Wonder Woman turns 75 this year. Over the course of her existence, she’s had all manner of multimedia success, but DC Comics‘ premiere female superhero has a reputation for being hard to understand. Throughout her history, and particularly in recent years, various creative teams have tried changing her costume, altering her origin, and generally tinkering with the things which make her tick.
Therefore, in the interests of introducing casual readers to the Amazing Amazon, here are some notes on Wonder Woman’s basic setup, as well as suggestions for which creative teams have portrayed her best. It seems a little strange to say that such a familiar character could have such a significant learning curve, but Wonder Woman has a fascinating, unique background in both the real world and the realm of fiction.
75-odd years ago, psychologist William Moulton Marston wanted a female superhero to show women and men how a more compassionate philosophy could basically save the world — so he fashioned a new legend out of classical mythology and elements of utopian feminism. Wonder Woman, a/k/a Princess Diana and/or Diana Prince, was formed from Paradise Island clay and brought to life by a mother’s love and the powers of various Greek goddesses. Her origin story first appeared in two parts, 1941’s “All Star Comics” #8 (where we learn about the Amazons and why Diana leaves her hidden home) and “Sensation Comics” #1 (in which she arrives in America and gets a secret identity). Wonder Woman appeared in “Sensation” for the vast majority of its run, until shortly before the title folded in 1951. “Sensation” was recently and briefly revived in a digital-first format, and there’s an out-of-continuity digital-first “Legend Of Wonder Woman” offering an extended version of the origin; as well as the team-up book “Superman/Wonder Woman” and the upcoming “Trinity.” Nevertheless, to keep things simple, for the most part I’ll be discussing the main “Wonder Woman” title.
7. THE PHILOSOPHY
One of Wonder Woman’s most distinctive elements is her mission to Man’s (or, since 1986, “Patriarch’s”) World. It stands out especially in contrast to the other members of DC’s Trinity. Batman’s morality was shaped irrevocably by the Wayne murders, which not only intruded on his childhood but deprived him of his parents. Likewise, Superman’s ethics come from some combination of the Kents’ influence and (the dead) Kryptonian culture. However, Wonder Woman is an ambassador from a millennia-old society which nevertheless still thrives. Instead of trying to honor memories, she’s charged with building bridges.
Seen in that light, both Wonder Woman’s compassion and her powers are just different kinds of tools. Over the years, various creative teams have emphasized one or the other, with her fighting skills currently more prominent. Originally, though, Marston sought to show them in perfect balance. He envisioned a world of “loving submission,” where — to put it simply — people would recognize that their selfish desires needed to be subordinated to more peaceful ones. Accordingly, Wonder Woman’s lasso didn’t just compel its targets to tell the truth, it also made them do whatever their captor wanted; and the Amazons were perfect physical and mental specimens precisely because their civilization was devoted to positive societal principles. In fact, until the 1986 revamp, Wonder Woman’s bracelets also kept her negative emotions in check, such that if they were broken or otherwise removed, she’d go into an uncontrollable fit of rage. These not-entirely-subtle details are just part of what makes Marston and the Golden Age Wonder Woman so fascinating (and, if you hadn’t already guessed, a little beyond the scope of this feature).
6. FIRST READS?
Accordingly, my picks for where to start all come from the 1986-2011 period, which the Perez-led reboot kicked off. New readers could start with any of these runs, each of which showcases a different aspect to the character.
First, the original Perez run (“Wonder Woman” vol. 2 #s 1-24, plus Annuals 1-2; 1986-88) is one of the best distillations of the character in a monthly-series format. Steve Trevor’s still around, but he’s an older-brother figure, not a love interest; and Diana is a relative innocent in her mid-twenties who has yet to learn how nasty Patriarch’s World can be. The supporting cast is almost all female: besides Etta Candy, Queen Hippolyta and the other Amazons, Perez et al. introduce Harvard professor Julia Kapatelis and her teenage daughter Vanessa, pragmatic publicist Myndi Mayer and Boston cop Ed Indelicato. Most of Perez’s run involves mythological villains like the war-god Ares and the sorceress Circe, but there are new takes on super-baddies like the Cheetah and the Silver Swan; and running through it all is a strong sense of cultural identity. Perez and company never let the reader forget that Diana is an outsider struggling not really to assimilate, but to make herself understood even as she seeks to understand her new home. Perez stayed on in various capacities through issue #62 (and the just-collected “War of the Gods” crossover), but those first two years of his plots and pencils really set the tone for a long time to come.
Sample story: “Gods and Mortals” (collected-edition title), volume 2 issues #1-7; plotted and pencilled by Perez, scripted by Greg Potter and Len Wein, and inked by Bruce Patterson.
5. INTERMEDIATE STUDIES
As mentioned above, from the ’50s through the late ’60s, writer Bob Kanigher and artist Ross Andru turned the book into a more fantasy-oriented title, bringing in weird, quasi-imaginary stories which teamed up Wonder Woman with her younger selves Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot. (This is where “Teen Titans” got the whole other can of continuity worms which turned into Donna Troy.) Those stories are collected in four “Showcase Presents Wonder Woman” volumes, and they’re regarded about as well as the 1950s “Sci-Fi Batman” stories have been. In other words, they don’t take themselves seriously, so you probably shouldn’t either.
Sample story: “The Eagle Of Space,” volume 1 issue #105; written by Kanigher, pencilled by Andru, and inked by Mike Esposito.
Speaking of which, while I can’t quite articulate it, I always felt writer/artist John Byrne’s run on volume 2 (issues #101-136, 1996-98) was something of an homage to the Kanigher/Andru days. It was certainly more superhero-heavy, starting with Darkseid and Doomsday stories and introducing a new Wonder Girl and Invisible Jet. Because it was the ’90s, “Wonder Woman” also featured a “death and replacement” storyline, in which a deceased Diana ascended to Olympus to become the Goddess of Truth, with her mother Hippolyta taking her place as Wonder Woman.
Sample story: “The Men Who Moved The World,” volume 2 issues #115-17; written and drawn by Byrne.
4. ADVANCED WORK
In 1968, under the direction of writer Denny O’Neil and writer/artist Mike Sekowsky, Diana relinquished her costume and powers to become an Emma Peel-style martial artist, traveling the world and righting various topical wrongs. Since this ranged pretty far afield from the classic Wonder Woman setup, I’m not inclined to recommend it to casual readers. It doesn’t even have much in common thematically with departures like the Jim Gordon Batman or Electric Superman. Instead, it’s more like the Superman books’ recent “Truth” mega-arc, and it remains an outlier in Diana’s publishing history.
Between the end of the Gail Simone era and the start of the New 52, writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Don Kramer started a not-quite-alternate history of Wonder Woman called “Odyssey” (issues #601-#612). It operated from the premise that the timeline had been changed, the Amazons had been almost wiped out, and Diana was their only survivor who was just now learning about her birthright and powers. Like JMS’ contemporaneous Superman arc, it was left to another writer (Phil Hester) to finish; and like the white-suit stories, it may be best appreciated as a contrast to the traditional setup.
THE FIRST AND THE LAST
3. OTHER VOICES
2. WHERE TO FIND THEM
While Volume 1 of “Wonder Woman” (1942-86) isn’t collected in its entirety, a good selection of issues across its publishing history can be found on Comixology. In print, its early years are represented in the “Wonder Woman Chronicles” set of paperbacks, while the Kanigher Silver Age can be found in “Showcase Presents Wonder Woman.” The white-suit stories are in the four-volume “Diana Prince: Wonder Woman” paperbacks, and the storyline which returned the superheroic Wonder Woman to the Justice League is collected in “Wonder Woman: The Twelve Labors.”
All the monthly issues of Volume 2, Volume 3, and Volume 4 are on comiXology; as are the “OMAC Project” and “Amazons Attack” miniseries and the digital-first “Sensation Comics” and “Wonder Woman ’77.” A “War of the Gods” collection is set to come out later this month.
I should mention that if you’re really interested in a Golden and Silver Age overview, and don’t mind a lot of dry prose, Michael Fleisher’s “Encyclopedia Of Comic Book Heroes Volume 2” covers everything from 1941 through the very start of the white-suit stories in 1968. It shouldn’t be hard to find, especially since DC reprinted it a few years ago. Around the same time as that reprint, Phil Jiminez and John Wells offered their own updated “Wonder Woman Encyclopedia,” but obviously that’s not as focused on the older stuff. Naturally, Jill Lepore’s “Secret History Of Wonder Woman” offers lots of insight into Marston and his family; Tim Hanley’s “Wonder Woman Unbound” is a deep dive into the comics’ hidden meanings; and Les Daniels’ “Wonder Woman: A Complete History” presents a more coffee table-esque account of the character’s publishing history.
1. ONE LAST THING
No list, especially a recommended-reading sort of list, is perfect; and I’m sure someone’s favorite story and/or creative team has gone unmentioned. (Let that not be the case for Eric Luke and Yanick Paquette’s issues!) However, the point of this article is to get you into, and excited about, Wonder Woman. She might not have been the first superheroine, but she’s certainly the most recognizable, and the most enduring. She comes from a unique place not just in American history but the history of American women specifically; so there’s a strong temptation to treat her delicately — maybe even by taking a conservative “butt-kicking” approach to guarantee she draws a significant male audience.
Regardless, the thing I like about Wonder Woman is that I don’t ever feel like I’ve figured her out. Over the years DC has, for the most part, known what to do with its A-listers: Batman is cool and spooky, Superman is forthright and upstanding, the Flash is light and breezy and Green Lantern is a swashbuckling space-cop. After a while, though, that threatens to descend into formula — or worse, into misguided fix-it attempts. Although Wonder Woman has seen her share of the latter, even the misfires seem to be instructive in their own ways. A good Wonder Woman story is its own reward; but a bad one might just encourage the next team to do better — or even to keep striving towards depicting the ideals the character embodies.
When I first started thinking about this article, I wanted to identify the stories which might best explain Wonder Woman to more casual readers. However, the deeper I got the more I realized that I still don’t know as much as I’d like about the character or her history. For me, that’s a feature, not a bug — because the more I do learn, the more I realize that the factors which shaped the character and her series often go beyond the mechanics of making comics. Yes, there is a lot to Wonder Woman; and I hope I don’t get to the bottom of it anytime soon. Until then, there are plenty of good comics to explore.
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