Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the column where I examine a character, concept or theme making waves in comics today through issues from the past. This edition we shine the spotlight on one of comics’ most enduring and iconic heroes in honor of her big screen debut; Wonder Woman!
Today marks the premiere of DC Entertainment’s “Wonder Woman,” the latest instalment in the DC Entertainment Universe from Warner Brothers, based on DC’s legendary comic book characters. Starring Gal Gadot and Chris Pine and directed by Patty Jenkins, “Wonder Woman” is a milestone. It isn’t merely the first big-screen adaptation of the iconic character, it’s also the highest profile super-hero film to feature a female character, and one of the biggest blockbusters to be directed by a woman. Judging by the early reviews, it looks like the film will not only be a box office success, but also a crowd-pleasing critical one as well. That’s music to the ears of execs at Warners and DC, who were beginning to worry about the DC franchise after the sharply mixed to negative reaction to their initial attempts to build a cinematic universe.
So, with Wonder Woman about to triumphantly hit our multiplexes, let’s look at some of the best and most essential stories from different points in her 75 year history!
The 1940s: Sensation Comics and A New Type of Hero
Even for the comics industry, which has no shortage of bizarre and fascinating origin stories, the creation of Wonder Woman earns special merit, and that’s largely due to the man who created her, William Moulton Marston.
Marston was a Harvard educated psychologist and inventor, who by the 1920s was known for having invented the systolic blood pressure test, which became part of the technique behind modern polygraph, or lie detector, tests. He had been a consulting psychologist for Universal Pictures. And he was a well-known progressive in social morays and customs.
His private life was anything but conventional. He lived with his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston. But together they lived with his mistress, Olive Byrne. Byrne was the niece of the ground-breaking feminist Margaret Sanger, who with Byrne’s mother had opened the first birth-control clinic in America in 1916. The two women were arrested and imprisoned for their efforts, and Ethel Byrne, Olive’s mother, had nearly died in jail while on a hunger strike.
Each of Marston’s partners bore him two children, and while Holloway worked, Byrne raised the children. There’s no doubt that this unconventional family relationship was endemic of Marston’s progressive and nonconformist view on gender archetypes.
In 1940, MC Gaines, publisher of National Publications (home of Superman and Batman) was facing some heat from educators and children’s advocates about the books he published. Gaines had no idea about Marston’s personal life or even his views on feminism. But he knew that Marston was respected and that he didn’t have a negative view of comics. He wanted Marston to join an advisory board he was establishing to head off controversy about the content of his titles. And Marston was amenable, but he was troubled by what he called comics’ “blood-curdling masculinity,” and told Gaines he wanted to create a female super hero to combat the prevalence of damsels in distress whose only function was to be rescued, romanced or abused.
And so Marston created Wonder Woman for All-Star Comics #8. Diana was the princess from a hidden society of nearly immortal women who had grown tired of enslavement in ancient Greece and escaped. Retreating to a secret island, they created their own society, uncovering many secret scientific advancements and gaining super-powered abilities. When a 20th century pilot named Steve Trevor crashed his plane on the Island, Princess Diana is charged with taking him back to the US, and she elects to stay in “man’s world” as Wonder Woman, champion of truth and justice. With super abilities that rival Superman’s strengtjust h and invulnerability, and armed with her indestructible bracelets, invisible jet and her golden lasso which compels those bound by it to utter only the truth, Wonder Woman was an immediate hit with fans both male and most importantly female. Marston had created the first female super-hero to truly connect with readers at large.
She began starring in her own title in January 1942 with Sensation Comics #1, and what made Marston’s stories so fascinating was his vision of a hero designed, as he said, to overtly be a role model for the modern woman. “Frankly,” Marston once said, “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.” Marston was adamant that Wonder Woman not just punch her way out of problems, but use her mind and compassion as primary weapons in her arsenal. Marston wasn’t afraid of showing Wonder Woman using her super-strength in a fight, but it was much more important to him that she stood for something more than that; that she be a stand-in for all the brilliant, progressive, compassionate women he knew and loved in his life, who he felt were often only restrained by the oppression of men from achieving greatness.
And restraint brings us to another feature of Marston’s obsessions and Wonder Woman’s early years. There is no escaping the fact that there is a strong subtext running through these early stories of bondage themes. Wonder Woman’s primary weakness at the time was being rendered powerless if physically restrained by a man, which is of course an allegory for the patriarchy’s repression of women, but it’s also…..not. Physical submission of women appears again and again in Marston’s Wonder Woman work, and the fervour with which it’s depicted carries an unavoidable sexual component. Indeed, in some of his writings he admitted to enjoying being bound, and he didn’t shy away from what that meant. The idea that being submissive was also somehow part of his ideal woman is troubling, but it’s just as easy to argue that Marston honestly believed the world would be a better place if women were running it, so they’d be uncharge of their submission for their own purposes anyway.
So what does it mean that the progressive and feminist creator of Wonder Woman, who desperately wanted to provide young women and men with a new vision of how to regard women, was in a polyamorous relationship that included BDSM and that he didn’t hesitate to include a sanitized version of it in his work? Frankly, when you read the early issues of “Sensation Comics,” what hits you much harder than the bondage stuff is Marston’s feminism, a vision of female heroes that we still don’t always see communicated successfully today. His issues include all the great crazy Golden Age stuff, like men from Mars and twisted genius Dr. Psycho and Nazi Baroness Paula Von Gunther. But it’s the message behind the stories that make them great, the idea that women can have a unique and formidable power all their own. And they now had a champion to show them how to use it.
“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” William Moulton Marston said that in The American Scholar in 1943. And that quote exemplifies everything both inspiring, and troubling, about his unique contribution to comics. He died in 1947 at the age of 53. Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne continued to live together until Olive’s death in 1980.
The 1960s: Diana Prince
Even before Marston’s death, Wonder Woman cemented herself as one of the preeminent super heroes, second only to Superman and Batman for sheer cultural recognition. The loss of Marston as the driving creative force did mean, however, that she lost much of what made her so incredibly innovative and original and became simply the female version of the DC super-hero of the 1950s and early 60s; steadfast, conservative, charming and ultimately kind of bland. Her stories continued to have sparks, and her popularity didn’t wane all that much, but as a character, she became as unchallenging as the smiling patrician Superman and the Batman who cheerfully fought space aliens.
And of course, she remained dogged by concerns about her costume. Marston had wanted her to appear liberated, freed from constraint, and yeah, beautiful and attractive. Her costume was fetishized to a big degree, and even if it felt good-natured and healthy, its design definitely set in stone the idea that the female super-hero had to include some measure of objectification. By the late 1960s, after Marvel had come on the scene and injected greater depth of characterization and more neuroses to super-hero comics, DC in general started to look downright quaint. And Wonder Woman’s costume, in the face of the burgeoning woman’s rights movement of the latest 60s and 70s, was starting to look like the textbook example of male gaze in comics.
Enter artist Mike Sekowsky and writer Dennis O’Neil and their mission to update Wonder Woman with all this in mind. If you think it’s kind of crazy to ask two men to try and come up with a new concept for a feminist icon that would appeal to feminists, well, you’d be right. Sekowsky was the driving force on this, and O’Neil was to some degree, along for the ride. But, they were both creators at the top of their game, and they were certainly well-intentioned. And even though the result of their efforts is one of the most misguided runs of all time, it’s also fascinating, and not without its own rewards.
O’Neil and Sekwosky decided to de-power Diana, take away her lasso, bracelets and invisible jet and ground in contemporary society. Instead of being a super-hero with power to rival Superman, she was now a secret agent, a super-spy, in the model of Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel on “The Avengers” TV series. It’s important to remember that Dennis O’Neil had some pretty impressive credentials to take this on. His work with Neal Adams on “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” was ground-breaking, tackling current social issues such as racial inequality, class divisions, overpopulation, environmental concerns and income disparity. He and Sekowsky wanted to take Wonder Woman out of the sexualized bathing-suit like costume, and redefine her as an intelligent, capable, modern working woman and kick-ass action hero. It’s not a bad goal, really, though it misses the point of the fun, empowered sexuality that Marston was going for.
But, the de-powering thing is what really rankled fans, feminists or not. All of a sudden, Diana was weaker than she had ever been before, taking away the idea that a woman could operate on the same level or higher than all the male heroes around her. She also distanced much of the long-standing continuity that fans since time began have relied upon. Simply put, she wasn’t their Wonder Woman anymore, and to make things worse she was a weaker version.
Having said that, Sekowsky’s art on the title may be the best of his career. His design for the new Wonder Woman is still sexy and attractive, but in a non-explorative way, reflecting a hip sensibility that still looks great. His skill at layouts and pace made Wonder Woman come alive and feel young and exciting again, bringing back a vitality that had been somewhat diminished. These stories look amazing, and there is definitely a cool, sleek energy to them, and I’d argue that if people remember anything positive about them today, it’s the great look of the books.
But, the stories feel tentative, it must be said. You can tell O’Neil doesn’t feel all that comfortable trying to pass himself off as the voice of a new feminist ideal. And sure enough, one of the great critics of this interpretation, the person who probably killed it off actually, was Gloria Steinheim, who famously wrote a piece in Ms. magazine calling the new direction anti-feminist precisely because it forced Wonder Woman to operate on a lower level. In the end, it feels mostly today like two guys trying to show how cool they are with feminism, and is certainly well-intentioned. You do have to ask yourself why, if DC wanted to court the Woman’s Lib crowd, they didn’t hire, you know, women to create the book? That’s comics in a nutshell, folks. Still, there’s a power to this run as well, one that sticks with you from a purely visual sense, so I’d still argue it’s a seminal era in the history of Wonder Woman.
1980s: Gods and Mortals
In 1985, DC Comics took the then-revolutionary step of demolishing its decades-long (and untenably convoluted) continuity via the epic min-series “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” This classic event series is a milestone in comics, paving the way for all event books that followed. But its original goal can’t be forgotten, and one of the characters it sought to streamline and redefine was Wonder Woman, who found herself erased from existence at the series’ end.
The idea was to relaunch the character basically from scratch (and she wasn’t alone in this approach, even Superman was rebooted), and the architect of this reintroduction was to be none other than the artist on “Crisis”, superstar George Perez. Perez was to be the penciler and co-writer on the new series, initially collaborating with writer Greg Potter and then Len Wein before taking on the scripting duties by himself.
The first issue hit in 1987, and Perez and his collaborators immediately set about re-imagining the character for a new age. They began by redefining the Amazons as having been borne from the spirits of the first women to killed by men in acts of violence. Then, Perez set about tying Wonder Woman much more directly into classical Greek myth and legend, making her heritage much more important and central to her mythos than it had been previously.
By making the mythological component more central to her story, Perez also created a new, fantasy-inspired tone for the series, which firmly gave Diana’s stories an identity that set her part from the adventures Batman or Superman would be involved in. But, Perez’ run also emphasized the journey Diana embarks upon to appreciate the mortals she meets in the outside world, contrasting the world of Gods and legend with the frailty and nobility of the human beings she encounters. In this way, Perez reframes Wonder Woman as the perfect warrior from a race of warriors now fighting to ensure peace above all. There’s an optimism and a hope to Wonder Woman during Perez’ tenure, and it’s no accident that he often draws her smiling. However, her hopefulness is not earnest, like in Superman’s case, but tempered with will and a determination to always act with the needs of others in mind.
And then there’s his art. Perez is without a doubt one of the most detailed artists in comics history, and the density of his work during this period is nothing short of mind-boggling. Nowadays you’ll typically see anywhere between 4-6 panels per page. Perez regularly delivered 10 or 12. And it’s extremely rare to read his Wonder Woman issues and feel like the storytelling is too dense or overstuffed. The level of detail is instead simply astounding, giving a richness and vibrancy to the art that does almost all of the heavy lifting in the storytelling. When it comes to artists of the 1980s, surely Perez has to be one of the top ten of that decade.
For most fans and creators of today, Perez is the single most important architect of Wonder Woman, adding a modern definition and specificity to the character that set her personality and mythos in stone, and she’s never wandered too far from his interpretation since then. The Diana he presents has the optimism and hope I talked about, and if she’s not as overtly acting as a new kind of feminist ideal a la the Marston vision, she nevertheless represents confidence and focus and selflessness in a way that allows her to be just as much the hero.
Perez’ run is responsible for developing the character in a complex way that hadn’t even been attempted since the ill-fated re-imagining of the 1960s, and succeeded in making her feel at once timeless and completely modern.
Interested in one of the defining eras of Wonder Woman? Try picking up the Wonder Woman by George Perez Omnibus Vol. 1.
The 21st Century: Wonder Woman’s Golden Age?
The 21st century saw Wonder Woman attract some of the strongest talent to ever work on the book, the result being a plethora of stories that each could be considered essential in their own ways. This was after the 1990s, which saw controversial and divisive runs by creators such as William Messner-Loebs, Mike Deodato, John Byrne and Erik Luke.
But in 2001, the character’s resurgence began when artist Phil Jimenez took over the reigns on Wonder Woman. Jimenez was a natural fit for the character in a lot of ways. He was a life-long Wonder Woman fan whose knowledge of the character was expert-level. He had first broken into comics as an artist in the early 1990s, and his style was definitely influenced by George Perez’ hyper-detailed approach, making him a natural artistic successor as well. Over his three year run on the title, he produced such seminal work as the “Paradise Lost” storyline, which saw Gotham City transformed into a version of ancient Greece by the Gods of evil, who subsequently possess the most deadly members of Batman’s rogues gallery. With Batman himself possessed, Wonder Woman must save Gotham with the help of Batman’s allies. Another signature work by Jimenez during his run was “Paradise Found”, in which we see Diana struggle with her mother Hippolyta also using the name Wonder Woman, as well as new versions of classic foes Silver Swan and Cheetah, both of whom come with personal connections to Diana. Both of these stories benefit from high stakes adventure anchored by a focus on Diana’s inner life and her sacrifices, which give the stories an emotional punch.
Even as Jimenez was wrapping up his run in 2002, the next great creator to tackle the character was releasing his first, and many think greatest, work on the character. Writer Greg Rucka teamed with artist JG Jones for the original graphic novel Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia. The story entered around Diana’s participation in an ancient ceremony called the Hiketeia, where she is bound by honor to protect and care for a supplicant, in this case a young woman named Danielle. But Diana’s commitment to justice and her sacred oath to Danielle are put in conflict when she learns that the young woman is a fugitive from justice. Things comes to a head when Diana’s ally Batman arrives to take Danielle into custody and comes into direct conflict with Wonder Woman. Diana must decide whether to follow her moral code or break an oath, a classic dilemma in tragedy.
Rucka starts off his tenure on Wonder Woman with a story that is at least partially about the general perception of Wonder Woman as a public figure, and in doing so finds his way in to her as a character and a major theme he would explore when he took over her title in 2003. The Hiketeia is constructed as a tragedy, and as such focuses in on specific attributes of Diana. The book was immediately praised for its nuanced look at Diana and for the relatable and grounded personality Rucka’s storytelling was able to put at the forefront.
When Rucka took over the title in 2003 alongside artist Drew Johnson, he positioned Diana less as a mythological figure and much more as a political one; the representative of a sovereign state in the wider world. In doing so, Rucka accentuated the overt effect someone like Diana would have as a global figure, an influential state actor who was both savvy and formidable, but also subject to rigorous public perception. His stories were rich and complex, with large themes and complex relationships that were built on intrigue and personal advantage, examining how Diana stays true to a heroic role under those circumstances. During this time, perhaps the strongest single arc was “Eyes of the Gorgon,” where Diana is blinded during a battle against Medusa. Rucka would stay on the title until 2006, but recently returned for another popular and critically acclaimed run in the post-Rebirth era with the latest volume of Wonder Woman. His shadow looms large over the character, as his run was amazingly cohesive and rewarding and added another relay row complexity to Diana.
After Rucka’s departure in 2006, the second volume of Wonder Woman, which had begun in 1987 under George Perez, was ended. Later that year, it was relaunched, and it struggled to find its voice and a stable creative team. For a brief period of time novelist Jodi Picoult wrote the title, the first woman creator on the book since Mindy Newell and Trina Robbins in the 1980s (they were the actual first women to contribute to Wonder Woman officially).
But the next great era for Wonder Woman arrived with writer Gail Simone, who would write the title from 2008 – 2010. Her first arc, “The Circle”, featuring art by Terry and Rachel Dodson, was a resounding success. A time-hopping and rousing adventure, it marked Simone’s interpretation of the character as the DC universe’s best and most confident ass-kicker. If Jimenez emphasized the personal side and sacrifice of Diana’s role as Wonder Woman, and Rucka emphasized the political vs the inspirational and the conflict therein, then Simone wanted to remind readers that Wonder Woman was also one of the most fun and adventurous heroes in the DC Pantheon, and her stories drew heavy inspiration for Perez’ mythological bent, bringing us full circle once more.
After Simone’s departure in 2010, writer J. Michael Straczynski took the character in a controversial and once again divisive direction that was largely rejected by readers. Luckily, the effect of his run was curtailed by the Flashpoint event which led into the New 52 era, and the DC Universe was once again rebooted. And once again, Wonder Woman was reimagined.
This time, it was by writer Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang, and their three-year, 35 issue run is among the most cohesive and complete in her history, taking readers on a strange and compelling journey with Diana. Azzarello jettisons the “made from clay” origin of Diana to reveal she is the illegitimate daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta. Azzarello, like Perez before him, embraced the Greek gods of myth as inspiration for his story, but took a less classical view of them. He and Chiang kept the soap operatic aspects of infidelity, pettiness and capriciousness that always were a major factor of the Greek deities, and updated them all in look and concept to the 21st century, as if they had changed along with us over the centuries. Azzarello and Chiang don’t treat the gods as imposing or impressive, really. They are powerful, and dangerous, but they are also pathetic and tired and kind of sad. The roles that they find themselves in (God of War, or the Sea, or the Underworld) are as much prisons as kingdoms.
In Azzarello and Chiang’s story, Diana is on a mission to protect demigods like herself, children with great power born of selfishness. And by framing the story around changing Diana’s sense of self, their run also asks who both we and she think Diana is. Is she a warrior? A diplomat? An emissary of peace or one of war? A feminist ideal or simply a super-hero? The run ends with telling us she’s all of those things, and her true power is in the flexibility and confidence she has to embody them all; unlike her father and his kin, she can decide for herself what path to follow.
You can pick up trades of these titles and more anywhere digital or printed comics are sold.
And that pretty much brings us up to date. So, if you go see Wonder Woman on the big screen and find yourself itching for more, I hope I’ve given you a few places to look. Until next time, see you ’round the quarter bins!