IF YOU THINK WOMEN IN COMICS TODAY have it tough, imagine what it was like for them in the 1940s. Sure, the heroines today have to deal with artists who give them skintight uniforms, 12-inch high heels, and impossibly large… um, accessories. But back then, a superwoman’s lot in life was really tough.
To start with, there were no super-women. Until 1941, the only women in superhero comics were damsels in distress, girlfriends, relatives (although rarely were they wives — superheroes liked the bachelor life), and secretaries who were always on the verge of accidentally discovering their boss’ secret identities. The few female heroes that did appear were never taken seriously by either the publishers or the public. The “Blonde Phantom,” for instance, fought crime in a full-length evening gown.
This concerned a psychologist named William Moulton Marston, who considered himself a keen observer of popular culture. After he wrote an article criticizing comics and their influence on young minds, All-American Comics editor Max C. Gaines invited him to offer his advice on ways to make comics more psychologically beneficial for young readers.
According to Marston himself, the comics’ biggest drawback was the overwhelming masculinity of the business. “A male hero, at best, lacks the qualities of essential love and tenderness which are as essential to the child as the breath of life,” he wrote. He proposed creating a female superhero, one who would possess “all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”
Despite the inherent sexism in his writing, he was right in that women were severely underrepresented in comics. Wonder Woman, the result of Marston’s musings, first appeared in a short story in All-Star Comics #8. Appearing in her trademark star-spangled costume, she was a hit and took over Sensation Comics (January 1942) before moving on to her own title, Wonder Woman, in the summer of 1942. She was created to give children — especially young girls — a positive role model, but her appeal went beyond anything her creator could have imagined.
Still, despite her strength, invisible plane, and truth-telling lasso, Wonder Woman was a product of her time. When she joined the Justice Society of America, she was made the group’s secretary — even though her title outsold the titles of any of the other JSA members. As well, the temper of the times dictated that she have a romantic interest (military man Steve Trevor) and a humorous sidekick, a plump woman called “Etta Candy” who was hardly a kind representation of women with weight problems.
But times changed, and so did Wonder Woman. As one of the few heroes to survive the 1950s, she reached a new audience in the 1960s and 1970s by tackling issues that North American women were facing themselves. And when DC Comics
re-launched her series in 1987, the writers went back to the drawing board, ditching her contrived secret identity and drawing on her rich mythological history to create a hero naive enough to the ways of “Man’s World” to be shocked by it, but wise enough to know she had the power and the duty to change things for the better.
The fact that Wonder Woman has lasted so long is enough to give her a place on this list. The fact that she’s become the greatest female superhero in comics history — and an inspiration to women everywhere — is enough to make her an icon.
From The 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century By Mitchell Brown
A typical early issue of Wonder Woman, with all the familiar trademarks — plane, lasso, costume — in place.
Did you know…
Marston signed the strip as Charles Moulton, a combination of his and Max Gaines’ middle names.
Five months after her debut, Wonder Woman was rated a 40-to-1 favorite over her nearest male superhero rival in a readers’ poll conducted by the publishers.
Wonder Woman wasn’t Marston’s only invention; he’s also credited with inventing the first lie detector.
Wonder Woman’s liberal use of a lasso to tie up villains, and all the sexual suggestiveness that encouraged added to the list of charges that anti-comic activists laid against comics in the 1950s.
In one 1948 story, there were no fewer than 75 panels depicting bondage. See the example from Wonder Woman 21 below.