On Wednesdays I look at various chapters in Wonder Woman’s history. Click here for previous installments.
It seems like we just had the end of an era, but here we are at the end of another one. When DC abruptly decided to call it quits on the Emma Peel-like, fully human “mod” Wonder Woman of the late ’60s and early ’70s, longtime old-timey WW writer Robert Kanigher was put back in charge. After hastily disposing of Diana’s erstwhile supporting cast, he quickly gave her the powers and costume back, wiped her memory of the “mod” years, and put her back into the mousy Diana Prince secret identity. But then he promptly ignored the new status quo he’d set up to just retell his own stories from the 1940s, with new art by Ric Estrada. In the letters pages he made it pretty clear that this was just the way it was going to be, and when people asked if WW was going to rejoin the Justice League, his answer was a clear no.
Well, things change awfully quickly. Wonder Woman #211 would be Kanigher’s last as writer/editor, just seven issues after he was reinstalled, and the whole next story arc under editor Julius Schwartz would be about her rejoining the League (reprinted in the 2012 collection Wonder Woman: The Twelve Labors, whereas Kanigher’s intervening issues remain unreprinted, as do the early stories he was retelling). But hooboy did the old guy go out with a bang. Issue 211 is a 100-page Super Spectacular featuring not one, not two, but eight old Kanigher stories, two retold with new art and six straight-up reprinted, plus a couple of one-page features celebrating the history of the Amazon heroine.
Wonder Woman #211, DC Comics, May 1974.
Interestingly, the first story in this jumbo collection, “The Maniacs of Mercury” is from the same issue that “The Golden Women and the White Star” in issue 210 came from, 1947’s as-yet-unreprinted Wonder Woman #26. The original story, however (with art by the great H.G. Peter), was called “Speed Maniacs from Mercury,” and of course it originally featured Wondy’s collegiate pals Etta Candy and the Holliday Girls, who were erased from all these 1970s retellings and replaced with nameless and bland Amazons.
As a result, the setup is way less interesting in the 1974 version than in the 1947 one. Originally Wondy was going to take her friends on a visit to Paradise Island, but unbeknownst to Diana, lightning has damaged her invisible plane’s “direction finder” (I’m guessing that’s the technical term), so instead of taking her to Mom’s house it instead ends her hurtling into the sun.
In the retelling, Wondy “and her Amazons” are just returning from collecting meteor particles for general science purposes (with what appear to be handheld butterfly nets stuck out the side of the plane in space) when the controls go haywire and they’re sent toward the sun. In both scenarios, their only hope seems to be to divert the plane toward Mercury.
But there’s a much, much bigger difference between the two versions of the story. In both versions, they’re immediately captured by flying giants from the planet Mercury with winged helmets and winged sandals reminiscent of the god of the same name.
But in 1947 it’s a society of women who have enslaved all the men of their planet, and in 1974 it’s the men who have enslaved the women. The villainous Queen Celerita of Mercury correspondingly becomes King Celerito, putting Wondy in the slightly more brand- and era-appropriate position of fighting the patriarchy. In both cases, the dominant gender just loafs all day while the other sex slaves away.
In both versions, it’s basically the corrupting influence of American broadcast media that’s at fault. Everyone used to work equally on Mercury until Celerita/Celerito, then the planet’s chief scientist, happened to intercept a radio/TV broadcast that made it sound like one sex on Earth just took it easy while the other one worked all day. And here they were on Mercury working equally like suckers!
Celerita/o and her/his cronies tricked the (wo)men into a friendly race without the winged sandals and caps that give them speed, but there was no race at all. They just confiscated all the winged gear and enslaved the opposite sex—forever!
Things play out very differently as well. In 1947, Wondy sends a mental distress call to her friend Queen Desira of Venus, who comes to the rescue with a bunch of oversized Venus girdles to make the cruel Mercurian mistresses loving and nice, willing to happily share their planet again.
The 1974 Wonder Woman is on her own, freeing herself from slavery by superior force, and simply reversing the situation, putting the naturally kinder Mercurian women in charge while the men get a taste of their own medicine. She does make the women promise to live in peace and equality with the men after the brutes learn their lesson, though, which I’m sure they will. After all, who ever heard of women enslaving men?
The second reillustrated story, “The Mystery of the Atom World,” is from earlier in 1947, from Wonder Woman #21 (another one that’s never been reprinted). The tricky part with this one is that most issues of Wonder Woman in the 1940s contained three different WW stories, but this one was originally a three-parter that took up the whole issue (that is, aside from a “Wonder Woman of History” comic about Annie Oakley, a “Foney Fairy Tales” cartoon sendup of Little Red Riding Hood, and a two-page text crime story—you really got your money’s worth in the ’40s). The retelling is only 10 pages. How does that work? Well, it’s only really retelling the first part of the story.
Wonder Woman #21, DC Comics, January-February 1947.
Wearing a special protective suit of Amazon metal, Wonder Woman descends into a crater in the Pacific where at atomic bomb test has just been set off. In the original story there’s no real explanation why she’s doing it, whereas the ’70s version gives some lip service to her checking for environmental damage.
But what does she find down there? A tiny sun that’s getting bigger by the second, and Wondy scientifically deduces that it must be “capturing neutrons from the fragments of the atom bomb.” Because yeah, you know, science. She tries to grab it with her hands, because clearly that’s a good idea, but it gets away. She manages to save a plane from being disintegrated by the sun by lassoing the plane out of away—and again, this is the same sun that she just tried to hold in her hands. Thank goodness for Amazon metal, I guess. She contacts chief Amazon scientist Paula (formerly the villainous Nazi Baroness Paula von Gunther), who traps the sun with the Amazon magnetic sky trap they just happened to have lying around “before it destroys the world.”
By now Diana’s started calling it “the atomic universe,” so clearly she’s made some kind of great deductive leap here. She has Paula isolate a uranium atom to study it, and in the 1947 version it seems initially like the danger has passed and they’re just doing scientific inquiry at this point, so of course Wondy takes the time to go fetch Etta and the Holliday Girls to further their college education in atomic energy. The 1974 version keeps the pressure on, however, and they’re still talking about it as a runaway atomic sun that might destroy earth even after they’ve captured it.
In both stories, the powerful Amazon microscope shows then that the protons of this “atom planet” are actually women, and the neutrons are their robot slaves. It’s like Kanigher had just heard that atoms were made up of things called protons and neutrons, and took it from there. Ladies and robots! That’ll do.
Let me just pause here to say that one problem with the compressed storytelling of the 1974 version is that Diana’s exclamations get very, very repetitive. After a promising “Thunderbolts of Jove” on the first page, page two gives us “Suffering Sappho,” “Merciful Minerva” and “Great Hera” in three consecutive world balloons—basically every time she starts a sentence. On pages three and four she says “Thank Hera” three times and “Suffering Sappho” twice. It just feels lazy.
Ric Estrada, on the other hand, is in fine form in this retelling, with a striking rendition of proton queen Atomia (of course that would be her name) and some really interesting page layouts. I haven’t been all that wild about Estrada’s work during this run, but he does have his moments.
OK, well, Queen Atomia is somehow aware that the atomic universe her atom planet is in has been captured, and she somehow manages to maneuver her atom out of the thingamajig its “universe” is being held in and into a nearby beaker of water, where it releases a “Hydroxo Gas” that knocks Wondy and her friends unconscious and shrinks them into protons that are then pulled onto Atomia’s atom by “capto-magnets.”
Because Atomia apparently keeps up on what’s going on in the macrocosmic world, she knows all about Wonder Woman and knows that she’ll make a particularly powerful neutron once Atomia makes her into one of her robot slaves, able to destroy any enemy atom—including the Earth!
Now, Atomia made the cocky mistake of bragging that she controls the neutrons with her powerful brain, because Wondy has a pretty formidable brain herself that’s used to contacting people through “mental radio.” So she simply commands the neutrons to set her free. Then she decides to destroy the whole atom that Atomia rules, presumably killing everyone in her domain, by splitting the atom by brute force, dragging her companions to safety with her.
Now, splitting the atom sounds like a terrible idea—isn’t that how all this started in the first place?—but Amazon science seemingly has it under control. And Wondy and her pals aren’t even hurt by the radiation because they’re protons now and radiation is good for them. Well, all righty then.
In the 1947 version Steve Trevor comes wandering into Paula’s lab, which makes no sense whatsoever because men can’t set foot on Paradise Island, and in the 1974 version it’s, more sensibly, Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta (who’s suddenly gone back to the Hippolyta spelling again after reverting to Hippolyte through most of this retro period). But in any case, Wondy and pals come growing back into the lab to report that the threat of Queen Atomia is all over—or is it? A tiny voice from a puddle at Wondy’s feet pipes up, “I shall return—Amazon!”
And against all odds, that’s actually true, because Kurt Busiek and Trina Robbins used Queen Atomia in The Legend of Wonder Woman, the ultra-retro four-issue miniseries that DC Comics put out in 1986 just to keep the rights to the character. (At the time, DC had to publish at least four issues of Wonder Woman a year to avoid the rights reverting to the estate of WW creator William Moulton Marston, which it had done with the original series from 1942 all the way to February 1986, but her next series didn’t start up until February 1987. That arrangement is apparently no longer in effect, and DC now owns the character outright.)
But, as I said, originally this was only part one of a three-part storyline. Part two saw Atomia breaking the Atomic universe free, where it quickly started consuming everything in its path. But Wonder Woman captrues Queen Atomic, sending the voracious, ever-growing atomic universe harmlessly into space, where I’m sure it couldn’t possibly cause any trouble for anyone. (It was nice knowing you, Queen Desira of Venus.) In this story, we also learned that when men shrink down into the atomic world, they become electrons. This time Wondy captures Atomia and brings her with her to the superatomic world, to be taught the ways of peace and love on Reform Island.
In part three, Atomia gets into more trouble among the Amazons before finally learning her lesson. I say learning her lesson, but really she too is basically brainwashed into being good by one of those girdles of Venus that makes her loving and kind. When the girdle falls off her and she’s bad again, they weld it onto her so that she’ll be good from then on. We also encounter Holliday College’s Dean Sourpuss, who actually is named Sourpuss.
And how does Atomia show that she’s all reformed? By healing crippled children with the power of radiation! There’s your 1947 view of atomic energy in a nutshell, folks.
There’s still more than half of this issue left—I haven’t even started to get into the reprints—but that seems like a good place to leave it for this week. So check back in the next Wonder Wednesday for gripping reprinted tales of Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot (that is to say, Wonder Woman as a preteen and as a toddler), how Wondy got her invisible plane, her tiara, her sandals (she has sandals?), and more!