Superhero Makeovers: Wonder Woman, part one

In her satin tights, fighting for her rights...“Go in peace my daughter. And remember that, in a world of ordinary mortals, you are a Wonder Woman.”

Okay, here we go. I’ve done my research and taken the psychotropic drugs necessary for me to understand Wonder Woman’s history.

Wonder Woman has changed a lot in both powers and looks in her 70 years of existence. Even today, in an era where creators try to keep continuity more or less consistent, she changes radically from writer to writer. So let’s look at the greatest of the female superheroes, her origins, and the changes she’s been through over the years.

Marston's bondage fetish shows through often in the Golden Age.

Marstons bondage fetish showed through often in the Golden Age.

Creation of a Wonder Woman:
Contrary to popular belief, Wonder Woman was not the first female superhero. There were other lady crimefighters in the Golden Age that preceded her. Wonder Woman can however be said to be the first feminist superheroine. She was created by psychologist and inventor William Moulton Marston, who penned her early stories under the nom de plume of Charles Moulton. Marston is best known for his feminist theories, the invention of the systolic blood-pressure test which would become a key component of the modern polygraph, and his deviant sexual beliefs, which we’ll touch upon in a bit. He sought to create a character who would triumph not through fighting but through love. His wife Elizabeth then suggested that the superhero be a woman. What made Wonder Woman stand out from other heroines of the era was that while many others played second fiddle to the more capable men in the comics, Wonder Woman stood on her own as a strong female character. Moreover, she emphasized admirable feminine qualities in her heroics. More than just a female version of other Golden Age heroes, she was a symbol of feminine traits that women could be proud of, taking the elements of what was seen as the weaker sex and playing them up as strengths. As Marston put 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.

Wonder Woman appeared in a backup story in All Star Comics in 1941. She also became a member of the Justice Society of America, albeit as the group’s secretary. In January 1942, she gained her own book which has never seen cancellation since – mostly because until recently, DC Comics would lose the character’s rights if publication of the comic lapsed.

Marston’s Wonder Woman played against type for female characters of the time. She had Steve Trevor in the comics as a nominal love interest, but openly derided the idea of entering into a romantic relationship with a man, instead keeping a closer friendship with Etta Candy, a plump supporting woman who would play Wonder Woman’s sidekick more often than not.

Early Wonder Woman comics also had quite a bondage fetish. Wonder Woman would lose her powers if her magic bracelets were chained together by a man, and Wonder Woman herself often tied people up peacefully with her magic lasso, making a point of stating that in her Amazon home on Themiscyra, bondage games were common practice. Those items largely come as a result of Marston’s personal beliefs on dominance and submission. He had a polyamorous relationship with his wife and another woman, and wrote several papers on the benefits of peaceful submission. Basically, he and his two lovers were swingers with a bondage fetish. A lot of people look down on early Wonder Woman comics because of these bondage themes, but it’s worth noting that they probably also helped the book sell – sex sells, and kinky sex seems to sell better. When Marston stopped writing the character, the idea of bondage being good would fade away, but Wonder Woman’s weakness to her bracelets being tied would remain until around the time that she got her post-Crisis reboot in the 1980s.

Not too bright, are you Steve?

Not too bright, are you Steve?

Silver Age Craziness:
Like many other superheroes, Wonder Woman suffered at the hands of Frederic Wertham, whose book Seduction of the Innocent lambasted comics and led to the Comics Code Authority. In that book, Wonder Woman was specifically called out as dangerous to children due to the fact that she seemed to have a better relationship with Etta Candy than Steve Trevor – and as we all apparently are supposed to know, women need a man around to rely on. As a result of the supposed lesbianism in the comics, Wonder Woman’s relationship with Steve Trevor got switched up, mirroring a sort of Lois and Clark relationship. In her human disguise as Diana Prince, Wonder Woman lusted after Steve, but Steve only had eyes for Wonder Woman and spent a lot of time trying to figure out her secret identity. Steve in the Silver Age was a moron, since Diana Prince worked as his secretary and he even occasionally saw Diana putting on the Wonder Woman outfit.

Throughout the Silver Age, Wonder Woman’s costume got some tweaks here and there, with her boots becoming sandals and then boots again, her star-spangled skirt becoming trunks, and the look of her tiara changing. Her powers were in similar flux, as she gained super strength, the power of flight, and more magical properties to her lasso. Originally, Wonder Woman was a woman in peak physical condition due to her Amazonian training and her lasso was just unbreakable. In the Silver Age, it gained multiple powers, including mind control and the ability to force people to tell the truth, the latter of which stuck. Wonder Woman also gained powers that would get retconned away eventually, such as arctic breath, super-ventriloquism, and the ability to vibrate between dimensions. Everything about Wonder Woman was in a constant state of flux at this point, as writers seemed uninterested in doing even basic research on the character. We’d get an origin for her invisible jet one month, then a month or two later we’d get another origin that completely contradicted the first one.

The best example of Wonder Woman writers not doing basic research comes with Donna Troy, who has gone through so many retcons that she’d need her own rant to cover everything. In the 1960s, DC decided to release some stories about Wonder Woman’s time as a teenager. Later on, somebody else wrote a story where Wonder Woman met Wonder Girl, not realizing that they were the same character. A mad scramble to explain it ensued, and it eventually created Donna Troy, Wonder Woman’s younger sister. But even that explanation wouldn’t stick, as her origin kept changing over the years. Donna Troy and Power Girl might get their own pages in the future here, since just thinking about all their changes and retcons makes my head hurt.

Oddly, although Wonder Woman gained more power in the Silver Age, she became a weaker character thanks to the Comics Code Authority, as she often had to rely of Steve Trevor for a save and many of her plots revolved around this strange relationship where Steve and Diana both obviously loved each other and pursued one another but never actually did anything about it. On the bright side, this muddling up of the character arguably saved her from cancellation which most other superhero comics suffered in the 1950s. Because of the romance angle, Wonder Woman could be marketed to women, which kept her afloat along with Superman and Batman until comics came roaring back a decade later.

Don't listen to everybody else, Diana. I love the new look.

Dont listen to everybody else, Diana. I love the new look.

The Mod Era:
In 1968, due to the popularity of shows like The Avengers, DC decided that Wonder Woman needed an overhaul to make her more accessible. They cut through the tangled mesh of her continuity, stripped her of her powers, and put her in a mod suit. For the next four years, Wonder Woman went from being a female Superman to a nonpowered martial arts master who basically served as Diana Prince, ass-kicking international secret agent.

The mod look for Diana is hotly debated among fans and scholars. Some see it as a good thing, since it showed Wonder Woman as strong and tough even without the crutch of her amazing superpowers. Others saw it as an affront to feminism, with DC’s most prominent female character stripped of her powers. Probably making the latter’s argument stronger was the fact that DC heavily leaned on the bondage theme during this era – during the few years that the mod look was around, it seemed like just about every cover featured some sort of variation of Wonder Woman in bondage. Nowadays, the mod era is sort of an embarrassing footnote in Wonder Woman’s history. Personally, though, I kind of like it despite its flaws, but then I’m also a big fan of heroic characters having to make due without their powers for a time.

Linda Carter is one of the few women who could actually believably play Wonder Woman.

Linda Carter is one of the few women who could actually believably play Wonder Woman.

Linda Carter Saves the Day:
During the mod era, those who wanted a classic Wonder Woman comic had to look over at the Earth-2 line of books, which featured DC’s Golden Age superheroes in action. Meanwhile, those who wanted the mod look gone and buried had to wait for only a few years until, as comics tend to do, things went back to normal – or as normal as they get for Wonder Woman, anyway. Diana gained her powers back and went to her traditional costume. Still, the parallels between herself and Superman grew even stronger in this era, with her Diana Prince identity acting meek and useless, much like Superman’s Clark Kent. Fortunately, Linda Carter came back to save the day.

In 1974, Wonder Woman made a failed attempt to transition to the television with a pilot starring Cathy Lee Crosby as the titular heroine. It bombed hard, probably because it had even less to do with the iconic character than the mod era did. But a year later, Linda Carter took over as Diana in the ABC adaptation of the series. Linda Carter is to Wonder Woman as Adam West is to Batman, and many people still imagine her when they think of Wonder Woman. Carter’s show took place during World War II and paired her with Steve Trevor, who was more a partner than a true romantic interest, although there was some tension there. It brought back a lot of stuff about the character that the comics had forgotten, such as Diana being capable on her own. The show would change networks a few years later, where Wonder Woman gained a few new costumes like a diving suit, a motorcycle outfit, and a cape. These were probably an attempt to sell more merchandising tie-ins, but some of them still made it into the comics.

Although Carter still wound up tied up, cholorformed, or gassed in just about every episode, she had the charisma to convince the audience that she was still a strong woman – possibly aided by the fact that Steve Trevor wound up in similar situations quite often. Ultimately, Carter’s strong and charismatic portrayal of the character helped the comics out a lot, as the meek pathetic version of Diana disappeared and the character went back to her ass-kicking ways.

The double Ws refers to her logo, not her cup size.

The double Ws refers to her logo, not her cup size.

The Double Ws:
If you look at the images above and compare them with the modern day Wonder Woman outfit, you’ll notice that Diana’s eagle disappeared somewhere along the way. That’s because in the early 80s DC decided that they wanted a symbol that they could trademark and use as a logo on merchandising. The eagle didn’t work for that purpose but the “double Ws” did. The good news regarding the symbol is that it served as something more than just a marketing ploy. It coincided with DC’s new president, Jenette Kahn, forming the Wonder Woman Foundation in honor of Diana’s 40th anniversary. Kahn was a big Wonder Woman fan and used the new double Ws as the foundation’s logo. The Wonder Woman Foundation lasted for three years, during which time it raised about $350,000 in grants to women. So yes, the disappearance of the snazzy eagle logo is a shame, but at least it did provide some real-life help…or so it seems. I can’t seem to find much more about where the money from the Wonder Woman Foundation went other than grants to support “women helping women.” One can only hope that the foundation actually served as a charity and that the money went to a good cause, which would mean that Wonder Woman’s influence extended beyond the bounds of the entertainment medium she was born in.

Actually, the double Ws logo only appeared on the Earth-1 Wonder Woman. The Wonder Woman of Earth-2 kept her golden eagle, and we also got some stories about Diana’s ancestors who were also wonder women in their own time, who dressed in a toga and had the golden eagle on their shield. But all these extra Wonder Women would soon disappear in the DC mega-event Crisis on Infinite Earths, which simplified much of the DC Universe…except Wonder Woman, whose writers had to do backflips to make her work in the new continuity.

Wonder Woman is reborn in the post-Crisis era.

Wonder Woman is reborn in the post-Crisis era.

Crisis on Infinite Earths:
By the mid 1980s, the DC Universe was a confusing place. Multiple superheroes from multiple dimensions all had their own books and their own continuities. We had Earth-1 that had the mainstream heroes, Earth-2 that had the Golden Age superheroes, Earth-3 where the traditional Justice League members were all villains (and in which Wonder Woman was known as Superwoman), and more. We also had Earth-Prime, which was originally our real world where these were just comic characters, but in which superheroes from other Earths would sometimes have adventures and where a real superhero, the Superboy of Earth-Prime, eventually emerged. DC had also bought up other comic companies, such as Fawcett and Charlton, each which existed in their own dimension as well. In an effort to simplify things and make them accessible to the casual reader, Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooted DC’s continuity, blending elements of all the other Earths together and creating one core comics universe. One of the changes in this new continuity was that Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were never a part of the Justice League of America. Furthermore, the Justice Society of America (the JLA’s Golden Age counterpart) had existed prior to the current generation of superheroes, meaning that DC’s Big Three were never a part of that group, either. For Superman and Batman, who had not had a big role in the JSA’s adventures, this was no big deal. For Wonder Woman, who had begun as the group’s secretary and became a major character in the group, things got a bit more complex.

The end result of Crisis on Infinite Earths was that we got two Wonder Women. The core Wonder Woman, aka Diana of Themiscyra, got an excellent treatment by George Perez that incorporated many elements of Greek mythology. She was crafted from clay by her mother Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. This clay vessel was imbued with the power of the various gods, giving her strength, durability, speed, and an empathy for all living things that enabled her to communicate with animals. As in her original origin story, she would eventually leave Themiscyra for man’s world, gaining her bulletproof bracelets, her magical tiara, and her unbreakable lasso of truth, which not only forces those bound by it to tell the truth but also enables a person to see their own true nature, breaking them out of any mind control. The notable difference about this continuity was that Diana didn’t have a secret identity – she was either Wonder Woman or Diana, but didn’t bother hiding as Diana Prince. Perez also slipped some subtext by DC’s editors, drawing the notable conclusion that on an island composed entirely of immortal women, heterosexuality isn’t necessarily the norm. Perez’s run included an openly lesbian pair of Amazons as well as hints that Wonder Woman is bisexual herself. Those hints have remained canon, although DC unfortunately has a policy where they can never be more than hints, downplaying her sexual orientation. (Because you can have Wonder Woman snap a man’s neck on live television, but don’t expose children to THE GAY!!!”)

Meanwhile, to explain how Wonder Woman could be new to this superheroing thing but also a member of the JSA, John Byrne wrote a story arc in which Hippolyta, Diana’s mother and queen of the Amazons, wound up going back in time to the 1940s and teaming up with the Justice Society. She chose to remain with them for some time as the Wonder Woman of that era, resulting in the Justice Society’s Wonder Woman actually being Diana’s mother.

Perez’s reboot of Wonder Woman redefined her as something more than just a female version of Superman. She was firmly rooted not only in femininity but also in Greek mythology. She was a soldier but also a force of compassion. Her superhero outfit remained mostly the same during this era, but on occasion she would sport Greek armor and even wield swords or axes. She also wound up taking odd jobs here and there, including working at a Taco Whiz (basically a Taco Bell). That sounds kind of dumb, but it actually had some amusing scenes in it, especially since the uber-compassionate Diana saw her responsibilities in bringing people their fast food to be on par with her responsibilities as a superheroine. Unlike other superheroes, Diana’s job wasn’t a disguise to let her be a part-time vigilante. Her civilian job was an actual attempt to fit into the larger world, and one she took remarkably seriously.

Then the 90s came along. Wonder Woman would wind up going through the wringer during that decade, but going in-depth there will take up enough space for a rant all of its own. I’ll get to the 90s and beyond in part two.


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