Wonder Woman: The Complete History
by Les Daniels and Chip Kidd
Published by Chronicle Books
210 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
Most people know Wonder Woman from the Lynda Carter TV series that ran from the mid to late 1970s. Les Daniels' and Chip Kidd's Wonder Woman: The Complete History reveals details about the famous character that may shock fans of that camp series and comics readers unfamiliar with her origins and her creator.
Few of the endless legion of costumed characters to emerge from the golden age of comics were the incarnations of a vision. Most were utterly interchangeable. So much so that, for example, in All Star Comics # 21 (from 1944), a chapter originally written and drawn for the Atom was retouched to replace him with the Sandman. The story was unaffected. The Sandman punched his way out of trouble pretty much the same way as the Atom would have.
There were some exceptions. Certainly, series such C.C. Beck's elegant Captain Marvel, Bill Everett's angry Sub-Mariner and, of course, Siegel and Shuster's Superman had enough personality to distinguish them, at least for a while, from the mass. However, few, if any, 1940s comics rivaled the intensity of vision that psychologist William Moulton Marston invested in his iconic creation, Wonder Woman. Marston's comics career focused exclusively on Wonder Woman and no other writer ever recaptured Marston's rather peculiar vision or successfully reimagined the series (although George Pérez came close in 1987). When Marston died (he wrote her adventures to the very end), Wonder Woman became just one more generic costumed hero, just one more franchise to be marketed by its parent corporation. In a way, the same could be said of Batman or Superman: they are franchises exploited by a corporation. Yet, through the years, both of these primeval superheroes have been fortunate enough to inspire writers, cartoonists and filmmakers -- not to mention toy designers and the like.
There have been no movie serials, feature films or animated TV shows dedicated to Wonder Woman's adventures -- unlike her two male cohorts. A rich pageant of cultural artefacts contributed to making Les Daniels' and Chip Kidd's "complete histories" of Superman and Batman striking mosaics of pop design. Designer Chip Kidd had much less material to draw on for Wonder Woman: The Complete History. It's a beautiful volume taken on its own, but it's hard not to compare it with its dazzling predecessors.
Similarly, all three volumes spice up their historical presentations by featuring a few short comics stories taken from different eras and showcasing different interpretations of the characters. In both Superman and Batman this proved to be a great way to show off some outstanding comics. Here, there's one story by Marston and original Wonder Woman illustrator Harry Peter that's a perfect example of the compelling strangeness with which this series was once imbued. The other two selections, despite classic artwork by Kurt Schaffenberger and José Luis Garcia-Lopéz, only hammer in a point that's all too obvious to most comics readers: Wonder Woman has been dull for a long time now.
On the Marston/Peter story, Daniels comments, "A psychologist might have plenty to say about this story, in which the duplicitous double who battles Wonder Woman is actually her own mother, but then again, a psychologist wrote it." Indeed psychologists were often consulted, reports Daniels, on what to think about the controversial material that made up Marston's Wonder Woman stories: sorority girls dressed up in baby clothes or getting their behinds paddled by hooded sisters, Amazon warriors playing games of bondage and submission with each other, women masquerading as men to villainous ends, Wonder Woman getting tied up and spanked by little girls or losing her Amazon strength every time a man chained or bound her (which happened all the time). Marston always succeeded in defending his ideas. For him, Wonder Woman was not a role model for girls (as is often claimed) but the vehicle through which he would get young boys used to the idea of strong, dominating women. He believed that the next century would see the subjugation of men by women, and that, through domination, women would create a more loving society:
Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world. There isn't love enough in the male organism to run this planet peacefully. Woman's body contains twice as many love generating organs and endocrine mechanisms as the male. What woman lacks is the dominance or self assertive power to put over and enforce her love desires. I have given Wonder Woman this dominant force but have kept her loving, tender, maternal and feminine in every other way.
Marston was a fascinating character. He loved two women, had two children with each of them; all seven lived as one big, happy family. He invented the notorious lie detector; this book shows many pictures of Marston strapping svelte young women into early prototypes of his machine. Marston, despite (or because of?) his fantasies of a world ruled by dominating women, obviously enjoyed binding women -- and the thought of women binding each other:
Women are exciting for this one reason -- it is the secret of women's allure -- women enjoy submission, being bound. This I bring out in the Paradise Island sequences where the girls beg for chains and enjoy wearing them.
All this may sound like cheap porn, but somehow Marston did imbue his strip with a strange utopian drive. The contradictions and conflicts that erupted between his vision, his sexuality and his era's ideas about women and sex all combined to create a series not easily deciphered and fascinating to read simply because it struggles to say something -- something quite at odds with everything the cultural context in which Wonder Woman was created was willing to accept.
I have developed elaborate ways of having Wonder Woman and other characters confined ... confinement to WW and the Amazons is just a sporting game, an actual enjoyment of being subdued. This ... is the one truly great contribution of my Wonder Woman strip to moral education of the young. The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound ... Only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society ... Giving to others, being controlled by them, submitting to other people cannot possibly be enjoyable without a strong erotic element.
William Moulton Marston is the subject of the book's first 89 pages. Conversations with some of his children make this part of the book all the more interesting. Marston -- the psychologist, the con man, the shameless self-promoter, the Hollywood consultant, the inventor, the utopian, the sexual adventurer, the father, the historical novelist, the creator of Wonder Woman -- deserves a book all his own. These 89 pages, excellent as they may be, make the reader yearn for yet more information on this strange man.
Sadly, Wonder Woman's story -- and subsequently this book on her history -- loses virtually any interesting elements with the passing of her creator. The remaining 120 or so pages read like an overlong epilogue and only emphasize again and again how post-Marston Wonder Woman is nothing but a string of disappointments. Oddly, despite the introduction by TV Wonder Woman Lynda Carter, the book underplays the popular 1970s TV show, Wonder Woman's best-known incarnation. More behind-the-scenes revelations about the show would have enlivened the text and distracted from the rather boring recitation of Wonder Woman's equally boring latter comics years.
Another bothersome lacuna is the complete absence of any mention of Trina Robbins, not only the writer of A Century Of Women Cartoonists (1993) and The Great Women Superheroes (1996) but also the illustrator and co-plotter of The Legend of Wonder Woman (1986), a contributor to the 1989 Wonder Woman Annual and the writer of Wonder Woman: The Once and Future Story (1998). Robbins is the most active and renowned champion of women characters and creators in comics. Her absence from this book, especially in light of her several contributions to Wonder Woman comics, is a grave oversight.
That said, the first two chapters alone are well worth the price of admission. Wonder Woman, unlike Batman or Superman, is not who most people think she is. And that's one thing this handsome book succeeds in making abundantly clear. | February 2001
Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.