the early comic books stories with. In the early 20th Century suffragettes had fought for the right to vote. During World War II, with many men in the United States fighting the war overseas, many women found themselves doing jobs traditionally assigned to men. Wonder Woman appealed to many who favoured women's liberation. After all, here was a superheroine whose strength matched that of Superman and who was entirely self reliant.
Yet another reason for Wonder Woman's lasting popularity is probably due to the fact that, even in the Golden Age, she was a very complex character. During the Golden Age many comic book heroes tended to be very simple nature. Sometimes the source of their powers was never even explained, as in the case of Miss Victory (a superheroine who appeared about five months prior to Wonder Woman). With Wonder Woman's first appearance in All-Star Comics #8 she was given a fairly sophisticated origin, complete with an explanation of where her powers came from. Over the years Wonder Woman's mythos would expand and grow yet more complex. It is worth noting that the complexity of Wonder Woman is something she shares with the other two big name superheroes of the Golden Age and Silver Age, Superman and Batman. All three characters were much more complex than many of their Golden Age compatriots. As a result, they also maintained their popularity over the years.
Of course, another reason for Wonder Woman's continued popularity may be the fact that over the years she has adapted to the times. During the Golden Age, when many women were doing what was traditionally considered men's jobs, Wonder Woman was a strong, independent woman. During the Fifties, when an emphasis was placed on the traditional roles of women, Wonder Woman became much more focused on marriage and romance. In the Sixties, with the advent of second wave feminism, she once more became a strong, independent woman. Much of the reason Wonder Woman has remained popular is that she has been able to adapt to changing times.
After seventy five years Wonder Woman is still arguably the best known and most popular female superhero in the world. Since the Seventies she has appeared in everything from TV shows to animated cartoons to movies. There is a plethora of Wonder Woman merchandise still on shelves, everything from coffee mugs to t-shirts to action figures. One has to suspect that she will remain popular for yet another seventy five years.