Friday, April 15, 2016

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman, created in 1941, is the most popular female superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no superhero has lasted as long or commanded so vast and wildly passionate a following. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she also has a secret history. Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has uncovered an astonishing trove of documents, including the never-before-seen private papers of William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman. She published her findings in 2014 in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, a book I highly recommend if you want to gain an appreciation for the fictional crime fighter.

Beginning in his undergraduate years of Harvard, William Moulton Marston was influenced by early suffragists and feminists, starting with Emmeline Pankhurst, who was banned from speaking on campus in 1911, when Marston was a freshman. In the 1920s, Marston and his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, brought into their home Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger, one of the most influential feminists of the twentieth century. When his wife disapproved of Olive's residence in their home, he confessed they were lovers and drew a line in the sand. Ultimately, all three of them lived together under the same roof in extraordinary nonconformity. As an expert on truth, he invented the lie detector test. Do these fact surprise you? 

Cathy Lee Crosby as Wonder Woman
Jill Lepore traveled to numerous depositories, both private and public. From the archives of Columbia University, Mount Holyoke College, the University of Minnesota, Saint Louis University, the Smithsonian, the University of Virginia, and the Library of Congress, among others, the author did the legwork and her finished product is top-notch as a result. While most people in this day and age believe in writing a book based on standard web browsing, in what academics refer to as "cut and paste," Lepore compiled what is the most comprehensive biography of William Moulton Marston, and a deeper understanding of the various elements that make up Wonder Woman. To understand the formation of the character is to understand the creator.

If you want to read the vintage 1944-1945 newspaper strip, which was short-lived, you have a chance to buy a copy of a hardcover compilation here:

One of the more amusing entries in the legend and lore of Wonder Woman is the 1974 made-for-TV movie which is now available commercially on DVD through Warner. A review from Variety magazine is reprinted for your amusement. And they hit the nail right on the head.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman will be consulted in years to come by historians and with the addition of two other books focusing on the comic adventures of the Amazon goddess, make up the essentials for your bookshelves. This is the kind of book that needed the treatment Lepore provided and regardless of the fact that some fans of Wonder Woman may not find this book as entertaining as an encyclopedia documenting every facet of the comic adventures, required a wide distribution from Alfred Knopf. Not only can the untold story be brought to light, but through her efforts the details of Marston and the influence that became Wonder Woman is now preserved. 


Carol said...

I do appreciate that Wonder Woman's ethnicity is now being acknowledged and that she is no longer being depicted as though she were of European descent.

Gene Phillips said...

I shared some of your fascination with the many cultural linkages Lepore connected to Wonder Woman's creator and midwives. At the same time, I feel the author never quite "got a bead" on Marston himself. She also oversimplified Wonder Woman's "secretarial role" in the Justice Society, which Lepore blamed on the writer, when it's plain to a hardcore fan that such a development had to have come about due to an editorial decision.

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