Most comic book fans know the origin of Wonder Woman – princess of the legendary Amazons, sent from her all-female kingdom to “Man’s World” to protect humanity. But the real story behind Wonder Woman and the people who created her is as fascinating as anything from the comics.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman, a new nonfiction book by Jill Lepore that’s published this week by Alfred A. Knopf (you can read an excerpt in The New Yorker here), tells the strange and sometimes self-contradictory tale of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, and how events from his real life and history found their way into his comic book stories – often in ways that most readers would never suspect.
Marston, who created Wonder Woman in 1941 and told her stories until his death in 1947, was a respected psychologist and author who helped invent the polygraph. His coming to comics brought a great deal of respectability to the fledgling medium, and his strong belief in the feminist movement created one of the first, and still most popular, of all female superheroes.
But Marston’s life was also decidedly nontraditional, even by today’s standards – he lived in a polyamorous relationship with both his wife Sadie and his mistress Olive Byrne, the niece of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, who continued living together for decades after Martston’s passing. And though he strongly supported women’s rights, his Wonder Woman stories featured very, very specifically-described images and scenes of women in bondage.
This unusual story – from how Marston’s life and experiences were reflected in his Wonder Woman tales to their continuing influence decades later – are chronicled by author Jill Lepore in the new book. Lepore’s own credentials are up there with Marston’s – a staff writer for The New Yorker and a professor at Harvard, she’s also got a shelf full of prestigious awards and nominations. A Guggenheim fellow, her previous books have been finalists for everything from the Pulitzer Prize to the National Book Award to the Andrew Carnegie Medal.
With the book out this week, we talked with Lepore about its inspirations, the things she discovered writing it, and the continuing influence and significance of Wonder Woman.
Newsarama: Jill, first off, congratulations – the book’s getting great advance reviews, and people have really been discussing the excerpt in The New Yorker. Why do you think this subject matter has struck a chord with people?
Jill Lepore: I didn’t have any expectations one way or another, but there seems to be a lot of Wonder Woman in the news lately – there’s a new creative team on the comic book, there’s Gal Gadot shooting the film with Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman has moments where she’s more visible in the culture, and moments where she’s submerged. Maybe we’re at the beginning of one of those moments of visibility…
But there’s also an accretion – with every generation, there are more people who have knowledge of Wonder Woman. And I’m fascinated by that. There’s a difference between the Wonder Woman of your childhood, the Wonder Woman of now, and the Wonder Woman of William Moulton Marston. And that’s something I wanted to do with my book, to look at that.
Nrama: I was curious about your own history with the character – how you first encountered her and how that led to doing the book.
Lepore: Well, I remember watching the Hanna-Barbera Superfriends as a kid --
Nrama: You and me both! I think that’s how a lot of people first encountered the DC characters.
Lepore: Exactly. I totally remember that, because I pretty much just sat down every Saturday morning and watched whatever was on. And I remember the Lynda Carter TV show from the 1970s, but it wasn’t a show I was actively a fan of.
I’m sure there were a lot of little girls who loved Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, but I wasn’t one of them. Historians talk about the 1970s as the era of “jiggle TV.” So, look, my brother watched Wonder Woman. I was looking for something else. Suffice to say: I was busy watching The Man From Atlantis and The Six Million Dollar Man.
So, no, I didn’t come to this as a longstanding, from-childhood Wonder Woman fan. I came at this as a political historian.
Nrama: So it was more of an interest in William Moulton Marston, Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Holloway?
Lepore: No, I wasn’t interested in them, not at first. I backed myself into this project. I was working on a very different project -- actually, two – actually three – different projects.
I was writing a series of lectures for the New York Public Library on the history of privacy, I was researching for an essay for The New Yorker on the history of Planned Parenthood, and I was trying to find an interesting case for a paper on the history of evidence, and it just happened (laughed) all three of these things connected with Wonder Woman in a really interesting and unexpected way.
And I found all this cool stuff, and I thought, “No one’s ever discovered these ties between these incredibly important things and this major pop icon!” For the history of privacy, I researched the polygraph test, and Marston’s role in that, but legal historians, who are interested in the history of privacy, don’t tend to be especially in the fact that Marston also created Wonder Woman. Meanwhile, researching Planned Parenthood and Margaret Sanger led me to Olive Byrne, whose name I had encountered when I read about Marston.
But the people who write about the history of feminism aren’t necessarily the same people who write about the history of comics. So no one had ever put these pieces together before! Then I went back and read the comics, and saw how they all fit together. I mean, they really fit. You read Wonder Woman comic books alongside Margaret Sanger’s Woman Rebel, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopia Herland, and it looks completely different than when you read it against Superman and Batman.
Nrama: I was very impressed with the research you put into the book, but I think what will connect a lot of people with the book is how you layered the book with panels from the different Wonder Woman stories. The actual creation of Wonder Woman is the last third of the book, but you see from those panels how these events and this history have these connections to what came out in the comic.
Lepore: Yeah, I mean, the meat of the book is exactly as you suggested – the comics actually tell the stories of the characters’ lives. Marston’s comic books, which he writes from 1941 to 1947, are loosely autobiographical. They’re based, thematically, on things that happened to him, or happened when he was growing up.
For example, Marston goes to Harvard, and his freshman year the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst is banned from speaking in Harvard Yard and there’s a version of that story in panels from the comics in the 1940s when Wonder Woman crashes the gates of Holliday College. (laughs)
Nrama: It’s odd how there isn’t much of a holistic look at the subtext of these stories. Even anthologies of 1940s stories I’ve read sometimes admit in the liner notes “We wanted to reprint more of these stories, but we felt they were too repetitive.”
But you find something deeper in that repetition, such as the lie detector scenes – you see how these people’s lives permeated the Wonder Woman comics. It really adds something to those older stories.
Lepore: Comic book historians mainly read Marston’s stories from the 1940s in the context of the 1940s, and look at them alongside the other comics of that era, as opposed to reading them in the context of the 1910s and 1920s. But a lot of those stories Marston wrote in those early years really explore the political activism of the Progressive Era: marches, boycotts, strikes. They’re things that really happened, recycled into these plotlines; Marston moves them from the First World War to the Second.
Nrama: It’s also interesting to me how much control Marston had over the character – I remember reading an article in Alter Ego magazine years ago that showed how he had a Wonder Woman section of a Justice Society story rewritten and redrawn to reflect his specific vision of how those stories should go.
You don’t see a lot of that control for a company-owned character – and especially not in an era that saw the likes of Siegel and Schuster and Bill Finger run into such difficulties even receiving credit and/or ownership.
Lepore: Marston had a lot more power there than most people did. The guy was, for all his many complications, successful – he had his degrees from Harvard and was an established writer, he was very well-known, not a teenager like Siegel and Schuster.
The Justice Society stuff, that was out of Marston’s hands contractually, and he resented that. The publisher conducted a poll and asked kids, “Should Wonder Woman be allowed to join the Justice Society?” And there was an overwhelmingly positive vote, but Gardner Fox didn’t want her in there, so he made her the secretary.
Marston hated that, he’d been on this radio tour where he talked about Wonder Woman as a feminist character who could do anything in any area – law, sports – and Fox has her being the secretary?
Nrama: When you were going back and reading these stories from the 1940s, for the first time, as an adult, fresh eyes – did any stories strike you as particularly bizarre?
You know, you’ve got Dr. Psycho, Paulina Van Gunther, the Blue Snowman, Giganta evolved from a gorilla…and I always found Etta Candy kind of bizarre, though at least unlike some 1940s sidekicks, she’s not a racial stereotype. What’d you make of some of this stuff?
Lepore: Yeah, there are some crazy, seriously crazy stories. (laughs) But if you know Marston’s life, you’ve reconstructed Marston’s diaries and publications and undergraduate transcripts and so on…then, actually, a lot of characters and plots are kind of recognizable.
Dr. Psycho, for instance, is clearly Hugo Münsterberg, the director of the Harvard Psychological Laboratory, the first psychological laboratory in the United States who was adamantly opposed to female suffrage.
Etta Candy – I spent a lot of time in the Tufts archives, Olive Byrne went there, and there are a lot of pictures of her with her sorority sisters, and you can find out find Etta Candy.
Nrama: Well, that personal touch might be why those characters have stood up better than when they tried to recapture that Marston level of surreal-ness in some of the 1960s stories, by which I mean Egg Fu. (sighs)
Lepore: Yeah, the epilogue of the book talks about how Wonder Woman’s greatest importance in the 1960s wasn’t in the DC Comics – she goes through many changes, and is updated and not updated, and there’s a screen test for the William Dozier TV show Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince? that isn’t picked up – but it’s more her influence on the feminist movement.
In 1969, New York magazine runs a cartoon “The Liberated Lady” with Wonder Woman, and then she’s in fan comics, and Ms. magazine and she takes on a life of her own, as an icon of the women’s liberation movement – and meanwhile, DC Comics is struggling, just as Marvel is struggling, to figure out how to adapt that movement into their comics.
Nrama: And that’s fascinating – she was a continuously published character, she didn’t go away in the era of the horror comics and the Wertham movement. But they had such a hard time figuring out what to do with her in the comics! There were WWII “flashback” tales, her supporting cast literally being shipped off, and the Diana Prince stories, which have interesting stuff, but as Gloria Steinem and others pointed out, violated some of the original ideas of the characters.
But it’s in the 1970s, as you point out, that she really starts to reflect what Margaret Sanger and the suffragettes that inspired her fought for.
Lepore: She’s put to that use, and then she becomes controversial that way. The Lynda Carter thing is controversial, for example, to women who believe that Wonder Woman shoulders a different tradition.
Wonder Woman is best understood not solely as a chapter in the history of comics but as part of a bigger and longer history – of women’s rights. I write about her in the book as the missing link between the suffrage movement in the 1910s and the feminist movement of the 1960s.
She’s there in the 1940s – and Steinem and other women grew up with her then, and 20 years later continue that movement. Wonder Woman, in that sense, is more than a superhero – she’s a really interesting political figure of the 20th century, spanning decades of women’s struggle for equal rights.
Learn The Secret History of Wonder Woman from Lepore’s new book, in stores today.