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.
Wonder Woman is sometimes referred to as “the first superheroine,” but she wasn’t really the first female superhero. The first known superpowered comic book heroine was a really freaky one: Fantomah, a blonde jungle goddess type with a propensity for transforming into a blue skull-headed spirit of vengeance, created by the surreal genius Fletcher Hanks and debuting in Fiction House’s Jungle Comics #2 in February 1940. (Nonpowered “jungle girl” heroines go way back in comics, with Sheena, Queen of the Jungle starring in her own title in 1937.)
If you want a more conventional costumed crimefighter, look to the non-superpowered Woman in Red, who first appeared the next month in Nedor Comics’ Thrilling Comics #2. Others appearing before DC Comics’ Wonder Woman hit the scene in December 1941’s All-Star Comics #8 include Lady Luck, Miss Fury and Invisible Scarlet O’Neil in the funny pages; the Black Widow and Silver Scorpion (Timely/Marvel); Red Tornado and Hawkgirl (All-American/DC); Phantom Lady, Miss America, and Wildfire (Quality); Bulletgirl (Fawcett); the Black Cat (Harvey); the Blue Lady (Centaur); Miss Victory (Holyoke); Pat Patriot (Lev Gleason); Madam Satan (MLJ/Archie); Miss X (DC); Spider Queen and Flame Girl (Fox); and Nelvana of the Northern Lights (Hillborough). Holyoke debuted Cat-Man’s sidekick Kitten and Progressive Publishers introduced Lady Fairplay the same month that DC unveiled Wonder Woman, but somehow they didn’t take off in quite the same way.
Even if Wonder Woman wasn’t the first superheroine chronologically, she’s certainly the foremost in prominence, and has been since her introduction. What’s more, she was designed to be. Not that every comics creator wouldn’t like their characters to be iconic, but Wonder Woman was definitely crafted with that in mind.
She was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, under the nom de plume Charles Moulton, explicitly to provide a role model for female empowerment in the male-dominated superhero field. Wonder Woman was reportedly inspired both by Marston’s wife Elizabeth and by the couple’s live-in lover Olive Byrne. Marston seems to have also had a yen for bondage, leading to a great deal of tying up and spanking in the comic. (To be fair, though, Superman and Batman did a lot of spanking back then too. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.)
Marston wrote all the Wonder Woman stories until his death in 1947. The art, uncredited in the original comics, is by San Francisco’s Harry G. Peter, whose knack for graceful beauties and grotesque villains gave the feature a memorable look distinct from other superhero comics, if a bit staid by today’s standards. (Which is not to imply that today actually has standards, because goodness knows there’s ample evidence to the contrary.)
And the thing is, it worked. Wonder Woman became hugely popular, quickly joining the Justice Society of America, DC’s team of its most prominent superheroes that starred in the front feature of All-Star Comics. When superheroes fell out of fashion in the late 1940s and the 1950s, her solo title was one of the few superhero comics that wasn’t discontinued or switched to another genre, and she’s never been without a series for more than a year since her debut. (The longest was exactly a year, before her post-Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot in 1987, and even then there was a miniseries in the meantime.) She became a feminist icon, appearing on the first cover of Ms. Magazine, and a generation (mine, not incidentally) had its ideal of womanhood shaped from an early age by the TV series starring Lynda Carter.
So I decided to go back to the beginning and read the first batch of 1940s comics starring Wonder Woman. The earliest discussed here are collected both in the hardbound Wonder Woman Archives Vol. 1 and the intended-to-be-cheaper paperback The Wonder Woman Chronicles Vol. 1. But of course DC didn’t print enough of them, as opposed to the plentiful editions of early Superman and Batman comics, so both of those Wonder Woman reprint collections are now artificially inflated to ridiculous prices online. It’s just one of many ways in which DC routinely gives short shrift to one of its crown jewels, the best-known female superhero in the world.
All Star Comics #8, DC Comics, December 1941.
When I was a kid, I was under the impression that Wonder Woman’s first appearance was in Sensation Comics #1; I must have read that somewhere, but I don’t know where that would have been. Maybe it’s just because in the 1970s DC reprinted Sensation Comics #1 in a Famous First Editions oversize format instead of her actual first appearance. In any case, it’s an easy mistake to make, because she’s not even mentioned on the cover of All Star Comics #8, the comic that introduced her in December 1941 (which is clearly the only reason that anyone would remember that particular month of that particular year), whereas she’s splashed all over the cover of the first issue of Sensation the following month. It’s a very weird way to launch a character.
The breathless introduction on the very first page gives you a great sense of where she’s coming from: “At last, in a world torn by the hatreds and wars of men, appears a woman to whom the problems and feats of men are mere child’s play … with a hundred times the agility and strength of our best male athletes and strongest wrestlers, she appears as though from nowhere to avenge a justice or right a wrong!” That little introduction makes a big deal about how no one knows who she is or where she came from, which is funny, because the story is about to tell you exactly that, and doesn’t even get to the point of her righting wrongs in the outside world; you’ll have to pick up the continuation in next month’s Sensation Comics for that.
One thing the intro does do is set up a comparison that would define Wonder Woman for decades: “As lovely as Aphrodite—as wise as Athena—with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules.” Even that odd mix of Greek and Roman names would stick with her. We won’t learn for a while exactly how she got these gifts, but her roots in Greek mythology are important from the start. It’s also interesting to note that while most superheroines are conceived as perfect physical specimens, Wonder Woman’s beauty is actually one of her superpowers, as much as her strength or her speed. It’s just not really discussed in those terms.
The story starts when a man’s plane crash-lands on Paradise Island, and it’s immediately clear from the reaction of the women who live there that there aren’t any men on the island. One of the women who found him is the Princess, who promptly falls in love with the first man she’s ever seen. They rush him to the hospital, where the Princess watches over his comatose body fretfully. There we meet the doctor, just called Doctor (and wearing diamond-shaped glasses, so we know she’s smart), and the Princess’s mother, Queen Hippolyte. We also learn the man’s identity, Captain Steve Trevor of the US Army Intelligence Service. Hippolyte decrees that his eyes be bound so that he can see nothing of the island if he awakens. She also orders his plane repaired for his return, but as we see next month, he’ll be flown back in Wonder Woman’s invisible jet instead.
The future Wonder Woman isn’t called anything but “Princess” until the very end of this story, and interestingly, it appears that she doesn’t even have a name. Not until she wins the right to be Wonder Woman does her mother say, “And let yourself be known as Diana, after your godmother, the goddess of the moon!” This is probably just a weird narrative strategy of gradually unveiling information to the reader, however, because every time the story’s been retold—starting with the more fleshed-out version in 1942’s Wonder Woman #1—she’s been named Diana from the start.
Anyway, Hippolyte tells the Princess she needs to stay away from the patient, because she’s getting too attached, and sure enough Diana gushes that she loves him. So the queen tells her daughter the story of their people. Sure enough, she’s that Hippolyte—or Hippolyta, as she’ll usually be called in future comics—the queen of the Amazons from Greek mythology. The Amazons used to be “the foremost nation in the world,” she says, until Hercules tricked them into slavery by swiping Hippolyte’s MAGIC GIRDLE (which is always in all caps when the rest of the story isn’t), given to her by the goddess Aphrodite. Once Hippolyte managed to get the MAGIC GIRDLE back, the Amazons made short work of Hercules’s men, but Aphrodite decreed that the Amazons leave the world of men behind and always wear the bracelets they’d been shackled with in slavery, to remind them never to trust men again. Now they live a life of perfect peace and tranquility on Paradise Island, with the significant fringe benefit of immortality, “so long as we do not permit ourselves to be again beguiled by men.” Later this would become more strictly defined as Paradise Island losing all its magic if a man ever sets foot on it, but here it’s left pretty vague. In any case, Steve has to go.
But who is Steve? Well, let’s go to the Magic Sphere to find out. It turns out that not only is Paradise Island a perfectly preserved ancient Greek civilization, but the Amazons are also way more technologically advanced than the outside world. A gift from Athena, the Magic Sphere is a huge machine with a viewscreen that allows them to watch any event in the past or present as if on television. “And it is through the knowledge that I have gained from this Magic Sphere that I have taught you, my daughter, all the arts and sciences and languages of modern as well as ancient times!” Convenient!
It’s also good for flashbacks, of course, so it shows Steve Trevor going out to bust up a spy ring. But he’s knocked unconscious (which happens to him a lot) and planted in a remote-controlled robot plane that the spies have stolen and make bomb the American army airfield. But Steve wakes up and takes control of the plane, chasing the spies over the sea until, uh-oh, he runs out of gas and they get away. Thus the crash landing.
Hippolyte goes to chat with the patron goddesses of the Amazons, Aphrodite and Athena, who come on down and talk to her—you know, like I’m sure everybody’s gods do—and they tell her that it’s important that Steve get back to America “to help fight the forces of hate and oppression.” More than that, Athena tells her she “must send with him your strongest and wisest Amazon—the finest of your Wonder Women!—for America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women, needs your help!” Bet you didn’t know women had it so good in America in 1941, huh? Well, now you do!
So a tournament is announced, a sort of Olympic games to determine who’s the strongest, fastest and most agile Amazon to take Steve back to Man’s World. The Princess is forbidden to join the competition, but she competes anyway under a domino mask to disguise her identity, and of course she wins. Her friend Mala, who was with her when she found Steve Trevor, comes in second. But the last game is “bullets and bracelets,” in which the contestants shoot each other point-blank with pistols and have to deflect the bullets with their bracelets. So Diana basically wins by shooting Mala with a gun. She only wings her, but still, that’s messed up. Why the Amazons just happen to have guns lying around to play this game—which they all seem familiar with—is a fair question, but Hippolyte does keep up on what’s going on in the outside world, even if the Amazons never interact with it.
Her mom may not have wanted her to compete, but fair enough, Diana won, so Hippolyte sends her off with her blessing, and with a star-spangled costume that she designed for their emissary to wear in America.
For a nine-page story, it’s pretty packed with information. But it doesn’t quite get Diana all the way to America. For that, you’ll have to read the next one.
Sensation Comics #1, DC Comics, January 1942.
Now comes Wonder Woman’s big launch, a month after her actual first appearance in the back pages of All-Star. Wonder Woman is flying Steve Trevor back to American in a “silent transparent plane.” Note that her plane isn’t called “invisible” yet, and in fact she has to hide it in a deserted barn. The fact that she’s flying it at all seems to imply that the Amazons didn’t manage to fix and refuel Steve’s own plane, unless Marston just forgot about it or the Amazons decided a transparent plane would be way more useful for Diana’s purposes.
Steve finally wakes up on the plane, seemingly having slept through his entire stay on Paradise Island, and thinks he’s in heaven. “There’s an angel smiling at me—a beautiful angel!” Then he faints again, because it’s just not a Wonder Woman comic if Steve isn’t unconscious for most of it. Diana is all giddy because “That’s the first time a man ever called me—beautiful!” Of course that’s the first time a man ever called her anything, but let her have her moment. She drops him off at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC, and goes running off before anyone can ask her any questions.
Passers-by are scandalized as she walks the street in her skimpy star-spangled outfit, window-shopping all the cute frocks on display in storefronts. The men, predictably, holler things like “Boy! Whatta honey!” as she passes, while old women gasp, “The hussy! She has no clothes on!”
Wonder Woman breaks up a bank robbery without really seeming to know what’s going on. The thieves shoot at her, and she just thinks, “It’s fun to be playing ‘bullets and bracelets’ again!” She tosses the robbers at each other, playing catch with them, and leaves them for the police to take care of. When the police want to ask her questions, she just says “Some other time, when I’m on the ‘Quiz Kids’ program!” Boy, she sure does pick up American culture fast!
A shady vaudeville booker named Al Kale chases her down in his car, with great difficulty—we find that Wonder Woman can run 60 miles per hour—and Kale offers her a chance to earn some money with her bullets and bracelets act in theaters. Seeing as how she doesn’t have a dime to her name, she agrees. But no sooner does she become a big hit on the theatrical circuit than she reads in the papers that Steve’s woken up from his concussion, and she quits. Kale tries to skip town with the money she’s made, but she stops the car with her bare hands and takes her earnings.
The funny thing is, the 13-page story hasn’t even really started yet. When Diana reaches the hospital, by truly outrageous coincidence, she meets a weeping nurse who happens to look exactly like her, only with glasses. What’s more, this doppelganger of Princess Diana is named…Diana Prince! She just happens to be working in the army hospital where Steve is being treated, and she just happens to need money to get to South America, where her fiance has been posted. And Wonder Woman just happens to have cash in hand to get Diana Prince to South America, and Princess Diana just happens to have nursing training, so boom, she now has a secret identity, while the real Diana Prince disappears off to far-off lands.
Diana’s heart goes pitter-pat while Steve moans about his beautiful angel in his sleep. When Steve wakes up he leaps into action, in his jammies, because he read in the paper that a poison gas attack has been threatened on an army camp. Steve’s in no condition to go running off like that, so Wonder Woman has to do to the rescue. “And now for clever Steve Trevor—the impetuous darling!” she says, changing into her costume. He goes up in his plane to try to fend off the mystery bomber, and manages to do so by crashing into its plane—but his parachute is destroyed! Is this the end of Steve? Well, obviously not, because Wonder Woman catches him, hanging from the ladder from her transparent plane. “The shock is great but her love and strength are greater!” the breathless narrator gushes. She catches the enemy pilot too, but he dies having told them nothing.
But wait! Wonder Woman already knows where the secret enemy base is! “Good thing I anticipated this and had mother look up this secret base in the Magic Sphere before I left Paradise Island!” she thinks. Good thing indeed! It’s absurd, of course, but I kind of wish they’d kept up this ludicrous plot device for a while longer, saying that she anticipated all the key mysteries in her early cases before she left Paradise Island and had just been waiting to use all the knowledge she’d amassed spying on everyone before she left. She’s a one-woman Patriot Act! But alas, this particular deus ex machina seems to have just been a one-time thing.
So Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor go bust up the secret enemy base that she totally knew about all along and had just forgotten to do anything about till now. The mad scientist guy blows it up, but both our heroes survive, though Steve is buried under the rubble. “Why didn’t you jump like I did?” Wondy asks, that wisdom of Athena of hers working overtime. “Jump like you?” Steve replies. “What am I—a kangaroo?” So it’s back to the hospital for Steve, and in what will become a pattern everybody comes up to him congratulating him on his great work, while he keeps trying to tell them that Wonder Woman did the whole thing. In her nurse’s duds, Diana teases him about how everybody thinks he’s delirious and tries to get him to pay attention to her, but he has eyes only for Wonder Woman. “So I’m my own rival, eh?” she thinks, driving home the irony in what will become the “oh, if he only knew” default closing gag of her adventures.