Wonder Womans first comic book appearance.
  • Grand Comics Database Project
  • Wonder Woman’s first comic-book appearance.

It’s a terrible injustice that Wonder Woman has not yet gotten her own superhero movie (let alone franchise), but it’s even worse that a movie has not been made about her creator, William Moulton Marston. The material is right there, presented in entertaining form, in Tim Hanley’s new book, Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine.

Unlike many of the early comic-book creators, most of whom were teenage boys who created superheroes as stand-ins for themselves, performing the amazing feats that they knew they were truly capable of in a more just world where physical strength and dexterity were awarded to the deserving, Marston invented Wonder Woman to illustrate his vision of a better world for everyone.

She was also a bit of a Trojan horse, carrying the message of feminism to young comic-book readers. Wonder Woman was strong. She didn’t need to be rescued by a man. (More often, she did the rescuing.) She wasn’t anybody’s sidekick. And she didn’t have to fight a glass ceiling; she came from a community of women.

Marston—who held a PhD in psychology, was a university professor and a Hollywood consultant, and helped invent the polygraph—had a somewhat unorthodox view of feminism. For him, it wasn’t just about equal rights or equal pay. He truly believed that if women ran the world, it would be a better place.

“There isn’t love enough in the male organism to rule this planet peacefully,” he wrote. “Woman’s body contains twice as many love generating organs and endocrine mechanisms as the male.” In other words, Hanley summarizes, “female rule was humanity’s best chance for . . . peace.” Paradise Island, Wonder Woman’s Amazonian homeland, was the utopian prototype of a matriarchal society, where all the women, not just Princess Diana (Wonder Woman’s alter ego), were brave and strong

  • Chicago Review Press

Not that Marston believed women should be passive, loving wimps. “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power,” he wrote. But Wonder Woman’s strength came from love. Before she beat up the bad guys, she reasoned with them and tried to make them see the error of their ways and reform.

There was also that golden lasso. And yes, your dirty little mind is correct. In his spare time, with his two wives—Elizabeth Holloway Marston worked beside him in the lab, while Olive Byrne kept house—Marston was a bondage enthusiast. But not of patriarchal bondage, which was about breaking women’s spirits and keeping them down, and which villains tried to practice on Wonder Woman. Matriarchal bondage, practiced by both the Marston menage and the Amazons of Paradise Island, where bondage was about love and submission and mutual respect.

Hanley has helpfully provided a series of charts that prove that Wonder Woman was indeed the most bondage-friendly superhero comic of the Golden Age. As he puts it, “Wonder Woman was feminist and fetishist,” and it would be foolish to try to separate the two.

Marston did encourage more conventional forms of feminism, though. The back of every Wonder Woman comic contained the feature “Wonder Women of History,” a series of brief essays about women who overcame sexism to do good in the world. Some, like Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, and Susan B. Anthony, were already in the history books, but the series also featured the likes of Florence Rena Sabin, the first woman to graduate from Johns Hopkins Medical School.

After Marston died in 1947, and after Frederic Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, his study of how reading comic books led to degeneracy among the nation’s youth, which led to a Senate hearing in 1954, and the establishment of the Comics Code Authority to police the funnybook industry, Wonder Woman became much less radical. “Wonder Woman of History” was replaced by “Marriage A La Mode,” descriptions of various wedding customs around the world. The new writer, Robert Kanigher, gave Wonder Woman a new origin story in which her superpowers were bestowed upon her by two males, Mercury and Hercules, and completely ignored Marston’s underlying philosophy about female superiority. Wonder Woman, Hanley writes, became just a generic superhero. And Marston was forgotten. Which is a pity. Bondage, polyamory, lab coats, comic books, feminism: his story has everything. It’s weird and complicated, but at least it has a good interpreter in Hanley.