Thursday, October 15, 2015

Guest Review - The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Doug: It's a BAB Book Review today, kids -- and courtesy of Colin Bray.

‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’ by Jill Lepore

Colin Bray: I read this book less as a collector of Wonder Woman comics and more through a fascination with feminist history. Which is just as well because this book is less a history of Wonder Woman than a revelatory account of her roots in the early 20th Century feminist and bohemian movements. 

These roots are made more complex for being channeled through the rather unusual mind of William Moulton Marston.

The author, Jill Lepore, is a Harvard academic and staff writer at The New Yorker. And this book is clearly the result of a huge amount of research, much of it using primary sources. Lepore is the first person to have studied and written from the Marston personal diaries and family archive, and as a result the book feels genuinely fresh, like we are opening a new window onto the history of the 20th century. The other dominant impression (and irony) from the book is that the psychologist inventor of the lie detector surrounded himself with so many lies and obfuscation.

How does Lepore demonstrate that Wonder Woman is inseparably entwined with feminist history and theory?

·         In 1911, Harvard (where Marston studied) was engulfed with debates about women’s suffrage – and Marston attended a sell-out lecture by Emmeline Pankhurst.

·         Olive Byrne, one of the three women in Marston’s life, was the niece of Margaret Sanger (America’s foremost birth control campaigner) and daughter of Ethel Byrne (the first early feminist to be force-fed while on hunger strike).

·         Marston’s wife, Sadie Holloway, was herself a feminist with a prominent career including a senior editorial position on the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

·         As can be seen below, the early feminist cartoonist Lou Rogers was an influence, not just on Marston but on Harry Peter, the artist on the Marston Wonder Woman stories - who himself was an early advocate for women’s rights.

·         And just one of many such smaller details - Wonder Woman’s bracelets are based on Olive Byrne’s bracelets which were probably a gift from Marston in lieu of a wedding ring (because he was already married to Holloway).

Marston’s personal and family arrangements were particularly complex, which was the cause of much of the secrecy and lies in his life. So too the paradox (contradiction?) of his genuinely progressive view of women and his parallel espousal of free love and bondage. Lepore is clear on these issues and their relationship to Wonder Woman without being at all sensationalistic.

I came away from the book feeling that Marston was a hugely flawed man, only partially redeemed by his progressive views. Any possible redemption is based on the fact he consistently stood by his personal philosophy, and his original Wonder Woman stories were genuinely radical for their time. But he was not an admirable man, ultimately a huckster and self-propagandist who got by with an excess of self-regard and charisma. 

The women in his life are as thoroughly explored (perhaps more so) as Marston himself, and the book contains lengthy passages exploring their dilemmas, not only within their personal context but also how these intelligent and educated women continued to balance the demands of family, personal ambition and a bohemian lifestyle with its own huge emotional cost.

Fascinating and informative as this book is, it is not a simple history of Wonder Woman outside of her political and social context. If you come to this expecting to find out about the second appearance of the Cheetah, or how the invisible plane works, you may be disappointed. If, on the other hand, you want to understand how Wonder Woman was the previously unexplored missing link between the feminist first wave and 70s women’s liberation movement read on!


Edo Bosnar said...

Colin, thanks for the review. I've been quite interested in this book since I heard about it, especially since I'm also quite fascinated by Marston, Holloway and Byrne as well - not just their unusual, I suppose, mutual relationships, but also because it was apparently a real meeting of minds. Holloway in particular was quite a scholar in her own right, probably more capable than Marston, despite his fame. (And she also apparently contributed to the creation of Wonder Woman, i.e., more than just serving as a partial inspiration.)

Redartz said...

Thanks for the fine review, Colin. It's always fascinating to explore examples of comic book creators/characters as reflections of society in general, and to consider the political aspects of comic book culture as well. This sounds like fodder for another whole column...

And yes, the Wonder Woman speaking in the panel you provided above is far more provocative than the "Suffering Sappho" version of other eras. Striking; and again, fascinating.

david_b said...

Very insightful column and review, Colin. We don't delve into the deep social and historic birth pangs of the golden age heroes often. WW clearly represents more of the social-intertwined studies of progressive movement, just as she was at the apex of mod fashions/feminine movement of the early '70s, shedding her seemingly anachronistic outfit (and history) towards more (short-lived) Diana Riggs-influenced action.

It's also a testament to her importance that DC kept the title going in the '70s despite low sales, an action not afforded to the Titans, Aquaman, GL/GA and other failing stalwarts from DC's Silver Age.

Great read this morning.

ColinBray said...

Thanks for the positive comments , folks, much appreciated.

The review was prompted by Karen's WW post a few weeks ago - there is so much to explore with the WW character.

The book is very rich in detail not covered in the review. For instance, Max Gaines comes across very well. In fact, without Gaines and his support for Marston against the proto-Wertham critics, the character souldn't have got past the first few issues. As we know, the watering down of the WW character was almost instantaneous after Gaines and Marston died within a year or two of each other.

From a Bronze Age perspective, the final chapter deals with how the 70s feminist wave appropriated WW without having any idea just how closely connected the character was to their intellectual forebears. Amazing to think a mere funny book is possibly the only direct ancestral link between the radical movements of1900 and 1970...

Dr. Oyola said...

If you are interested in an academic take on a close-reading of the Marston-era Wonder Woman comics themselves you should check out Noah Berlatsky's _Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948_, which had the unfortunate fate of coming out a month after Lepore's book and thus getting lost in the shuffle. It is also available on Amazon.

Martinex1 said...

Colin, i did not know about this book but am really glad you shared. I think your summary of Marston as a flawed character interests me the most. We have a habit of lionizing creative, strong minded, and revolutionary personalities, so I am curious about the depth of personality evaluation that seems to be in the book.

In regards to Wonder Woman, I will have to go and read some examples of Marston's work to see how it compares to the modern version; I suspect (and this is biased I am sure) that we have lost much of the characterization, emphasis, and social commentary. I am not versed enough in WW to know if any nuances continue, or if in certain writers' runs the commentary evolves.

This review made me think how far we have advanced in the past century yet how little... If that makes sense. Sometimes we act like major historical events like the suffragette movement or WWII are ancient history... But they are so close behind us. Sorry I joined the conversation late as I like these topics.

Garett said...

I wonder how many women have read Wonder Woman comics over the years? I know many who watched the tv show in the '70s, but I don't think any read the comic. Maybe in the '40s more girls were reading it?

I find it interesting to look into the lives of creators-- what makes them tick? I enjoyed Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier.

WardHill Terry said...

Thanks for the review, Colin. Your opinion of Marston suggests another topic for discussion here. The creators' personalities. Colin describes Marston as "deeply flawed." He is more or less flawed than others in the field? Men like Mort Weisinger were effective editors, but apparently cruel and callous to his staff. Does our extensive knowledge of Marston's personal life color our appreciation of him as a writer? Should it, as his personal philosophy infused his writing? See also Steve Ditko. Would we examine the private lives of Steve Gerber, Don MacGregor, et al. during the 1970's for insight into their comics writing. On a personal note, the more I learned about Dave Sim, the less I liked Cerebus.

Anonymous said...

I'll definitely check out the book. I received the hardcover Wonder Woman: A complete History as a gift, and it touched upon Marston's biography, but also was more geared toward the character's history than anything else. Wonder Woman was such a radical departure in concept that Marvel has yet to create their own version, despite several attempts, and even DC has found it difficult to pin down who/what she is/should be. (I recall the discussion topic here.) I'd love to see an exploration of the WW evolution as represented by the portrayals of Steve Trevor. Too bad Marston and the ladies didn't survive to see Marriage Equality and the legitimization of polyamory.

ColinBray said...

Good point, Kenn. A lot of the secrecy in their collective lives came from the risk of judgement and prejudice. Without these fears Olive, in particular, may not have been so insistent on maintaining a fiction of their relationships.

Interesting point too about the uniqueness of the WW character. This may be because she is so rooted in a particular personal creative and political vision. Marston was adamant that there was no editorial interference in his stories. Perhaps we can compare her with Gerber's Howard The Duck in that respect - and if we stretch this comparison it is surprising that she has survived so long.

Related Posts with Thumbnails