Ah Wonder Woman, our favorite heroine. You deflect bullets, force the truth out of the biggest, toughest villains and generally kick ass without loosing your elegance and femininity. Thou art truly the champion of the amazons. Yet after more than 70 years of continuous publication, I thought it interesting to take a look back at Wonder Woman’s origins!
Even after 70 years Wonder Woman still exudes a certain fascination to the general public. A great deal of this fascination traces back to the mind of her creator William Moulton Marston. Contrary to most people active in the comic book industry at the time, Marston was a well educated men, a professor even. He was born in 1893 in Saugus, Massachusetts and graduated from Harvard University in 1915 where he studied law. He got his PH.D. in Psychology in 1921. The mysteries of the workings of the mind must have been a fascinating subject to Marston. Nowadays he is most famous for developing what has come to be known as the lie-detector. Outside of the academic world, Marston liked to show off his invention to the media, even allowing it to be used in advertisements.
The professor must have loved and respected woman a lot. He often favored them as subjects in his lie detector tests. He even lived together with two woman, both of which he loved dearly. In an interview with The New York Times in 1937 he expressed his positive view on woman, saying that he believes that “the next one hundred years will see the beginning of an American matriarchy – a nation of Amazons in the psychological rather than physical sense”. Clearly Wonder Woman was going to become the embodiment of these ideas just a few years later.
Getting into comics
Probably due to his unusual living situation – Marston lived together with two woman and had children with both of them – he and his family moved around a lot. Marston taught at different universities but also sought to work in the entertainment business. He must have liked storytelling in modern media, sometimes linking his ideas to movies in his writings. In 1929 he got his first foothold when he managed to get a job for Universal Pictures, which unfortunately lasted for only a year.
Contrary to most of his academic contemporaries Marston had a positive impression of comic books, believing they held great potential to cultivate young people. In 1940 an interview with Marston titled ‘Don’t laugh at the comics’ was published in which he expressed his ideas on the medium. Shortly thereafter William Moulton Marston landed himself a position on DC and the All-American Editorial Advisory Board. With new superheroes like Superman and Batman rising to huge popularity, Marston saw his chance to create his own super-heroine. By that time Marston had already gained some reputation over his views on women whom he held in high regard, believing them among other things to be less susceptible to violence. Ahead of the curve, Marston also believed women held great potential and proclaimed them to be able to achieve great things in all areas, even in politics and economics. It was in Wonder Woman and the Amazons that Marston found a vessel that embodied his ideas on female greatness.
As an academic Marston was well acquainted with ancient Greek and Roman culture. He used this knowledge in the creation of Wonder Woman, by tying Wonder Woman’s origins back to Greek mythology. Greek mythology must have been especially alluring due to its richness in powerful female figures. Hera was a powerful queen among gods, while goddesses like Athena, Aphrodite and Artemis where celebrated and respected. With Greek mythology already filled with intrigue, it proved an enduring inspiration for Wonder Woman stories.
As an acclaimed professor Marston brought a level of sophistication and depth to his comics that was quite exceptional at the time.
This is a man’s world
When Wonder Woman was first introduced in All-Star Comics #8 at the end of 1941, superheroes were a man’s business. Superman, introduced in Action Comics in 1938, really kicked off the superhero genre in comics. Superman was a huge success. A year later in 1939 Batman was unleashed upon the world. From 1939 onwards comics really exploded, with some issues selling over a million copies! Other heroes like Captain Marvel and Captain America also became huge successes. However before Wonder Woman no serious attempt at introducing a female superhero had been made by anyone. Western Culture off course had a huge influence on early comics. Gender roles at the time meant that men worked, took care of the income, managed the economy and ran the world while woman were in charge of -in Marxist terms- reproduction: cooking, cleaning, washing, raising children, all that stuff. If there was any fighting to be done: it was a man who was going to do it. Through Wonder Woman, Marston could seriously challenge these gender roles. Through his comics he showed us that women didn’t need men to thrive on their own. Just look at the culture and way of life on Paradise Island/Themyscira. On Wonder Woman’s home world women can fight just as well. Already in the early comics a role reversal takes place. It is the male -the injured jet pilot Steve Trevor- that gets rescued by two Amazons, one of which of course is Diana Prince. Although Steve can hold his own, being in the US-army and all, he at times gets rescued by Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman was the embodiment of the positive ideas Marston had about women. The professor really believed women would rise to political and economic dominance in the 20th century. At the time of the early Wonder Woman comics, World War II was blazing through Europe and Asia. The US quickly became involved, sending huge amounts of troops to both fronts. In the comics Wonder Woman aided in the war effort, doing things like fundraising and acting as army nurse. Likewise in real life, with men gone off to fight in the war, woman were injected in all parts of economy, proving to be just as capable as their male counterparts. Still this caused a lot of social tension. (The recent tv-series Bomb Girls provides a good picture of these tensions, for those who are interested). Woman have indeed made hard fought progress since, proving Marston was fairly accurate in his predictions.
Clay made flesh
Let’s take a look at Wonder Woman’s origin story. The story begins in a fictional mythical past. Saddened by the sight of woman being used as slaves in ancient cultures, Aphrodite decides to ‘shape with her own hands a race of super women’ by breathing life into a collection of women statues. Thus the amazons came into being. This new race built itself a city which it successfully managed to defend from invading armies. An enraged Mars (god of war) convinces Hercules (the strongest warrior out there) to wage war on the Amazons. Aphrodite had given Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons, a girdle that as long as it was worn would make the Amazons unconquerable. It made Hippolyte so powerful that she defeated Hercules in battle. Whereupon Hercules seduced and deceived Hippolyte to remove her girdle. A battle ensued and the Amazons were defeated and taken prisoners by being chained via wrist bands. Aphrodite again intervenes returning the Amazons their strength so that they can defeat their captors. Taking no risks, Aphrodite decides to move the Amazons to an Island shielded from the world of men.
On Paradise Island the Amazons built their own society. A fountain of youth gave the Amazons eternal life, but with the absence of men came the inability to have children. Queen Hippolyte herself longed for a child and turned to the gods. Athena ordered the queen to sculpt a statue of a child whereupon Aphrodite gave it life. This special child was named Diana, daughter to a queen, princess of the Amazons. It is this child, Diana that would later become Wonder Woman, champion of the Amazons!
Before the creation of Wonder Woman, Marston spent a lot of his academic energy in researching physiological changes during the act of lying. Eventually Marston invented a device that would monitor changes in blood pressure that could be used during interviews or interrogations, and thus the lie-detector was born.
Although nowadays Wonder Woman’s golden lasso is generally known as the Lasso of truth, it wasn’t always so. Initially the lasso was a gift from the Goddesses that was magically infused so that anyone caught in it had to do the lasso’s wielder’s bidding. Every now and then the lasso was used as an interrogation technique in order to force a confession out of someone. The lasso’s power as intended by Marston still had to do with power play, rather than truth (see under). It is only during the 1980’s in the post-crisis period that the lasso’s power is shifted towards a truth-enforcing device.
Marston had an enduring fascination with the phenomena of domination and submission. Two of Wonder Woman’s most recognizable accessories play with these themes: the bracelets and the golden lasso. In the story Hercules, after conquering the Amazons, imprisons the woman by putting chain bracelets around their arms. The goddess Aphrodite intervenes by giving the Amazons the strength to break their chains and defeat their captors. As a reminder of this event, Aphrodite makes the Amazons keep on their wrist bands (former chain bracelets) ‘to teach you the folly of submitting to man’s dominion’. The wrist band thus serve as a reminder both of man’s treachery and man’s desire to submit women to their domination. When Wonder Woman’s bracelets are bound by a man (which happens often in the early comics) she looses her special powers.
Wonder Woman’s golden lasso plays to the opposite effect. With it Wonder Woman can exercise great dominion over captors. Seeing as initially the lasso compels anyone caught with it to do whatever he or she is told, it leaves the captor in a very vulnerable position, stripped of the freedom over actions. Because the lasso – forged by the gods!- is neigh unbreakable, Wonder Woman’s domination over her captor is near absolute. Because Marston plays with these dynamics so much, it really does make the reader think about it too and how it relates to their own life. Later on the lasso’s power was diminished, it could now only compel the captor to tell the truth.
After winning a contest among the Amazons Diana wins the opportunity to serve as the Amazons ambassador to the world of men. Contrary to Superman who considers himself a sort of guardian, protecting mankind, and Batman who sees himself as a crusader, fighting the sort of criminals that robbed him of his parents, Wonder Woman is an ambassador and considers herself an agent of peace.
Coming from Paradise Island, which was maybe not conflict free but a generally peaceful place, stepping into the ‘world of man’ with it’s wars and violence (don’t forget WW II was tearing the world apart at the time) must have been a shock to Diana. Keep in mind Diana had not herself experienced the conquering of the Amazons by Hercules, having been created later on.
Being an Amazon ambassador in man’s world puts Diana in the special position of walking in two worlds but not fully belonging to either. As an ambassador you cannot barge into a new world and start rubbing people the wrong way. It then becomes a challenge to fit in, but at the same time to stay true to what you believe in. By making Diana an outsider to our world Marston cleverly put her in a position where she could question elements of western society.
An enduring legacy
That Wonder Woman has become the cultural icon she is today is actually a bit surprising considering how few breakthroughs she has made into mainstream media. Contrary to Batman and Superman she has yet to star in a major motion picture and her last (and only) tv-show already dates back a couple of decades now. And still Wonder Woman has endured and thrived for more than 70 years now, leaving an impressive legacy. A legacy that goes well beyond her impressive body of work in comics!
Because Wonder Woman embodies all that woman can be, she has had a special relationship with feminism. From the beginning Wonder Woman has functioned as an example and helped lead the way. Feminist movements in the sixties and seventies in particular held Wonder Woman dear to the heart, and used her as a symbol for their cause.
Wonder Woman has also shown the way to other heroines, who bravely followed in her footsteps. Being the first of her kind, she proved that a powerful female protagonist can work and be successful. After the success of Wonder Woman a lot of other heroines found their way to the comic book pages. We clearly see Wonder Woman’s spirit in tv-heroines like Xena and Buffy.
Wonder Woman’s appeal really is universal. She is fierce enough to appeal to a male audience as well, but at the same time she is graceful and feminine enough to also appeal to a female audience. The majority of Wonder Woman readers are in fact of the male variety, but to them Wonder Woman proves that women are more than just eye-candy. And this is important because in our times women are often presented in an overly sexualized way. Wonder Woman has also had the benefit that the wise men at DC comics never ‘cashed in’ on Wonder Woman’s sexuality, as often happens with female characters in books. Despite Wonder Woman’s little concealing uniform, she has never looked pin-up-y or overly sexy. (while there is no denying Diana is a beautiful woman)
With the recent success of superhero adaptations in the movies, let us hope we’ll see Wonder Woman in action soon!