Thursday 3 May 2018

Wonder Woman Unbound

Lost And Bound

Wonder Woman Unbound
by Tim Hanley Chicago Review Press
ISBN: 978-1-61374-9098

Wonder Woman Unbound is the first of what will be, I’m sure, many books I’ll be reading for this site dealing with various aspects of, to quote this book’s subtitle, ‘The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine’, in the wake of last years truly great cinematic incarnation of the title character. I was given this at Christmas and, despite the bold cover, it looked a slight thing in terms of how much value it could bring to my understanding of the Amazon Diana and her heroic persona. However, looks can be deceiving and are not the best things to rush to judgement on and so it proved to be with this.

Tim Hanley’s book is a knockout and a gold mine of great information, much of which could only be researched in the wake of the availability of expensive duplicates of the early comics which were reprinted for the general public more recently than when some of the other tomes which have tried to look into Diana’s background were written. I truly learned a lot from this valuable book, which doesn’t just limit itself to looking at creator William Moulton Marston’s original take on the character but also brings us right up to date... or at least as up to date as 2014 when it was written.

After an introduction which touches upon some of the issues Hanley wants to cover in the book, he gets right into things with the first section, entitled The Golden Age. In this he recaps, for the less comic literate, the history of the medium and the various things that happened to the strips... such as a, surprisingly, balanced view of what Wertham was really saying when he sparked those comic book witch hunts with their grim fallout involving the creation of the Comics Code. Not to mention the slumps in sales and how the various strips and characters weathered these things through this and certain other periods of modern history.

Diana’s origins were slightly different from the current version of the character as portrayed in the movies.... with the amazons imprisoned by Hercules before escaping to Paradise Island where they fashioned bracelets from their chains to remind them of the world of men... although the idea that Diana was sculpted from clay by her mother and given life from the Gods was there too. However, the origin was revisited and changed a few times over the years... as it has been for a lot of comic book characters over the decades (especially DC characters) and this is perhaps due to the longevity of the Golden Age characters... when many other of the superpowered giants were refashioned (with some notable and legendary exceptions) as brand new characters with different origins... I might mention the Golden to Silver and Platinum Age transformations of such characters as Green Lantern, The Flash or The Human Torch (who originally wasn’t human at all), for example.

Another very good point that the author makes, and it’s not something I’d even thought of before, was that many of those Golden Age heroes were born from personal tragedy... Superman fleeing the destruction of his race, Bruce Wayne’s parents gunned down in front of him etc... whereas Wonder Woman was not. Her origins seem way more upbeat and optimistic in comparison and perhaps that’s why she tries to solve all the problems she faces from various villains with a sense of love and reformation rather than with overt antagonism (something which came over very well in the recent movie version of her character, reviewed by me here).

So, for example, it talks about how she would recognise the good traits of her enemies and use those to suggest alternate career paths and how she had set up ‘Reform Island’ to rehabilitate those foes who survived her attentions (something which I’m guessing may have been purloined from either Doc Savage’s Crime College or The Shadow’s similar reforming island.

It also talks about the gender role swap and compares Steve Trevor to Lois Lane in terms of being a 'damsel' to rescue. Batman’s Robin fulfilled a similar role but was, also, always quite useful to Batman whereas Steve Trevor seemed to be completely ineffectual against his enemies and would have to be bailed out by Wonder Woman time and time again. Hanley then looks at how alter ego Diana Prince fulfilled the same weak role in comparison to Steve Trevor, before transforming herself into Wonder Woman to save the day.

The author is also not afraid to take on all the issues of Marston’s personal psychology and how his much celebrated and still used to this day (if my understanding is correct) DISC theory was the underlying message of the propaganda living inside the strip and also points out the difference between this and the undeniable sexual kinks depicted metaphorically in the book... which are problematic not by their nature but by being somewhat contradictory in their gender representation to the underlying tenets of DISC.

He goes on to show various charts of his research to point out the high percentage of her time Wonder Woman spent in bondage or, most importantly, binding others compared to her nearest male rival in terms of ‘getting tied up’, Captain Marvel. Of course, the big red cheese’s* bondage content was often a necessity of the writers finding ways of incapacitating his alter ego, Billy Batson, so he could be gagged and unable to say the magic word SHAZAM!, which would bring Captain Marvel into the world... so it has the highest amount of bondage in any male oriented comic book. Wonder Woman had stacks more and the writer also looks at the different ways it was shown in relation to who was getting tied up (male or female) and if it was, perhaps, a disservice to Marston’s own theories of female dominance being depicted.

Hanley also talks about Marston's theory about the positivity of submission being at odds with the way it was portrayed in the strip but shows that other elements of the stories also supported the strong feminist ideal that the character was meant to represent. Also, that the strip was very much aimed at a male readership, as well as female readership and that, for the most part, the male readership was much higher. He does this very impressively by gleaning the amount of data to be found in the letters pages of the comic over the years and also by looking at the kinds of ads which were being pitched (mostly to boys) in the Wonder Woman comics.

The book goes on to cover the character in the wake of Marston’s death, looks at the various other important writers contributing to the strip (including other, very interesting features in the pages of the various comics starring Wonder Woman) and gives an overview of how ‘in touch’ they were with Marston’s principles... including the use of the phrase ‘Suffering Sappho’ and how the evidence from a lot of the comics is undeniable that Diana was, especially at the start, a lesbian... although I suspect what she became very quickly, in terms of her alter ego, was at least bisexual (something which I think is another element which the recent film makes as overt as possible for a family audience). Although the Amazons, as they stand in the movie, surely must have been created as bisexual because their original mission was to appease/calm down and ‘sexy up’ mankind, if I’m interpreting the movie version correctly.

Hanley explores the differences between the character and the silly plots of the Silver Age in the wake of the shake up after the EC comics years and the ‘Wertham effect’. How the women in the comics, including Diana, were injected with ideals of ‘female domesticity’ propaganda after the death of her creator (something which I don’t think would have necessarily have happened if he had lived longer).

It investigates and demonstrates these things by giving us a very welcome potted history and summary of various other characters in comics at the time... including the female characters. This shows that, in many ways, Diana at this time was even less independent than the title character of the ‘Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane’ comic book. Other DC female characters were far stronger in terms of their identities and roles in the DC line.

Thus, it shows how the women's liberation movement of the fifties and sixties totally passed Diana by. In fact, in a very interesting run of the comics, her superpowers were taken away from her, as was Steve Trevor, who dies as her motivation to become a kind of mentored, kung fu killing machine spy who was falling in love with every man she came across and who was as interested in wearing the right fashions as she was anything else. Actually, this run of the comics sounds fascinating and, although they completely destroyed Diana’s character, I would truly love to read these ones. Unfortunately, I don’t think they’ve been reprinted so it would take a lot of time scouring comic book shops for expensive back issues if I were to ever get that opportunity, methinks.

So after making the point that while women were rising up and claiming independence in real life, Wonder Woman was doing the exact opposite... it shows how Gloria Steinem reclaimed Wonder Woman in the 1970s by putting her front and centre on the cover of the first issue of her phenomenally successful Ms magazine - celebrating her inside the covers and engineering the restoration of her superpowers with a powerful friend at DC to tie in with this.

As Hanley covers the next four decades, bringing us to the somewhat sorry state of the character in 2014 (in terms of sales at least) it becomes increasingly clear that he knows a lot about the history of feminism in its many incarnations (many of them opposing)... including one based on theories of an all female genesis for our species through a process called parthenogenesis which, in all honesty, does nothing to make me take certain somewhat respected splinter groups of feminism in any way seriously. I mean... oops.

It’s a shame, in a way, Hanley didn’t wait another three or four years before he published this so he could see what a successful phenomenon Wonder Woman has become again, especially in terms of the film which has become probably one of the most successful DC superhero movies of all time (deservedly... it’s one of the great works of art in modern cinema). I suspect he might want to revisit the book at some point and revise it in light of what Diana has become to modern audiences and I would love to read what he makes of this recent chapter in her ongoing history.

That being said, though, Wonder Woman Unbound is a truly wonderful tome to have in one’s personal library and it certainly armoured me up with a lot more knowledge about the character than I was previously aware of. It’s concise but thorough and extremely well written... it also includes a number of interesting photos of key covers, adverts and other items of note from her history in a section about two thirds of the way through the book. Now, admittedly, I am a novice when it comes to this character so don’t know how this holds up to more knowledgable fans of Diana and her story but I can certainly recommend this as required reading for anyone who is a little in the dark about Wonder Woman’s place in comic book history. I had a really good time with this one... perhaps you will too.

* Arch enemy Dr. Sivana's name for Captain Marvel (played by Mark Strong in next year's movie version).

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