The Ten Percent: Wonder Woman, 1941 – 2016
“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Remember, for each film or television show that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that peeked out just once and then (thankfully) disappeared. Those are the 90%, but the remaining Ten Percent are the works that stand the test of time.
This week, I thought I would step away from our usual film and TV fare, and take a look at one of the Ten Percent from another favorite medium: comic books. 75 years ago this fall, in a secondary story in the back pages of All-Star Comics #8, Wonder Woman burst into American popular culture. “As lovely as Aphrodite — as wise as Athena — with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules,” Princess Diana of Paradise Island (named after her godmother, the goddess of the moon and the hunt) quickly became one of the most popular superheroes published, and took her place alongside Batman and Superman as one of DC’s Big Three, a position she has maintained ever since.
Wonder Woman was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and artist H.G. Peters. In recent years journalists, bloggers, and academics have paid a great deal of attention to Marston’s polyamorous relationship with Holloway and Olive Byrne and how that (and the threesome’s various familial ties to early 20th century feminists) influenced Wonder Woman. The focus on Marston’s personal life sometimes seems to overshadow the character that he and the others created. The Golden Age Wonder Woman was an argument that women were, in every way, the stronger sex. She was independent, brilliant, beautiful, physically strong, omni-capable, compassionate, and unlike her male superhero counterparts, preferred to solve problems with reason, understanding, and as little violence as possible, although she was also hell on wheels when she had to punch some bad guys.
The Golden Age Wonder Woman also surrounded herself with other strong, smart, and capable women, the regular American women represented by Etta Candy and the Holliday College Girls. In particular, Etta Candy was remarkable as a plus-size young woman who was not only proud of her body but ready and willing to put her life on the line to help Wonder Woman, and unwilling to take any crap from any male chauvinist. The Wonder Woman of the 1940s was ground breaking not only for including all body types, but the comic was also markedly diverse (although portrayals of people of color, particularly the Japanese, were sometimes wincingly racist). Wonder Woman was a powerful cultural symbol, particularly to the young women and girls reading her in the 1940s, many of whom as adults would become the backbone of the revitalized American feminist movement of the 1960s.
With Marston’s death in 1947, however, the writing (and eventually editing) of Wonder Woman was given to Robert Kanigher, who eventually toned down or eliminated the most outstanding and innovative aspects of the character, largely turning her into a submissive, often marriage-obsessed woman, and yet another superhero whose primary means of problem solving consisted of beating on things. Indeed, beginning in 1947, Wonder Woman entered a kind of Dark Age for the character in the comics that arguably lasted 40 years. Fortunately, the Wonder Woman rolling off of DC’s presses wasn’t the Wonder Woman that a generation of young women (and more than a few young men) carried with them into post-war America. That Wonder Woman, a symbol of specifically female ability, strength, and power grew in American popular culture until the summer of 1972 when she appeared front and center on the cover of the first regular issue of Ms. Magazine, edited and written by some of those little girls of the forties like Gloria Steinem and Joanne Edgar.
Wonder Woman thus became not only a symbol of independent womanhood, but actually independent of the medium in which she had been created, and to which she still ostensibly belonged. The Wonder Woman that dominated the 1970s and early 1980s was not the character in the comics, but the cultural icon of Ms. and the savvy hero portrayed by Linda Carter on the Wonder Woman (1975 – 1979) TV series, which inspired another generation of girls who would grow up to revitalize the American feminist movement in the 1990s and 2000s.
The Comics began catching up to the culture in 1987 when George Pérez took over art and writing duties for DC’s relaunched Wonder Woman title, and despite some disappointing runs, the quality of the Wonder Woman books has remained remarkably high, largely through the use of top-ranked creative talent, including Pérez, Phil Jimenez, Greg Rucka, Gail Simone, Brian Azzarello, Alex Ross, J.G. Jones, Drew Johnson, Terry Dodson, Cliff Chang, Liam Sharp, and Nicola Scott among others (although experienced players will take note of the number of women in this abbreviated list – baby steps, I guess).
Today the forthcoming Wonder Woman feature film is one of the most anticipated superhero movies of 2017, and Wonder Woman remains at the forefront of American culture as an enduring symbol of the power and potential not only in every girl and woman, but in every boy and man. For Wonder Woman does not ask that men take a back seat to women, nor has she ever. Instead, Wonder Woman offers men and women the opportunity to sit the front seat together as equals, so that we can see one another strengths and weakness both, and become stronger together for the truths thus revealed. Of course, to get to that point, my own gender’s delusions of superiority and privilege have to be deflated, sometimes dramatically. But that’s the thing about Wonder Woman: she may have to take you down a notch, but she never takes pleasure in it, and she’s always there to help you back to your feet with a different perspective. Wonder Woman is a vital part of our culture, a powerful and enduring symbol, and a hero for our time. She is, beyond a doubt, a part of the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.