I was one among a record crowd that turned out for the Wonder Woman movie last weekend, and I had a fine day at the movies. (You should go). And like a lot of people, I suppose, I walked out of the theater wanting to know more about Wonder Woman. She’s a character that’s been around longer than most of us have been alive, but she was never at the top of my reading stack. It’s a pleasant thing to have new things to explore when you’ve been reading comics since the 1970s!
What better way to begin a Wonder Woman deep dive than to go all the way back to her first appearance? That’s right, I’m talking about … issue #8 of All-Star?
Yep, All-Star. This December, 1941 issue was fronted by a Justice Society story where Starman and Doc Midnight did some damn thing or another. It was probably great! But the reason we remember this book is because of the back-up story … Introducing Wonder Woman!
Now, to be honest, many Golden Age comics can be a tough read. Art can be primitive, the stories can be all over the place, and a modern fan looking for familiar versions of their heroes may come away thoroughly perplexed. Over the years, I’ve come to make peace with Golden Age stories. I previously wrote that Silver Age books feel like musicals to me. Well, Golden Age stories feel more like dreams, where details swim around and odd images stick in your mind. Treating Golden Age books like lucid dreams has opened me up to a whole new world of comics.
And this first appearance of Wonder Woman is no exception. There is a dream-like quality to the story and art. But unlike a lot of books from this era, the story isn’t lacking for storytelling or craftsmanship. Wonder Woman hits the ground running, pretty much fully-formed from the get-go. And small … uh … wonder! Wonder Woman was more than a comic — it was a blueprint for a Utopian society.
Wonder Woman’s origin story hits the tropes you might expect. The “gimmick” here is role reversal, with a woman hero taking care of the men in repudiation of the “damsel in distress” roles served by women in comics (now as then, sadly). No sooner has intrepid airman Steve Trevor crashed on hidden Paradise Island than Princess Diana — the future Wonder Woman — is effortlessly carrying him to safety, while the other inhabitants of that mystical land gather around and shout MAN! MAN!
(more or less)
But this isn’t just to drive home the fact that Paradise Island is home to an all-female society. As creator William Moulton Marston would later say, “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.” Marston wasn’t writing a one-off adventure story, intended to quickly thrill and then just as quickly be forgotten. Marston was using a comic book to write for the ages.
Marston had a vision of a world rules by strong, benevolent women. He’d worked out the details and backstory of how this society came about, and we wanted us to know the details:
don’t see many text info-dumps in current comics — used sparingly, I kinda like it
Marston was a fascinating character — an academic, a writer, and a bit of a crackpot who might reasonably be said to have invented a lie detector (insert your own Lasso of Truth insights here). Years after creating Wonder Woman, it would be learned that Marston was in a polyamorous relationship with his wife and a former student (herself a niece of birth control activist Margaret Sanger), and Marston had children by both of them. All of which is between Marston and his partners, of course, but when juxtaposed against the social mores of the 1940s, and the ethos evinced in these early Wonder Woman stories about the benevolent superiority of powerful women, then, well … Marston was talking the talk and walking the walk (or at least in close proximity to women who were).
All of which lends a little more punch to a tale that sees the Queen of Paradise Island heed the advice of her gods to send one of her number into the wide world to “fight for liberty and freedom for all womankind!”
I blew up that panel of Queen Hippolyta, above, because it is, frankly, beautiful. Marston’s uncredited co-creator in these early Wonder Woman tales was Harry G. Peter, who brought a lifetime of illustrating experience to this work. Unlike many Golden Age artists — who often seemed to be teens or very young men learning how to draw as they went along — Peter was an accomplished artist. In his sixties when he did this work, Peter brought an austere, Art Deco quality to the book. To use a banal term, Peter’s world of Wonder Woman is pretty, something that couldn’t be said about the contemporary comic adventures of Superman, Batman, or Captain America (though Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner might be in the conversation).
Wonder Woman’s origin is told in two parts. In All-Star, we see Princess Diana rescue Steve Trevor, learn the story of Paradise Island, and watch Diana enter a contest to choose an emissary to take Trevor back to the United States. Sporting one of those disguises that only fools characters in Golden Age comics, Diana runs the table in a series of skill and strength contests, and takes the laurels in a bullets-and-bracelets showdown.
The story continues in Sensation Comics #1, where Wonder Woman rated the cover, repurposing her original splash page appearance, with a couple bullets bouncing offer her bracelets to make it clear that, hey, there’s some action here, and not just a call for equality and enlightenment in a world ruined by men who wish only to possess and destroy.
Wonder Woman transports the still-recuperating Steve Trevor back to the world in her nifty “transparent plane” …
… and with Steve dropped off at the hospital, Diana does what any tourist would do in an American big city — she checks out the latest fashions. I love how she’s utterly indifferent to society’s scorn and catcalls.
Of course, this being a comic book, it’s only a matter of moments before Diana happens on a bank robbery, which our hero foils with casual aplomb.
Leaving the scene of her heroics, Wonder Woman is clocked running at 80 MPH (in heels!) by a theatrical agent interested in a quick buck.
Wonder Woman is a sensation (ahem), playing to packed houses with her bullets-and-bracelets routine, and I guess she’s good enough with that trick to ensure ricochets don’t deflect into the crowd!
There are some shenanigans with profits, but Diana makes certain she gets her share.
But why does Diana need money, anyway? It isn’t to buy those clothes she was admiring. No, Diana uses the cash to buy an identity — as unique a civilian origin as I believe I’ve ever encountered in comics.
With her cover story in place, Wonder Woman has the full Superhero Starter Pack — a name, a costume, a secret identity, a love interest infatuated with her hero identity while she’s standing right next to him in her secret identity, and a barn with an invisible airplane. Not bad for the new Amazon princess in town.
After Steve gets out of the hospital, there’s finally a bit of action wrapping up the business of aerial saboteurs that led to Trevor blundering onto Paradise Island in the first place. My antenna went up when the story mentioned the bad guys were brewing a deadly kind of gas that would corrode right through a gas mask — a plot point wrapped into the new Wonder Woman film, seven decades later. And my antenna went right again down when, a couple pages later, the gas is set off and our heroes are saved by their gas masks (Golden Age stories are like a dream, remember?).
Along the way, true to form, Diana needs to save impetuous Steve Trevor. Again!
The story ends with our heroes surviving the explosion of the illicit gas warehouse — and another one of those elegant, beautiful panels by Peter, with enough motion even Jack Kirby might take notice.
And with that, the legend is born, replete with the promise to to best “the world’s most villainous men at their own game!”
And so Wonder Woman is launched, with pure intentions, and pure results, in a beautifully-crafted two-part story that entertains and enchants with its dream-like simplicity. It’s a purity that would take a beating in years to come. Wonder Woman herself would become iconic, but her book would see ups and downs, with as many reboots and retcons as any superhero out there — her book moved from the contemporary era to World War 2; her powers stripped away so she could become some kind of Mod avenger; and several times starting over fresh as DC wiped their continuity (and don’t even get me started about Wonder Girl).
Through it all, Wonder Woman’s popularity has endured. I guess she really was built to last, and if we haven’t yet attained the female-dominated Utopia her creator envisioned … well, the new century is still young! Here’s hoping we survive to the end of it, with Wonder Woman there to guide us.
- Title: Wonder Woman
- Published By: DC Comics
- All-Star #8 (December 1941) and Sensation Comics #1 (Janurary 1942)
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: A
NEXT MONTH: #169 The Death of Captain Marvel
My reading isn’t confined to funnybooks. I also read regular books … about funnybooks! In the past I’ve confined my Longbox Graveyard reviews to comic books, but setting up the bookshelf in my Secret Headquarters reminded me that I have several comics-related tomes that I’d never read.
These are all “coffee table books,” and I haven’t afforded them the depth of review I offered books like Supergods or Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, but they will still be of interest to genre fans. So, without further ado (and inspired by the book reviews at Professor Allen’s Eyes & Ears blog — thanks Prof!), here are capsule reviews of three books of interest to comics fans that I found on the … Longbox Bookshelf!
Conan the Phenomenon by Paul M. Sammon, Dark Horse Books, 2007.
Hurriedly written, and by the author’s own admission less a detailed account of Conan than a “detailed outline,” Conan the Phenomenon is nonetheless a handsome volume recounting Conan’s appearance in film, print, comics, and other media through the book’s date of publication in 2007. Author Paul M. Sammon is a Robert E. Howard geek who enjoyed the Conan series as a youth and was involved as a journalist in the making of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. The chapters on the film, Marvel Comics, and (especially) literary Conan eras are strong, and particular attention is paid to the tortured path the Conan franchise has taken as it passed through many hands (and many lawsuits). Sammon considers the L. Sprague deCamp pastiches (and dismisses them) as well as the early Marvel Comics (and approves of them), and also offers a survey of more modern and obscure appearances by the Barbarian in television, animation, video games, and role playing games. The Dark Horse comics reboot also receives attention. While not a deep dive into scholarly criticism of Robert E. Howard or Conan, Sammon’s book offers more than enough details and information for casual fans (and even devoted Hyborians such as myself). As only the failed 2011 Conan movie is omitted (as it was not yet announced at time of the book’s publication), this volume may be considered comprehensive.
I most enjoyed the first chapters looking at Robert E. Howard’s life, as a young man out-of-step with his remote and conservative Texas town, and smiled when I saw photos of Howard and his friends posing for the camera like their blood and thunder pulp heroes. Sammon makes a case that the prevailing theory of Howard’s suicide — that he could not bear to live without his mother — might be too pat, instead suggesting that Howard may have long contemplated his own death, and felt he could permit himself to die once his mother no longer needed him to care for her. Perhaps most useful are the Robert E. Howard bibliographical pieces scattered through the book, cataloguing the various print editions of Howard’s work (including comics). Nicely illustrated, with a cover from Frank Frazetta, Conan The Phenomenon will make a fine coffee table book for any self-respecting barbarian, and the insightful foreword by British fantasist Michael Moorcock — advancing the case that Conan is a quintessential American hero — adds a touch of class.
Wonder Woman The Complete History by Les Daniels, Chronicle Books, 2000.
I don’t know a lot about Wonder Woman. I snubbed her in my Top Ten List of DC Heroes, and I confess the closest attachment I’ve formed to the character came through her television series theme song. Les Daniels’ picture-book history of Wonder Woman filled gaps in my knowledge, and reinforced my decision to not read Wonder Woman’s comics, as sorting through her tortured print history is definitely above my pay grade. Daniels devotes most of his text to Wonder Woman’s comic book incarnations, covering the memorable Lynda Carter television series out of respect for its ubiquity, but also to demonstrate how that show helped crystalize the interpretation of a comic book character that was still unsettled four decades after first publication. That the television show had such an outsized impact (it aired for only three seasons, and switched networks after being cancelled after its debut season on ABC) also speaks to Wonder Woman’s iconic status, and the fact that her most ardent fans and defenders sometimes didn’t read comics at all (including Gloria Steinem, who appropriated the character as the mascot for her Ms. magazine in 1972).
Daniels does his best to disentangle Wonder Woman’s comic book heritage, spending substantial print on the character’s Golden and Silver Age incarnations (as well as then-more recent interpretations by George Perez and John Byrne), but the book’s most memorable character is Wonder Woman’s creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston. A strange combination of science and snake oil, Dr. Marston was a Harvard-trained psychologist with a law degree and a Ph.D; he also had an obsession with bondage fantasies (on display in seemingly every issue of Golden Age Wonder Woman), and through Wonder Woman’s comic book adventures hoped to demonstrate a utopian vision of a world rendered peaceful through the benevolent sexual domination of men by an enlightened female ruling class. A fascinating cat, our Dr. Marston, made only moreso by his invention of lie detection technology and national celebrity in places like the pages of Look magazine, which ran a photo spread showing Dr. Marston strapping lovely young women into lie detecting machines and then measuring their response to being kissed. There needs to be a screenplay about this guy right now … and you need to have this book in your library (if you can find it) for this and other tidbits, as well as lavish illustration including moments from key issues of Wonder Woman’s past; funky toys, dolls, and other merchandise (Wonder Woman macaroni and cheese!); and a couple publicity photos of the stunning Lynda Carter, who remains the definitive popular conception of the character, almost four decades after she first donned Wonder Woman’s red, white, and blues.
The Joker by Daniel Wallace, Universe Publishing, 2011
The most cursory work of the three books reviewed in this column, Daniel Wallace’s text for The Joker is little more than liner notes for the book’s copious illustration, but the author makes the most of his column inches with a near-total laser focus on the comic book incarnations of Batman’s arch-nemesis. Video games and toys earn passing mention, and the film appearances of the Joker just a page or two, in a book otherwise devoted to the four-color appearances of the Joker (excepting only a chapter or so for the Joker’s animated appearances; after all, the book’s introduction is by Mark Hamill, the voice of the animated Joker).
Wallace offers a survey of the Joker’s various eras, from his homicidal, mad clown introduction in the pages of Batman #1, through his campy Silver Age era, to his reinvention with the rest of the Batman mythos in the late 1970s and 80s, and his more nuanced persona of recent years. Spotlight sections call out the work of key Batman creators like Bill Finger, Frank Miller, Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and others, and there is some examination of the origins and psychological roots of the character, but for the most part, you will thumb this book for the art, which is drawn from all eras, with clear and frequently oversized reproductions.
I particularly enjoyed the big Dick Sprang page showing the Joker digging sand castles on the beach while an incredulous Batman and Robin look on, while glimpses of the Neal Adams/Denny O’Neal version of the character reminded me I need to revisit their run sometime soon. The chapter on Harley Quinn, tracing her evolution from animated character to comic book mainstay, was also especially welcome. You’ll read it in a single sitting but will likely return to the art time and again — this title seems a good candidate for the remaindered aisle at your local Barnes & Noble, and would be well worth your deep discount purchase!
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #109 Spider-Man’s Bottom Ten Bronze Age Bums