Wonder Woman: Learning to Love the Comic Behind the Icon

The ubiquitous character gets the most attention, but the little-known comic that introduced her deserves praise as well.

Everybody knows about Wonder Woman, but not many people know about Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman, of course, is the superhero. Most people are familiar with her from the 1970s television show, in which Lynda Carter put out her arms and spun herself into a big ball of light and a star-spangled swimsuit. Others may have seen her in the Justice League Unlimited television series, on the MAC cosmetics line, or (much less likely) in her own comics. She occasionally gets referenced on television shows such as Bones (where wonder sleuth Temperance Brennan dresses up as Wonder Woman for Halloween) or The O.C. (where Summer dresses up as Wonder Woman to titillate her boyfriend).

Wonder Woman hasn't been very successful for a long time—certainly not as successful as Batman or Spider-Man or other comic-book properties with major motion-picture series to their name (She's being played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot in next year's Superman/Batman film and in a standalone Wonder Woman film in 2017). Still, she remains reasonably visible, if not exactly necessary. Among the hordes of strong female heroes, from Buffy to Katniss Everdeen to Dora the Explorer, Wonder Woman is notable mostly for wearing a sillier costume and for having more improbable weaponry. (A magic lasso? Bullet-stopping bracelets? An invisible plane?) Sometimes she's a bad-ass warrior; sometimes she's an avatar of peace; sometimes she's a feminist icon (as when she appeared on the first cover of Ms. magazine in 1972); sometimes she's a fetish symbol (as in a June 2011 spread for Playboy Mexico). In general, though, she's what most pop-culture icons are—a placeholder for nostalgia and recognizability, whose image provokes strong emotions in some people and moderate amusement in everybody else. She’s an unassuming brick in the post-modern bricolage, famous for being famous—like Paris Hilton but significantly more charming, not least because she’s less real.

Wonder Woman the original comic book, on the other hand, was successful when it first appeared in the 1940s but isn't well-known today. It rarely shows up in comic best-of polls and isn't even ranked all that highly among the superhero comics of its own era. Will Eisner’s The Spirit, Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, C. C. Beck’s Captain Marvel, and (for historical reasons) Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster’s Superman are probably the works from that time that are considered most important and that have the highest profile today. Wonder Woman is second tier—though if it weren’t for its historical standing as the first female superhero comic, it probably wouldn’t even rate that highly.

It’s not just the public that tends to focus on Wonder Woman rather than Wonder Woman. Scholars do, as well. There's remarkably little criticism that sees Wonder Woman as an aesthetically important or significant comic in its own right. Rather, most writing tends to focus on the historical or cultural significance of the book—which effectively means that it looks at Wonder Woman through the lens of Wonder Woman. Thus, Les Daniels’s Wonder Woman: The Complete History and Tim Hanley’s Wonder Woman Unbound examines the Marston/Peter run in the context of Wonder Woman’s history as a cultural phenomenon. Mike Madrid’s Supergirls is interested in the Wonder Woman comics primarily because of Wonder Woman’s importance in the pantheon of superheroines. Jill Lepore's The Secret History of Wonder Woman focuses on Marstons' family relationships and feminist connections; the comics are seen as fodder for biographical revelations, not as aesthetic objects in their own right.

The ascendency of Wonder Woman over Wonder Woman is partly a simple matter of popularity. Wonder Woman the Marston/Peter comic is old, and the interest in old pop culture is always going to be limited in comparison to the interest in a current pop-culture icon. However, especially among comics scholars and critics, I think the ascendency of icon over comic is also contradictorily linked to comics studies’ interest in comics. Or, to put it another way, being too focused on comics in general can make it hard to see why you should talk about the Marston/Peter comics in particular.

That seems counterintuitive. An interest in comics, you would think, would make you emphasize the comic, not the icon. And yet that hasn't been the case. Again, books such as Les Daniels’s history of Wonder Woman or Mike Madrid’s Supergirls, which come from a comics-centered perspective, tend to see the early comics as important for their place in the history of comics—as significant because the character is significant or because she was one of the “archetypes that would define the female superhero.” To find someone who cares primarily about the Marston/Peter comics in themselves rather than about the character, you need to turn to writers such as Lewis Call, whose book is focused on bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism (BDSM) in science-fiction narratives, or to Ben Saunders, whose book Do the Gods Wear Capes? takes a theological approach to superheroes in comics and film.

Why do you need to take your eyes off comics in order to see Marston and Peter? The answer, I think, is William Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator. Before he was a comic-book writer, Marston was an academic, a polyamorist, a feminist, a psychologist, a queer theorist, and a utopian. He saw his comics as a scheme to advance radical ideas and theories and dreams. As a result, looking at his comics from inside comics is a little like reading Freud for the plot. You tend to miss a lot of what is going on.

What this means is that theoretical approaches—feminism, queer theory, psychology—are not something imposed on Wonder Woman from outside. Rather, they're intrinsic to the work’s goals and commitments. The way to be truest to the historical Marston is to grant him his theoretical breadth and ambition. Marston meant his ideas about gender, sexuality, and peace to be widely applicable and, indeed, widely transformative. He wanted his ideas to be big, which means you need to take a step back, in various directions, if his achievement is going to come into focus.

That achievement is, in part, the icon—Marston wanted Wonder Woman to inspire women to be powerful and heroic and sexy, and to inspire men to admire and respect women who were all those things. As he said, "Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world."

But beyond the icon, Marston and Peter also left behind comics that challenge our ideas about gender, sex, sexuality, peace,and bondage. The Marston/Peter comics believe that bondage is strength; that children can, and should, have sexual fantasies; that everyone, of every age, men and women alike, should celebrate lesbianism; that feminist liberation can be built on gender essentialism. Those are all, still, 70 years later, extremely controversial ideas—and yet they are all, in Marston and Peter, presented in a comic for eight-year-olds. Wonder Woman the icon retains little of the oddness, the audacity, or the beauty of Wonder Woman. I hope folks who love Wonder Woman the icon, and those who don't, will take time  to read those original comics and rediscover one of our country's greatest, sexiest, strangest feminist works of art.

This post has been adapted from Noah Berlatsky's forthcoming book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.