Wonder Woman's Violent, Man-Pandering Second Act

Her creator envisioned her as an antidote to the "blood-curdling masculinity" of comic books. But her modern-day reboot embraces the gore and crude sexuality she was originally supposed to avoid.

Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang

"It seemed to me, from a psychological angle, that the comics' worst offense was their blood-curdling masculinity," William Marston a 1944 essay for The American Scholar. Marston was a psychologist—and also a sometime soft-core pulp novelist, a polyamorist, an early experimenter with lie-detector technology, and a shameless self-promoter. But more than that, he was the creator of the ultimate antidote to comic-book masculinity...Wonder Woman!

Marston's original comics, created with artist Harry Peter, are largely unknown by mainstream audiences today. In the 1940s, though, Marston's Wonder Woman comics were hugely popular—and this was at a time when comics could sell hundreds of thousands of copies per issue.

Wonder Woman's popularity was attained, as Marston promised, largely by eschewing blood-curdling masculinity. Wonder Woman would occasionally hit the bad guys—but more often, she would capture them in her golden lasso, which compelled them to obey and submit (later writers would downgrade the lasso of obedience to a much less useful lasso of truth). Wonder Woman's allies included the Holliday girls, a group of sorority sisters who fought villains by dancing with them or, occasionally, by ritually paddling them. And, while Marston did not include in his comics the magical kitties so popular in contemporary girl's adventure fiction like Sailor Moon, he did provide his Amazons with giant, space-traveling kangaroos—which is surely almost as good.

There are no space kangaroos or sorority girls in Wonder Woman: Guts, the second volume of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang's Wonder Woman reboot, released last month. There is, however, a fair amount of blood-curdling masculinity. The book collects issues #7 to12 of the series, and Chiang's interior cover for issue #8 shows Wonder Woman leaping from the side, shooting two golden pistols while discarded golden shell cases rain down around her—the insufficiently swaggering golden lasso nowhere in sight. Elsewhere in the series, we get to see Wonder Woman shot in the chest; a woman displaying her gashed open and bleeding arms, a giant devouring monster zombie creature, and another interior cover showing Wonder Woman with a death's head toting those cool golden guns again.

There's no particular mystery about what's going on here. Marston and Peter were creating comics for a (large) audience of mixed-gender children. Azzarello/Chiang, on the other hand, are creating comics for a (much smaller) audience of (mostly) men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Kids may like giant space kangaroos, but adult males as a demographic tend to prefer guns and blood and zombies.

Azzarello's guns and blood and zombies aren't just pandering, though; they're also an ideological statement. In issue #7, the first one collected in the volume, Wonder Woman learns that Paradise Island, where she grew up among her Amazon sisters, is not quite the Paradise she had assumed. Wonder Woman had thought the Amazons simply reproduced by the grace of the Gods. In reality, it turns out, they maintain their society by boarding passing ships and having sex with the (apparently willing) men. They then murder their partners, raise any girl children as their own—and trade away the males to the god Hephaestus, to work in his forge.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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