(Jill Lepore; 410 pages; ALFRED A KNOPF PUBLISHING/RANDOM HOUSE BOOKS; 2014)
If you’re going into THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN expecting a major discourse on some secret comic book origin story of the Amazon princess, you are definitely looking in the wrong direction. The book is more of an historical look back at the suffrage and feminist movements of the late nineteenth and the first eight decades of the twentieth centuries. It also works as, quite possibly, the most comprehensive and accurate biography of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, who was – to say the least – a deeply flawed individual. Many of Marston’s flaws and foibles were at the core of the character’s creation and writer Jill Lepore’s examination of his early scripts and notes highlights his attempts to forward his fervent feminist beliefs through a series of failed teaching positions and “scientific” experiments that were – and, I’m being generous here – borderline, at best.
Almost from birth, William Moulton Marston surrounded himself with strong, independent thinking women; he had to… he was far too lazy to have any job other than the odd “professorship” that allowed him to practice his borderline kinky experiments virtually unmolested. His aunt, his female students and lab assistants and his wives carried the financial burdens of the classroom, laboratory and household. A student aide and paramour (Olive Byrne, niece of famed feminist and trail-blazing birth control advocate, Margaret Sanger) was brought into the home as nanny to his two young sons; when she became pregnant, Marston made her wife number two, telling the two Missus Marstons that the third (and eventually fourth) child would continue under the tutelage and care of number two, while the more successful number one would be called “Mother” to all four and continue to bring in the household funds. The fact that these women didn’t kill him (or each other) must be proof that females are, indeed, the superior sex… cuz I woulda beat the guy like a baby seal.
But, anyway, the great character of the women in his life DID give Marston the template for the first female super-hero; the fact that he was able to snow the editors and publisher of DC Comics with the concept that Wonder Woman’s strength was best exhibited by her continually being bound in some form or other (almost always by the male of the species, with chains being the favorite mode of bondage, though the Amazon was also harnessed into a straightjacket, locked in an electrified cage and hogtied with a rope) speaks volumes to the man’s mastery at the art of humbuggery. When the thought police came a-calling, he would be sure to have all of his Amazons in a row, usually in the form of one of his smitten female colleagues or some borderline-legitimate psychologist who moved in the same semi-reputable circles as Marston, ready with their own convoluted explanations of how depicting such scenes of bondage would, ultimately, empower women to become the family, political and social leaders that is their destiny; disputes and wars would cease, leading to a Utopian society with peace and love and dancing.
The guy musta been doing something right, however, as Wonder Woman became wildly popular. And, not just among the young boys who were the vast majority of comic book readers at that time; Princess Diana had found a new audience as young girls all across America began reading her adventures and emulating her amazing feats in their backyards and living rooms. When two members of the Justice Society of America, the Flash and Green Lantern, were awarded their own books, the editors of ALL STAR COMICS conducted a readers poll to which hero should take their place within the ranks. Wonder Woman was far and away the victor. However, Marston wasn’t writing the adventures of the JSA, so the Amazon was made official secretary of the team, in charge of holding down the fort while the men were off fighting evil and in charge of coffee and snacks during meetings. These tales were, by and large, written by legendary comic scribe, Gardner F Fox, though it has long been rumored that Robert Kanigher may have ghosted several of those JSA adventures. That would actually make some kind of since, as Kanigher hated not only Marston, but his creation, as well. This visceral dislike of the character led to the eventual dumbing down of the Wonder Woman strip, as Kanigher was named as Marston’s replacement upon the latter’s death in 1947, a post he held for more than 22 years; suddenly, Diana Prince’s alter ego became a besotted and lovelorn member of the weaker sex, falling prey to ridiculous scheme after ridiculous scheme as she pined away for her boss in Military Intelligence, Captain (eventually Colonel) Steve Trevor. Trevor ended up saving the Amazonian warrior as often – or more often – as she saved him.
As the turbulent sixties were coming to an enlightened end, Kanigher finally relinquished his hold on Wonder Woman in 1968 and Diana relinquished her powers to become a mortal woman, working as a secret agent to clear Steve Trevor of a bogus murder charge. The death knell for this “liberated” Wonder Woman came with the December 1972 issue, a “special Women’s Lib issue.” Denny O’Neil was gone, too, replaced by… Robert Kanigher, back for another (short-lived) round. The damage to the venerable character had been done during Kanigher’s first monumental run and, seemingly, month after month, the poor scripts and ill-conceived attempts at relevancy piled degradation upon degradation on the Amazon princess, even as a new publication from the National Women’s Political Caucus called MS featured her on the cover of their debut issue in 1972 (which may have prompted the return of the original Wonder Woman costume and powers a few months later). Wonder Woman remains a stalwart of DC Comics, considered to be an integral part of “the Trinity,” with Superman and Batman. A couple of generations of new creative teams have removed the layers of tarnish to return the character to something much closer to the character William Moulton Marston originally envisioned nearly 75 years ago. Lepore has delved deep and dissected every aspect, every historical event that has gone into the creation of the first female super-hero; likewise, she points to the many ways that Wonder Woman – and, by extension, Marston – has molded the history of the women’s movement since she first burst onto the scene in 1941. You don’t have to be comic book fan to enjoy THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN, nor do you have to be a woman or a feminist to appreciate the history and politics that led to Wonder Woman’s creation and longevity; the book is just a good, thought-provoking read.
It should be noted that since the book’s publication, several descendents of the Marstons have come forward to dispute many of the assertions that Ms Lepore puts forth regarding the family and their lifestyle; for what it’s worth, much of this information has been floating around for quite awhile and I tend to support the Lepore’s version of events. I’ll leave it to you to make up your own minds.