On Wednesdays I look at various chapters in Wonder Woman’s history. Click here for previous installments.
Just a quick one this week—too busy with other stuff. I have to say, too, that DC isn’t making it easy for me to write happy shiny things about its (and comicdom as a whole’s) most prominent superheroine when the company itself keeps making dick moves that look and quack a lot like misogyny.
There’s only so many times I can read about the latest DC debacle or the ongoing frustration with the lack of a Wonder Woman movie before I start to feel pretty glum in my fandom. And sure, I can write angry, but that’s really not where I want to be.
So! It’s time to hop in the wayback machine and head way, way back to 1943. Let’s take a look at the very last story in Wonder Woman Archives vol. 2: “The Talking Lion.”
Sensation Comics #17, DC Comics, May 1943.
I seem to always say “this is a weird one” about the classic 1940s tales by Wonder Woman creators William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter, but, well, this is a weird one. And not just because it hinges on a talking lion.
In her human guise of Diana Prince, Wonder Woman goes to visit an ailing coworker, the bedridden Army Intelligence clerk Sally Lee. It turns out Sally’s little brother is pretty much Wondy’s biggest fan and is bummed out that he missed a movie about Wonder Woman. (Just imagine! A Wonder Woman movie.) So Diana changes into her costume and surprises little Bobby with an impromptu trip to the zoo.
Just by coincidence, she happens to run into her boyfriend, Steve Trevor, who just happens to also be there with a small child—his niece, Ginger. Steve tries to take this opportunity to convince Wondy to marry him (or that’s what it looks like, anyway), but the kids interrupt him with a tall tale about a talking lion giving them a garbled message—something about “Yaz Meanie” and “Station CC.”
The lion gets loose and almost mauls Ginger due to a zookeeper’s seeming incompetence (or something more sinister, considering his suspicious German accent). Wonder Woman rescues her, of course, but the next day Diana gets a call saying Bobby is missing. For that matter, so is Ginger, and the lion, and the zookeeper as well. Something’s afoot!
Diana finally takes the lion’s message seriously enough to piece together what it must have been talking about. “Yaz Meanie” is clearly Yasmini, which Wondy identifies as a Hindu name. It’s really not—it would almost certainly be Muslim—but there was an old pulp character named Yasmini of India in the 1910s and 1920s, which may be where Marston got that notion. Diana also deduces that this Yasmini must be an Axis spy based in Cairo. Steve conveniently just happens to know that there is a Princess Yasmini in Cairo, from “a famous old Hindu family—anti-British.”
Now, this is interesting. This Hindu princess would almost certainly be Indian, unless Marston really has no idea what he’s talking about and thinks that’s a common religion in Egypt. (He never actually says she’s Indian, just “Hindu.”) But there certainly are a few Indians in Egypt, and for all I know there were probably more back then, when the British still occupied both countries to different degrees. Still, it’s weird that we see almost no Egyptians in Cairo. Other than a “desert chieftain” and a couple of gawkers, it’s just the Hindu princess with her slave girls and Sikh guards, plus a French hotel clerk and some Nazi soldiers. Oh yeah, and another talking lion that totally is talking.
Now, in another comic we might be able to take a talking lion at face value. Fawcett Comics’s Captain Marvel had a pal at the time who was a tiger that not only talked but strolled around upright in suits. But in Wonder Woman this was much more likely to be some kind of trick, almost certainly something to do with that cutting-edge technology, radio.
Anyway, Yasmini is totally your standard stereotypical orientalist fantasy of the mysterious femme fatale with hypnotic powers, or at least knockout incense. Plus, she’s found a secret entrance into the Third Pyramid, where she sits on a throne with a headdress like a pharaoh. So many mixed cultural signals!
A lot of the usual things happen: Steve gets knocked out and captured. Wonder Woman gets herself captured and chained up accidentally on purpose. Wondy calls her pal Etta Candy on her “mental radio” once she finds out where the kids are being held. There’s a death trap that Wondy has to foil with her good ol’ wisdom of Athena and strength of Hercules.
Oh, and yeah, the spies were communicating through radios that they made the lions swallow, which seems like a really inefficient way to convey secret messages, especially seeing as how zoos are pretty public. Wonder Woman managed to game the system by secretly substituting her own radio-equipped lion for Yasmini’s, and broadcasting a message telling Yasmini to do exactly what Wondy wanted her to do. That’s a pretty labor-intensive master plan, but hey, whatever works.