The Strongest and Wisest Amazon
The Secret History of Wonder Woman
By Jill Lepore
New York: Knopf, 2014, 432 pp., $29.95, hardcover
Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948
By Noah Berlatsky
New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2015, 264 pp., $25.60, paperback
Reviewed by Joan Hilty
Good charlatans convince everyone of their fraudulent skill; the very best ones believe it themselves. P.T. Barnum was a perpetrator of elaborate hoaxes who insisted he wasn’t duping audiences and went on to debunk spiritualists; Joseph Smith was a small-time treasure hunter who became convinced he was a prophet. William Moulton Marston, the pop psychologist turned creator of Wonder Woman, was neither a pure entertainer like Barnum nor a religious figure like Smith; he was a bit of both.
The Amazon superheroine is one of the most recognizable superhero characters of all time, part of DC Comics’ “trinity” of iconic heroes, the other two being Superman and Batman. At the height of her popularity in 1944, she had 10 million readers. And yet the stories and themes from that original run were anything but conventional, reflecting Marston’s obsession with bondage, rituals of dominance and submission, and the superiority of women over men; in the words of his widow, “The Marston psychology of living…was injected into every page of WW.”
This paradox is at the heart of new works by Jill Lepore, the Harvard historian and New Yorker writer, and by blogger Noah Berlatsky. These are very different approaches to Wonder Woman as a force in US cultural history, yet the books are surprisingly complementary. Lepore has done a terrific job of digging out Marston’s history, providing long-needed context for his life and work that previous writers have hidden or glossed over. For his part, Berlatsky does a dazzling and remarkably accessible reading of the 1940s Wonder Woman comics against some of the heavyweights of modern feminist theory—Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, Shulamith Firestone, Julia Kristeva, Susan Brownmiller. Both books share the problem of constructing ambitious hypotheses they cannot quite prove, but the journey is well-worth the bumps in the road.
Broad details of Marston’s unconventional professional and personal life have been fairly common knowledge among comics historians and aficionados, and the bizarre Marston-era comics have always remained in print; DC Comics published them as a series of archive editions with authoritative forewords by Gloria Steinem and various leading comics historians. But nobody has tackled the granular, peculiar detail of the comics and their creators the way Lepore and Berlatsky do.
Marston was a talented eccentric whose career path had been spotty prior to breaking into comics; he consistently failed either sideways or upward, as one could do in the early twentieth century as long as one was white, male, and well-connected. Big, boisterous, and passionate, he took up screenwriting during his second year at Harvard and won a talent search contest sponsored by Edison Films. The resulting film, released two days before the Lusitania sank, was quickly forgotten, but he used the experience to parlay his storytelling talent into work as a psychological consultant to Hollywood studios. He rose to head the American University psychology department as the self-proclaimed founder of the science of lie detection (he is often incorrectly credited as the inventor of the lie detector, but the polygraph machine was developed and patented by others, and Marston himself always claimed a machine could never do what a human expert could). Then he staked that academic reputation on US Supreme Court attention to a legal case he’d supported that instead died in the DC Court of Appeals. Shortly thereafter, Marston was sued by a business partner in the third of three failed businesses he’d founded, arrested for fraud, and fired from the university. Nevertheless, he scrabbled on to teach at Tufts and Columbia.
His career struggle was colored by his penchant for ideas that were both conceptually risky for the period and deliberately sensational in execution. He became increasingly convinced, for example, that there were natural norms of psycho-neural behavior that fell outside cultural norms, and that the particular strengths of female psychology were not being properly recognized. But he chose to prove and publicize these beliefs by means such as hooking six chorus girls up to blood pressure cuffs in the front row of New York City’s Embassy Theater to measure their response to the Greta Garbo film Flesh and the Devil (1926). This naturally attracted attention, but it made his benefactors uncomfortable. Then, at Tufts, he met a bright young student named Olive Byrne, who became part of a live-in polyamorous relationship with Marston and his legal wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, that yielded four children and spanned decades. And it was Byrne’s article on comics for Family Circle, featuring an interview with Marston, that inspired DC Comics to hire him as an editorial advisor—and, eventually, to accept his pitch for “Suprema, The Wonder Woman,” as long as the subtitle became the real name.
Much has been made of Lepore’s discovery that the early twentieth-century reproductive- rights activist Margaret Sanger was Olive Byrne’s aunt. Lepore also makes a point of locating the first Wonder Woman artist, Harry G. Peter, within the suffragist movement of the Progressive Era. But the most remarkable feminist stories here are those of Marston’s domestic partners Holloway and Byrne. Without them, he might have been nothing. Even before Olive Byrne pitched that article and put her lover on DC Comics’ radar, Elizabeth Holloway—herself a law school graduate and psychologist who worked with Marston on his dissertation—had been that rare thing for the times, a “career woman,” going back to work right after her children were born. As an editor and executive assistant, she supported the large family throughout Marston’s many bouts of unemployment, while Byrne raised the children.
A close circle of friends, family, and colleagues were aware of this highly unorthodox arrangement—including Marston’s DC editors and Sanger—but the trio kept it a secret from the larger world, and, for a long time, even from their own children. Byrne’s children by Marston were told their father had died from WWI-related illness and were adopted by him and Holloway. For all his love of the spotlight and desire for respect and fame, Marston was never radical enough to openly stake his gender privilege against his ideals.
But the real protagonist here is Wonder Woman. Leaping across the cover of All Star Comics #18 in 1941, she was an instant hit, enthralling kids with her origin story. Raised on Paradise Island as the daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the all-female Amazonian nation, she entered and won a tournament staged to find the “strongest and wisest Amazon.” The prize was mainly to return a military pilot, Steve Trevor, who’d crash-landed on the island, to his American homeland. But she was also appointed to “help fight the forces of hate and oppression” in the country she would adopt as her own. That directive was aimed at patriotic sentiment as America entered World War II, but it was more broadly based on the history of Marston’s Amazons; the race had once been enslaved by Hercules, and only the intervention of the goddess Aphrodite had freed them. Ever since, they had worn the bracelets fashioned by their captors, as reminders “to always keep aloof from men,” and the new Wonder Woman was now charged with paying that lesson forward: “At last, in a world torn by the hatred and wars of men, appears a woman to whom the problems and feats of men are mere child’s play.”
Nobody could have imagined, though, exactly how Marston would depict that play. His Wonder Woman comics are mind-bogglingly focused on images of bondage, punishment, and quasi-sexual imagery; there is barely a page that doesn’t feature chains, gags, or spanking. Men and women are victimized in nearly equal measure, but the women always dominate and prevail. After years of toil on the margins of respectability, Marston had found the perfect vessel for his views.
That’s where Berlatsky’s analysis comes in. Exploring these comics frame by frame, he is meticulous about pointing out power dynamics and symbolism, whether it’s expressed through the “childish” sorority antics of Wonder Woman sidekick Etta Candy or the “mature” thrashing of Nazis by our heroine (or some weird combination of both, as there is actually a storyline that shows Wonder Woman being spanked by toddlers). In Marston’s worldview, women are as empowered as men to initiate and even enjoy violence and domination, but are ultimately better equipped to enforce a “loving submission” that subverts established notions of masculinity and femininity by challenging established norms about both.
Berlatsky ends on a weak note as he loops the current Wonder Woman monthly comic book into his analysis, hauling a few writer-artist creative teams over the coals for failing to match the “visionary” work of Marston and Peter. This is pointless; there has been a fundamental power shift in comics publishing over the last half century. Whatever you may think of comics writers Brian Azzarello’s or Gail Simone’s takes on Wonder Woman, they did not enjoy a creator's power to mold the character, as Marston did; and DC Comics is no longer an independent publisher, but a division of a media empire. Regardless of their talent, its storytellers are now charged with maintaining the marketability of its main icons. They no longer have free rein to translate their beliefs into something that resonates with a mass audience.
But also, Berlatsky’s theorizing is somewhat anachronistic. He argues that Marston and Peter were feminist, pacifist, and queer, or at least that the material they created was. At the very least, this is an overly generous characterization of Peter as an author, let alone an activist: he was a professional but middling draftsman who spoke little and advanced no known personal philosophy. Marston’s loyalty to him was likely grounded in Peter’s willingness to draw every detail Marston asked for. More significantly, it is simply too reductive to award work created prior to an activist framework for modern queerness and feminism with authority in those fields.
Marston’s personal actions don’t count. While his living arrangement may have “queered” the boundaries of midcentury nuclear family dynamics, the sexual and power dynamics were likely full-on heterosexual. Berlatsky suggests that Holloway and Byrne were involved with each other, but there’s no concrete proof, or even strong circumstantial evidence, of this. Holloway did sign herself “Sappho” once, but she was a big fan of the poet’s work. She and Byrne continued to live together for decades after Marston’s passing, but when he died in 1946, only one of their four children was college-age, and they had all been raised together; separating the family would have made no sense. And Holloway insisted, in private letters to her grown children, that the arrangement was grounded in the trio’s strong beliefs in Marston’s psychology of emotions and in notions of “love bindings” that dated from the first meetings between Byrne and the Marstons in the late 1920s. Even if that was the mentality of the closet speaking, the fact remains that these freethinkers maintained strict limits on preaching what they practiced.
Ultimately, both authors’ characterization of the Marston comics and their creator as feminist doesn’t hold water. To be fair, it’s a characterization of Wonder Woman that many fans and cultural historians use to this day, including feminists. But as the journalist Janelle Asselin has pointed out, in a July 2, 2014, blog post on comicsalliance.com, Marston was not, strictly speaking, feminist in his core beliefs; he believed not in gender equality, but in female superiority.
There may have been something to his absolutism, though. Lepore’s thesis—that Wonder Woman is the “missing link” in the struggle for gender equality—doesn’t quite pan out, even though she meticulously traces Wonder Woman’s decline throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. After Marston’s death, just as working women were being driven back into the domestic sphere following peacetime, the character became and remains a cypher; she was vilified by conservative commentators and the radical Redstockings alike for being a bad influence, as a progression of DC editors tried to tame her either by scaling back her aggression to focus on the relationship with Steve Trevor or by shoehorning her into broadly acceptable “women’s-lib” narratives.
Neither book is able to find the rationale for how this extraordinarily ahead-of-her-time character in a conservative era could have become so antiquated even as society grew more liberal. But it may simply be too difficult a question to resolve because the reality is so frustratingly difficult to accept. Putting the adult themes aside, the original Wonder Woman was unique and potentially transformative because she expected “man’s world” to live up to her expectations, and not vice versa. Once that pendulum swung, the character lost and has never regained a certain fundamental power.