I was 17 when I first met her. I was about a quarter of the way through Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Strikes Again” when POW! Inky hair topped with a golden tiara. A tight breastplate, emblazoned with an eagle, and even tighter star-spangled shorts. The full-page picture needed no caption, yet Miller added one anyway: “Wonder Woman”.
There aren’t many comic-book characters who are so deeply ingrained within our culture that we know them almost by default. 75 years after her creation, Wonder Woman is one of them. This is part of the reason why DC Comics includes her, alongside Batman and Superman, in its Holy Trinity. She matches them for pop-impact.
After making her dramatic entrance, Wonder Woman has cosmic sex with an ailing Superman – restoring him to health – before both of them fall back down to Earth as a sweaty comet. It sounds grim, yet this “make love, not war” approach made a change from all the boys trading punches.
I went back to the beginning: Wonder Woman’s introduction in a short story in “All-Star Comics #8”, published in October 1941. Even from these nine pages, it’s clear that she is very different from her male counterparts. Superman was continuously fighting injustice. Batman was continuously fighting crime. It was the outside world of men, of Metropolis and Gotham, that was failing. She is the Amazonian princess of a territory – Paradise Island, later renamed Themyscira – whose inhabitants have existed in plenteous harmony for centuries. The secret of its success? A population made up entirely of women. Only when a man crashes into it in his fighter plane does war intrude on the idyll, and our superheroine is tasked with returning him back to base.
In 1942, just after America had entered the war, Wonder Woman got her own comic-book series. The fifth issue begins with Mars – “the war god, present ruler of this world” – receiving dispatches from the frontline. "There are eight million American women in war activities," he is told. He responds: “If women become warriors like the Amazons, they’ll grow stronger than men and put an end to war!” The tale concludes with Wonder Woman advising a cruelly subjugated wife to “get strong!” by earning her own living.
Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, was something of a polymath. He was a trained psychologist; he was an inventor; he practised law; he wrote for magazines and films. He was also polyamorous, living with two women at once: Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne. In a letter to a friend in 1945, Marston claimed the character he dreamt up for Detective Comics Inc. was “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.”
Was Wonder Woman really a feminist? Although she got me thinking in a way that Catwoman and Lois Lane never had, it didn’t escape my notice, reading those early stories as a teenager, that there was quite a lot of kinkiness in them. Wonder Woman was “as lovely as Aphrodite,” and often in peril. In one panel, she would be bound up in chains and ropes. In the next, she would be doing the binding. In her book “The Secret History of Wonder Woman”, Jill Lepore describes the editorial arguments over how much rope could be used per issue. Marston’s defence was that he simply wanted to show women breaking free from their shackles.
Subsequent creators would gradually dispense with the gender politics of the early comics, and focus on Wonder Woman’s sexuality. I remember quickly shuffling pages on the train, embarrassed that my fellow passengers might notice what I was reading. The sex scene in “The Dark Knight Strikes Again” was one of the more tasteful ones.
While there aren’t as many great Wonder Woman stories as there are, say, great Batman stories, there are some exceptions. George Pérez’s relaunch of the character in 1987 lavished more artistry on her than anyone had before and brought her closer to the Greek gods. Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s three-year run on her main title, between 2011 and 2014, also focused on the Amazonian elements of her past. But there remains a sense that Wonder Woman is having to find her feet on ground that, traditionally, has been conquered by men for the benefit of teenage boys.
So are female comic writers and artists. Earlier this year, it was expected that Marguerite Bennett would be announced as the new writer of the main Wonder Woman title, after doing some fine work with a version of the character in DC’s “Bombshells” series. Instead the job went to the talented, but male, Greg Rucka. Of course, there’s no reason why a man can’t bring out Wonder Woman’s feminist side, but it was a missed opportunity.
Readers wanting to discover, or rediscover, Wonder Woman should head for the digital anthology series “Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman” (2014–15) which employed a host of female creators – and the odd man – to reinvent the superheroine. My favourite is a story illustrated by Noelle Stevenson, in which a 15-year-old Wonder Woman absconds from Themyscira to an American boardwalk. Friendships are forged, ice-cream is eaten and the boys are beaten at their own game – specifically, an arcade game called “Dance Game Retribution”. In another highlight, by Jason Badower, Wonder Woman officiates a marriage between two women. “I…didn’t know you’re a proponent of gay marriage”, stammers a shocked Clark Kent. “Clark,” she replies, “My country is all women. To us, it’s not ‘gay marriage’, it’s just marriage.” Take that, Superman.