The Amazon Princess, blessed by the gods and chosen to fight the Axis of Evil, the Ambassador building a bridge of peace and understanding between two worlds, the unwilling yet formidable Goddess of War, the desirable and unbound inamorata of both women and men. Wonder Woman has always been a character of dueling natures, divided between her quest for peace and her warrior’s skill, pulled between the gender and sexual expectations and orientations of her adopted society, and tasked with both a fictional and real-world symbolic reverence that has not always easily allowed for the progress and veracity of character she has become so associated with. She is seemingly a contradictory figure, one who forces us to ask: how can anyone be so many things and still stand for, above all else, truth? But the answer is clear. She is a woman. She embodies all of the complexities of women, not in some way that sits unreachable on a pedestal, but in a very real way in which all the flaws and attributes coalesce to create the script of layered personhood. Diana of Themyscira, formed by clay and brought to life through love, has been molded to fit our needs over and over again. Her ever-changing, mythic history makes her arguably the most fantastic of our central comic book characters, yet through her appeal to our best selves, Wonder Woman is also our most human superhero.
Created by William Moulton Marston and artist Harry G. Peter, with a fair share of inspiration from Marston’s wife Elizabeth and their cohabitant and mutual lover Olivia Byrne, Wonder Woman was always made to stand apart in popularity from the characters she shared the newsstands with. While today Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman form what’s known as DC Comics’ Trinity, notions of balance were the furthest thing from Martson’s mind when he introduced her to the world in 1941, within the pages of All-Star Comics #8. If her place within the context of feminism seems political in nature, it is, and rightfully so. But in 1941, Marston had Diana primed for more than feminism, she was set to usher in the age of the matriarchy through peaceful domination. Marston, a Harvard doctor of psychology, who invented systolic blood pressure test and the polygraph test, viewed himself as a progressive and didn’t mince words when it came to his views on women.
Women, Marston claimed, were both psychologically and biologically superior, more equipped to run the world because they were more in tune with love and rational thought. His views on comic books were equally progressive and controversial. Comic books, he believed, could be more than entertainment. They could be educational tools to help bring us into a new age of understanding. In many ways, so much of comic book analysis and their ability to mean more than childhood distractions can be attributed to Wonder Woman. When Marston decided he would pitch a comic to All-American Publications, which would eventually become folded into DC Comics, it was his wife, Elizabeth, who said that the character must be a woman. Marston, in all his brilliance, decided that the name should speak to the strengths inherent in women, should be memorable and also poke a hole through the seemingly unbreakable masculinity of comics’ most popular character. And thus he named her: Superma, the Wonder Woman. Luckily, the editor at All-American shortened the name to Wonder Woman. If he hadn’t there’s a pretty significant chance that the character wouldn’t have survived past the Golden Age of comics unless it was as an apron brand. But survive she did.
Marston’s Wonder Woman, aided by Peter’s cartoony style, was an immediate hit. While she wasn’t the first female superhero, she did become the widest read and most distributed. Born on an island of women, known as Paradise Island, Wonder Woman offered readers something different than her counterparts. There was no tragedy behind her heroism, which set her apart from Batman. And while she was set up as a reaction to Superman, she wasn’t alone in her exceptional abilities like the man from Krypton. While so many superheroes were special because they were different, Wonder Woman was special because her gifts were shared amongst her sisters. Her strength, speed, and way with animals weren’t individual traits but the traits of all women who could find it within themselves. And if they couldn’t, well then came Wonder Woman and her Reformation Island to help show them the ways of the Amazons. Even today, Batman and Superman are seen as singular and irreplaceable, despite their legacies being picked up by successors for brief periods. It’s always been evident that Wonder Woman, even after she was given powers that did make her unique among her sisters, isn’t a legacy of lone and morally superior purpose, or of building an army of child soldiers foster children to wage war on crime, but of creating a shared responsibility of peacekeeping where the elderly woman down the street, the waitress or the middle-school student are just as capable of being Wonder Women as Diana of Themyscira. More important that her relationship with other heroes or with nemeses is her relationship with the world at large. Much of Wonder Woman’s early adventures were centered around her helping women, even those with Nazi leanings, to find their own power and their true and virtuous selves. Yet, despite her mission of peace, Wonder Woman didn’t lack violence.
Wonder Woman has always been defined by the presence of war. Wonder Woman’s mission to empower women came hand in hand with her efforts to end World War II. In fact, her presence in man’s world was the result of her being chosen by way of a tournament to aid the crashed pilot Steve Trevor and save his world from the tyranny of men. Today we take Wonder Woman’s war efforts for granted, attributing them to a result of the time. But as comic book historian Tim Hanley points out in his book, Wonder Woman Unbound, Wonder Woman was one of the few comic characters to actually take part in the war effort within the pages of her story, while Batman and Superman only ever mean-mugged Nazis on their covers and encouraged kids to buy war bonds without ever joining the effort themselves. While Wonder Woman would typically try to use reason to talk her enemies down, she wasn’t above dispatching her enemies. These acts may seem counter-intuitive to her mission of peace, but Marston understood, even if it was subconsciously, that peace as both a concept and action could not exist without war. This central character thesis would be utilized decades later in establishing the relationship between Wonder Woman and her nemesis Ares, the God of War. The violence of Wonder Woman has long been a subject of controversy. There are those, like writer Grant Morrison (who is arguably the greatest comic writer of the modern era), who take issue with a sword-carrying Diana. Morrison has tried to mitigate the appeal of Wonder Woman as Xena-esque warrior princess within the pages of his Wonder Woman: Earth One, a beautiful interpretation which sought to bring Diana back to her roots. There are many who find the modern Wonder Woman a far-cry from Marston’s original intentions, and who believe her message of peace and love has been lost in the fray of her hacking apart monsters and donning suits of battle-armor. But characters, particularly those who exist in comics, evolve over time, and Wonder Woman doesn’t belong on a pedestal comprised only of archaic notions of femininity.
For all of Marston’s clarity about the character and her aims, there’s a perfection to Marston’s take on the character that doesn’t make her the most interesting of characters. Marston, despite his progressiveness, was still short-sighted when it came to the character’s appeal. Wonder Woman was created for male readers, who predominately made up comic readership, and as such she was symbolic in nature, a means to prep them for the coming of a matriarchy we’re still waiting on. But it was young girls who made up much of Wonder Woman’s fanbase, young girls who, as Hanley concludes, would later take the character’s symbolic nature and use her as a figurehead for the Women’s Rights movements in the ’60s and ’70s. But Wonder Woman as a symbol is far less interesting than Wonder Woman as a character. Yes, Wonder Woman is good and honest, full of love and in tune with nature. She’s a good representative of admirable qualities, but as we all know, women slay too.
Our concepts of peace and war and the capabilities of women shift as the world does. While Steinem and her acolytes highlighted the strength and self-reliance of the Wonder Woman of Marston’s tenure, they didn’t exactly make way for her in the modern world. They relied on past examples of Wonder Woman as their symbol, utilized her as a credit to her gender. Marston saw Wonder Woman as more of an example than a fully fleshed out character with desires that showcased a self-interest and self-love, or even self-doubt. She wasn’t equipped for a changing world, and her caregivers after Marston’s death did little to rectify that. The criticism that the character now faces for her violent tendencies, a factor that played the main role in the absurdist, real-world decision to remove Wonder Woman as honorary U.N. ambassador in 2016, is a result of a lack of progressive thinking. To deny Wonder Woman a literal fighting chance in a comic book universe defined by fighting limits the character. To make Wonder Woman exist only by morally and politically correct qualities makes her, by all modern definitions, a mascot rather than a superhero.
While Batman and Superman thrived during the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s thanks to varied media representations and iconic stories under writers who challenged preconceptions, Wonder Woman languished. Yes, there was Lynda Carter’s TV show, more famous for Carter’s iconic appearance and signature abilities, like the spin change, than for any particular narrative. And yes, there was also the infamous Ms. magazine issue that featured Gloria Steinem’s analysis of the character in regards to her feminism. But for the most part, Wonder Woman suffered under writers who didn’t know what to do with her, who repeated her stories, who stripped her of her powers and made her a mod crimefighter, who took the fact that she was a woman was distinction enough. Wonder Woman is still recovering from The Silver and Bronze Age of comics, and the general perception of the character still rarely extends beyond fading memories of the TV show and vague associations and misconceptions concerning feminism. When DC Comics confirmed Diana’s sexuality last year, the NY Daily News ran the announcement with a picture of Lynda Carter and the blurb, “Turns out, Wonder Woman, famously played by Lynda Carter was bisexual all along.” Note the emphasis on the past tense, and underlying idea that everything that Wonder Woman is existed within the frame of a three season TV show. When it comes to Wonder Woman, we know what she looks like, but we don’t know who she is. Batman and Superman evolved, they survived the Comics Code Authority, they excelled under the pens of writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller. They were made to matter in the ever-changing present. Wonder Woman never got her Dark Knight Returns moment within that era, she never got to pick up her sword, or have existential crisis about her purpose in the world, which is why we’re only now getting our first Wonder Woman movie in her 75 years of existence. For decades, Wonder Woman was held in place in a way that few if any comic characters ever were: her best stories were behind her. Then a Crises happened.
After the maxi-series, Crisis on Infinite Earths, which saw a reboot of the DC universe in 1986, Wonder Woman received a modern treatment in 1987. Under writer-artist George Perez, Wonder Woman took on a new relevance, becoming a formidable warrior who was just as skilled with a sword as she was with her silver bracelets and lasso of truth. It wasn’t the first time that DC had played with the idea of Wonder Woman as a warrior. 1969’s Wonder Woman #184 showed hints of the warrior that the character would become, but it was Perez who made the depiction stick. But even with a sword, and more violent battles with mythical demigods and supervillains, Wonder Woman still displayed a sisterhood, a love, a mission of peace, and still chatted up animals on the regular. But alongside these aspects Perez humanized Diana. He gave her doubts, insecurities, allowed her to fail, and earn every single triumph. Wonder Woman was finally allowed to grow. While Diana always entered man’s world under the moniker of Wonder Woman, we really got the sense from Perez’s five-year run that Wonder Woman truly was the story of a girl becoming a woman. Wonder Woman, following Perez’s run, had peaks and valleys, with high-points coming from writers Greg Rucka and Gail Simone who always positioned Diana in place of growth, and made her challenges personal. Their comics made it clear that if Batman was the guy you wanted to train with and occasionally avoid, and Superman was the guy you wanted to work with but were secretly jealous of, then Wonder Woman was the best friend you’d feel comfortable telling anything to.
The Modern Age had managed to make Diana into a warrior, but with a warrior’s strength came a certain association with masculinity, as if strength and cunning in a woman equaled some kind of gender wrongness. While Superman was getting hitched and Batman had more girlfriends than gadgets, Wonder Woman’s relationships primarily consisted of friendships. Even Steve Trevor, her original love interest, had been aged to a man in his fifties during Perez’s tenure, and was never anything more than a dear friend and father figure. The idea that Wonder Woman was a lesbian was raised within comic circles and fanzines, not for the first time, but it was often said without the positive perspective we’d give it today, and was instead largely treated a joke or a turnoff to the character outside of queer circles. While Wonder Woman’s sexuality has been disputed for most her existence, the subtext has always been clear. Marston, who could add being a polygamist and bondage fetishist to his Jack-of-all-trades lifestyle, made it clear that Wonder Woman wanted nothing to do with Steve Trevor’s affections. Steve took on the role as the nagging, damsel in distress, and while Wonder Woman’s alter-ego Diana Prince may have pined for his affections, Wonder Woman couldn’t be tied down by a man, literally. Bondage served as a key component of Wonder Woman’s lore, and while Superman had kryptonite, and Batman had poisons, Wonder Woman’s weakness was being bound by a man. The bondage would effectively strip her of her powers in man’s world. But on Paradise Island, bondage was a game of submission and hierarchy. On the subject, as quoted in Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow, Marston said, “giving to others, being controlled by them, submitting to other people cannot possibly be enjoyable without a strong erotic element.” While Diana never had any explicit sexual encounters with women in these stories, she was bound by her fellow Amazons frequently, and she had a hell of a time. Coupled with her oft-used catchphrase “Suffering Sappho,” itself a reference to the Greek poet from island of Lesbos (from which we derive the word lesbian), it’s clear where Marston fell on the subject of Wonder Woman’s sexuality.
Even as the Silver Age comics regressed Diana into a troublesome girlfriend who frequently became jealous when Steve interacted with other women, the ideas about her sexuality still held. In the Modern Age, Peter David subtly raised and answered the question of Diana’s sexuality in Justice League Task Force #8 (1994) when Maxima says, “Amazons had no men around for centuries. How did you handle that?” Diana sips her tea, takes a beat, and responds, “All I’ll say is… we don’t call it ‘Paradise Island’ for nothing.” While most ideas about Diana’s sexuality existed in subtext, Rucka tackled it more directly, in Wonder Woman Vol. 2 #197 (2003). Asked if she has a boyfriend at a book signing, Diana responds: “I don’t, no, not at the present. I should add that I don’t have a girlfriend either.” In 2016, Rucka said that Wonder Woman was obviously bisexual, neither discrediting her varied history with Steve and other boyfriends, nor the fact that she grew up on an island comprised entirely of women; his current run on the series makes her bisexuality evident and even gives a name to her Paradise Island girlfriend: Kaisa. While the subtext was always there, Rucka became the first Wonder Woman writer to directly confirm that the character was canonically queer, though Silver Age writer Robert Kanigher stated that all Amazons were lesbians, and same-sex relationships between Amazons were depicted intermittently throughout the Modern Age. While the media treated this “coming out” as a major step for Wonder Woman, those who’ve followed her for years could only nod at the obviousness of something they already knew. Sometimes the subtext is answer enough.
Just as time and progress have helped Wonder Woman evolve beyond a generalization of feminine qualities, she has also evolved beyond the expectation that women, particularly in a male dominated industry, exist solely for the sexual pleasure of men. But what makes Wonder Woman so difficult to get a grasp on is that there isn’t one story that defines her, not one story to point to and say this presents the wholeness of Wonder Woman in the same way that we can point to specific ones for Batman and Superman. Wonder Woman is defined by a collection of stories, encompassing everyone from Marston to Rucka. As discussed, Wonder Woman didn’t have her Dark Knight Returns moment in the ’80s, but Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s 23 issue run on Wonder Woman from 2011 to 2014 comes closest to capturing it. Rife with controversy, Azzarello’s run emphasized the duel nature of Diana. When it comes to Wonder Woman, it always comes back to blood and truth and the link between them. It may be pure coincidence, but there is an undeniable symbolic connection that Marston’s study of both blood and truth inevitably became twin bracelets that are Diana’s greatest strength and weakness. Azzarello explored Wonder Woman’s penchant for violence, as it contradicted her mission for peace directly, by establishing her as a demigod and the successor of Ares, effectively unchaining her from notions of perfection. This is a depiction of Diana who loves to dance, loves to fight, honors her friends, kills her enemies, and struggles with the isolation that comes from fitting in neither of the two worlds she’s made her home. While it lacks the watershed impact of TDKR, it’s a fascinating portrait of complexity and rebellion in a world where women are still told how they should dress and to smile more often. It shatters the idea of what Wonder Woman should be and ventures to rediscover who she is in a self-contained journey. Above all, the run answers the essential question of both character and the publishing market about how a demigod powered by war and bloodshed can also remain a superhero and ambassador for peace. It’s the question that has always surrounded Wonder Woman, given a sharper edge of modernity, and stripped of fairy tale elements by its deliverance as straight myth. But even this depiction, delivered with a clear thesis, simply cannot contain all that Wonder Woman is.
As we stand upon the release of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, we stand looking forward to what may be the most significant female blockbuster in film history. And as Gal Gadot looks set to bring the warmth, humanity, courage, and fighting spirit to Diana, we may finally have the gift of seeing Wonder Woman rise to the heights of her male counterparts–beyond them, even. If we’re to take anything from Wonder Woman’s long and varied history, it’s that the film shouldn’t become a fixed symbol. Symbols don’t grow, they rarely allow for deconstruction or reconstitution, and fixed symbols don’t benefit those they were created for, especially as time and people change. Marston created an icon, but he also created a symbol with the best intentions, one that based on psychology and physiology of women as he knew them. But we know that womanhood isn’t dictated by either. It’s a myriad of coexisting binaries and seeming contradictions that ultimately create beauty, strength, fierceness, and imperfect reflections of peace and war. The best Wonder Woman film isn’t one that exists as one thing. It isn’t one that denies complications and contradictions but the one that exists as many things to many people within its subtext and overt messages. The best Wonder Woman film is one that lives and moves fluidly through our journey towards understanding and growth. There’s no doubt that Jenkins and Gadot have done that. For 75 years Wonder Woman has been an icon, but it’s only been a few, intermittent decades where we’ve been allowed to care about her, to truly know her. The stage is set, the world is waiting, and after 75 years it’s time to reintroduce Wonder Woman!
Featured Image: Nicola Scott (DC Comics)