Being a relative newcomer to superhero comics, I’ve endeavored to educate myself on their history and the lives of some of their most compelling writers and artists. Grant Morrison’s Supergods has been an invaluable resource in my journey, supplying an admittedly idiosyncratic insider’s view on the industry. Morrison’s book is full of interesting trivia, and while some of it might be old hat (cape?) to a comic book veteran, it’s fascinating to me.
Wonder Woman is a superhero that I wasn’t very interested in before reading Morrison’s book. Now I’m starting to see her in a new light. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, was an inventive and unconventional man. A psychologist by trade, Marston was an early advocate for comic books, recognizing in them their potential as tools for education. His public advocacy led to a position as an educational consultant under comic book publisher Max Gaines.
While working with Gaines, Marston, with input from his wife Elizabeth, created a new female superhero named “Suprema”. This woman warrior was powerful, wise and merciful. She carried a “lasso of truth” and wear bullet-deflecting bracelets. Her personality was inspired by Elizabeth. Her appearance was inspired by their mutual lover Olive Byrne, a former research assistant who lived with the couple in a polyamorous relationship. Suprema received a new name before going to print: Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth is an interesting artifact, particularly considering its creator. Before Marston ever gave the world Wonder Woman, he gave it the polygraph – the lie detection machine. (To be absolutely accurate, Marston created the systolic blood-pressure test that is an essential component of the polygraph and pioneered its use as a method for detecting deception.) When bound by the lasso, Wonder Woman’s enemies reveal the truth. Likewise, those bound by Marston’s blood pressure cuff.
Further, Marston was not at all unaware of the lasso’s erotic connotations as a tool of bondage. Early Wonder Woman comics featured numerous scenarios of physical bondage and submission, something that Marston himself apparently enjoyed. Still, it is a mistake to dismiss Marston as “simply” a masochist or submissive who created Wonder Woman to indulge his own prurient interests. Marston’s private practices were guided (or perhaps justified in his mind) by a complex philosophy that regarded submission – erotic and otherwise – to powerful women as a path to peace and enlightenment. Was Wonder Woman invented as an embodiment of this ideal? Maybe. Did all of her readers necessarily see it so? Probably not. Some likely found in her adventures the kinky verve that Marston bound tight under layers of post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory. A fan letter transcribed here certainly seems to suggest that, as did the rabid attention of the sex-obsessed anti-comic book worry-monger Fredric Wertham. His Seduction of the Innocent railed against the bondage themes in the Wonder Woman comic book, and upped the ante by declaring her a lesbian – a scandalous accusation in the early fifties. “Well? What of it?”, a modern reader might say.
Wonder Woman proved stronger than Wertham’s demented squawking, and in the sixties she was adopted as a feminist icon. The seventies brought the Wonder Woman television show, and while it was almost as kitschy as Batman’s TV run, it inspired and empowered an entire generation of young girls who suddenly had a superhero all their own. Through generations of writers, Wonder Woman has proved herself to be the equal – and in some cases the superior – of Superman, Batman and the rest of her DC peers.
(Can’t get enough Wonder Woman? Check out the Essential Wonder Woman Encyclopedia.)