Hello everyone, and thanks again for the support - I continue to be thrilled about this project, and the visible support I've been getting only deepens that. Thank you for donating, and thank you for spreading the word. When this book comes off, I intend to make you proud to have supported it. :)
The early years of any major comics character are always a bit unnerving to read. On the one hand, the early issues, almost inevitably, are where many of the iconic elements of the character are established, making them among the most influential and fundamental stories of the character. On the other hand, the nature of establishing the major tenets of what the character will be in turn means that over these stories, the character isn’t quite right yet. But with Wonder Woman all of this becomes even more complex because of how uncomfortable or inept many of the later creators are with the feminist and BDSM themes of the early days. The result is that the first year’s worth of Wonder Woman comics - the first twelve issues of Sensation Comics and the first two of Wonder Woman itself - are at once the purest and most complete statement of what the character is about and a sketchy, at times even clumsy, attempt at working out the character.
Let’s start with what is, to a modern reader, by far the most shocking aspect of these comics: Marston and Peter’s excessive fondness for extreme racial stereotypes. The horrifyingly racist depictions of the Japanese can at least be explained, if not excused, by the wartime climate. The minstrel-style black characters, stereotypical Mexicans, interchangeability of the deformed midget Japanese with all other East Asian nationalities, and villainous and treacherous Hawaiians, on the other hand, are much harder to explain without resorting to the uncomfortable but likely accurate truth that Marston and Peter held a host of racist prejudices and that their comics reflect these. (That said, the moment in Wonder Woman #1 in which, in a story with racist caricatures of both Mexicans and Japanese people, a car full of Japanese men crashes into a tree and Wonder Woman comments that they were too lazy to jump out is a sort of bizarre pinnacle of inept racism.)
This gets at a larger aspect of Wonder Woman in her original conception - her fundamental association with the United States of America. To some extent this is simply a cultural artifact: all World War II-era American superhero comics were unrelentingly patriotic and jingoistic. But this is a vague and unsatisfying explanation at best. After all, there are so many ways in which Marston and Peter are decisively breaking from the normal order of superhero comics, both in a storytelling sense and an ideological sense. The fact that strident and unwavering patriotism is one of the things that stays is significant.
This is doubly true given the extent to which Marston builds an entire theology out of pro-American ideology. In Wonder Woman #1, in which Marston retells and reworks the origin story he’d debuted in All-Star Comics #8 some six months previously, he presents the world as “ruled by rival gods - Ares, god of war, and Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty.” In a move that should surprise nobody, Marston further associates men with Ares and women with Aphrodite. But in a move that is at least somewhat more surprising, the difference between the two deities is not their desire to conquer the world. The difference is that Ares specifically wants to conquer the world via force, whereas Aphrodite wants to conquer men with love.
It is in this context that we must read he later discussion between Ares and Aphrodite in which America specifically comes up. In it, Ares (now called Mars) boasts, “Ho! Ho! The whole world’s at war - I rule the Earth!” But Aphrodite responds, “your rule will end when America wins! And America will win! I’ll send an Amazon to help her!” Several things about this are worth pointing out explicitly. First of all, although it is a common enough way to refer to the country, the fact that Aphrodite specifically assigns a feminine pronoun to America. Second, however, is the fact that America is explicitly allied with Aphrodite here. The equating of the Axis Powers with Ares is sensible enough, but the equating of America with Aphrodite and with love is rather more surprising.
But this is consistent with the larger portrayal of America that we get over the course of these stories. Wonder Woman is reflexively patriotic, yes, but consistently in an unusual way. We already talked last chapter about how Steve Trevor is visibly a nod to Marvel’s Captain America, and how he is shown to need the help of the Amazons. Over the course of the first twelve issues of Sensation Comics and the first two of Wonder Woman this perspective gets steadily fleshed out. The American military is on the one hand unequivocally the good guys, but on the other is continually under threat from secret plots of various sorts. The most common plot hook by far is Steve Trevor being dispatched on a mission that is actually a trap laid by a Japanese or German villain.
In other words, although they’re the good guys, America is also shown, at least in its male-dominated and militaristic form, to be woefully inadequate, especially compared to the sneering and imposing menace of its enemies. But this begs the question of why Aphrodite considers America’s victory so important. From a properly detached perspective, of course, we know the answer: because Marston genuinely believed that American victory in World War II would create the conditions for the matriarchal society he wanted to see established. But this doesn’t explain how. And in this case, given that Marston was (as almost every utopian or revolutionary is) wrong about how imminent his desired revolution was, how Marston thought the revolution would play out is a very interesting question.
In this context it’s worth looking at Sensation Comics #1, in which Wonder Woman, the marquee character, arrives properly in Man’s World. After dropping Steve Trevor off at Walter Reed, her first instinct is to go clothes shopping, noting that “mother told me so much about styles of American women that I’m dying to see them.” This moment could be seized upon in order to point out how Wonder Woman is sexist, but doing so would be problematic in a raft of ways. First of all, we return to the basic issue of the material reality of feminism. The fact of the matter is that the fashion industry is a part of female-centric culture in America. Whatever sexist assumptions are bound up in that - and there are many - the fact remains that style and fashion is a clear signifier for women in American society.
Furthermore, although Sensation Comics is less-obviously marketed to buys than All-Star Comics was, and Wonder Woman at least makes the cover here, other than the female lead and the fact that its pirate strip, “Black Pirate,” features an unusually large number of shirtless men, there is little in the comic to suggest that it’s looking for a female audience. The remaining backup features - “Mr. Terrific,” “The Gay Ghost,” “Little Boy Blue,” and “Wildcat,” are all standard male-focused action strips, and the back cover advertisement for Daisy Air Rifles is second only to Charles Atlas in terms of its gendered appeal.
In which case the turn towards shopping and fashion must be taken, like the turn in All-Star Comics #8 from a story about a crashing American pilot to a love story, as a sort of active refusal to cater to the reader’s normal desires. Notably, the previous page of the comic ends with Wonder Woman refusing to fill in the doctors at Walter Reed and running off, leaving Trevor in their hands. Then the next page opens with her deciding to go shopping. In other words, Wonder Woman abandons the plot of the issue (and indeed, in the last panel, is running out the bottom right corner of the page, physically fleeing it in favor of what’s next) to go shopping - an active defiance of the narrative conventions the primarily male readers would expect. Taken in this light, what is interesting about her decision to go shopping is less that it is a stereotypically female pursuit and more that it is overtly not something the male reader is likely to be interested in.
The other thing that is interesting about this delay (which lasts five pages) is that Wonder Woman is deeply naive about the nature of the world. First we see various elderly folks whispering to one another about Wonder Woman, with the men ogling her and the women tittering about her state of undress. From there she prevents a robbery, mistaking the crooks shooting at her for a game of Bullets and Bracelets. Then, after outrunning a car seemingly for fun, she is hired by a smarmy theater booker to do tricks, raking in money as a performer before quitting to go back to helping Captain Trevor. This last point is particularly interesting given the more obvious theatrical role available for an attractive and scantily clad woman. The idea of the male gaze and the sexual objectification of women is implicit here, especially given that the one panel depicting Wonder Woman on stage is drawn with a set of applauding hands visible at the bottom of the panel, but no other aspects of the audience, giving, in that panel, a point of view that seems to be that of an audience member looking at their own hands as they applaud.
But, of course, Wonder Woman comes out on top. Her promoter attempts to steal all of the money she made, and she proceeds to calmly recoup her money from him before just as casually giving it all away in exchange for the credentials of a nurse outside the hospital (thus giving her a secret identity of Diana Prince). In other words, while Wonder Woman is ignorant of the workings of Man’s World, she is also extremely deft at living in it and is capable of thriving despite her naïveté.
Even though this sort of fish-out-of-water approach fades quickly from the stories, the basic dynamic it represents is fundamental to Wonder Woman. Because another way to look at this dynamic is that Wonder Woman, despite declining completely to operate by the rules of Man’s World, ends up being free and in complete control of herself and her destiny within it. Wonder Woman’s power within the world, in other words, extends from her refusal to be subject to it.
In this context we can also make sense of the other major recurring ally of Wonder Woman to be introduced in 1942, Etta Candy. More than almost any other character in Wonder Woman, Etta serves as a challenge to the norms of American superhero comics. A solidly plus-sized chocoholic, at first glance Etta seems like a crass stereotype of an overweight woman with an eating disorder. But as one reads on, a curious detail emerges. Or, rather, an expected detail fails to emerge. Nowhere in these fourteen issues are there any scenes in which Etta is humiliated, looked down on, or shown to be less than capable because of her weight.
Sure, her insistence on bringing candy wherever she goes is played for laughs regularly, but the tone is that of character-based humor about a character with an excessive fondness for chocolate, not as shameful gluttony. And yes, there are a few scenes in which Wonder Woman tries (and fails) to get Etta to go on a diet. But what’s more remarkable is the confidence with which Etta bats her concern away, including a delightful scene where Wonder Woman tries to persuade Etta to lose weight so she can get a man, and Etta points out that once you get a man there’s nothing to do with him, but you can eat candy. Indeed, given Wonder Woman’s own hopelessly fawning love of Steve Trevor, Etta’s level-headed refusal to change who she is to get a man makes her, in that regard at least, even more of a feminist icon than Wonder Woman herself.
Etta serves as the leader of the Beeta Lambda [sic] sorority at Holliday College, which serves to give Wonder Woman a convenient small army of female characters she can call on. This, in turn, helps establish Wonder Woman as a broader social force. She is not merely one strange woman but the de facto leader of a large group of women - indeed, of an entire generation of them. It is not coincidental that Wonder Woman’s allies are all college-age women - i.e. women of approximately the same age as the men fighting World War II. Wonder Woman is blatantly building an army via Beeta Lambda. But, of course, it is an army as only Marston would envision it. In their first appearance, Wonder Woman leads a group of a hundred Holliday girls to walk up to the soldiers holding Trevor captive, move to dance with them, and then surprise them by chaining them up. In other words, the sisters of Beeta Lambda don’t fight, they beguile and capture. This also gets at the other obvious use of the Beeta Lambda girls, which is that they can engage in acts of bondage and spanking and write it off as “sorority initiations.”
Ah, yes, bondage. We were going to have to come around to this point eventually, what with it being in the title of the book and all. It’s no secret that Wonder Woman has a lot of bondage and fetish themes in it. Her magic lasso (which she doesn’t even get until Sensation Comics #6, although the retelling of her origin in Wonder Woman #1 goes back and gives it to her from the start) is the most obvious example of this - a rope that forces whoever is bound with it to obey her. But more broadly, virtually every story involves at least Wonder Woman, and usually several other characters being tied up. Wonder Woman’s major weakness is that she loses her power if she is bound by her wrist cuffs by a man. And, of course, the girls of Beeta Lambda will take almost any excuse offered to bend someone over and begin paddling them.
This is probably the point to make the obligatory admission that Marston’s own sex life was non-standard - he lived with both his wife and his former student/research assistant, and had two children with each of them. The metal cuffs Wonder Woman wears were modeled off of ones worn by Olive Byrne, his research assistant And if you were to assume that his obvious philosophical and narrative interest in female domination carried over to his personal life, you would not be alone in the assumption. But this also means we should stress the degree to which Marston’s interest in bondage was not merely a physical fetish but a philosophical one.
This is made clearest in the story from Sensation Comics #11, in which Wonder Woman, Steve Trevor, and Etta Candy astrally project themselves to the land of Eros, in which being placed in a leadership position is considered a grave punishment and where imprisonment is a reward. For Marston, it is quite clear that bondage is valuable and of interest in a large part because it’s a symbol of the act of submission, which Marston values. (Though, crucially, it’s only submission to loving female authority that’s valuable - the Eros story in Sensation Comics #11 is in part a parable about how everything goes wrong when men start to do the enslaving instead of women because men don’t make slavery fun.)
The biggest problem with all of this is that it at times seems to blind Marston to more blatant problems in his stories. The most obvious example of this first batch of stories is Sensation Comics #9. On the one hand, this is a quite clever story in which a seemingly silly plot conceit from Sensation Comics #1 in which Wonder Woman buys the identity of a lookalike nurse comes back as the nurse returns and wants her job back. A series of plot contrivances leads to the nurse’s husband, Dan White, mistaking Wonder Woman for his wife and chaining her to the stove to prevent her from going and getting a job. But the story completely downplays this horrifying moment of domestic abuse, with Wonder Woman treating it as a joke and the story ending with the reconciliation of Dan and his wife, with Wonder Woman, just to make it all worse, noting that she envies the other Diana’s role as a wife and mother.
To a modern reader, it is difficult to make out what Marston could possibly be thinking here without concluding that he’s being horribly sexist. But this ignores the degree to which Wonder Woman’s entire world is defined by bondage. Simply put, in a Marston story chaining someone to the stove just isn’t as big a deal as it is in the real world. The only really odd thing about it, at least in the context of the rest of Wonder Woman, is the fact that the story is endorsing a man punishing and dominating a woman for being excessively independent. The really jarring part - the horrid abuse - just isn’t something that can be taken as all that abusive in a world as bondage-filled as Wonder Woman’s.
But this is a deeply awkward note to end on, since it comes uncomfortably close to saying that because there’s so much BDSM in Wonder Woman, we can’t take any given instance of BDSM seriously - a viewpoint that amounts to a wholesale endorsement of rape culture (a term we’ll discuss at more length later). But making that criticism misses a rather large point - it’s only 1941.
It is easy, seventy years later, to forget how far ahead of his time Marston is with these stories. He is, in essence, telling a story infused with the ideology of second-wave feminism and the BDSM community several decades before either of those things existed as historical institutions. In her first year, Wonder Woman remains a deeply problematic character. But in many ways, the stories of this first year would feel more at home in the 1960s than they do in the 1940s. Not in all ways - the horrifying racism being the most obvious problem. But in many ways. Under Marston, Wonder Woman has a confused and deeply tangled ideology full of contradictions and problems. Then again, there’s no such thing as a historical ideology without contradictions and problems (and given that all ideologies will eventually become historical ideologies, this fact has considerable consequences for the present).
And so we can at least say this - nothing else in 1942 had problems quite like Wonder Woman’s. Marston was screwing things up in ways that none of his contemporaries were even close to managing. Progress is often nothing more than a matter of making new mistakes. By that standard, Wonder Woman is a quantum leap forward.
First of all, thank you to everybody who donated. I'm really excited about this book, and really hope to be able to clear the time to write it starting in January.
To give you (and anyone else who's interested) a better sense of what the book will be like, I banged out a first draft of a sample chapter. This is unedited prose, and though I glanced over it to see if there were any howling typos, it may well contain errors and infelicities. But to give you a taste, here's the chapter on Wonder Woman's first appearance in All-Star Comics #8. (No, I'm not going to do 3000 words on every issue she's in. I'm not quite that crazy.)
Man's World (December 1941)
The first thing we have to admit is that she does not get a glorious debut. Batman and Superman, the two better-selling members of DC’s supposed “Trinity” of characters, got famous debuts. Action Comics #1 and Detective Comics #27 are two of the most valuable comics in the world, with their debuting characters splashed across the cover in two of comics’ most iconic images. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, debuted as a backup feature in All-Star Comics #8 that was, for lack of a better word, an advertisement.
This is not quite as bad as it sounds. If we’re being honest, All-Star Comics in general was an advertisement. To understand this, however, we need to first explain what DC Comics in general looked like in 1941. The bulk of DC’s line were not single-character comics like Batman or Superman but anthologies featuring a lead story and several backups. So, for instance, Action Comics #43, which came out the same month as All-Star Comics #8, featured a thirteen-page Superman story as its lead feature, followed by five stories featuring more obscure characters (The Vigilante, Three Aces, Mr. America, Congo Bill, and Zatara) ranging from six to thirteen pages themselves.
All-Star Comics is a comic that only makes sense in this context. Its main feature is the Justice Society of America - the first real superhero team, and exemplars of one of the two main approaches in creating a team book out of existing characters: take a bunch of characters that can’t quite support their own book and put them in one book together. Crucially, a typical Justice Society story is not a story of the team working together, but rather a story in which a team-based frame story wraps around solo stories featuring the various heroes on the team, each of which ends reminding the reader what book they can follow the adventures of the character in. It is, in other words, a book that exists to take the readers of, say, Hawkman and persuade them to try More Fun Comics where they can read about the adventures of The Spectre.
Wonder Woman was introduced in the final nine pages of All-Star Comics #8, after the conclusion of that month’s Justice Society story. Not only is her debut, unlike that of Batman or Superman, not the lead feature of the issue, it’s not even treated as a highlight. She doesn’t merit mention on the cover. Her debut is an advertisement for Sensation Comics, the series she starts headlining in January of 1942, shoved at the back of a book that basically consisted of ads for other books anyway.
There are two ways to look at this. The first is the pessimistic way. The entire history of Wonder Woman is going to be characterized, in part, by her having a visibly harder time of it in the market than her male counterparts. Batman and Superman both anchor entire lines of comics, with at least two solo books running at any time alongside, these days, a host of spinoffs. Wonder Woman has had a single title since 1952. Batman and Superman both saw their main books relaunched from #1 for the first time in September of 2011. Wonder Woman had her third relaunch from #1 that month. And, of course, Batman and Superman outsell Wonder Woman by miles. In this context, launching Wonder Woman with an unheralded advertisement shoved in the back of another book is merely the first of a thousand slights.
But there’s another option. If Wonder Woman has never managed to be unambiguously successful and equal to her male colleagues, after all, she’s surely no worse off than feminism, which is itself an unfinished project. So Wonder Woman is compromised and marginalized from day one. It’s hard to come up with a more fitting point of origin for a feminist project than the material reality of second class citizenship.
This sort of debased materialism is, after all, mirrored in Wonder Woman’s actual story. We are told explicitly that Wonder Woman is “giving up her heritage and her right to eternal life” to come to Man’s World. For all that is made of the messianic themes in Superman, fleeing the dying world of Krypton is not half as drenched in Christ imagery as this. Wonder Woman explicitly departs the world of the gods for the mortal world, giving up her divinity to become mortal.
When one looks at Wonder Woman’s first appearance through this lens, the frustrating aspects of it suddenly make an odd sort of sense. Central to the Christ story is the image of the divine incarnating not only in the mortal world, but into the most degrading and humiliating conditions in the mortal world. What’s important isn’t just that the divine walks the Earth, but that the divine is born in a manger and dies in agony nailed to a tree, having spent the life in between walking among the sick, the poor, and the outcast. So too, then, as Wonder Woman descends from Paradise Island to Man’s World, she incarnates first in comics’ most crassly materialist form: an advertisement in the back of a book that only exists to try to sell other books.
But the crass materialism of her landing is not sufficient to define the sublime breadth of her trajectory. To show the equivalence of the sacred and the profane requires more than just the profane. How, then, does this initial story do at capturing that?
Reading All-Star Comics #8 seventy years later, the moment where one turns onto the first page of the Wonder Woman story bristles with uncanny power. This power is not merely the weight of history and the realization that one is about to read nine of the most important pages in comics history, although that is certainly there. The entire tone of the comic changes. The artists over the first 69 pages of the issue fall into fairly predictable comic styles - the cartoonish approach of Stan Aschmeier, the photorealist influences of Jack Burnley, the frenetic, noir layouts of Bernard Baily , and, of course, the scratchy angularity of Everett E. Hibbard. All of these artists, and especially Baily, whose command of the page is visibly miles ahead of his contemporaries, are skilled comics artists who compellingly execute the sorts of styles that fit the strips they’re writing.
But 69 pages of their art leaves one utterly unprepared for the sight of Harry G. Peter’s art. The opening splash of Wonder Woman - a pose recycled for the cover of Sensation Comics #1 a month later - is striking. The image is almost completely devoid of straight lines - even the stars on Wonder Woman’s billowing skirt are bent and lumpy compared to the stars adorning the previous page’s ad for the next Justice Society story. Even the lettering is a sharp change, striving towards the tight regularity of type instead of the more natural and hand-written feel of the issue’s other artists.
But perhaps the most striking difference is the faces. We’ll talk at length about Peter’s art in a later chapter, but for now let’s look simply at Wonder Woman’s face. Her nose is perfunctory at best. Her eyes are far too widely spaced, and misaligned to boot. Her lips are pursed and unexpressive. Her face is statuesque and austere. The result of this is that attention is drawn away from her face and towards the rest of her body. This technique evokes the Decadent-era erotica of Aubrey Beardsley and Franz von Bayros, who similarly simplified faces to draw attention to the bodies of their characters - a far cry from the sort of referencing found in other comics.
But it is also worth remarking on the nature of the image. Peter’s initial depiction of the character is a fascinating mixture of the severe and the libidinous. On the one hand, as one would expect from art with visible influence from Victorian erotica, she is unquestionably a sexy woman. Her skirt billows up to reveal one of her thighs, and though it is tame by the standards of modern comics art, it falls around her in such a way as to be tantalizingly close to revealing her undergarments. On her upper body, her arms and shoulders are bare, and her breastplate is more than slightly complementary to her cleavage. On the other hand, her face is serious, and her eyes are trained not to make eye contact with the reader but to look past them, as if focusing on some larger object behind her. Her build, though sensuous, is also strong and muscular. She is erotic, but not in a sense that lends itself to being claimed or leered at by the reader. She wholly refuses to interact with the reader or to acknowledge their gaze.
By most standards, this is a very strange way to begin a superhero comic. The standard issue explanation of superhero comics, for better or for worse, is that they are power fantasies for the reader - that the reader imagines themselves as the superhero. There are countless reasons to be skeptical of this theory, but even still it’s worth noting how little Wonder Woman’s appearance adheres to that theory, remaining oblique and forcing the reader to watch from a distance instead of investing in her.
And this is, of course, assuming the reader is female and likely to identify with Wonder Woman in the first place. Given that Wonder Woman was not even advertised as a part of this issue, one has to assume the readers of this particular issue were, like those of most superhero comics, overwhelmingly male. Given that assumption, the first few pages of this story would have been similarly off-putting. The story opens with a plane crashing onto an island. Two scantily clad women see the crash and rush to search for survivors. Pulling a blonde-haired man in a military uniform from the wreckage, they are shocked to discover a man on Paradise Island. One of them carries him to a hospital, and we learn that the island looks like Ancient Greece. We learn that he is Captain Steve Trevor of the US Army intelligence Service, and that the woman who carried him to the hospital - who has black hair much like that of Wonder Woman - has fallen in love with him. Upon learning about this, her mother, the Queen, forbids her to see Trevor.
What is most interesting about these first two and a half pages is the way in which they actively push the standard male comic book reader out of the story. Steve Trevor is a standard sort of character. Both his name and his appearance evoke Timely Comics’ Captain America, introduced a little over a year before Wonder Woman with an alter-ego of Steve Rogers, a blonde American soldier. This is, in other words, a character that a regular comics reader already knows on some level and is used to. But here the character is injured, unconscious, and, most alarmingly, seemingly inside some sort of love story. If one does adhere to a theory in which the reader imagines themselves as the superhero, this amounts to a fall that counterbalances that of Wonder Woman’s fall into Man’s World - the fall of a standard issue superhero (indeed, a thinly veiled parody of the DC’s competitor’s flagship character) into Paradise Island.
Here the story does something unusual, breaking into a one-and-a-half page text piece with a couple of illustrations. This is not quite as strange as it might seem to a modern reader. Comic books regularly included a text piece or two - there’s one a few pages earlier in All-Star Comics #8, in fact, about a pilot that provides an odd sort of counterpoint to this. And this is not even the first lengthy block of text in the Wonder Woman story. The first page contains a typically enthused description of Wonder Woman’s might and power (“As lovely as Aphrodite - as wise as Athena - with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules - she is known only as Wonder Woman, but who she is, or whence she came, nobody knows!”). The first sentence of this exultation sets the tone for the later and larger text piece, describing “a world torn by the hatreds and wars of men” and how, at last, there “appears a woman to whom the problems and feats of men are mere child’s play!”
The larger text piece expands upon this idea, describing how Hercules tricked Queen Hippolyte and stole her Magic Girdle, thus enslaving the Amazons and angering Aphrodite, who had given Hippolyte the girdle. Eventually Hippolyte declares that her submission to men is intolerable, and manages to beg Aphrodite into helping her steal the girdle back. With the girdle, Hippolyte defeats Hercules and his army to, on Aphrodite’s orders, leave the world of men for their own world.
Marston then describes the culture of the Amazons, which is defined first and foremost by the need to remain distant from men, which they all wear the bracelets they had worn as slaves to remind them of. Their culture is overtly utopian - free of disease, war, and death so long as Hippolyte retains the Magic Girdle and is not “again beguiled by men!” Hippolyte explains that, with the Magic Sphere given to her by Athena (the sphere, curiously, appears to be a disc) she can see any event in history or any place in the world, and, in some cases, predict the future, and that she has used this to advance Amazonian technology well ahead that of “so-called manmade civilization.”
To call the sexual implications of this story a subtext would be an excessive understatement. The fact that Hercules specifically tricks Hippolyte out of a magical undergarment and that this appears to take place outside of combat strongly hints that he stole it during a night of passion, and that the beguilement of men is specifically sexual. This is supported by the way in which the Amazons react to Steve Trevor’s presence. It is not the fact that there is a man on the island that is objectionable. Indeed, the Amazons act as though they have a duty to help Trevor. No - the thing that makes Trevor dangerous is fairly explicitly the possibility that one of the Amazons will fall in love with him, and that is what would risk losing Aphrodite’s favor. Which is a relatively shocking conclusion given that Aphrodite is the goddess of love. We’ll develop this theme in later chapters, but suffice it to say that Marston is gesturing towards a very, very unusual conception of love here.
The third section of the story, which, at three pages, is both the longest section and fully a third of the story, focuses on the origin of Steve Trevor and is little more than a generic military action story. It serves mostly to reinforce the point we have already made - that Trevor is a traditional male action hero. But we ought remember that these three pages are supposed to be what the Amazons are watching on the Magic Sphere. For these three pages, in other words, the Amazons are effectively reading a standard-issue American comic book.
This is made even more explicit in the final two pages of the story, which open with Hippolyte consulting Aphrodite and Athena for advice on what to do. Aphrodite informs her that she must help Trevor get back to America, while Athena informs her that she “must send with him your strongest and wisest Amazon - the finest of your wonder women! For America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women, needs your help!” Although this sounds like standard-issue jingoistic patriotism of the sort common in comics of the era, focusing on that misses the fact that this jingoistic portrayal of America is being explicitly depicted as in crisis and in need of intervention from these female utopians.
This, in other words, is where the divine half of the Christ imagery comes in. On the one hand, Wonder Woman is cast into the degrading materialism of Man’s World. On the other, she is explicitly bringing the power of Athena and Aphrodite - two goddesses - to save Man’s world. But, of course, it’s also important, obvious as it might be, how much she cuts against the Christ narrative. She is a pagan figure, explicitly libidinal, resists any personal relationship with the reader, expressly militaristic, and, perhaps most obviously and significant, a woman. (The real and obvious source myth here is the descent of Ishtar, Babylonian goddess of love and war, and thus a fusion, of sorts, of Aphrodite and Athena, into the underworld)
The remainder of the story is straightforward. In order to find the best Amazon Hippolyte organizes a competition, forbidding her daughter to participate. When the competition takes place, a masked figure who looks and dresses exactly like her daughter shows up and, to the surprise of absolutely nobody who has ever read this comic, wins the competition and turns out to in fact be her daughter. At this point Hippolyte gives her daughter a name (which she had apparently lacked before), Diana - explicitly naming her after the lunar goddess, who is also said to be her godmother, and gives her the familiar Wonder Woman costume before sending her down to Man’s World.
And that’s it. A not-particularly-remarkably plotted story painting the character’s origin and plugging her next appearance in Sensation Comics #1. It is not an inauspicious beginning by any measure, nor is it a triumphant clarion call of feminism.
And yet here is where it begins. A barely believable epic of feminism and sexuality, and one of the most radically left-wing agendas ever to be catapulted into the American mainstream. In nine pages we see a towering goddess descending down into the ugly viscera of our world - into the crassly commercial and blithely jingoistic world of American superhero comics, in all their macho and violent glory.
Now for her seventy year ascent.
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Pledge $25 or more
Not just a PDF at the end, but e-mail based serialization of the book as it's being written and the opportunity to comment and make suggestions on it.Estimated delivery: Jan 2012
Pledge $50 or more
Same as the $25 level, plus a print copy of the book when it's finished.Estimated delivery: Jun 2012
Pledge $100 or more
Same as the $50 level, only the book will be signed and personalized, and you'll appear in the acknowledgments section as one of the book's patrons.Estimated delivery: Jun 2012
Pledge $200 or more
0 backers Limited (8 of 8 left)
Same as the $100 level, plus the opportunity to be one of the people interviewed for a "Wonder Woman and Me" chapter - a set of chapters talking with fans about their personal experiences with the character.Estimated delivery: Jun 2012
Pledge $500 or more
0 backers Limited (3 of 3 left)
Same as the $100 level, plus the opportunity to write a guest essay for the book. Guest essay is subject to my approval to make sure it fits with the tone and ethos of the book, but I am happy to work with you on editing throughout the process.Estimated delivery: Jun 2012
Pledge $1,000 or more
1 backer All gone!
Same as either the $200 or $500 level (your choice) plus the book is dedicated to you or the person of your choosing.Estimated delivery: Jun 2012