The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Knopf)

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Rating: 5/5 – How Feminism and Polyamory Combined to Create a Comics Legend.
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow.

Fair warning: This is not a chronicle of Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) or her many appearances in comic books starting with her first appearance in All-Star Comics #8 (Dec. 1941). True, her name is on the title and tales and images of the Amazonian princess appear throughout the pages of the book, but with regard to The Secret History of Wonder Woman, the true “secret” lies in the history of her creators, who are the true focus of writer Jill Lepore’s work.

Many comic enthusiasts have at least a passing knowledge of William Moulton Marston, credited as Wonder Woman’s true creator. To criminologists, he invented the lie detector. To lawyers, he was a principal player in the Frye standard, which is often still cited as a reason to deny evidence in a court hearing. To the gossip-minded, he was a polyamorous bondage enthusiast who carried on a relationship with his wife and two live-in mistresses. And oh yes, he created Wonder Woman, if you were wondering. While a cursory examination of the man’s history shows he did all these things, The Secret History of Wonder Woman digs deep, perhaps more deeply than has ever been done, to show how not only Marston’s life, but that of his wife Sadie Elizabeth Holloway; first mistress Marjorie Wilkes Huntley; and second mistress Olive Byrne; conspired to create one of the most enduring characters in comics history.

If you’re expecting a book heavy on the more salacious and prurient aspects of Marston’s life, look elsewhere. Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University, and this book reads as much as a thesis as anything else. Nearly the final third of the book’s 408 pages are dedicated to footnotes, credits and research that went into the book’s creation. Still, while it’s definitely a very scholarly book, it’s also a very entertaining read. Lepore does an excellent job bridging the real-life events of her subjects to the fictional life of Wonder Woman. For example, Marston’s repeated imagery of Wonder Woman being bound or shackled only to break free to win the day came from his (and his companions’) exposure to the Women’s Suffrage movement and the new Feminism taking hold of the country at that time. In another example, Lepore repeatedly points out Olive Byrne’s constant wearing of bracelets as a symbol of her connection to Marston, which of course became the inspiration for Wonder Woman’s bracelets.

This is not to say Marston’s polyamorous lifestyle isn’t discussed at all. It certainly is, covering the dynamics of how Holloway, a woman demonstrated to be Marston’s equal (if not superior), provided an archetype of the new, independent woman who could be all things at all times. I personally found Olive Byrne’s story to be every bit if not more interesting than Marston’s or Holloway’s, and I get the impression Lepore did as well, as many sections of the story seem devoted to relating her experiences and her side of things. What would compel a woman to enter into a relationship where she would not be the wife, but still take care of the children (and in most cases, the husband as well)? What role did Huntley play in the quartet, as perhaps the most mystical or spiritual of the group? And ultimately, how did all of these elements conspire to create the feminist icon that Wonder Woman was…and perhaps still is?  I say that last sentence because to more modern generations this may be difficult to picture.

These days, if Wonder Woman isn’t featured in a gratuitous pinup, she’s portrayed as a very angry, warlike female (as if to suggest anger = feminism) or in more recent comics, as Superman’s girlfriend. To those readers, looking back at Wonder Woman constantly being tied up, or spanked, or tortured in some way, it’s difficult to picture just how any of that could relate to the idea of a strong, feminist ideal. Surely it was more the kinky indulgences of a man with an overly active libido, right? The Secret History of Wonder Woman puts such questions to rest with a solid grasp on the history, facts, and perceptions of the people who brought her to life. You only think you know what Wonder Woman is all about. Read this book and get the bigger picture.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow – Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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1 Response to The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Knopf)

  1. Pingback: ComicSpectrum Reviewer Favorites of 2014 | ComicSpectrum – Bob's Blog

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