- The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, and: Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941–1948 by Noah Berlatsky
Wonder Woman is perhaps the most recognizable superheroine of all, with her Stars and Stripes–inspired costume, bracelets of submission, and golden lasso. Yet, apart from a few coffee-table books and chapters devoted to superheroines, she was the subject of little research until the past two years, which have seen the publication of several studies devoted to the character.1 This review focuses on two of these: Jill Lepore’s [End Page 187] The Secret History of Wonder Woman and Noah Berlatsky’s Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941–1948 examine the cultural and philosophical influences of the character’s creators on the stories, although from opposite methodologies. Lepore provides a historical account of the philosophical, cultural, and feminist influences on her creators, William Moulton Marston (writer) and Harry G. Peter (artist). Early Wonder Woman comics, Lepore claims, are “the missing link in understanding the struggle for women’s rights.”2 Conversely, Berlatsky approaches themes of bondage and feminism through close readings of the comics stories and identifies Marston’s and Peter’s philosophical agendas and cultural influences.
Wonder Woman appeared as America entered World War II in December 1941.3 During the early 1940s she featured in four titles: All Star Comics (DC Comics, Summer 1940–February/March 1951), Sensation Comics (DC Comics, January, 1942–June 1952), Wonder Woman (DC Comics, Summer 1942–February 1986), and Comics Cavalcade (DC Comics, Winter 1942–June/July 1954). Most were written by William Moulton Marston, later with Joye Murchison, and drawn by Harry G. Peter. In doing so, Marston controlled the ideological and philosophical presentation of the character. The stories of the 1940s include a cast of female helpers, from Amazons to sorority girls, as well as Wonder Woman’s two sidekicks, the grotesque Etta Candy and all-American hero Steve Trevor. The stories are full of bondage and rendered in lyrical yet peculiarly stilted artwork, unlike any of the more vigorous superhero art of younger creators of the 1940s.
Marston was a “cultural amphibian”: part huckster, equally at home in academia and popular culture.4 He wrote scripts for films and salacious novels. He was an academic who researched and wrote psychological books. He held a law degree, and also invented a version of the lie detector that he used to develop the Domination, Influence, Submission, Compliance (DISC) model of human behavior used today in business practice.5 With the DISC model, Marston proposed that human behavior was directed principally by domination and loving submission. Related to this model were Marston’s views on female equality and his belief that women should rule the world, given their greater capacity for love. Wonder Woman became the model for Marston’s ideas concerning female power.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman is based on Jill Lepore’s access to the private papers of William Moulton Marston and interviews with family and friends. Lepore reveals the influence of early suffragists and feminists on Marston, but she also dwells [End Page 188] on the more salacious secrets of the Marston family’s living arrangements, and it is this aspect of her book that has caught the attention of the press. Marston was a polymath who lived with two women: his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, and his research assistant, Olive Byrne. The seemingly paradoxical themes of feminism and salacious sexual activities pervade the book from its opening pages, where Lepore describes the superheroine as “very kinky.”6 Cunningly, Lepore aligns Wonder Woman’s secret identity with the secret history of both her feminist roots and Marston’s political feminist agenda.
The first part pieces together the prehistory intriguingly from “FBI files, movie scripts, the carefully...