Now In Her Own Magazine


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.

Now that’s a cool cover.

Wonder Woman #1, DC Comics, Summer 1942.

At last, Wonder Woman gets her own comic book, just half a year after she was first introduced! Starting in summer 1942, Wonder Woman was initially a quarterly (briefly going monthly and then bimonthly in the next few issues before settling on quarterly again), running side-by-side with her monthly adventures as the featured attraction in Sensation Comics. Wondy kept up that same double play until 1952, when occult detective Johnny Peril took over her spot in Sensation, a year before the title was cancelled.

In any case, this first issue is a whopper, a 64-pager boasting four separate stories of America’s favorite superheroine. After a one-page refresher course on the Greco-Roman gods she gets her powers from—the beauty of Aphrodite, the wisdom of Athena, the strength of Hercules and the speed of Mercury—the first story is a  much more fleshed-out retelling of Wonder Woman’s origin than the original version in All-Star Comics #8. It’s also the first of many retcons of her story, slightly altering many of the details, even though it’s the same creative team of writer William Moulton Marston and artist Harry G. Peter who told the story the first time around.

This version opens with Wonder Woman dropping off the injured body of Army intelligence officer Steve Trevor, who’d been believed killed when his plane crashed in the sea. Although she rushed off as quickly as she came, the costumed heroine happened to drop an ancient parchment that she just happened to be carrying, detailing the history of the Amazons. The Army doctor takes it over to a famous archeologist at the Smithsonian, appropriately named Dr. Hellas, who translates it from the ancient Greek.

More heroes should just casually drop documentation of their backstories when they first appear.

It tells of an ongoing rivalry between Ares, god of war (mostly called by his Roman name, Mars, in this account and in Wonder Woman comics for the next 40 years or so) and Aphrodite, goddess of love, which is also a battle of the sexes. “My men shall rule with the sword!” “My women shall conquer men with love!” To counter the conquering men who keep women as chattel, Aphrodite sculpts a race of superwomen, seemingly from clay, and breathes life into them, making them more powerful than men. She gives their queen Hippolyte her own magic girdle to make these Amazons unconquerable. Furious at this, Mars sends Hercules, the stongest man in the world, to conquer the Amazons, but Hippolyte kicks his ass. When he can’t beat her in combat, Hercules romances Hippolyte, tricking her into taking off the magic girdle that makes her unstoppable and then cruelly enslaving the Amazons. Aphrodite helps them break free, on the condition that they always wear the bracelets they were once shackled by as a reminder never to submit to men again. Once Hippolyte has again trounced Hercules and reclaimed her magic girdle, the Amazons sail off to far-off Paradise Island, to forever live free from men.

Bad boys! Their only weakness!

At this point the parchment’s story ends, but the Amazons’ story continues free of this framing device, “relying on later sources of information.”  Athena coaches Hippolyte on how to sculpt a baby for herself, and Aphrodite brings this daughter to life, naming it Diana after the goddess Artemis. Little Diana starts displaying the strength of Hercules at the age of three, casually uprooting trees, and outraces deer at age five. At fifteen she receives the “bracelets of submission” as a rite of passage (oh Marston, with your bondagey delights!) and she gets to drink from the fountain of eternal youth as long as she stays on the island, which she plans to do forever.

Wondy Wondy Wondy, I made you out of clay, and when you’re grown and ready…

But of course all that goes out the window the first time she catches sight of a man. Steve Trevor’s plane crashes just off their shore, and Diana and her best friend Mala are the first to find it. They rescue him and bring him back to Diana’s laboratory to heal him, because the Amazons are super-scientists as well as a perfectly preserved Ancient Greek culture. Whereas in the original version Diana (who was only called “Princess” until she left the island) only assisted the doctor and watched over Steve as he slept, in this version the doctor can do nothing for him, so Diana has to invent a Purple Healing Ray to save his life (which would be adapted into a Purple Death Ray 60 years later, toward the end of Greg Rucka’s run). Hippolyte decrees that the man must leave Paradise Island as soon as possible, and Aphrodite tells her to pick her strongest Amazon to get him safely home to America, so it can win the war and spite Mars.

So Europe’s from Mars and America’s from Venus? Didn’t see that coming.

Diana hears all about the tournament to pick the Amazons’ champion on her “mental radio-television,” but her mother forbids her to compete. She enters anyway, wearing a little domino mask to hide her identity, and makes short work of the other competitors. Mala also trounces the competition, including a plump Amazon unfortunately named—I kid you not—Fatsis. Much as we saw before, Diana’s last test is against her friend Mala in a game of “bullets and bracelets,” in which they shoot each other with pistols (because apparently they have those on Paradise Island) and deflect them with their bracelets, but Diana wins by shooting her friend in the shoulder. This story makes frequent use of the Amazon exclamation “Hola!” which really just means hello in Spanish, but in the Amazons’ made-up Greek it’s a cheer, a battle cry, or really whatever they want it to be.

So Fatsis is the Amazon Etta Candy, basically.

When Diana’s identity is revealed, the Queen is dismayed but has to honor the result, giving her daughter her costume and her magic lasso. This is another significant change, because just in the last issue of Sensation Comics we saw Diana go back to Paradise Island, where she was given her lasso some time after her initial journey to man’s world. It’s fair to say this is more or less the version of her story that people would be familiar with for decades to come, albeit with occasional tweaks and embellishments over the years. This time we don’t see who crafted the unbreakable lasso, made of part of the magic girdle, but it’s interesting that in the last story I commented on the uncanny resemblance of the craftswoman Metala to the royal doctor, whose name we now learn is Althea, and here Althea plays the role Metala did before of giving Diana an involuntary subject to test the lasso’s powers on, confirming that it makes anyone she ensnares do whatever she tells them to do. (Its narrower function as a truth compeller would come much later.)

Doctor or craftswoman, she just can’t catch a break with that lasso.

Unlike the first version of this story in All-Star, this one doesn’t bother much with how Steve got to Paradise Island. Suffice it to say, as he does in one panel of perfunctory exposition, that he was following a bad guy when he crashed. Wonder Woman flies Steve back to a hospital in Washington, DC, stopping on the way to catch the bad guy, while she’s up—a Japanese spy who fortunately isn’t shown as some ridiculous caricature (but who, oddly, is quizzed about German spies in San Francisco, which he seems to know all about). This time we skip over the whole weird saga of how Wonder Woman wound up taking the guise of nurse Diana Prince, which is probably just as well.

The second story has Wonder Woman go to the circus. In her Diana Prince identity, she and Steve Trevor escort a bunch of kids to a circus performance benefitting the Army Welfare Fund. But there they find a mystery!  Elephants keep dropping dead, seemingly poisoned. They’re looked after by some unfortunately caricatured people from Burma, where people worship elephants (or so we’re told).  And hooboy are there plenty of suspects! There’s Dom, the pantsless trapeze performer who resents the circus owner, Ed King, for not letting him marry Elva, King’s niece. There’s racketeer Mike Mulgoon “of the Strongarm Protective Association,” who’s shaking down the Burmese elephant keepers for protection money.

No-Pants Dom just can’t compete with the crazy racial stereotypes.

One of the elephants collapses in the middle of a performance, falling on right on top of Elva’s legs. The elephant is dead but Elva somehow isn’t, and Wonder Woman lifts the elephant off of Elva, no problem, poking fun at the circus strongmen and wowing the crowd.  Weirdly, Elva’s legs are somehow not even broken by the full weight of an adult elephant falling on her from the waist down, as she shows up a little while later walking around as if nothing had happened.  And no, Elva doesn’t have superpowers; I guess Marston just didn’t give that part much thought.

That gal’s got to have legs of steel to walk after that.

Neither does Wonder Woman, apparently, as she does an impromptu performance for the big top crowd to raise more money for the soldiers, wrestling lions and carrying horses around. Oh, and someone tries to kill her in a trapeze accident, but good luck with that.

Back to the mystery! She and her candy-obsessed pal Etta Candy disguise themselves as a elephant, borrowing an actual stuffed baby elephant from a circus museum and using its skin as a costume, and join the other elephants for a stakeout. What they witness is all the Burmese elephant handlers worshipping the elephants and assuring them that tonight they’ll “trample the foreign devils.” Fortunately Wondy understands this, because she learned “all human languages” growing up on Paradise Island. Etta’s chatty exuberance almost blows their disguise, but the Burmese don’t think anything of an elephant talking, because it must be the souls of their ancestors living on in the beast-gods. The other elephants aren’t as gullible, though, and one of them blows the fauxlephant’s cover. Head elephant handler and high priest San Yan has them tied up (of course) and brought to the “secret temple of the sacred elephants” to be sacrificed. WW plays along because she wants to see the place.

Just the first of many bad-idea new costumes for Diana.

Meanwhile Steve is closing in on Mulgoon’s gangsters, who are plotting to kill the Asians just because they’re racist thugs, but just as he’s about to catch them he gets knocked unconscious—which happens to him all the time—but this time by a swat from a caged tiger!

Suddenly everything’s coming to a head. Steve chases Mulgoon’s men as they abduct a couple of the Burmese. Spurred on by its handler, one of the elephants runs off clutching Elva in its trunk, pursued by Dom and her father on horseback. (In an amusing twist, the horses are trained for clown acts to do the opposite of what they’re told.) Wonder Woman and Etta are taken to a hidden cave where the stalagmites have been carved into giant statues of elephants, where the Burmese chain them and Elva to the elephant trunks. (Again, you can never have too much bondage in an early Wonder Woman comic.) “If those icicles were only candy!” Etta moans, because dying’s neither here nor there, but no candy is a real problem.

Man, that circus must stay in one place a long time if they carved all that.

And lo, it turns out that the elephant-worshipping Burmese were the ones poisoning the elephants all along—“to free our ancestors’ spirits” from captivity in a foreign land, San Yan says, but Wondy ain’t buying it. He’s not even Burmese! He’s a Japanese spy out to sabotage the circus just to ruin the army fundraiser, and only WW can spot his “talking Burmese with a strong Japanese accent” when the other Burmese apparently didn’t notice at all. Silly Asians! Everybody forgets their differences to fight the common enemy, which means Mulgoon’s goons can continue their Asian-bashing uninterrupted–only this time for America!

I guess a woman’s touch really CAN do wonders for a place.

The next story features the return of the villainous Baroness Paula von Gunther, but more importantly it has Wonder Woman leading American soldiers on horseback against Nazi U-boats. Horses on a submarine!

The baroness is in prison, but Steve’s boss Colonel Darnell is sure she’s somehow responsible for American secrets being leaked to the Nazis.  And indeed, she seems to have turned her solitary confinement into a command center, with her prison guard on the take and a secret underground lair built out of old “torture cells” beneath her cell, where her agents meet her through underground tunnels and she’s waited on by her usual collection of chained slave girls. The names are amusingly on the nose throughout this story: the upright American soldier captured by spies is named Captain Loyal, and the crooked prison guard is named Guard Swipe.

Meanwhile the warden’s adorable little boy Freddy, who likes to play cowboy, stumbles upon Wondy’s magic lasso in Diana Prince’s luggage and just has to play with it. Von Gunther sees Freddy lassoing his sister and her suddenly obeying his commands, and she instantly knows that it must be Wonder Woman’s magic lasso that the kid has, and she makes the guard fetch it for her. So she can force the strong-willed Captain Loyal to reveal the secret American plans.

That lasso beats the heck out of “Simon Says.”

WW finally notices that her lasso is gone and goes back to the prison to find it, intuits that the kid playing cowboy might know something, so she coaxes it out of him by playing with him for a while—which of course involves letting the little boy tie her up, because that’s her thing. But no sooner does Freddy tell her that the guard took it from him than she finds Guard Swipe dead—and the other guards find her with his body.

He may be a little young for that game, Diana.

Accused of murder, she has herself placed in solitary next to the baroness’s cell by making herself as incorrigible a prisoner as possible. She finds not just that von Gunther has the magic lasso but that she also has Freddy—and plans to kill him too! She’s already killed both Swipe and Loyal, so she’s been pretty busy with the bloodshed.

These sort of high jinks come a little too easily to Diana.

Wondy manages to free herself with Freddy’s help, and from there it’s a frenzy of confusing activity in which Wonder Woman leads a cavalry regiment into a secret Nazi fortress full of U-boats, and the baroness is seemingly killed in the crossfire. I’m sure that’s the last we’ll see of her!

The last story in this issue is freaking ridiculous, in which Diana and Etta travel to Texas to visit Etta’s brother, an army private named… sigh… Mint Candy, who’s been injured in a spy attack. It opens with the always hilariously impractical mental radio, with which someone has to anticipate a message and plug herself into the device to receive the message of someone who’s thinking hard at them.

On the train there’s an interesting discrepancy between the two collections of the earliest Wonder Woman stories, both sadly out of print and selling for exorbitant prices online.

Here’s how the page was printed in The Wonder Woman Chronicles vol. 1, the 2010 paperback collection of the earliest Wonder Woman stories in chronological order:

Don’t want to distract too much from Etta’s candy problem.

And here’s the original version, reproduced in 1998’s hardbound Wonder Woman Archives vol. 1:

Let’s just forget this ever happened, shall we?

While it’s understandable that DC felt the need to soften the egregious racial caricature of the African American porter (which was by no means an uncommon portrayal in 1940s comics), it’s curious that the company restricted its revisionism to this particular image without altering the similarly offensive Asian caricatures in the circus story in this same issue, nor indeed the broad Mexican stereotypes in this very story. Mint carries secret division orders in his head, so spies are of course out to get him—but this time it’s Mexican spies, working for the Japanese.

Silly mans! Don’t you know not to trust dusky people?

Pancho, some kind of stable hand, arranges for Mint to find the beautiful Pepita seemingly abandoned in a radium mine, and when they rescue her, Mint promptly falls in love with her. She drugs him, and the dazed Mint reveals the secrets to Pancho, who goes running off to sell the secrets to the Japanese.

“There’s many a dip twixt a Mex and a Nip”? Seriously?

Diana apparently has no trouble getting the truth out of people without bothering to use the lasso on her hip. She uses hypnotism on Mint to find out what he told Pancho, and they chase after Pepita who leads them into an ambush. WW and Etta are bound (of course) and delivered to Japanese spies, who take them to Mexico City, where they escape (or rather Wondy breaks free to save Etta when the spies  decide there’s no point taking her along and they may as well kill her). They find Pepita working as a bullfighter, just to complete the picture of the treacherous Latin spitfire.

Well, stereotype or no, at least she’s a good bullfighter.

She makes short work of the first bull, but the next, El Terrifico, takes her by surprise, crashing through the gate.  That’s Wondy’s cue to swoop in to save her, then ham it up for the crowd by making the save bull do tricks with her magic lasso. She makes short work of the Japanese too, after Pepita—who’d only been helping them because they held her father hostage—points Wondy to their secret base.

It ends with an even more contrived way to introduce the weird theme of secret-identity split personality than usual—this time Diana frets about her “rival,” Wonder Woman, even though Steve isn’t even around, as part of a limp little gag about not even Wondy being able to make Etta diet. It’s funny because she’s fat, I guess. Ha… ha?

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