Marathon Reads: The Original Wonder Woman Series

So here’s the pitch. Rather than doing a straight “top stories” list, what I want to do with these “Marathon Reads” posts is pick a series that lasted for a while and divide the run into smaller groups of books based on different artistic teams, storylines, and anything else that sets each group apart.

That way, we can look at how the series evolved over time while having some fun looking at some of the great and not-so-great individual issues in the run.

Today’s subject: DC’s original Wonder Woman series (329 issues, 1942-1986, plus the post-script “Legend of Wonder Woman” mini-series):

     
1-30: “Wonder Woman for President”
In the late 1930s, William Moulton Marston, a prominent psychologist and inventor of a blood pressure test that would become a component of the polygraph lie detector, was among a small number of scientists and academics who turned their attention to the fledgling comic book industry. He deplored the violence and emphasis on criminal activity, but he was especially concerned about what he termed “the blood-curdling masculinity” in stories where women, if present at all, were decorations or trophies to be fought over by men. A quote from him in a magazine article about comic books caught the attention of publisher Max Gaines, who hired Marston as an educational consultant for National Periodicals and All-American Publications (two of the companies that would later merge to form DC Comics). Gaines reasoned — accurately if a little cynically — that he could deflect criticism of his book with an “advisory board” of professionals like Marston who would nominally supervise DC’s output. From this vantage point, Marston was able to pitch his idea for a feminine counterpart to the company’s more masculine heroes, someone who would use love and truth instead of fists to defeat her foes.

Together with veteran magazine illustrator Harry Peter, he created Wonder Woman, who debuted in All-Star Comics #8 in December 1941 and appeared in her own title the following summer. Almost immediately, she became one of the most popular faces in the DC stable, with regular appearances in Sensation Comics, Comics Cavalcade, All-Star Comics (as a member of the Justice Society) and her own book. Her biggest advantage was the fact her creators, unlike most other artists and writers in the business at the time, were mature men who brought a wealth of experience to the table, lending her stories a sense of gravity other books often lacked. Marston mixed mythology, science fiction and contemporary psychological theories to create a hero who sought to inspire others (usually but not always women and girls) to save themselves, while Peter’s unique woodcut-style artwork looked like nothing else on newsstands — a huge advantage at a time when hundreds of comics were all competing for attention. Most of the familiar elements were there from the start — Paradise Island, the Amazons, Hippolyta, Steve Trevor, the Lasso of Truth — along with a gaggle of memorable (and often grotesque) villains: Cheetah, Doctor Poison, Doctor Psycho, Giganta, Queen Clea, the Duke of Deception, and the first all-female super-villain team in comics, the sublimely named Villainy, Inc.

     

In 1944, Marston hired 20-year-old Joye Hummel as his assistant. She was his student at the Katherine Gibbs School in Manhattan, and she went to work for him after her graduation. A few short months later, Marston contracted polio, which left him unable to walk; soon after, he was diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life in 1947. As his health deteriorated, Hummel took on the responsibility of writing Wonder Woman stories for Sensation Comics, Comic Cavalcade and her own title. Although she would contribute scripts to Wonder Woman between 1945 and 1948, Hummel wouldn’t receive official credit for many decades, as all her stories were credited to Marston’s “Charles Moulton” pseudonym.

     
31 – 97: “Wonder Woman — Private Detective!”
Hummel resigned from DC in 1947, shortly after Marston’s death, but her stories continued to appear in print into 1949. When she left, the task of dreaming up new adventures fell to Robert Kanigher, a comic writer and editor who joined DC in 1945. Throughout his long career at DC, Kanigher created a large number of memorable and unique characters, and duly deserves his inclusion in DC’s 50th anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great. That said… whether it was disinterest or antipathy towards Wonder Woman, it was clear Kanigher’s heart wasn’t in the assignment. Without Marston or Hummel to act as Wonder Woman’s patron, the character lost a lot of what made her stand out from the crowd, most notably her emphasis on female empowerment and self-reliance (which, to be fair to Kanigher, could be chalked up to the prevailing attitude of the postwar years, a time when the women who helped the war effort in businesses and factories were asked to step aside for the returning men). Stripped of her feminism, villains and Paradise Island trappings, Diana became yet another costumed adventurer, getting herself involved in the same types of mundane mysteries and cockamamie predicaments as other contemporary superheroes. The introduction of the Comics Code Authority seal of approval with #73 — an issue that sees Diana battle a pirate ship on wheels(!) and lasso a rogue moon(!!) to save the Earth — didn’t help. Adding to Wonder Woman’s woes in this period was the change in Peter’s artwork; the artist was already 61 when he started working with Marston in 1941, and there was a marked change in the quality of his output as he aged. He continued drawing the character until his death in 1958.

     
98 – 109: “The Secret Origin of Wonder Woman”
With the debut of the Silver Age Flash in 1956, the superheroes began their return to dominance at DC. Following Peter’s passing, artists Ross Andru and Mike Esposito were brought in as the book’s regular art team, and with their help Kanigher launched a Silver Age revamping of the title, right down to giving Diana a makeover with a slicker European look. Issue 98 sees a newly blonde Hippolyta once again hold a contest to see which Amazon will battle injustice in Man’s World, and the next few issues see Diana assume a secret identity as secretary to Steve Trevor in Military Intelligence. This is also the period in which we meet Diana as Wonder Girl for the first time; in 105’s “The Secret Origin of Wonder Woman,” it’s established that Diana had in fact been born before the Amazons settled on Paradise Island, and that her powers were given to her in her infancy by the gods for… no discernible reason, really. Oh, and also the Amazons lost all their men “in the wars” and that’s why they decided to move to their island (the idea of all the men in a civilization being lost in a war seems less plausible than babies formed from clay — there wasn’t at least one old guy or underage lad left behind? — but let’s just roll with it). Yes, there were still shenanigans afoot — see also: Steve’s constant efforts to trick Diana into marrying him — but things were starting to look up, and the surge in creativity in DC’s other titles in the early 1960s could only mean better times ahead for the amazing Amazon.

     
110 – 158: “Wonder Woman — Battle Prize!”
Except it didn’t. Oh, God, how it didn’t. It’s hard to pin down exactly when it happened, but the years between 1959 and 1965 represent the nadir of Wonder Woman’s career.  Flashback stories chronicling the adventures of Diana as “Wonder Tot” and “Wonder Girl” showed that even at an early age she had amazing  powers her Amazon sisters could never hope to match, leaving the original concept of any woman being a potential Wonder Woman in the dust. As her powers expanded, her aspirations narrowed; she constantly daydreamed of marrying Steve Trevor (which she could only do after everyone in the world no longer needed her as Wonder Woman because… reasons), and she was reduced to being fought over by multiple suitors like Mer-Man, Bird-Man and Amoeba-Man. Her invisible plane was revealed to be a transformed Pegasus, Wonder Tot gained a playmate in the form of a hapless genie, an alien menace called the Glop showed up and started pining after Wonder Girl after ingesting 100 rock-and-roll records… it was a mess. It didn’t help matters when Wonder Tot and Wonder Girl started appearing as different characters existing at the same time as the grown-up Wonder Woman without any explanation, and together with Hippolyta (who billed herself as “Wonder Queen,” horning in on her daughter’s act) they went on adventures together as the Wonder Family. Recognizing things were getting out of hand, Kanigher himself appeared in 158 to “retire” most of the book’s supporting cast, sparing only Hippolyta and Trevor for the next stage in Wonder Woman’s career.

 

     
159 – 177: “Comic’s Golden Age more dazzling than ever!”
By the end of 1965, it was clear a new direction was needed for Wonder Woman. Her own title was hemorrhaging readers, but her long history and regular appearances in Justice League of America stories would have made it too embarrassing to cancel her book. A new direction was needed, and Kanigher decided that direction would be found in the past. “Now! — At last!” reads the cover of 159. “For the first time since the Golden Age of comics! The only true secret origin of the Mighty Amazon — Wonder Woman!” Kanigher’s back-to-basics approach brought back Diana’s clay origins and the Amazons’ original raison d’etre as ambassadors of love, as well as villains who hadn’t appeared in decades, like Cheetah, Doctor Psycho and Minister Blizzard. Even the art by Andru and Esposito seemed at first to deliberately mimic Peter’s early style. After a while, though, this attempt to relive Wonder Woman’s glory days felt more like parody than a tribute, and soon enough she was back trading punches with the likes of Egg-Fu, Crimson Centipede, the Space Gorilla King and other villains who felt more like the results of a late-night bar bet than anything else. As new directions went, it was soon clear this one didn’t go far enough.

     
178 – 203: “Forget the old… The NEW Wonder Woman is here!”
What a difference two issues can make. Under the new creative team of Denny O’Neil, Mike Sekowsky and Dick Giordano, Diana ditches the frumpy Clark Kent look, resigns from Military Intelligence, gets a mod makeover, goes undercover to save Trevor from a murder charge, forsakes her weapons and powers, watches her mother and everyone else on Paradise Island retreat to another dimension, and meets a blind Asian man (I Ching, believe it or not) who teaches her martial arts. Oh, and Trevor dies in her arms while she’s hot on the trail of a mysterious terrorist named Doctor Cyber. Whew.  A lot has been written about this chapter in Wonder Woman’s life, and there don’t seem to be a lot of people indifferent to it; fans either love it or hate it. Prominently in the “hate it” camp are those, like prominent feminist Gloria Steinem, who saw Diana’s de-powering as a negation of everything Wonder Woman stands for, if not a sexist move on DC’s part. And yes, to their point it’s hard to imagine DC ever deciding that what Superman readers really want is a comic about a de-powered Clark Kent learning karate while chasing hot scoops as a globe-trotting reporter.

But credit where it’s due — the “true” Wonder Woman, the one who insisted that any woman could achieve her feats, hadn’t been published for decades at that point; all the stories where her powers were gifts from the gods were the real violation of her character. In the context of the time when these stories appeared, it’s easy to see how the writers tried to present her as a symbol of self-determination; stripped of everything that made her life easy, Diana is forced to rely on herself to take charge of her life again. Yes, as the song says, she got by with a little help from her friends (like her Asian mentor who appears out of nowhere), but she still had to put in the work to become a martial artist and globe-trotting spy, without relying on the powers and paraphernalia that made fighting evil so easy before. And it’s not all “warmed-over James Bond without the  innuendo” antics, either; O’Neil and Sekowsky had Diana face off against witches, ghosts, the war god Mars, chauvinist department store owners, you name it. The illustrations were stylish and compelling, and Diana revealed a previously unsuspected sense of irony in her dialogue. Whether this was the “real” Wonder Woman or not is almost besides the point; these stories deserve to stand on their own as a noble experiment that made Wonder Woman something she hadn’t been in a long time: relevant.

     
204 – 287: “The second life of Wonder Woman!”
In 1972, the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine featured an image of Wonder Woman in her original outfit, reflecting the belief of editor Gloria Steinem that DC’s premier female superhero needed to get back into her iconic attire. And while it’s possible that pressure from fans led to the return of Diana’s costume and powers later that year, the more likely reason is DC optioned Wonder Woman for a TV movie in the early 1970s and wanted a bit of (highly trademarkable) synchronicity between its comic-book heroine and her TV counterpart. These 80 or so issues between 1972 and 1982 saw creative teams come and go as everything changed and then changed again: Steve Trevor is found alive; no, he’s not; it’s all an illusion by Amazon scientists; yes, he is; now he’s dead again; wait, he’s back; Wonder Woman must prove herself to return to the Justice League; she’s a member in good standing; wait, she’s on probation; now she’s back on the team; she gains a black Amazon sister named Nubia; no, she doesn’t; turns out Nubia never existed. There was an air of desperation to the throw-everything-to-see-what-sticks approach that it’s fair to believe the only reason the comic survived at all during this time is because of Lynda Carter’s TV show, which ran from April 1976 to September 1979 (with a TV movie serving as a pilot episode in November 1975). For a while, the comic even showcased her World War II adventures — or rather, the adventures of the Wonder Woman of Earth-2 — to tie in with the wartime setting of the show’s first season. Shortly after the show left the air, Wonder Woman cried “I quit!” on the cover of her comic, seemingly abandoning Man’s World for Paradise Island forever. Her self-imposed timeout only lasted a few issues before she back in the seat of her invisible plane, but few fans would have been surprised if that really had been the end of her adventures.

     
288 – 300: “An’ this time, NOTHING will stop her!”
In the early 1980s, you could have done a lot worse than sign up Roy Thomas and Gene Colan as your new creative team. Thomas, who succeeded Stan Lee as Marvel’s editor-in-Chief, was a Golden Age comics buff with a long string of successful scripting runs under his belt, while Colan was well-regarded for his stints on such books as Daredevil, Doctor Strange and Tomb of Dracula. The most obvious change in “the sensational new Wonder Woman” was the winged double-W chest symbol on her bustier, which was certainly less American-centric than the wing-spanning eagle of earlier outfits. Other immediate changes were the introduction of new villains (Silver Swan, Aegus, Commander Video) and the return of classic foes like Circe and Doctor Psycho. This period is also significant for the inclusion of Roy’s wife, Danette, in the credits as a co-writer — making her the first woman credited with scripting Wonder Woman stories (official acknowledgement of Hummel’s contributions wouldn’t happen until years later). Speaking of women representing, this stretch of issues includes a three-issue storyline “featuring DC’s mightiest, most magnificent super-heroines” in one of the company’s earliest, if not the first, all-female superhero team-ups. All things considered, it’s kind of a shame Thomas and Colan seemed to lose interest; by 297, Thomas was replaced by Dan Mishkin while Colan stayed on for only a few issues after the 300th anniversary issue, which brought in several guest artists (including George Perez, warming up for his later debut as Wonder Woman’s writer/artist with a decent black-and-white pin-up) for a story that brought together the Wonder Women of Earth-1 and Earth-2 and introduced Lyta, the daughter of Earth-2’s Diana and Steve Trevor.

     
301-329: “The end of everything begins!”
By the time Wonder Woman’s 300th issue rolled off the presses, DC was already planning a major overhaul of its line-up, a literally Earth-shattering event (Crisis on Infinite Earths) that would reboot all of its flagship characters. Wonder Woman’s fate was sealed, and the last two-and-a-half years of her book was simply marking time until events in Crisis cleared the deck to make way for the new Wonder Woman. But a funny thing happened during that countdown: the stories were actually good, certainly better than what you might expect from a book that knew it was on the chopping block. Credit for this goes mainly to Dan Mishkin, the writer who took the reins from Thomas and scripted almost all issues of the book in its final years, and artist Don Heck, who gave the book some of his nicest art in 20 years. While rotating guests artists gave their finest to the book’s covers, the creative team lined up guest stars (Black Canary, Atomic Knight) and brought back some favorite villains for one last encore, with everything culminating in a three-part Crisis crossover story that brought an epic quality to Wonder Woman that had not been seen since, well, ever. The final issue ends with Diana and Trevor finally tying the knot before she flies off to meet her fate at the end of the Crisis mini-series. It was a touching sendoff for a book that often struggled to find the emotional core of its lead character, and fans could take heart in the fact it wouldn’t be long before a new princess of Themyscira took center stage.

 

     
The Legend of Wonder Woman, 1986: “The Amazing Amazon as you’ve never seen her before!”
Three months after the final issue of Wonder Woman’s first series hit the stands, DC published a four-issue mini-series, The Legend of Wonder Woman, as a way of bridging the gap between the old series and the 1987 reboot. With a script by Kurt Busiek and art by Trina Robbins (the first woman to draw a Wonder Woman series), the series opens with Queen Hippolyta, in mourning for her daughter, trying to ease her grief by using the Magic Sphere to look back on happier times. It’s an intriguing hybrid of old and new, with touches of humor in Busiek’s script meshing nicely with Robbins’ homage to H.G. Peter’s original Wonder Woman artwork. It’s an affectionate farewell to the old Wonder Woman, one that contains the immortal line: “Some guardian I am! I told Etta I’d take care of her niece for a few days… and under my care, she’s become the heir apparent to an evil empire bent on subjugating and destroying Earth!” Okay, two thoughts here. One: “Subjugate” and “destroy”…? Why put in the effort needed to subjugate a planet if you’re just going to destroy it? Two: Kids, am I right?


FIVE TO SKIM

1. #5, “Battle for Womanhood,” 1943 – Inspired by the Duke of Deception, who is acting on behalf of the war god Mars, Dr. Psycho uses sabotage and trickery to convince the public that women are not suited for the war effort. A great example of what Marston and Peter were trying to do with their feminist creation.

2. #158, “The Fury of Egg Fu”/”The End — or the Beginning,” 1965 – Come to gawk at the most bizarre super-villain to ever sneak past the Comics Code Authority, stay for a fun bit of meta-silliness with editor Robert Kanigher cleaning house that’s surprisingly cathartic for anyone who can’t stand the sight of Bird-Man or the Glop.

3. #178-180, 1968 – See description above. Even if you come away from these issues feeling like the experiment was a mistake, it’s hard to deny the stories stand on their own as intriguing examples of their time.

4. #329, “Of Gods and Men,” 1986 – Everything comes to a head as Diana goes into battle, perhaps for the final time. It’s the closest the book has ever come to having any kind of epic grandeur as befitting a book with literal gods doing battle.

5. Legend of Wonder Woman #1-4, 1986 – See description above. Young up-and-comer Kurt Busiek delivers a story that pays tribute to the Golden Age Wonder Woman stories that does the old girl proud.

FIVE TO SKIP

1. #125, “Wonder Woman — Battle Prize,” 1961 – “Choose between us! CHOOSE!” “Which one? Which one?” And you thought Superman was a cad for stringing along Lois and Lana for as long as he did. Though as silly as all the grade-school idea of romance is, it’s still funny watching Mer-Man hop around on his tail on dry land.

2. #126, “Wonder Tot and Mister Genie!”, 1961 – The title says it all, really.

3. #140, “Perils of the Paper-Man,” 1966 – And then there was that one time Wonder Woman out-and-out murders a man transformed into paper by super-blowing him into a printing press. No, really.

4. #151, “Wonder Girl vs. the Teenage Monster,” 1965 – “Featuring Wonder Girl in her first book-length adventure!” reads the cover. It didn’t work out as well as she hoped. A sentient pile of snot lands on Earth, absorbs a bunch of records, and starts crooning love songs to Wonder Girl. Kanigher is lucky mandatory drug testing in workplaces wasn’t a thing back then.

5. #185, “THEM!”, 1969 – As interesting as the secret agent years were for Wonder Woman, not every story in the run was a winner. Case in point: “THEM!”, a strange little tale about a gang of bizarrely dressed women with names like “Top Hat” and “Moose Momma” who… enslave young women with dog collars and make them do housework? Utterly bizarre, and not in a good way.