Wonder Woman in Sensation Comics 12

William Moulton Marston was an American psychologist who invented the systolic blood pressure test, which forms the basis for another invention: the lie detector. Unusual for a psychotherapist, Marston was also a comics writer. In the final six years of his life he created 'Wonder Woman' (1941), the most iconic female superhero of all time. He developed her origin story and several side characters still used by artists and writers today. 'Wonder Woman' was remarkably pro-feminist for its time. She was not only a strong female character, but also encouraged other women to stand up for themselves. Some of Marston's plots were even co-written by a woman, Joye Hummel, and while Harry G. Peter was the original artist, he too received assistance from several anonymous female artists. This explains why Wonder Woman has endured and earned respect from many feminists. Today she is one of DC Comics' "Big Three", alongside Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's 'Superman' and Bob Kane and Bill Finger's 'Batman'. Since 2016 she is even the first superhero to come out of the closet as being bisexual. Yet, at the same time the series has always been surrounded by controversy, particularly regarding Marston, whose ideas and private life almost seem contradictory with his feminist ideas. He deemed women superior, yet had a polyamorous relationship and saw submissiveness as empowering. His plots for 'Wonder Woman' have a not-too-subtle undercurrent of erotic bondage, role play and spanking. This aspect of the character's origins has been airbrushed from the series since, but is also the very reason why Marston's life and work continue to fascinate audiences.


Drawing of Marston's "Original Harvard Experiment" (1915)

William Moulton Marston was born in 1893 in Cliftondale, Saugus, Massachusetts. He came from a privileged background and from an early age he was surrounded by strong, independent women like his mother and his spinster aunts. Marston went to Harvard University where he first studied law, but eventually got more interested in psychology. A brilliant student, he graduated with a B.A. (1915), L.L.B. (1918) and a Ph.D (1921). During this period he met yet another determined woman: Elizabeth Holloway. Holloway was in every way just as gifted as him. She received her B.A in psychology at Mount Holyoke College (1915), followed by a L.L.B at the Boston University School of Law (1918) and an M.A at Radcliffe College (1921). Throughout her life she indexed documents of Congressional meetings, worked as an editor for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and McCall's Magazine and frequently gave lectures at universities. Between 1933 and 1968 she was assistant-chief executive at Metropolitan Life Insurance. She even came up with an invention frequently attributed to Marston himself. While they studied blood pressure Elizabeth noticed that it rose whenever she was angry or excited. Their research led to the creation of the systolic blood pressure test, a predecessor to the polygraph and modern lie detector. Their groundbreaking invention was passed off as a lie too. Elizabeth allowed Marston to act as if he came up with the idea, which led to his B.A. They married the same year. When the USA got involved in the First World War in 1917, Marston became second lieutenant. He tried to sell the test to the U.S army, but his method wasn't considered reliable enough. Marston spent the rest of his life working as a psychology professor at the American University in Washington D.C. and Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. In 1929-1930 he was also briefly head of the Public Services department of Universal Studios.


Marston conducting a lie detector test. The woman on the left is Olive Byrne.

During the early 20th century women still were second-class citizens in society. The suffragette movement held many demonstrations to gain more rights, including women's right to vote. Marston was a strong supporter of suffragettism in a time when many men still were against the idea. One of the activists he met was a librarian named Marjorie Huntley. They fell in love and just like him she turned out to be a fan of bondage. In 1919 Marston broke the news to Elizabeth, who was pregnant at the time. Yet he made clear he didn't want to leave her, but rather preferred them to live together in a ménage à trois. After a six-hour walk to let it all sink in, Elizabeth accepted the situation. In 1925 matters got more complicated when Marston met yet another interesting woman: Olive Byrne. Olive was one of his younger female students. She was related to no less than two famous suffragettes, both historically famous for opening the first birth control clinic in the USA: Ethel Byrne - who was her mother - and Margaret Sanger - who was her aunt! She also liked bondage and was somewhat of a nymphomaniac. Olive surprised Marston by taking him to a rather kinky sorority party where female students were dressed up as babies, blindfolded and tied down, while other women made them carry out tasks. If they disobeyed they were playfully hit with sticks. The experience later inspired the 'Wonder Woman' story 'Grown Down Land' (1944) published in issue #31. Naturally Olive also became part of Marston's household. He and his three wives developed a free love cult named the "Love Unit". He even wrote a 95-page manual on how they had to behave during their sexual roleplays.


Standing: Byrne Marston, Moulton (Pete) Marston, Olive Byrne Richard. Sitting: Marjorie Wilkes, Olive Ann Marston, William Moulton Marston, Donn Marston, Elizabeth Holloway Marston

As unusual as the Marstons' family life was, the women seem to have gotten along pretty well. In some ways it even made certain things easier. While Olive stayed at home and took care of the household, both William and Elizabeth could concentrate on their respective careers. Olive occasionally brought in some income too by writing articles for the magazine Family Circle, ironically on "how to create wholesome family homes". William conceived two children with Elizabeth and another two with Olive. Elizabeth showed her gratitude for all of Olive's parenting by naming one of her children after Olive. Even after Marston's death in 1947 she kept supporting Olive and her children financially. Olive passed away in 1985 (some sources say 1990). Elizabeth in 1993, when she - 100 years old - worked on a biography about her famous husband. Nevertheless, the Marstons kept their polygamous relationship a secret to the outside world. When people asked about Olive they were told that she was Marston's sister-in-law, who worked as a housekeeper. In 1935 Olive's children were legally adopted by William and Elizabeth. As they grew older they were told that their actual father "had passed away before their birth". They only found out the truth in 1963, when they were already adults. Still, the Marston family could never keep this facade up for long. It practically cost him his academic career. No professor wanted to be associated with a polygamous man and he was thrown out every university. His reputation was furthermore damaged by a 1923 indiction for federal business fraud over the financial failure of his engineering and dress company. Even though the charges were later dropped he basically lived of his wives' earnings and the lecture circuit during the final decades of his life.


Early sketch of Wonder Woman, with notes by Marston and Peter

Another reason why Marston got more isolated as time went by were his controversial sex and gender theories. He saw men as aggressive by nature and prone to conflicts. Women, in his opinion, were superior since they were more honest and efficient. Yet he also felt they were submissive by nature and thus ought to behave accordingly in relationships. He even went so far to indicate that this would "empower" them and help them once "rule the world", which would be beneficial to mankind. Marston also wrote a lot of essays about sex, particularly his preferred fetish: bondage. He tried promoting his ideas through more easy-reading literature, like the novel 'Venus with Us' (1932). While the book didn't sell well it was still important as his first attempt to fit his theories into a narrative. Marston then took an interest in comics. Interviewed by his wife Olive (under a pseudonym) he talked about their "great educational potential" in two articles named 'Don't Laugh at the Comics', published in 1940 and 1942 for the Family Circle. Publisher Max Gaines of National Periodicals and All-American Publications (nowadays DC Comics) was so impressed that he hired Marston as educational consultant. His company had just struck gold with their succesful superhero comics 'Superman' and 'Batman' and were very interested in gaining more prestige. In reality Marston was no longer in demand as a professor and basically seen as a disgrace in the academic world. But Gaines was blissfully unaware of this situation and thus Marston got hired instantly.

Wonder Woman
The "birth" of Wonder Woman, from All Star Comics #8

Marston pitched a superhero comic where the hero used love as a weapon, rather than violence. His wife Elizabeth suggested making the character a woman, since there were hardly any female comics characters in a starring role. France had Emile-Joseph Pinchon's 'Bécassine' (1905) and Jo Valle's 'L'Espiègle Lili' (1909), but they were unknown outside the francophone world. In the USA the most enduring comics series about a woman was Chic Young's 'Blondie' (1930). Particularly superhero comics were a male universe, with women mostly being damsels in distress. The only exceptions were 'Fantomah' (1940) by Fletcher Hanks, 'Black Widow (Claire Voyant)' (1940) by George Kapitan and Harry Sahle, 'Invisible Scarlet O'Neil' (1940-1956) by Russell Stamm and 'Nelvana of the Northern Lights' (1940) by Adrian Dingle. Yet none of these were particularly succesful, left alone well-known. Marston therefore had enough room to invent his own ideal superheroine. To draw her adventures he picked out Harry G. Peter, a veteran artist who was known for his pro-suffragette cartoons. Peter designed a black-haired woman who wears a tiara, a red bustier, white belt, arm bracelets, golden boots and a dark skirt patterned after the American flag. Originally she was called "Suprema", but this was eventually changed into the snappier 'Wonder Woman'. Her physical features, personality and attributes were loosely based on Marston's own wives. Just like Elizabeth, Wonder Woman is strong, intelligent and liberated. Her looks were loosely based on Olive, down to her arm bracelets. Elizabeth furthermore invented Wonder Woman's catch phrases: "Suffering Sappho" - referring to the Greek lesbian poet Sappho - and "Great Hera!" - referring to the Greek goddess of women Hera. These weren't the only personal quirks Marston snuck in the series, though. The entire concept was based on his gender theories, mixed with some ideas from Greek mythology. Wonder Woman (named Diana in her culture) lives on a faraway island where women are in power, unsubtly named "Paradise Island". Their society is modelled after Mount Olympus and the Amazonians. Wonder Woman was sculpted from clay by the local queen Hippolyta. The gods blessed her with various gifts and powers, including a telepathic device named "mental radio". While Wonder Woman is strong and intelligent she originally mostly relied on gadgets. One of these is her "invisible plane", a transparent aeroplane flown to remain unnoticed by enemies. Since this vehicle looks somewhat silly it is nowadays rarely used in the franchise. Far more prominent is her "Lasso of Truth". Whoever she catches with it is forced to tell her the truth. The analogy with Marston's lie detector invention is quite obvious. Another blatant reference to his theories are Wonder Woman's "bracelets of submission". She uses them to withstand energy beams and gunfire, but in her culture they are also symbol of her tribe's obedience to Aphrodite.

Sensation Comics 1Wonder Woman 2

Wonder Woman made her debut in the eighth issue of All Star Comics (December 1941), which happened to coincide with the Battle of Pearl Harbour. Several of her early stories reflected the war period. After American intelligence officer Captain Steve Trevor crashlands on Paradise Island Wonder Woman is given the task to bring him back to his home country. Under the alias "Diana Prince" she works as an army nurse and later an air force secretary. After a while she fights Nazis, Japanese soldiers, spies, saboteurs and other enemies. One of her most common opponents are men (and women!) who oppose female empowerment, like her major nemesis Doctor Psycho. Wonder Woman also motivates other women to stand up for themselves. After only one month the world's greatest superheroine sported the cover of the first issue of Sensation Comics (January 1942), and she remained a regular feature in this title, as well as in the anthology title Comic Cavalcade. Six months later she received a series of her own. 'Wonder Woman' was a huge bestseller all throughout the 1940s. The comic book also had a back-up feature called 'Wonder Women of History'. It was created by former tennis player Alice Marble and told the stories of prominent women of history in comic form. In May 1944 the character also received her own daily newspaper comic strip through King Features Syndicate, which only lasted less than a year, and was also drawn by Peter and scripted by Marston.

Wonder Woman daily by William Marston and Harry Peter
Wonder Woman daily

Marston had the creative freedom to do what he wanted with the character, even though his lack of experience in writing for comics occasionally led to some long-winded narratives. Originally all stories were credited under the pseudonym "Charles Moulton", but when Wonder Woman received her own comic book line he finally revealed he was her creator. In reality the comic was more of a family product. Marston's wives and children occasionally came up with ideas. His second wife, Marjorie Huntley, and his daughter-in-law, Louise Marston, did lettering and inking. In fact, more women worked on it than men, including Helen Schepens (coloring) and Jim and Margaret Wroten (lettering)! Joye Hummel, a student of Marston, ghost-wrote several storylines. From 1945 on, when his health declined from polio, she de facto became the series' main writer until he passed away in 1947 from skin cancer. While Marston's comics career only lasted the final six years of life, he had the foresight of signing a financially lucrative contract with DC before his death. The company was contractually obliged to publish at least four issues of the series a year, or they would lose their rights. As a result he was one of the few comics writers to get rich off his own creation and pass his wealth on to his surviving family members.


Sensation Comics #8

After Marston's death his wife Elizabeth wrote to DC Comics to succeed her husband as creative consultant. Instead, Robert Kanigher became the series' main writer, while Harry G. Peter remained illustrator until 1958. From issue #98 on (May 1958) Ross Andru and Mike Esposito took over drawing duties. Wonder Woman's groundbreaking female powers and embarrassing bondage themes were replaced in favor of more conventional superhero stories. She also received a teenage spin-off series, 'Wonder Girl' (1958) and a junior spin-off 'Wonder Tot' (1961-1965). In 1968 a new artistic team was established, with Denny O'Neil as scriptwriter and Mike Sekowsky providing illustration work. They created a new set-up where Wonder Woman gave up her powers to become a regular woman in our world. She became the owner of a boutique store where she studied martial arts under the Buddhist monk I Ching. Clearly inspired by the popularity of spy and kung fu media, Wonder Woman now became a secret agent who could dropkick anyone. The authors even went so far to kill off Steve Trevor. The series sort of aimlessly wandered around during his period, with different scriptwriters and artists taking turns. Even Samuel R. Delany, famous for the science fiction novel 'Babel-17' (1966), stepped in to write two issues #202-203 (October/December 1972).


Wonder Woman #7

In 1973 Wonder Woman returned to her roots, mostly with celebrity support from real-life feminist Gloria Steinem. The character became firmly established as part of the Justice League, of which DC Comics' other superheroes are also members. Writers like Kanigher, Len Wein, Cary Bates, Ellio S. Maggin, Martin Pasko, Jack C. Harris and David Michelinie penned the most 'Wonder Woman' stories, while artists like Curt Swan, Tex Blaisdell, Irv Novick, Frank Giacoia, John Rosenberger, Vince Colletta, Dick Dillin, Kurt Schaffenberger, Dick Giordano and José Delbo visualized the narratives. The 1980s kicked in with the return of Steve Trevor (issue# 271, September 1980). Two years later Roy Thomas and Gene Colan gave Wonder Woman a makeover by replacing the eagle on her chest with a "WW", designed by Milton Glaser. During this decade female scriptwriters like Dann Thomas and Mindy Newell finally received credit. For the first time a woman drew the series too: Trina Robbins. From 1983 on Dan Mishkin, Don Heck and Mindy Newell became main creators. The entire franchise was rebooted in 1987 with tremendous acclaim by writers Greg Potter, Janice Race, Len Wein, Mindy Newell and writer-artist George Pérez. The feminist aspects of the character became more outspoken, as well as her mythological roots. Trina Robbins and Colleen Doran also created a notable graphic novel under the title 'Wonder Woman: The Once and Future Story' (1998), which addressed spousal abuse. In 2007 Gail Simone wrote the new narratives, becoming the longest-running female writer of the franchise in the process. Another notable writer was Jodi Picoult. In the 2010s J. Michael Straczynski, Phil Hester, Brian Azzarello, Meredith Finch and Greg Rucka became the new writers, while Cliff Chiang, Jim Lee, David Finch and Liam Sharp provided art. In 2016 Wonder Woman finally came out of the closet, so to speak. Writers Greg Rucka and Gail Simone made her a bisexual character and even let her officiate a same-sex marriage in a 2016 storyline, drawn by Jason Badower.


Wonder Woman #24

Despite Wonder Woman's long run she has always been slightly less popular than DC Comics other stars, Batman and Superman, even though she is often named along with them when referring to the company's "Big Three". Some have attributed this to the fact that young boys prefer male heroes. Another reason might be Wonder Woman's inconsistent personality. Depending on the author she has either been highly clever or naïve. In some stories she refuses to use violence, while in others she is an unapologetic master of combat. The heroine sometimes defends womanhood very staunchly, while in other tales it is severely downplayed. Wonder Woman has always been a walking contradiction, particularly in Marston's original stories. On one hand she is the embodiment of feminist ideals, yet on the other she still looks like a lust object. Some of Marston's narratives and Peter's illustrations read like male fanservice. The short-skirted title character shows quite some skin and is often drawn in revealing poses. The plots are brimful with scenes where characters are tied up, bound down, gagged and/or chained. Sometimes several times in one storyline! Wonder Woman rarely fails to mention "how tight" she is tied up. Her home country has a place called "Reform Island", where prisoners are re-educated with "loving bondage and discipline". Comic critic Tim Hanley devoted an entire book to the topic, 'Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World's Most Famous Heroine' (2014) and discovered that roughly 27% of Marston and Peter's stories include bondage, compared to only 3% of 'Captain Marvel', who also occasionally got tied up. Ropes, chains, lassos, girdles, tentacles, hypnosis, temporary paralysis, spanking, torture and even a very Freudian example of gooey ectoplasma in Wonder Woman #28 are staples of the series.

Paula von Gunther
Sensation Comics #7

As if the S&M undertones weren't heavy enough already one of the antagonists in the series was a Nazi baroness who enjoyed sadistic torture: Paula von Gunther. At the time even M.C. Gaines worried about this content. He sent Marston a list with suggestions on how to reduce the use of chains in the storylines. In 1942 the series was blacklisted by the National Organization for Decent Literature as "disapproved for the youth", since "Wonder Woman is not sufficiently dressed." In 1954, when Fredric Wertham wrote his book 'Seduction of the Innocent' which launched a witch hunt against comics, 'Wonder Woman' was one of the series he singled out. To him the franchise was troublesome for children, not just because of its bondage but because it "promoted lesbianism". Naturally all this sexual innuendo has always been the series' biggest contradiction. How could female readers be inspired by feminist messages if the narratives constantly portrayed them as passive lust objects? It undoubtely played a factor in why male readers vastly outnumbered the female ones. Then there is the problem that feminism is about equality between the sexes, while Marston saw women as superior to men. All these elements, combined with Marston's polygamous life, have always made the series' origins embarrassing. Naturally ridicule was easy, like in Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder's parody 'Woman Wonder', published in Mad Magazine (issue #10, April 1954).


Wonder Woman #3

DC went through great lengths to distance themselves from Wonder Woman's controversial past. Later writers and artists have swiftly removed all bondage elements from the series. It also explains why the character has always been less prominently adapted into other media. In 1967 a TV pilot was made, 'Who's Afraid of Diana Prince?', scripted by Stan Hart and Larry Siegel, then rewritten by Stanley Ralph Ross, but never aired. Numerous other TV projects were considered and sometimes made, but usually abandoned by lack of interest from producers. By far the most succesful attempt was the live-action TV series 'Wonder Woman' (1975-1979) which starred Miss World 1971 Lynda Carter. The show was popular enough to inspire the single 'Wonder Woman Disco' (1978) by The Wonderland Disco Band. Apart from this program, Wonder Woman was merely part of the supporting cast in animated TV series like Hanna-Barbera's 'Super Friends' (1973-1986) and the 'Justice League' (2001-2006). Her cinematic career was even scarcer. It took until 2016 before she first appeared on the big screen in 'Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice' (2016) by Zack Snyder. She was played by Miss Israel 2004 Gal Gadot, but though she played a major part she wasn't even mentioned in the title. Only as recently as 2017 did the heroine finally receive her own live-action film, 'Wonder Woman' (2017) by female director Patty Jenkins, in which Gadot reprised her role. In a sweet act of revenge the picture actually became a critical and commercial success and even the most unanimously well received DC Comics film adaptation in years.


Wonder Woman #13

While some regard Marston as merely a horny old geezer who wanted to print his sexual fantasies under the pretense of "feminism", others have defended him. It has been suggested that the erotic undertones were merely a commercial consideration. A way of selling his ideas to as many readers as possible. Marston was once confronted with the fact that his male readers outnumbered his female ones. Rather than see this as a failure he responded that this was perfect, since it were men who needed to understand the message the most. He also felt: "You can't have a real woman character in any form of fiction without touching off a great many readers' erotic fancies." It should also be mentioned that the bondage in 'Wonder Woman' is always presented as something fun and playful. Wonder Woman sometimes seems to enjoy it, just for the sake of untying herself. This already sets it apart from more degrading and sadistic BDSM comics. Gloria Steinem also felt that 'Wonder Woman' overall gave an inspiring message to women. She pointed out that Wonder Woman works together with other women and can rely on her own strength as well, if necessary. When she founded the feminist magazine Ms. in December 1971 Wonder Woman was the first individual to appear on the cover of its first issue in July 1972, under the telling title: 'Wonder Woman for President'. Other celebrity fans were novelist Jane Yolen (best known for 'The Devil's Arithmetic'), Olympic swimming champion Helen Wainwright Stelling, singer Judy Collins, comics artists Carol Lay - who wrote the book 'Wonder Woman: Mythos' (2003) - and Trina Robbins, who wrote the 2006 essay: 'Wonder Woman: Lesbian or Dyke?'. Among the series' male fans have been boxing legends Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. In 1978 artist Dara Birnbaum made the video art piece 'Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman', though this was based more on the 1970s TV show than the comics. In 2016 the United Nations named Wonder Woman a UN Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. Actresses Lynda Carter and Gal Gadot were present during the ceremony hosted by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon.

Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman #3

In 2006 Marston was inducted in the Eisner Hall of Fame. His life story and that of his wives was adapted into a stage play, 'Lasso of Truth' (2014) by Carson Kreitzer. The production came with illustrations and set design by Jacob Stoltz and Ryan Zirgngibl, who also designed the poster to look like a comic book cover. An upcoming film adaptation is scheduled for October 2017 named 'Professor Marston & the Wonder Women', directed by Angela Robinson. For those interested in Marston and Wonder Woman Jill Lepore's book 'The Secret History of Wonder Woman' (2014) is a must-read. Another recommendation is Noah Berlatsky's 'Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948' (2014).


Wonder Woman conference with Dr. William Moulton Marston, Harry G. Peter, Sheldon Mayer and editor M.C. Gaines

The New Yorker on Marston's Wonder Woman

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