Book Title: Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine
Author: Tim Hanley
Style: Chapter Book
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Non-Fiction, History (Modern), Media
Page Count: 320
Format: eBook (Library)
Reading time: 5 hours
Date Finished: 2/14/17
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My impressions: Here’s an interesting fact: Wonder Woman is one of the most recognizable comic book characters there is, but very few people know anything about her. Don’t believe me? Let’s see if you can answer the following questions correctly:
What is Wonder Woman’s secret identity name? Diana Prince
Who is Wonder Woman’s traditional romantic interest? Steve Trevor
Where is Wonder Woman originally from? Paradise Island
Who originally gave Wonder Woman her super powers? In the Golden Age, her mother Hippolyte sculpted her from clay. Athena breathed life into her, and Wonder Woman was simply a typical Amazonian sent into the world of men to fight Nazis. In the Silver Age, she received blessings from several Greek deities, particularly Aphrodite, Athena, Hercules and Hermes (from whom she drew her power).
Which comic book superhero teams has Wonder Woman been a part of? Originally, she was a member of the Justice Society of America, serving as the team’s secretary. In the Bronze Age, she joined the Justice League of America, where she’s been a consistent member. (If you said the Superfriends, you’re right, but that was a TV show.)
Who is Wonder Woman’s original creator? Charles Moulton, the pen name for William Moulton Marston, though he had two co-creators: his wife, Elizabeth Marston, and their poly-amorous cohabitant, Olive Byrne. The artist H.G. Peter, who drew the book for decades, helped model her look, using Olive Byrne (and perhaps her bracelets) as some form of inspiration for the character.
(Highlight the text above with your mouse or finger to see the correct answers.)
I could have answered about half of these before reading Tim Hanley’s well-researched book, and I probably would have based the rest on what I remembered from TV shows I watched as a child or from more modern interpretations of the character (which are known, in the DC Comics jargon, as “Post-Crisis” interpretations, referring to an epic reboot of the characters in 1985 called Crisis on Infinite Earths).
What I found most interesting about this book is learning about the two creative hands who largely steered Wonder Woman through the Golden and Silver ages: an eccentric Harvard-educated psychologist named William Marston (creator of the polygraph test, originator of the DISC theory and ardent feminist and polyamorist) and Robert Kanigher (a hackish writer who carried on after Marston’s death and wrote the Silver Age version of the character for twenty years, as well as her return to form in 1973). While it’s possible that some other fill-in writers wrote some of these older books, these two men had a considerable amount of guidance on the story.
Marston’s work was subversive and focused on elevating the role of women in 1940s society; he also included many themes that might be seen as LGBTQ and bondage/S&M-related today, though they were decidedly under the radar during the time. Kanigher’s work was lighter and less focused on big ideas, often aping Marston’s template and recycling concepts. Kanigher was light on continuity and became stale, particularly as the aging H.G. Peter’s flat style of drawing the character made the book feel old-fashioned. But when Kanigher left the book, Wonder Woman lost her powers and was turned into a mod-style secret agent (in the vein of Emma Peel), creating a considerable demand for Wonder Woman to return to her Amazonian roots.
One group that took up the battle for Wonder Woman’s place in history was Ms. magazine, a feminist publication that not only featured Wonder Woman in her Amazonian outfit on its cover, but which also published an annotated reprint of some of her early adventures. Tim Hanley examines how this resurgence in interest was filtered through a lens of 1970s feminism and missed out on some of Marston’s intentions for the character, and he also notes that this repopularization of the character led to the Lynda Carter TV show a few years later, probably the definitive version of Wonder Woman with whom most audiences are familiar, but also one that’s missing much of the original flavor of the Golden Age version.
The book also offers some interesting parallels to characters like Lois Lane (who transformed from being a damsel in distress to an insulting stereotype and then into a more feminist character in the Bronze Age) and the Barbara Gordon Batgirl (who was not the original Batgirl, but who certainly became the most feminist female superhero in DC’s catalog). Wonder Woman’s portrayal as a strong, independent woman often varied and could be quite tone deaf to the civil rights era, but it’s interesting to see how she became such an enduring character despite that, still a major part of the DC pantheon alongside Superman and Batman.
I enjoyed this book tremendously – it was a great, smart read on a particular corner of comic book history, and the scholarship seems to be quite strong given the extensive references and bibliography included. It’d be interesting to see this book updated once the Gal Gadot-helmed live action film debuts later on this year, especially since it appears to take place in the Golden Age Wonder Woman’s era.