Did I not say, in my end-of-year post for 2022, that I intended to review a greater variety of books? Well, this is an example of what I mean. Never before on this site have I reviewed a comic book. I haven’t even read a comic book since I was about 12 years of age.
But, last year, my friend Joy Spicer wrote about of her favorite comics, including Wonder Woman. Joy’s post about WW features the 1987 reboot of the character, illustrated by George Pérez, and I highly recommend reading it. That post was what inspired me to write this.
At first, I thought I’d start with the same comic that Joy highlighted. But you know me, I prefer to start a series at the beginning. Or close to it. The real beginning of Wonder Woman is actually in All-Star Comics #8. But this is her second-ever appearance and, well, Sensation Comics #1 is free on Kindle, whereas All-Star Comics #8 costs $1.99. Yes, I’m cheap; I admit it.
One sees instantly that the art of comic books evolved greatly in the years between ’42 and ’87. Compare the lavish artwork by Pérez with the, um, less lavish ones we find here:
Another thing which I did not expect, though perhaps I should have, was that this plot was already known to me.
You see, I know Wonder Woman from the 1970s TV series starring Lynda Carter. The pilot episode for the first season is a fairly faithful adaptation of this comic, albeit with more subplots interwoven.
The basic plot is this: Wonder Woman rescues American pilot Steve Trevor, and takes him back to Washington, D.C. Entering the “world of men,” she draws much attention, first for her appearance and then for foiling a bank robbery. She is hired to perform her feats of super-strength by a sleazy impresario, who attempts to flee with the revenue, but is of course thwarted.
Trevor, by this point recovered, attempts to fly a mission but is shot down by an enemy plane. Wonder Woman rescues him and together they find the bad guys’ hideout and defeat them. Wonder Woman then assumes the identity of a nurse at the hospital named Diana Prince.
As you know, I’m not big on rules of writing, which is good, because this comic definitely breaks some fairly basic guidelines for dramatic storytelling. You know, things like “don’t randomly give your characters new powers transparently for the purpose of advancing the plot.” That sort of thing. And frankly, I was okay with this. People nowadays take everything too seriously and want even their superhero stories to conform to dramatic conventions. But there’s nothing wrong with a bit of daft fun now and then.
But perhaps there is more to Wonder Woman than just fun, after all. Wikipedia informs us that:
William Moulton Marston… struck upon an idea for a new kind of superhero, one who would triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love. ‘Fine,’ said Elizabeth. [Marston’s wife] ‘But make her a woman.'”
[Note: I highly recommend reading Marston’s wiki. It’s one of those “impossible-to-predict-the-next-sentence” things.-B.G.]
Marston ran with Elizabeth’s idea, writing:
“Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.”
And of course, if you’ve seen the show, you must remember the theme song:
Make a hawk a dove / Stop a war with love / Make a liar tell the truth.
Which is why it’s hardly surprising that in both this comic and the TV show, Wonder Woman solved problems through conversation and empathy rather than fists and force.
LOL, psych! That’s not what happens at all. She pummels baddies left and right. She doesn’t, say, fly the invisible plane to Germany and slap the golden lasso around Hitler. I mean, that might have saved some trouble, right?
You know, there were real people, even in the 1940s, who tried to “stop a war with love.” I recently finished reading Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker, a book which, through chronologically cataloging first-hand accounts and contemporary news reports, tells the story of the global pacifist movement during the beginning of World War II. And it ends on December 31, 1941. Which means if you read Human Smoke and then read Sensation Comics #1, you’re effectively reading primary sources of World War II in chronological order.
Human Smoke is perhaps the single most depressing book I’ve ever read. Going from it to a comic book that sold for 10¢ in drugstores to amuse children is a uniquely bizarre and downright discomfiting experience. But you see, I love history, and Wonder Woman is surely as much a piece of history as any other document printed in the 1940s.
Needless to say, the real-life efforts at stopping war with love went down to defeat. Perhaps it is for the best. There are plenty of moral justifications for the use of force, and World War II is literally the textbook example. Not to go all Lt. Col. Dubois on you, but perhaps Wonder Woman is simply acknowledging the need for controlled violence to prevent uncontrolled violence. The proper role of the state, most philosophers would say, is to use its monopoly on violence to uphold the set of standards which produce civilization. A matriarchal society, as Marston apparently envisioned, would obviously need something to act as guarantor of its authority. Ultima ratio reginarum, you know…
Ah, but you see? I’m doing just what I said not to do, and taking things too seriously. That’s what happens when you read an unsparing catalog of all the human sins and miseries that led up to a global war of annihilation, and then follow it with what amounts to cotton-candy for the brain. But as the Ancient Greeks would follow their tragedies with satyr plays, so I feel compelled to follow something dark with something light. “If one is to understand the great mystery, one must study all its aspects…”
Or something like that. Anyway, Wonder Woman is an iconic character, and as silly and quaint as her early incarnations may look to us today, when you put them in the context of their time, you realize they must have served as a welcome dose of hopeful idealism and light entertainment in a world gone mad.