Amazon on a Boat


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.

Unusually for a 1940s cover, this is pretty much exactly what happens in the story.

Sensation Comics #5, DC Comics, May 1942.

Well, they can’t all be winners. The concept of this adventure is basically just “Wonder Woman on a boat.” The Navy is launching a new submarine named the Octopus, and Colonel Darnell, Steve Trevor, and Diana Prince are invited to the launch basically just so that the Navy can gloat to the Army about its new secret weapon. The governor’s wife can’t make it to christen the sub, so the duty falls upon Diana, but she quickly realizes that the bottle is too heavy to contain champagne and must be a bomb, so she deliberately misses the and tosses it far into the water—much too far for a normal woman to possibly hurl it, but everyone’s too distracted by the explosion to notice that.

Quite a throwing arm on that fainting femme, dontcha think?

Of course, it’s German saboteurs behind the plot, one of them disguised as an American officer who’s an old pal of Steve’s, Ensign Martin, who’s a prisoner on a nearby enemy boat. Martin cleverly manages to send an S.O.S. using reflections off a tin can, which Steve sees, and so does Diana. While Steve’s floating over in a rowboat or something, Wondy has the bright idea of going over in a (presumably “borrowed”) speedboat instead and picks him up on the way. Meanwhile Martin frees himself by bursting right through a wood door.  The bad guys hogtie him to some weights (of course—it wouldn’t be a William Moulton Marston Wonder Woman comic without a bit of hogtying) and throw him overboard, but WW dives in to rescue him with no problem. “These puny men can’t stay under water as long as I can,” she thinks to herself charmingly.

Ah, those puny men. Who says Diana can’t relate to regular folks?

The obligatory “Keep ‘em flying!” aside (shouldn’t it be “Keep ‘em sailing!” this time?) , the battle conversation is pretty entertaining, filled with quips from WW and Steve and exclamations of wonder from the goons. “She’s like something that you read about!” one of them gasps, anticipating Rick James. But what really spooks them is the return of Martin to the fray. They all jump overboard in horror, thinking he’s a ghost.

I love that this isn’t Diana’s cunning plan. Etta’s whole sorority just happens to be at sea that day.

It’s all a pretty standard-issue nautical adventure so far, and only one thing can bring the classic Wonder Woman high weirdness to it: the sudden appearance of Wondy’s pal Etta Candy, just hanging out on a nearby boat with her army of sorority girls. WW flashes them instructions with her bracelets, because of course all college gals know Morse code, and they dive into the water to nab the bad guys. Only belatedly does Etta realize she probably should have left her box of bonbons on the boat when she dived in, but the candy makes it through soggy but unharmed. “Ohh it tastes like salt water taffy,” she coos musically.

So they’ve caught the saboteurs, but wait! The Octopus is in trouble! The sub reports that its oxygen is failing, and Wondy intercepts an enemy radio message saying they’re pumping the craft with carbon dioxide, so she dives down to save the sailors. An enemy submarine is down there, letting off an invasion force of deep-sea divers marching across the ocean floor. Although described as a “strange undersea craft,” the enemy sub doesn’t look much different from the American one—except for the grappling claw that grabs her and drags her inside the sub, where she proceeds to wreck the joint with an ax. “I’m against war from now on!” one of the U-boat crewman gasps while running away. I guess she really does bring a message of peace, even her methods are unorthodox.

I kind of want a whole comic about that guy who’s so over war now.

This time at least everyone gives Wonder Woman proper credit for saving the day, even if the Navy admiral harrumphs about it: “That woman again! Say! Who’s running this Navy anyway?” Marston has to work a little harder than usual to come up with an angsty ending, as Steve wonders if he’ll see Wonder Woman again. Seriously, dude, she saves you all the time—what do you think? “Poor Diana doesn’t rate when Steve’s thinking about Wonder Woman!” the narrator exclaims. You know, maybe she should just go on a date with the guy when she’s in costume, then. I’m just saying.

He’ll roo the day he tangled with Wonder Woman!

Sensation Comics #6, DC Comics, June 1942.

This issue is a landmark for a reason that may be surprising: it’s where Wonder Woman is first given her magic lasso. Interestingly enough, she didn’t have that accessory most associated with her from the beginning, but has to be called back to Paradise Island to get it.

In fact, this issue features the return of a lot of things. Not just Paradise Island and its Amazons, but the villainous Baroness Paula von Gunther and Wondy’s rival in her secret identity as Diana Prince, Steve Trevor’s standoffish secretary Lila Brown. It’s the first return for both of them, and Lila still doesn’t appear to be spy or traitor or anything, much as Diana would like her to be. In fact, Lila’s right to resent Diana, because Diana tries to steal her job every chance she gets, just to get closer to Steve. Diana’s boss Colonel Darnell promotes Steve to a major and leaves him in charge while the colonel goes off on a confidential mission. So Diana says that because she understands the colonel’s work, she’ll have to be Steve’s secretary while he’s away. Lila is pretty pissed off at this, but Steve doesn’t fall for Diana’s shenanigans and sends her on vacation instead. Then Diana snoops around Lila’s desk, finds a threatening letter to Steve from Paula von Gunther and confronts Lila about hiding it, only to find that Steve knew all about it and laughed it off. What we learn from all this is that where Lila’s concerned, Diana really is a complete jerk.

Good for you, Lila! Who does she think she is?

Diana resolves to find the baroness before she kills Steve, but no sooner does she say that then she forgets all about it, intuiting that her mother suddenly might want to send her a mental radio message after all this time. As seen with Etta a few issues ago, the mental radio is a remarkably impractical device that requires the recipient to sit around physically plugged into the machine, waiting for someone else to call them with their mind. After consulting with the goddesses Athena and Aphrodite, who say they have a gift for Diana, Queen Hypolyte (that’s how Hippolyta is spelled this time around) tells her daughter to return to Paradise Island. Diana is suddenly giddy to go home, all thoughts of Steve’s potential peril seemingly forgotten. She hops in her invisible plane (upgraded from its earlier description as “transparent”) and speeds on home.

Paradise Island is hidden by clouds, so Wondy turns on her “electronic mist beam,” a light ray that cuts through the clouds and “makes a rainbow path to the Amazon landing field.” There’s another athletic competition going on, just like when she left, so she decides to surprise everyone by entering it in disguise. Conveniently, the Amazons have never seen her Wonder Woman costume (except for her mother, who made it), and she puts on a domino mask just like she did in the last competition, and nobody makes the connection that she’s the same princess who won in a similar disguise before.

Now we’re introduced to another awesome part of Amazon culture, that they ride kangaroo-like steeds called kangas. Diana climbs about her favorite kanga, Jumpa, and enters a lassoing competition in which all the Amazons try tie each other up. (As usual, Marston finds room for his fetish wherever he can.) Diana wins, of course, defeating her old friend Mala, who also came in second in the tournament to become Wonder Woman in the first story. It turns out that it was appropriate that it was a lassoing competition, because Wondy’s about to be given a lasso of her own.

That domino mask hides her identity better than Clark Kent’s glasses.

Much has been made about Wonder Woman’s creator, psychologist William Moulton Marston, having pioneered techniques of measuring blood pressure to detect lies that would later become the basis of the polygraph, and that being in some way connected to WW’s magic lasso compelling anyone it touches to speak the truth. But that definition of the lasso’s powers came much later, long after Marston’s death. It could make people tell the truth, sure, but that’s because it forced whoever was snared in it to do whatever Wonder Woman told them to do. Far from the glowing golden rope it would be depicted as beginning with the next issue, at first it was just a thin chain, like an overlong, unbreakable necklace.

Wait, how did she take apart the unbreakable girdle to make the unbreakable lasso?

The Queen has it made from links of her magic girdle, “the slenderest chain ever made.” I’d think something that thin and unbreakable would have a tendency to cut right through people, but fortunately Marston and artist Harry G. Peter weren’t given to the kind of gore that now so prevalent in the Geoff Johns era of DC Comics. The chain is forged by the craftswoman Metala, who’s identical to the Amazon doctor who treated Steve in the first Wonder Woman story, right down to the hexagonal glasses.

It’s interesting that still no one back home calls Diana anything but “Princess,” so it’s unclear if word has gotten around that her mother gave her the name Diana before she left. It’s a moot point, because the next time we see her, her origin will be retold and it’ll be clear that she was always called Diana.

She has a joyous if brief reunion with her mother, thrilled to be allowed to visit home, but the queen tells her she has to take the rope and take a hike. Mala tries to follow Wondy back to “the world of men,” but Diana uses her magic lasso to command her to stay.

And hey, remember that death threat? Well, sure enough, someone bombed Steve’s office while Diana was off on her island getaway. “Fortunately Trevor had changed offices,” the radio reports. Wonder Woman goes running to him, having at least learned the baroness’s location in her mom’s all-purpose surveillance Magic Sphere before she left Paradise Island. Steve tells her Colonel Darnell disappeared on a ship called the Gigantic, and sure enough, that’s where von Gunther is.

In a flashback we see how the Nazi agent von Gunther escaped custody, had an “invisible ray” built that can make anything invisible, and disguised herself as the socialite Lady Chumpley to gain passage aboard the Gigantic. Lest we be unconvinced of her villainy, she goes around shooting guys who are just trying to be nice and helpful but happen to stand in her way. She blows up the ship’s radio room, has one of her goons disable the engines, and turns the whole ship invisible so that no one comes to its rescue while she sends for a U-boat to come blow it up.

I see she’s still keeping those slave girls.

Fortunately Wonder Woman already knows where it is from the Magic Sphere, so she and Steve hop in her invisible plane to save the day. The final rescue is delightfully implausible. Flying at record speeds in her invisible plane, Wonder Woman sees the U-boat torpedoing the Gigantic point blank. “I’m going to power dive, back loop and jump!” she tells Steve and quickly lands the plane, dives into the water, swims after the torpedo, climbs on top of it, and turns it around. I know she’s got the speed of Mercury and all, but that’s got to be the slowest torpedo ever made.

Wait, is she just kidnapping the bad guys? To discipline them? What’s that about?

In the end Wonder Woman takes von Gunther and her coconspirator off to “a prison of my own choosing and see if I can reform them,” which is a little scary when you think about it. It sounds like she’s taking a page from the baroness’s book.  Does she have her own private gulag now?  Talk about taking the law into your own hands!

And somehow Wondy manages to turn the lasso into a vehicle for the same old corny ending that nearly every issue used, harping on the contrived love triangle of her secret identity. “With this great gift I can chance human character!” she says. “I can make bad men good and weak women strong! But I can’t use it on Diana Prince. She will have to go on mooning over Steve Trevor, while he goes on mooning over Wonder Woman!”

Next up: Wonder Woman’s first issue in her own title at last, a 64-pager boasting four separate stories and the first of many revamps of her origin. Check back next week for 1942’s Wonder Woman #1!

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