Aside from Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, Wonder Woman is one of the oldest comic-book superhero character who is still making noise in the entertainment history today. In fact, she is the most popular comic-book superhero of all time. The DC Comics character first appeared in All Star Comics in 1941. And like every other superhero, she has a secret identity and a secret history.
As one of the longest continually published comic book character, Wonder Woman’s origins have changed over the years. However, few elements remained consistent in all her depictions like being the princess of the Amazons – a matriarchal, all-women society of Paradise Island or Themyscira – and being persuaded by a man named Steve Trevor to join him in a man’s world on a mission of diplomacy and peace. She was known as Princess Diana by the Amazonians.
A Wonder Woman film adaptation by Warner Bros. Pictures is being shown in theaters worldwide as of this writing. DC Comics Entertainment chief Diane Nelson said in a 2013 interview with The Hollywood Reporter that Wonder Woman hadn’t been featured in a high-profile adaptation in decades because her character was tricky, stating that “she doesn’t have the single, clear, compelling story that everyone knows and recognizes,” unlike Superman and Batman. But the creator of Wonder Woman had a very clear intention.
Here’s what that intention was. Wonder Woman was a brainchild of an American psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston. In 1940, comics were criticized as a “national disgrace” because it was widely read despite having depictions of violence, even sexual violence, at a time when war was damaging Europe. Maxwell Charles Gaines, inventor of comic books and founder of All-American Comics, hired Marston as a consultant to ask for expert opinion about his comics and to defend himself against the critics.
Marston has also been a professor, a lawyer and a scientist. He was the creator of the systolic blood pressure test and the lie detector test. Being a psychologist, his experiments led him to believe that women were more honest than men. Working with Gaines, he decided to create a comic book hero that would represent feminine values of kindness, honesty and compassion, without being shown as weak or submissive. He designed Wonder Woman to be a symbol of an ideal leader. Marston once wrote, “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”
Wonder Woman’s main weapon, the Lasso of Truth, was chosen for her as it is related to elements of Marston’s own character. As the psychologist-inventor loved learning other people’s secrets, motivating him to create the lie detector test; Wonder Woman binds her opponents with the Lasso, forcing them to reveal their innermost secrets.
Marston drew a great deal of inspiration for Wonder Woman’s character from early feminists, especially Margaret Sanger, a pioneering activist on birth control. However, he wanted to keep this inspiration as a secret. Interestingly, Marston was also a bit of a character himself. Despite being a feminist who preached virtues of womankind, he lived with two women – one of them his wife, Elizabeth Holloway; and the other his lover, Olive Byrne. Both women were apparently fine with this situation, and both provided inspiration for Wonder Woman.
Byrne met Marston when she was a senior at Tufts University in 1925. He was her psychology professor. That time, he was already married to Holloway, a lawyer. Marston and Byrne fell in love, and he asked her to move in with them, with consent from his wife. They had a polyamorous relationship. Each woman bore two children with him between 1928 and 1933, and they lived together as a family. They told census takers and other people that Byrne was Marston’s widowed sister-in-law. Holloway worked and Byrne stayed home to raise the children. Byrne’s sons didn’t know that Marston was their father until 1963, when Holloway finally admitted the truth.
Gaines didn’t know any of this when he met Marston, or else he wouldn’t have hired him. It was Marston’s wife, Holloway, who suggested to create a female heroine. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman’s Amazon bracelets were inspired by those worn by Byrne.
In 1941, Marston submitted a final draft of his first script, with explanations about Wonder Woman’s Amazonian origins where they broke free and escaped bondage from men. Wonder Woman debuted in All-Star Comics that same year, and then, on the cover of a new comic book, Sensation Comics in 1942. That time, the character was drawn by an artist named Harry Peter. Wonder Woman wore red bustier, blue underpants, knee-high red leather boots and a golden tiara. She was portrayed as a supernatural woman who left Paradise to fight fascism with feminism.
Wonder Woman’s original backstory was this: In her homeland, her official title is Princess Diana of Themyscira. According to the original creation of Marston, she was the daughter of Queen Hippolyta, who created her out of clay, and the Greek gods gave her life. She grew up among the Amazons who taught her the skills of a warrior and the lessons of love and peace.
When Steve Trevor, a US intelligence officer whose plane crashed on the Amazon’s isolated island, Wonder Woman won the right to return him and join him to the “man’s world.” She left Paradise to fight crime and the evil of the Nazis. She adopted the name Diana Prince as her civilian identity.
As Wonder Woman, she can fly and has superhuman strength like that of Superman. She was depicted as a fighter and strategist, acrobat and masterful athlete. She has different mental and psychic abilities such as telepathy, ESP, mental control over electricity in her body and ability to turn brain energy to muscle power. Her Amazon bracelets can stop bullets and wield her golden Lasso. Anyone she ropes has to tell the truth. She was also able to heal faster than a human being because she has consumed water from the Fountain of Eternal Youth in Paradise Island. She joined the Justice Society (later called Justice League) as their secretary.
Wonder Woman’s greatest weakness was to be tied up by a man. Her superpowers would be gone if she allowed her bracelets to be bound or chained by a male, in accordance with “Aphrodite’s Law.” Themes of domination and restraint was ever-present through the original adventures of the superheroine.
The story seemed good and super patriotic to Gaines. However, the National Organization for Decent Literature put Sensation Comics on its blacklist of “Publications Disapproved for Youth” in March 1942, just because Wonder Woman is scantily dressed. The comics was also accused of hints of lewdness and salaciousness, but Marston defended, “You can’t have a real woman character in any form of fiction without touching off a great many readers’ erotic fancies.”
In 1944, Gaines and Marston signed a contract for Wonder Woman to become a newspaper strip syndicated by King Features. While Marston was working with the newspaper strips, he hired an 18-year-old student Jove Hummel (now Jove Kelly) to help him write scripts for the comic books. She actually helped with Marston’s editorial problem because her stories were more innocent than his.
Marston died in 1947 due to skin cancer, keeping his family secrets with his grave. Her wife and lover continued to live together until Byrne died in 1985.
After Marston’s death, other writers had continued writing Wonder Woman, and most of them changed some aspects the character. During the Silver Age of comics books in 1958, Wonder Woman was revamped by All-American Comics writer Robert Kanigher. He increased Wonder Woman’s Hellenic and mythological roots, revising her origin as having received the blessing of gods in her crib and making her destined to be as “beautiful as Aphrodite, as wise as Athena, as strong as Hercules, and as swift as Hermes.”
In the end of the 1960s, the story was changed again by DC Comics writer and artist Mike Sekowsky. According to his version, Wonder Woman surrendered her Amazonian powers to remain in Man’s World. She used the name Diana Prince and opened a mod boutique. She hired a Chinese mentor to teach her martial arts and weapon skills.
Wonder Woman got back her powers in 1973, and that time, her first television movie adaptation was being produced. Blonde actress Cathy Lee Crosby was casted for the title role. A year later, the Wonder Woman TV series debuted on ABC, starring Lynda Carter, who popularized the character. The series kept Wonder Woman at the forefront of popular culture until the series ended in 1979.
The Wonder Woman comic book, however, struggled to stay relevant in the 1980s. With sales continuing to decline in 1985, the book series was canceled and ended in 1986, depicting Wonder Woman’s marriage to Steve Trevor.
As the writers were having a hard time to find a firm identity for the character, DC writers tried to rewrite Wonder Woman’s identity from scratch. The character starred in the comic book crossover series, The Crisis on Infinite Earths, was released in the mid-1980s, and was written by George Perez, Len Wein and Greg Potter. Her origin was rewritten, depicting Wonder Woman as an ambassador from Themyscira to the man’s world, with a mission of bringing peace. The relaunch of the character was a critical and commercial success.
Her female oriented-origin – being formed out of clay by a woman, given life and power by women – contradicted the notion that heroism originates from tragedy and pain. The version of Wonder Woman seen from The Crisis on Infinite Earths is an example of how feminine power does not have to replicate the bloodthirsty revenge of male superhero counterparts to be sensible.
Under Perez, Wonder Woman had an active body that is constantly involved in battle, as she was redressed to avoid sexual representation. But when Perez’s tenure at the comic ended in 1992, artists and authors reverted the drawing of Wonder Woman for a male audience. Under Mike Deodato, Wonder Woman’s body was the physical ideal that time. She acquired muscular arms and legs, small torso, large round breasts and flowing raven hair. The lower half of her costume was changed into a high-cut thong bottom exposing her hipbones.
In 2011, DC Comics relaunched its entire line of publications to attract a new generation of readers, launching a brand known as the New 52. Writers Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang were assigned on writing and art duties. In their version, Wonder Woman’s costume was similar to the original Marston-designed costume, and she uses a sword and shield. They also completely changed Wonder Woman’s history. In the series, Diana discovers that she wasn’t made from clay but a daughter of Zeus, making her an actual demigoddess. They portrayed the Amazonians not as powerful immortals, but as man-hating murderers. This obliterated the feminist origins of Wonder Woman and demonstrated a great misunderstanding of the character. The writers also made her romantically involved with Superman, which stirred some controversy in the DC fans community.
Azzarello’s tenure lasted for only three years. DC’s latest revamp of their brand launched in 2016, the Rebirth, was created by writer Greg Rucka and artists Liam Sharp and Nicola Scott. Wonder Woman was returned to her original history, and the Amazons were portrayed as a complex, peace-loving sisterhood.
It seems DC made a real effort to honor Wonder Woman’s noble, feminist roots. The character is still famous until today. The debut of the 2017 Wonder Woman film has been received with far more enthusiasm than Superman and Batman, thanks to Gal Gadot’s remarkable performance.