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Balloonless | Tim Hanley’s ‘Wonder Woman Unbound’

by  in Comic News Comment
Balloonless | Tim Hanley’s ‘Wonder Woman Unbound’

There’s a lot more than gender differentiating Wonder Woman from her fellow first generation superheroes that have, against all odds, survived to the modern day. More so than even Superman and Batman, the only other heroes whose comics have been in continuous publication since their creation, Wonder Woman is a character with sharp, often difficult to reconcile (or even wrestle with) contradictions built into her.

Foremost among those contradictions is the fact that, as Tim Hanley alludes to in the subtitle of  Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine, the character is universally known, to the point that she’s practically omnipresent in pop culture, but that knowledge tends to be pretty shallow.

That is, everyone knows Wonder Woman, but relatively few know much of anything about her. Her name and costume, her bullet-blocking bracelets and magic lasso, maybe her invisible jet, but that’s about it, really. Curious indeed.

Hanley lays out the history of the character, from her emergence in 1941  from the head of psychologist William Moulton Marston to her New 52 hook-up with Superman. It’s a fairly thorough chronology that illustrates that, as popular as the heroine has become, the Wonder Woman of the past 35 years or so is the result of a series of mistaken readings of the character as she was conceived.

After a pretty universally derided attempt to make the character more relatable and relevant during her 1968-1972 “Mod Era” (with even writer Denny O’Neil agreeing those were some pretty terrible comics), Wonder Woman was championed by the feminist movement as an icon, mascot and role model. However, Hanley argues that was based on either a deliberate misreading or innocent misremembering of her original adventures, in which they saw what they wanted to see, rather than what was actually there.

When DC Comics returned Wonder Woman to her Amazonian roots and to the world of costumed superheroics, their direction embraced that of liberal feminism movement and, later, the l1970s TV show (which reduced any politics or psychology into safe, family-friendly fare).

So George Perez’s 1987 reboot of Wonder Woman, occurring at roughly the same time Frank Miller and company were reinventing Batman and John Byrne and others were rebooting Superman, didn’t get to the core of the character, who has been somewhat diluted and diffused for decades now. (Based on the attention given to various runs, Hanley seems to consider Perez’s the last really worthwhile Wonder Woman comic, although he has kind words in passing  for the work of Byrne, Phil Jimenez, Greg Rucka and others.)

Not that there’s anything terribly wrong with that.

Wonder Woman, as conceived by Marston and designed and drawn by H.G. Peter, was an unusual character, and access to Marston’s other writings — including his psychological theories and a spicy prose novel about the sexual escapades of Julius Caesar — weren’t exactly easy to come by in the 1970s. And hell, he did use a pen name on his Wonder Woman (“Charles Moulton”). Misreading Wonder Woman  in the Bronze Age wasn’t difficult to do, really.

Hanley devotes the most time and attention to Wonder Woman’s Golden Age and Silver Age. Most comics fans, and certainly most Wonder Woman fans, are at least cursorily aware of some of the “curious history” of Marston and her early adventures: Marston was instrumental in the invention of the polygraph; lived a polyamorous lifestyle with a wife and lover (whose jewelry inspired Wonder Woman’s bracelets); and had some unusual ideas about gender roles, the inequality of the sexes and the positive role of submission in human relationships, most of which played out in Wonder Woman, a comic for boys that Marston wrote to prepare them for the coming matriarchy. (Marston, and his Wonder Woman, weren’t feminists in the modern sense of the word; he, and she, believed women were superior to men, and society would be in better shape were they willingly given power over men by men.)

Hanley goes deeper than that, however, exploring Marston’s theories as presented elsewhere, and compiling bondage charts to address the question of whether Wonder Woman the comic really did feature more bondage than other comics of the period (it did), or whether the heroine was tied up more often than other characters (she was), given that getting captured was an occupational hazard for crimefighters. (Billy Batson was constantly being tied up and gagged in the Golden Age, for example, as all he had to do was say “Shazam!” to get out of any scrapes he found himself in. And, ironically, on TV, Batman, Robin and/or Batgirl were bound about once an episode, whereas Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman was rarely tied up.)

Hanley does a lot of academic-seeming work, counting up ads and scouring letter pages over the years to determine the intended audience for Wonder Woman comics during various years, and so on, and he provides charts of the appearances of supporting characters to deal with the question of, for example, whether Wonder Woman is a lesbian, In one of the book’s more fascinating sections, Hanley discusses Fredric Wertham’s objections to Wonder Woman as a recruiting poster for lesbianism; it’s great fun to see the thinking of Marston and Wertham engage in a sort of superhero battle, and it’s interesting to see that while Wertham went to the trouble of citing evidence and examples to argue that Batman and Robin could be read as gay— rather than that they were gay, which is a different thing entirely — Wertham didn’t bother to do so with Wonder Woman. She just seemed like a lesbian to him, apparently.

The book ends a bit anticlimactically, after the chapters on the character’s transitional phase from Robert Kanigher’s Silver Age Wonder Woman to Perez’s “modern” (now 27-year-old) Wonder Woman, which include her mod phase and the 1970s feminist movement’s embrace of the character. The final chapter, “The Mundane Modern Age,” which takes us from the end of the 1970s to 2011, is less than 25 pages.

Perez’s take is the only one it discusses in detail, and while blogosphere flare-ups involving Wonder Woman and DC’s treatment of female superheroes in general are covered — “fridging,” Stephanie Brown’s lack of a display case, Identity Crisis, Tiffany Fallon’s Playboy cover, Wonder Woman’s notable absence from the big screen — it seems odd that Hanley doesn’t detail Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s New 52 reboot of Wonder Woman at all.

Hanely writes at length about Wonder Woman’s Golden Age origin story (and how it contrasted with those of her peers), and at great length about Kanigher’s Silver Age revisions, which added male deities and mortals, radically altering and contradicting Marston’s. He even discusses Perez’s at some length, which mixes the two into a sort of compromise version.

Azzarello’s revamp gave  Wonder Woman an actual father and, therefore, a completely biological origin, as well as a backstory for her Amazon sisters and how their treatment of men turned them into a truly sinister society. If Kanigher cluelessly tweaked Wonder Woman’s story, Azzarello burned it to the ground.

The omission may be due to timing, but it’s worth noting Hanley was still writing late enough to discuss New 52 developments in his notes (Barbara Gordon’s return to Batgirl, Superman and Wonder Woman’s relationship, and the early issues of their new title), and the casting of Gal Gadot in the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

The book s a pretty quick read, though, at just about 240 pages, so if there was an era that had to get short shrift, the modern era was probably the one to pay the least attention to. After all, that’s the stuff modern comics fans, would-be Wonder Woman fans and anyone with an Internet connection can find out the most about the most easily. Marston’s DISC (Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance) theory, his novel Venus With Us and all of Hanley’s charts and stats are harder to come by.

One might finish Wonder Woman Unbound and still not really know Wonder Woman perfectly — Hanley titles his conclusion “Wonder Woman, Known But Unknown” — but, to borrow a phrase from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who Wonder Woman would likely have reviled, one will at least have a pretty good understanding of her known unknowns.

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Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine
by Tim Hanley, Chicago Press Review, 304 pages, $19

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