On Wednesdays I look at various chapters in Wonder Woman’s history. Click here for previous installments. We’re now looking at the earliest Wonder Woman stories by Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston and artist H.G. Peter, as collected in the paperback Wonder Woman Chronicles Vol. 3 or the hardcover Wonder Woman Archives Vol. 2.
Wonder Woman #4, DC Comics, April/May 1943.
The three interlinked stories in this issue are all about the redemption of Baroness Paula von Gunther, Wonder Woman’s erstwhile archenemy—a former callous Nazi murderer with a network of slave girls who’s now reformed and training to become a full-fledged Amazon of Paradise Island. Now Aphrodite herself gives Paula “three labors of love” that she has to pull off in order to enter the goddess’s service. And interestingly, two of the three end in formerly dominating men becoming happy slaves of women—the other one just involves women rising up to try to kill the men. Oh, Paula, you make the world better wherever you go!
But first, we find a then-rare positive depiction of an Asian character, even if it’s only to set up how barbaric the Japanese are in comparison. Diana Prince meets Mae Wu, a Chinese woman who travels all over America showing the scars on her back from the whips of Japanese soldiers to raise money for Chinese relief. Feeling that her work is now done, she’s looking to get the scars removed, but she’s received an anonymous death threat telling her not to do it.
But does she listen? Noooo. In fact, Diana pooh-poohs the danger as well, and the next time she sees Mae Wu, she’s dead on the doorstep of the skin specialist to whom Diana referred her. But wait, maybe there’s still hope! Diana remembers that Paula von Gunther invented a machine capable of reviving the recently dead and rushes off to Reform Island, the Amazons’ rehabilitation center, for help. Mind you, the plot device might just as easily have been the Purple Healing Ray that Diana herself invented to save Steve Trevor, but that wouldn’t have worked nearly as well to draw Paula into the story.
It’s not just Paula who’s being reformed there but all her former slave girls, who are really, really into being slaves and aren’t ready to give it up. In fact, they’ll deliberately do things wrong just so that their new Amazon mistresses will punish them. This is a recurring theme in William Moulton Marston’s early Wonder Woman stories, above and beyond the frequent bondage in pretty much every adventure: women who love being slaves or prisoners and refuse to be set free, needing only the firm hand of a kind mistress and not a cruel one. It’s safe to say that this was a particular thing of his.
Paula’s machine works its wonders, but they have to wait for Mae Wu to recovery her memory, which gives Diana a chance to stay overnight and judge a tournament between the prisoners to see who’s worthy of joining the service of Aphrodite. In addition to the feats of strength and dexterity they’re expected to perform, the prisoners also have to endure the taunts of the Amazons: “It’s chains again for you, weak arm!” “Ha! Ha! All ‘Man’s World’ girls are weaklings!”
Of course only Paula wins the tournament, and she’s escorted into Aphrodite’s temple, where the goddess is hanging out in person to give her instruction. Say what you will about the fickle pettiness of the Greek gods; at least they give the personal touch. None of this waiting in vain for an answer and wondering if the deity is even up there. They just walk right in and tell you what to do, and maybe try to get into your pants.
Mae tells her tale, about how the Japanese burned her village down, killed all the men and took all the women and girls prisoner. The Chinese call the Japanese “dwarfs” and “monkey men,” and although the Chinese are depicted sympathetically they’re still very stereotypical, with a lot of gratuitous use of “honorable,” “venerable,” et cetera. We find out that Japanese Captain Hideo took great care in whipping Mae personally before mysteriously letting her go, so Wonder Woman figures out that the whip scars must be a code, and in fact her altruistic work of showing off her scars was all part of the enemy plan. The scars indicate a date, and Wondy consults her boyfriend Steve Trevor in army intelligence if he knows of any Japanese plans to attack the United States. Whoa, Nelly, does he! Apparently they’re planning to release a disease that will drive all the women insane! There’s even an editor’s note assuring us that this is all very scientifically plausible.
Wondy has to travel to China to head off this fiendish plot, and she takes Paula and Mae along to help. While Mae advises US forces on her native terrain, Wondy heads right into the battle, upturning tanks and taking Captain Hideo prisoner, using her lasso to interrogate him. Meanwhile Paula goes undercover, trying to convince Nazi General von Bopp that she’s still the Gestapo agent she used to be, despite the newly beautified face that Aphrodite gave her (which unfortunately makes her look so much like everyone else that the colorist keeps going back and forth between making her a redhead and a blonde). Von Bopp isn’t buying it, however, and takes her prisoner.
I’d just like to take a moment to say how much I love Marine General Brown, who’s commanding the American forces. I don’t think we’ve ever seen him before, but all of his dialogue is awesome. “Wonder Woman! By all that’s crazy!” And my favorite: “Von Bopp is a **-x!!–“ Yes. Yes, he is.
Of course Wonder Woman gets captured too, despite her cunning plan of pretending to have been captured already, and the Japanese are reading to demonstrate the effectiveness of the “womania” bacillus by unleashing gnats infected with it onto Wondy and Paula. But Wonder Woman easily escapes and the gnats bite the nearby Japanese women, filling them with murderous rage against all men. Paula has used another invention of hers that we’ve seen before to imprint a list of Japanese spies onto her body in invisible ink, and she and Wondy use Paula’s workshop, “slaves and all,” to bring the list out with chemicals, and agents are dispatched to round up all the spies before the gnats can be released.
The best thing about this is Wonder Woman’s statement that “I’ve kept your secret workshop, slaves and all, thinking they’d be needed in Aphrodite’s workshop.” So not only does Paula never really give up keeping slaves, even now that she’s a good guy, but Wonder Woman keeps slaves for her, all chained up and ready to go.
The second story pits Wonder Woman (and Paula) against the Mole Men, not to be confused with the villains of the same name from the first Superman feature film, from 1951, or the later Fantastic Four adversary. Like those, these earlier Mole Men are a menace that lives deep underground. And the first thing they do is open a fissure in the earth to capture an all-female marching band!
That would be the Holliday College Girls, of course led by Wonder Woman’s pal Etta Candy. Wondy happens to be there in her guise as Diana Prince, and she leaps into action… by flying all the way to Reform Island to retrieve Paula, because she’s good at science, instead of leaping directly after Etta and her friends. I guess time must not be of the essence.
Despite her great strides in proving herself out in the world, Paula apparently still needs to wear heavy chains on Reform Island, or from the way she talks, maybe she just prefers to. Her hair color continues to change from red to blonde from scene to scene, probably because she looks just like everyone else on Reform Island now. Although by Aphrodite’s reckoning Paula failed her first challenge by relying (badly) on trickery, the goddess gives her a new assignment, which is conveniently exactly what Wonder Woman is coming to ask her to help with. Of course now Wondy says there’s no time to waste, after coming all the way there to get Paula instead of going after Etta herself. Paula had better bring a lot to the table after all that.
They head down into the hole, which closes after them—again, good thing it stayed open this long—and find themselves plummeting into darkness, conveniently caught in a rubber sheet held by several glowing slave girls. “Let’s capture them,” says Paula, because of course that would be her first instinct, but these women are already in chains, slaves of the Mole Men.
The Mole Men, you see, are blind, and in fact their eyes are always closed. Well, they’re not quite blind, because they can see their slaves if they’re painted with glowing chemicals whose ultraviolet rays “penetrate their eyelids.” But by and large, they rely on their slaves to be their eyes, because women’s eyes can adjust to the darkness where men’s cannot. They’re kept in line by some crazy science that holds them immobile with “earth static” if they break their chains. Tellingly, there’s no editor’s note assuring us that this science makes sense.
And what are the Mole Men up to, aside from capturing surface women to be their slaves? Well, their plan is to—dare I say it?—rule the world! Apparently they keep up on surface world events enough to know about the world wars, and they plan to take over America by dropping the seat of government in Washington down into the underworld, and once the US is in their power, the rest of the war-torn world should be easy. He explains all this to Wonder Woman, because everybody knows villains can’t shut up about their evil plans once you get them started.
Curiously, Wonder Woman doesn’t seem overly concerned with this cockamamie plan. Once she’s found Etta and the Holliday Girls, she’s ready to escape, but Paula says no, they’d better do something about the Mole Men, because Aphrodite told her to “capture the men of the underworld.”
Paula’s scientific aptitude finally comes in handy as she invents lassos for all the women that will paralyze the Mole Men with “earth static.” The slave leader Calla reluctantly agrees; she’s in love with the Mole King Blakfu but says, “Well—let’s try it. I’m tired of being flogged!” To distract the Mole Men while Paula’s making the lassos, Wonder Woman submits to torture by the Mole King, who makes her dance on a floor plate that will electrocute her if she stops. After hours of Diana’s tireless dancing, the Mole King is about to order her executed outright when Etta’s band comes marching in, and all the slave girls start dancing too. While the Mole Men are marveling at the spectacle, the women lasso them and tie them up.
Although Wondy had assured Calla that the Mole Men would “love to be captured by girls,” Blakfu refuses to allow her to rule over him. That is, until Wonder Woman performs surgery on him to open his eyes so that he can see what a knockout she is. Once he knows she’s beautiful, he can’t wait to be ruled by her. Who knew it was that easy? Oh, and Wonder Woman does do the thing shown on he cover, catching a giant steam shovel so that it doesn’t fall on Steve, but that’s all in a day’s work for her.
One weird thing is that the end of the story implies that Diana Prince’s boss Colonel Darnell loves her, or at least was really, really worried when he thought she was dead, whereas Steve thinks only of Wonder Woman. Is this real love triangle or only an excuse for Diana to get angsty in the last panel? Only time will tell.
But wait, there’s more! The third adventure starts with Diana Prince catching a clerk, Elva Dove, reading a confidential paper she shouldn’t have access to. With her customary directness, Diana immediately accuses her of being a spy and drags her to Steve’s office. Although he thinks Elva’s too hot to do anything wrong, Steve agrees to have her take a lie detector test, and hey, look at that—she is a spy!
Not for the Nazis this time, though. She’s spying for some rubber company—rubber robber barons, if you will—that are under investigation for withholding trade secrets that could help the war effort so as to corner the rubber market for themselves.
Meanwhile, back on Reform Island, Paula has invented a bizarre machine called the subconscious x-ray that allows you to picture someone’s innermost thoughts just like you were watching TV. It uses kappa rays to let you see into the fifth dimension, where the subconscious is located. You know, science!
Aphrodite gives Paula her first challenge: “to change the character of men and make them serve their fellow humans.” Sounds like a lesson that monopoly-minded cartel needs to learn! Incidentally, Aphrodite has been depicted with a different hair color each time she appears in this issue: she’s a blonde in the first story, a redhead in the second, and now a brunette. I would guess this is a coloring error, like Paula’s ever-shifting hair, but it might be a subtle statement about how the embodiment of beauty comes in all colors. Still, I doubt it.
We find out why Elva’s been spying for the rubber baron Ivar Torgson—because she loves him, of course. He not only doesn’t feel the same, but he figures she’s too dangerous to live if she’s going to get all emotional about it. Wonder Woman saves her in the nick of time and captures not just Torgson but all his colleagues and coconspirators. She uses Paula’s invention to show how ludicrously inflated their self-image is, showing them as imagined kings, Napoleons and Supermen.
Diana quickly thinks of the kinkiest solution possible. Clearly she needs to make Torgson into Elva’s slave. She lends Elva her lasso to compel Torgson to submit to her—and more importantly, to want to submit. After he learns to like being dominated, Diana assures Elva, she won’t need the lasso anymore.
Unfortunately, Elva weakens. Feeling sorry for the suddenly devoted Torgson, she unchains him, and he immediately becomes as brutish and cruel as he ever was. He knocks her out and captures Wonder Woman, tying her to pillars with her own lasso. She makes her escape with her usual mixture of cleverness and brute force, pulling the pillars together without letting the ceiling collapse.
Paula is up to her old tricks, brainwashing the other rubber barons like she used to do with her slaves, only this time she makes them into Wonder Woman’s slaves, imprinting her face on their brains. To her credit, at first Diana is uncomfortable with having these guys as her slaves, but Paula easily talks her into it.
Wondy calls these captains of industry her “reformandos” and commands them to share their trade secrets and make rubber cheap and plentiful. Hooray! Screw capitalism! And Elva begs to be chained and made a slave on Reform Island so that she can learn to rule men. It’s a happy ending for happy slaves everywhere!
So yeah, what starts as a warning about the evils of capitalism turns into one of the freakier early Wonder Woman stories, and that’s saying something. What’s more, we don’t even find out whether Paula made the grade with Aphrodite or not, just that Diana thinks that surely she must have. And if so, she did it by saving the day with brainwashing and enslaving people. She really has turned over a new leaf! It’s just that it’s a whole lot like the old one.