When you stop and think about Wonder Woman, who do you think she really is? To some, she’s THE female superhero. To others, they may have fond memories of Lynda Carter. I accept that she’s one of DC’s Trinity with Superman and Batman, but Wonder Woman seems like a token superheroine. I was pleased that Wonder Woman finally made to the big screen in the Superman/Batman movie, but not even long-gone TV show could form a definitive Wonder Woman in my head.
Tim Hanley, who runs Straitened Circumstances, a blog about Wonder Woman and women in the comic book industry, has written an extensive history of William Moulton Marston’s sensational creation. Hanley goes through great lengths to show how Wonder Woman remains a viable character after 70+ years. While one can glance a general history of Wonder Woman or look for specific points of her history online, Hanley brings together many contexts and subtexts.
This thoroughly-researched book goes heavily into Wonder Woman’s comic book history and the history of American comics in general. There’s far less coverage of her outside the comics, but for the past few decades, most of Wonder Woman’s adventures are contained in a single comic book. Hanley presents an slightly academic tone, especially with his amusing usage of bar graphs, but also uses conversational asides to lighten the mood.
As someone who like comic books and its history, I enjoyed Unbound. All the comics talk may disappoint those looking for a general pop culture history, but the Wonder Woman of the comics cannot be understated.
Unbound delves into the professional (DISC theory and lie detector) and personal (polyamorous relationship with his wife and mistress) life of creator William Moulton Marston, who used the Wonder Woman character to project a figure that would prepare readers for a future where women would be in total authority. Freed of what Marston sees as the “blood-curdling masculinity” of male superheroes, the clay-born Golden Age Wonder Woman was powerful, could ably fight against the Axis, and needed zero dependence on men. She was an instrument of diplomacy and love instead of aggression.
However, his message of the coming matriarchy was muddled with the issue of bondage. While intended as an act of submission of “loving authority,” bondage in the pages of Wonder Woman devolved into pleasurable sadism. Also, there’s discussion on succeeding writer Robert “Suffering Sappho” Kanigher’s lesbian subtext in the comic.
After surviving Frederic Wertham’s scathing critiques, Wonder Woman went on wacky Silver Age adventures while conforming to male-centered stereotypes. Kanigher’s origin story involved Hercules, enemy of the Amazons, giving baby Diana Prince strength. Wow.
An ongoing theme in Unbound is the ridiculous amount of inconsistency and lameness Wonder Woman has undergone. Hanley makes lengthy comparisons to other notable comic book women, especially Lois Lane. Wonder Woman was incredible in the Golden Age, but by the 1960s she was just as pathetic as most I-need-a-man-sob-sob female characters. After reading about the self-reliant Barbara Gordon and Lois Lane’s 1970s exploits, their more progressive portrayals make them more interesting than Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman’s early Bronze Age “mod” stories have her powerless, violent, and thriving on fancying suitors. This was so far away from the feminist themes Marston envisioned that Gloria Steinem and Ms. magazine adopted the Golden Age Wonder Woman as their mascot.
Even during the women’s lib movement where Steinem and her colleagues could sway DC to bring back the Amazonian Wonder Woman, her return wasn’t satisfactory. Kanigher’s back in the saddle and the comic whittled away any goodwill with feminists. DC didn’t have a hot seller in their hands and they stopped having whatever concern they had for female readers.
Not even Ms. magazine’s take on Wonder Woman is immune from some criticism. Despite their being influenced by radical feminist literature, the women downplayed the Golden Age version’s use of bondage and being demonstrative of woman’s superiority. To them, Wonder Woman was a role model to help women better themselves to become equals which misses Marston’s point.
Another point of their influence: Ms. magazine’s collection of Golden Age Wonder Woman comics was one of the few resources, “until the late 1990s” according to Hanley, to read Marston’s original stories. Either that or pony up serious dough for back issues.
In one paragraph, Hanley finds the Wonder Woman of the Super Friends cartoons unremarkable.
Of course there can’t be a history about Wonder Woman without a look into the successful live-action TV show starring Lynda Carter. Hanley overviews the series and compares it to how the comics and Ms. magazine have presented Wonder Woman.
Much of the last chapters covering Modern Age (from 1985 to the present) have a bit of a ho-hum tone. There’s George Pérez and how he helped bring back Wonder Woman and there’s finally a time where women creators were deeply involved in the Wonder Woman comic under editor Karen Berger. I learned that the most prolific comics creator for Wonder Woman is not Marston, Kanigher, or Pérez, but colorist Trish Mulvihill.
But DC’s steps forward are negated at Wonder Woman’s mostly poor handling in the 1990s and 2000s. Hanley calls some of these setbacks a “fridging,” after Gail Simone’s website “Women in Refrigerators.” Women like Alex DeWitt or Sue Dibney die or suffer so the men can rise to the occasion and become the fanboy-pandering overmen they were meant to be.
The book closes on recent happenings including Wonder Woman finally getting a second book… co-starring as Superman’s Girlfriend! Oy. Reading over all this mistreatment on the preeminent female superhero makes me want to see more women involved in major comic books. I want more women’s viewpoints brought to the forefront.
I read few DC comics anymore. After reading Unbound, Hanley raises my esteem for Wonder Woman for being the enduring icon and Batgirl, who’s slowly becoming my favorite female DC superhero.
Collage top image designed by Ken Dodge.
Thanks to Chicago Review Press for supplying a copy for review.