On Wednesdays I look at various chapters in Wonder Woman’s history. Click here for previous installments, including Greg Rucka’s run and the current “New 52” era. 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. 2 or the hardcover Wonder Woman Archives Vol. 2.
Wonder Woman #3, DC Comics, Feb/Mar 1943.
By the end of 1942, Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston and artist H.G. Peter were pretty darn prolific with the new adventures of the Amazon crimefighter. There were her monthly adventures in Sensation Comics, stories in the quarterly Comic Cavalcade, and then there was her full-length solo comic, which went from quarterly to bimonthly with issue 3.
Reading it today, when a single story takes six to twelve issues to tell, it’s amazing to me how much ground is covered in this one comic, weighing in at a hefty 52 pages of story. You really got your money’s worth for a dime.
And it’s a Christmas story! Well, kind of. You see, on Paradise Island December 25th is “Diana’s Day,” which is actually all about Apollo. It’s a celebration of the goddess Diana, but it’s celebrating her excitement as deity of the moon that her brother the sun is coming back—that is, it’s basically a winter solstice festival. Marston makes sure we get the Christmas connection early and often, having Wonder Woman comment on the equivalency of the holidays several times while she explains the tradition to Steve Trevor, even calling the moon goddess basically the Amazon Santa Claus. Who knew?
Mostly, though, the story is about Wonder Woman’s main nemesis at the time, Baroness Paula von Gunther. Etta Candy comes to Diana Prince all upset because two of her classmates at Holliday College were picked up for espionage. Diana points out that one of them, Eve Brown (not to be confused with Eva Braun—or is she?), actually did spy for the Nazis in the past, but Etta’s sure that she’s spanked all that bad behavior out of her and it’s a frame-up. OK, she doesn’t actually mention the spanking, but Wonder Wednesday readers might remember that that is in fact how it happened.
Diana looks into it, and who do you suppose gave the FBI the idea that these you ladies were Nazi spies? Gestapo saboteur number one Paula von Gunther, who’s been a prisoner since the last time Wonder Woman caught her. Well, that makes Diana sure the girls are innocent, but of course the intelligence service isn’t interested in whether it’s detaining suspected enemy combatants on flimsy or nonexistent evidence. Thank goodness we don’t have that sort of thing going on anymore.
And indeed, it’s all a ruse for the baroness to escape somehow while under interrogation. Diana actually spots von Gunther as she’s fleeing on foot, but can’t catch her in time, which seems pretty dubious for someone who can outrun cars and outswim torpedoes. I can see how she might want to keep that under wraps when she’s in her secret identity, but outrunning a chain smoker in high heels really shouldn’t arouse any suspicions. Anyway, von Gunther gets away. What’s worse, the nameless FBI chief agent that Diana’s been talking to doesn’t take the obvious ruse as any sign that Eve and her roommate might be innocent.
Diana is real broken up over it until she gets a mental radio call from her mom, Queen Hippolyte, saying that she should come home for Chrism… um, “Diana’s Day.” Mom gives her permission to bring Etta along because she’s “not bound by any man’s domination in the man-ruled world,” which I guess means she doesn’t have a boyfriend. But little does Diana know she’s taking yet another guest home with her—Keela, one of the baroness’s many slave girls, tags along as a stowaway in Wonder Woman’s invisible plane.
Diana’s Day on Paradise Island is…weird. First of all, Diana has to dress up as her goddess namesake and leave presents in all the amazons’ quivers, just like Santa Claus. The goddess even supposedly arrives in a chariot drawn by wood nymphs, just like Santa’s sleigh.
And the thing is, that’s not even the weird part. Part of the game is for other amazons to try to steal the designated Diana’s mask, so that they can take her place as the goddess. If they fail, the goddess ties them up (everybody loves to get tied up in Marston’s world) and they have to stay tied up all night. Then in the morning they have to dress up as deer and be hunted.
Once caught, they’re hung by their wrists and skinned for cooking—which fortunately only involves stripping their costumes off. Then they’re hogtied and served up on dishes for the other amazons’ feast. Oh, and one of them is made to dance like a chicken, lest she be punished some more.
Meanwhile, Keela is skulking around, up to no good. She manages to steal Hippolyte’s magic girdle while all this tomfoolery is going on, which makes her unstoppable. Well, to anyone but Etta Candy, anyway. Before Etta subdues her, however, Keela manages to signal Paula von Gunther on a Japanese battleship, helping guide it to Paradise Island. Fortunately, the Amazons manage to fend it off, swimming over to the ship and literally carrying it away from the island by hand. The baroness is taken prisoner on Paradise Island—or rather on a new Reform Island to be built just for her—and Eve and her pal are freed. Oh, and Steve bombs the battleship, killing all the Japanese. There’s still a war on, after all.
And that’s just the first story. In the second one, Steve Trevor suddenly starts hitting on Diana Prince, which is weird because he’s always more or less ignored her and only had eyes for Wonder Woman. (Allan Heinberg and Jodi Picoult tried to recycle this dynamic with Tom Tresser in 2009, but it just came off as creepy.) What’s wrong with Steve?
Well, whatever it is, it also seems to involve him stealing state secrets, seemingly to leak them to the Nazis. It’s like he’s the opposite of Steve!
No time to think about that, though, because Baroness Paula von Gunther has escaped from Reform Island! What a surprise! Diana’s old pal Mala is in charge of building the prison there, and she still has a bunch of the baroness’s slave girls to try to reform. The trouble is, Paula’s got her hooks in them too deep. They won’t consent to have their chains taken off. Wonder Woman interrogates the slaves with a mind-reading machine that prints out their true thoughts no matter what they say, which is pretty hardcore. There’s nothing those Amazons can’t invent.
It turns out that the baroness escaped in an invisible boat; no doubt she’s refined her “invisible ray” technology to aid her in her escape. I love how Wondy talks about how impossible it sounds that von Gunther could have an invisible boat while her own invisible plane is right behind her.
In fact, the baroness spends a lot of this issue running around invisible. And yep, Steve is totally under her thrall now. Wonder Woman chases her unseen foe, but can’t quite seem to catch her despite her own seemingly forgotten super-speed. She does rush past a gallery of ethnic stereotypes, though, from the superstitious black elevator operator to the Irish policeman.
Catching up with the baroness, Wondy lets von Gunther grab her magic lasso and take her prisoner—or so she pretends. In fact, it’s a fake magic lasso that she wove in home ec class while piloting her plane, and she left the real one with Etta for safekeeping.
Here she gets to experience the indoctrination process for herself. Her eyes are taped open like a precursor to A Clockwork Orange and the image of the baroness’s sleazily seductive face is burned into her brain.
It looks like Wonder Woman’s usual plan of letting herself get captured and shackled is somehow going awry! But wait, what’s this? Oh, I think you know. It’s Etta to the rescue! While her marching band pals distract the other officers with their general babeitude, Steve quickly learns the hard way that no amount of mental condition can survive a chubby sorority girl slapping the crap out of you. (OK, OK, the magic lasso helped.) But what it really takes is seeing the woman he loves in peril to snap Steve out of it. (“I had to become a helpless woman to do it—I owe the baroness for that!” Wondy says, in a moral that I’m sure the female half of the population can cherish.) Etta and the newly awakened Steve bust the disoriented Wonder Woman out, but of course von Gunther gets away again. Curses!
OK, now the third tale. Everyone knows nothing says Christmas like concentration camps! The story starts with Diana Prince off horse-riding, as we’re told she does every Saturday. (Between that and Wonder Woman’s bowling league, her weekends are filling up.) But whoops, she almost tramples some kid sledding in the snow! So of course she has to go sledding with this random kid for a while, and when she’s done he almost gets run over again—this time by a car that deliberately runs over his sled. Somehow Diana intuits that “nobody could be as mean as that except Paula von Gunther!” and she changes to Wonder Woman and dashes after the car… and sure enough, it’s the baroness! Yeah, running over some kid’s sled totally sounds like one of von Gunther’s fiendish plots.
Wondy takes Paula back to the newly build prisons on Reform Island, where all the other prisoners worship the baroness. Her slave girls are happy prisoners who love their captivity, just like the ones on planet Eros in another early Wonder Woman story a few months before. They’re happy to work and happy to play games as long as they’re kept chained as their mistress commanded. Enlightened Amazon that she is, Wondy says there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be slaves, as long as you serve a good mistress, not a bad one.
As a matter of fact, Wondy stages an experiment, letting Paula von Gunther take the jailer Mala prisoner and try to kill her. The other prisoners are enraged, loving their new kind mistress way more than their old mean one who made them slaves in the first place, and they beat the crap out of her.
But wait, maybe Paula isn’t so bad after all! Wondy interrogates her with her magic lasso and finds out that von Gunther hates kids so much because her own beloved child Gerta was taken from her by the Nazis when they invaded her native Austria and are keeping the kid in a concentration camp to ensure that Paula goes their bidding as a Gestapo agent. So it turns out that the biggest, baddest, cold-blooded killingest Nazi agent actually hates the Nazis, but what can she do? If she couldn’t beat them, she had to join them.
Well, obviously Wondy has to cure Paula of her evil by rescuing Gerta. And who would she take with her on a stealth mission behind enemy lines to free a child from a Nazi concentration camp but Etta Candy, heavyset but spunky sorority gal? Etta employs her infallible strategy of giving bad guys candy and then subduing them while they’re distracted by the sugary deliciousness, which is basically the same tactic superheroes would use in the Hostess snack cake ads of the 1970s.
Despite being caught and tied up at least once, because that’s kind of her thing, Wondy frees not just Gerta but all the little girls in the Nazi death camp. Hooray! Paula is so grateful that she promises to serve Wonder Woman forever. But can we believe anything that fiend says? Well, we’ll just have to see.
We’ll have to see right now, in fact! Apparently Wonder Woman didn’t have time to create an alibi for Diana Prince before she hauled Paula back to Reform Island, so Steve and their boss Colonel Darnell are trying to find out what happened to Diana. They track down that kid she went sledding with, Kibby Maxwell, who not only identifies Paula as his assailant but apparently had described her well enough to his mom that she recognized her as the woman that had been lurking around the munitions factory where she works. Unfortunately, a saboteur overhears the mom talking about Paula and decides he’ll have to murder her so there’ll be no witnesses.
Meanwhile, Wonder Woman shows up with Paula von Gunther, who told Wondy that the Nazis are planning to blow up the factory and begged to let her help stop it. They arrive to find the building already on fire—and inside is Kibby’s mom, tied up (of course) by that goon, and Kibby’s there too, trying to rescue his mom. Wondy leaps off to rescue them before Paula can warn her about the bomb that hasn’t even gone off yet, so the baroness has to rush into the fire to disable it.
Wonder Woman finds Paula passed out in the burning building and manages to save her life through advanced Amazon science, but von Gunther is badly scarred in the fire. Oh, and there’s the little matter of a bazillion crimes against humanity that she has to be tried for. Paula gets a remarkably speedy—that is to say, immediate—trial, and Wonder Woman argues for the defense, cleverly pointing out the baroness has already been tried, convicted and executed for a lot of her crimes, so those ones are off-limits. More to the point, Paula’s sob story about how all the atrocities she did were to save her child, and the jurors couldn’t stay mad at her. Acquitted!
But wait, there’s more! Paula pledges herself as Wonder Woman’s slave, and the goddess Aphrodite gives Paula a whole new face, one more blandly beautiful to reflect her placid new role as a good guy. It’s a Christmas miracle! Maybe best of all, Wondy feels it necessary to command herself by the power of the magic lasso not to abuse her new power over the baroness. I think that’s a Diana’s Day message we can all get behind.