Ropes N’ Tropes
The Golden Age Vol 1
by William Moulton Marston
I’ll be the first to admit that I was never much interested in Wonder Woman as a kid growing up in, mostly, the 1970s. Sure I watched the Lynda Carter TV show from time to time, primarily because there were so very few live action superhero characters on television then that it was a huge novelty to get someone doing this kind of stuff on air (and even less so in the UK where we only got a few of the small selection of live action comic book characters that the US were putting out in shows and movies). So my primary experiences of Wonder Woman were when she used to show up in the odd issue of the 1970s Justice League of America comics, which I might find laying around at my Uncle’s place and, of course, in one of my favourite cartoon shows, The Superfriends (which was kind of an animated Justice League lite). Of course, Lynda Carter would return to my fantasy life just a few years later in the Wonder Woman costume but... err... yeah, that was purely for other reasons and perhaps it would be inappropriate to explore that here.
All that changed last year when I saw what is, to date, the greatest superhero movie of all time, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (reviewed here), starring Gal Gadot as the titular character. This film both moved me and caught my eye on almost every level and, coupled with the unbelievably brilliant biopic Professor Marston And The Wonder Women (reviewed here), it was obvious I was going to want to read more about this beloved comic icon and, what better way than to read these new reprints of her earliest days.
Wonder Woman The Golden Age is a generous tome and reprints all of the stories appearing in the first year or so of her existence from late 1941 and into 1942, covering her first appearance in All Star Comics, followed by a continuation of that origin story in Sensation Comics, followed by her features continuing in Sensation Comics and also in the issues of her own Wonder Woman comic, once the character was proven to be successful.
The artwork is pretty much what I was expecting from a 1940s comic book although, that being said, the drawings aren’t quite as crude as the early Superman comics from 1938, nor the various Timely (later Marvel) comic characters from 1939 such as The Human Torch and The Sub Mariner. I think by the time Wonder Woman was launched onto the scene, the comic book artists were starting to get the hang of the idea that comics were a big thing and a regular paying job, so the artwork by various artists was probably improving all the time (that’s my theory, anyway) so, while you can probably easily date the artwork in these issues to more or less the correct time period (not to mention the structure of the pages as a whole), they aren’t in any way flat or boring and are easier on the eye than you might expect.
It’s interesting to note that while the origin of the character (as told in a couple of different versions in this first year) is quite a bit different from the version in the latest movie - presumably it’s been much revised over DC’s lengthy history - there are also a lot of elements from the original early issues that did make it into the recent film version. Whether that’s Jenkin’s and her writers cobbling bits of Wonder Woman history together herself from the early days or if these are elements that have been picked up in various revisions of the comics over the years, is not something I am qualified to make a good guess at.
So, for example, the origin includes the theft of Queen Hypolyta’s girdle by Hercules who then enslaves all the amazons. When Aphrodite eventually sets them free and hides them on Paradise Island, they all still have to wear shackles/bracelets as a reminder of the nature of man (this is pretty good, feminist stuff for the early 1940s I reckon... at least it’s probably quite ahead of its time in terms of seeing publication in a popular print form for the period). Also, when Wonder Woman, aka Princess Diana, aka Diana Prince (her alter ego as a simultaneous Army Nurse and Secretary to Steve Trevor’s superior in the army) has shackles attached to those specific bracelets and they are put on by a man, she basically loses her powers until they are removed (this was one of the few equivalents to Superman's Kryptonite the character had at this stage).
However, the little things which did make their way into the film in one shape or form are clearly visible here. For instance, in one issue we have the villain as Dr. Poison, who is revealed at the end of the strip to be a woman (the character was played by Elena Anaya in the movie). Also, although the World War Two setting was relocated to World War One for the movie, the second Wonder Woman strip (the first to feature in Sensation Comics) also includes a storyline involving the villain's perfection of a new kind of gas that penetrates all known gas masks... another element from the recent motion picture.
There are also many things which wouldn’t have translated too well from page to screen, for sure. For instance, the fetishistic overtones of female domination and lezdom spanking, often seen in relation to Diana’s friend Etta Candy, was mostly edited from the movie. Etta herself was a completely different personality in the movie but they did get her trademark cry of “Woo! Woo!” into the film... albeit very subtly. Perhaps another thing that may have been a big mistep if the film version had gone into a more faithful adaptation, especially in the scenes on Themyscira where the Amazons are fighting the Germans, would be the fact that, rather than ride around on horses, the Amazons of Paradise Island tend to ride around on giant kangaroos. That's an idea possibly best left in the 1940s as regards to movie credibility, methinks.
There are also some subtle differences too.
Yes, Professor Marston was, along with his wife and live in mistress to them both, the real life inventor of the lie detector... and he does have a lie detector appearing in more than one issue in this first year. However, rather than being a specific ‘rope of truth’ as it came to be over the years, the golden lariat was actually a piece of equipment that compelled the wearer to do whatever the wielder commanded... unless the person giving the orders was a man, of course.
Due to the setting and the times, the comic has a lot of contemporaneous references and also, like many of the comics of the time (especially the early Superman strips, if memory serves), a lot of social messages about how the young readers should be living their lives in the face of corruption and, of course, the war. So, you will sometimes get stories devoted to fairer wages for the shop assistants in department stores or factories keeping the price of milk down for the people. And, naturally, the usual stuff about buying lots of War Bonds and helping the war effort. There are also referrals to things which, while not quite yet lost to the period in which they were written, were things I had to look up. Ignatz Mouse and Krazy Kat, for example, rang a vague bell but I had to research them before I was any the wiser.
That being said, one of the most problematic things with these early comics is the war itself. Since the character, like many of her costumed contemporaries, is all powerful, you wonder why she doesn’t just go over to Germany and deal with Hitler herself and end things in a few minutes. I don’t know exactly when DC wrote in the mystic powers of the infamous and, possibly, real life Spear Of Destiny into the strip, to keep superheroes from getting near Hitler but... it doesn’t seem to be much in evidence in these stories for sure.
One of the delights of these comics is the advancement of the form itself. Things in the artwork are evolving such as one page splash panels to start off the story or using bubble edges around panels which are flashbacks. It’s nice to see this evolution of the art of the comic strip although, it has to be said, when they flash back to her origin story (and change it slightly), you have the former versions of the story on hand so you can see how the colours have been changed on later versions of the back story. Deliberate ‘errors’ like this certainly keeps the readers on their toes and it makes things interesting. It’s also astonishing to see how far ahead of her time, in some ways, Diana was in the comics. Not just in terms of feminism but with fantasy ideas too. For example, she was having adventures on other worlds as the astral projection of her form two decades before Marvel’s Doctor Strange character was doing this more regularly. My guess would be that this was very much influenced by the ethereal transportation of John Carter to the planet of Barsoom (Mars) in the Martian tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs (alas, the film version of A Princess of Mars, called just John Carter, changed it to teleportation to make the concept more palatable to modern audiences). I’m sure they’re something Marston would have at least been a little familiar with, at any rate.
So that’s the first year of Wonder Woman read and I have to say, I really enjoyed these things... especially when you know a little of Marston’s history and kinks and see how they made their way into the strip in some subtle and, often, not so subtle ways. These reprint books from DC are really appreciated and much cheaper than the old DC Archives hardbacks from a number of decades ago. They bundle the appearances together chronologically from all the simultaneous titles, rather than just reprint the one title and leave you with references to other stories you’ve not read yet.. I’m definitely going to have to catch up with some more of these Wonder Woman reprints... and probably some of their other characters as well. I’ve already picked up the first volume of Batman and I’ll hopefully be able to get to that one sometime soon.