Suffering Sappho! A Look At The Creator & Creation of Wonder Woman

Wed, August 23rd, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Charles Lyons, Contributing Writer

NOTE: The following article deals with adult situations.

Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston and his family.
She wasn't jettisoned from a doomed planet, she didn't witness the brutal murder of her parents, and she was never injected with radioactive venom, but the true story of Wonder Woman's origin is one of the strangest and most fascinating of any superhero. The Amazon princess debuted in the back of "All-Star Comics" #8 in December 1941, graduated to the cover story of "Sensation Comics" #1 in January, and merited her own title by the summer of 1942. Her powers were similar to those of Superman (who had not yet learned to fly, see through walls, or fear Kryptonite), but with a couple of interesting twists: she could deflect bullets with the heavy metal bracelets she wore on her wrists, and she carried a magical golden lasso which compelled anyone it snared to tell the truth.

Wonder Woman was not the first female superhero - she had been beaten to the punch by the likes of the Black Widow (no relation to the Marvel character) and Bulletgirl - but she quickly became the most successful and remains to this day the best known. DC Comics recently relaunched the "Wonder Woman" title with a new #1 written by Allan Heinberg, Co-Executive Producer of "The OC," and a feature film is in the works from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" creator Joss Whedon. Wonder Woman has been popular for over sixty years - and controversial from the moment she was born.

Pages 7, 8 & 10 from Wonder Woman #21, Jan-Feb 1947, featuring some classic early artwork.

Wonder Woman's creator was William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-educated psychologist, lawyer and provocateur who invented a precursor of the modern polygraph (the likely inspiration for Wonder Woman's lie-detecting lasso). In October 1940, the popular women's magazine "Family Circle" published an interview with Marston entitled "Don't Laugh at the Comics," in which the psychologist discussed the unfulfilled potential of the medium. Maxwell Charles Gaines, then publisher of All-American Comics, saw the interview and offered Marston a job as an educational consultant to All-American and sister company DC Comics. Realizing that strong female role models in comics were virtually nonexistent, Marston sold Gaines on the concept of a superheroine who would combine "all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman" and began writing stories under the pen name Charles Moulton, combining his and his publisher's middle names.

Subtext is as much a part of comic books as superpowers, from the unconscious (Superman as the ultimate assimilated immigrant) to the unintentional (Fredric Wertham saw Batman and Robin's relationship as pedophilia). Wonder Woman's world is one that practically begs for analysis: coming from a utopian island inhabited only by women, she wears heavy manacles on her wrists and carries a rope everywhere she goes; she spent many of her early stories in bondage or restraining others, and even disciplined villains on Transformation Island, an Amazonian rehabilitation center that trained its all-female prison population to submit to "loving authority." Even her classic catch-phrase raises the eyebrow - what's with all that suffering Sappho is always doing, anyway?

Page from "Sensation Comics" #31, July, 1944 "Wonder Woman" #7, Winter, 1943
Restraining the protagonist isn't necessarily sexual - after all, it's one of the few ways the villain has to incapacitate the hero or heroine without killing them (and thereby ending the story) - but in Marston's case much of this subtext was indeed intentional. As he told interviewer Olive Richard in the August 14, 1942 "Family Circle," "Tell me anybody's preference in story strips and I'll tell you his subconscious desires...Superman and the army of male comics characters who resemble him satisfy the simple desire to be stronger and more powerful than anybody else. Wonder Woman satisfies the subconscious, elaborately disguised desire of males to be mastered by a woman who loves them."

But Marston was intent on more than merely fulfilling the fantasies of his male readers. In a letter to comics historian Coulton Waugh, he wrote, "Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world." Marston believed that submission to "loving authority" was the key to overcoming mankind's violent urges, and that strong, self-realized women were the hope for a better future. Wonder Woman was very consciously Marston's means of spreading these notions to impressionable young minds. As he said to Olive Richard, "I tell you, my inquiring friend, there's great hope for this world. Women will win!" He then goes on, "When women rule, there won't be any more [war] because the girls won't want to waste time killing men...I regard that as the greatest - no, even more - as the only hope for permanent peace."

Panel from "Sensation Comics" #35, November, 1944
With this unusual brand of feminism as his stated aim, Marston filled his stories with bondage (both male and female), spanking, sorority initiation rituals, cross-dressing, infantilism, and playful domination. Armies of slave girls were everywhere, and hardly an issue went by without a full-body panel of Wonder Woman bound from head to toe. In "Sensation Comics" #35 (November 1944) Wonder Woman even lets slip that rope bondage was a popular pastime back home. Apparently the best way to learn about domination was to submit to it yourself: while Marston personally advocated female domination of men, many of Wonder Woman's adversaries were female themselves, and she often seemed to find herself at their mercy (perhaps this is what she meant by Sapphic suffering). Just as Superman eventually developed an allergy to Kryptonite, Wonder Woman had an Achilles heel of her own, and of course it had to do with bondage. Her bracelets were reminders of the defeat of the Amazons by Hercules, and if ever welded together by a man, she would lose her strength. Consequently, many of the villainesses kept a handy male in their employ for just this service

It was no secret to anyone paying attention that Marston was an enthusiastic advocate of bondage and domination, and he did not escape controversy. The Child Study Association of America accused Marston of being a sadist. Another critic characterized Marston's agenda as leading to "dictator dominance." In 1943, a fan serving in the Army wrote to Gaines, "I am one of those odd, perhaps unfortunate men who derive an extreme erotic pleasure from the mere thought of a beautiful girl chained or bound…Have you the same interest in bonds and fetters that I have?" Editor Sheldon Mayer tried to tame some of the more extreme elements but later admitted he had "probably made it worse." For his part, Marston fiercely defended his creation, declaring in a letter to his publisher:

"Suffering Sappho!"
Aphrodite's Law
"This, my dear friend, is the one truly great contribution of my Wonder Woman strip to moral education of the young. The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound ... Only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society ... Giving to others, being controlled by them, submitting to other people cannot possibly be enjoyable without a strong erotic element."

Despite - or perhaps because of - the controversy, sales of "Wonder Woman" were strong, so for the most part Gaines set aside any doubts he may have had and let the psychologist have his way.

Marston's erotic proclivities may have been plain to the general public, but his private life contained a bigger bombshell. The psychologist's superheroine was at least partly inspired by his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, but there were actually two Wonder Women in the family . Marston wasn't just kinky, he was a polyamorist.

The clues are in Marston's interviews with "Family Circle," conducted by a young woman named Olive Byrne, who was in fact, the aforementioned interviewer Olive Richard. Though he refers to Byrne as "my Wonder Woman" and claims her "Arab 'protective' bracelets" were the inspiration for the ones worn by the Wonder Woman character, Byrne herself never disclosed to readers that she was romantically involved with her subject. In fact, Byrne was a former student and research assistant who moved in with Marston and his wife in the late '20s and subsequently bore him two sons. The exact nature of the women's relationship is not known, but it's clear that they were very close. Not only did the two know about each other and raise each other's children, Elizabeth Marston formally adopted Byrne's children as her own and even appears to have named her daughter after Olive.

A contemplative Wonder Woman
While Olive Byrne may have provided the physical inspiration for Wonder Woman, Elizabeth Marston was an Amazon in her own right, getting degrees in psychology and law, putting herself through school and working to support the family for thirty-five years. "Olive stayed home with the kids, while Mom continued to work," said Elizabeth's son Pete. "It was a wonderful situation, a win-win deal for everyone." Indeed, by all accounts Marston's unconventional family was a happy one. "It was an arrangement where they lived together fairly harmoniously," said Marston's son Byrne to biographer Les Daniels. Sheldon Mayer, who became a family friend, remembered Marston as "the most remarkable host, with a lovely bunch of kids from different wives and all living together like one big family - everybody very happy and all good, decent people."

Unfortunately, Marston was unable to enjoy his happy home life for long, as he first contracted polio and then succumbed to cancer in 1947, reportedly continuing to write from his deathbed. After Marston's death, his widows continued to live together for another four decades until Olive's death in the late eighties. As Byrne Marston described it, "It's kind of crazy, but it worked out and they got along quite well. They were just a pair from then on until they died." Elizabeth Marston died in 1993, at the age of 100.

The name of Reform Island was later changed to Transformation Island.
In modern terms, Wonder Woman might be best described as a "bi poly switch." But with her creator's departure, the Amazon lost her enthusiasm for bondage and much of her proto-feminist message (within a couple years she had a newfound appreciation of matrimony, and "Sensation Comics" had become a romance book). Marston's theme of submission to loving authority failed to transform society and caused no apparent increase in sexual deviancy. His "American matriarchy" has failed to materialize, and in spite of tremendous advances in civil rights, gender relations, and sexual freedom, we still live in a society where gay marriage is hotly opposed and Marston's unusual lifestyle remains controversial.

Marston may have been naďve and even misguided in some of his aims. But he created an enduring feminist icon who was adopted by Gloria Steinem as the cover girl for the first issue of "Ms." magazine and stands with Superman and Batman as one of the longest-lasting superheroes in comics. She has also become a popular symbol for gays, lesbians, and others whose sexual identity lies outside of mainstream convention. Allan Heinberg, new "Wonder Woman" writer, is openly gay, as is Phil Jimenez, who wrote and drew the characters' stories from 2000-2003. Heinberg told Gay.com:

"You know, as a gay man, you would think I would be principally attracted to characters like Batman or Superman or Robin, but for some reason I identify most strongly with [Wonder Woman], because even within the superhero society she's a bit of an outsider."

Given her origins, Wonder Woman's role as a champion of tolerance seems entirely fitting. Marston believed that in the future the world would be ruled by love rather than hatred or fear. Hopefully, someday he'll be proven right.

Further Reading

If you enjoyed our look at Wonder Woman's creation and creator, you also may find yourself fascinated by our three part look at the origin of Superman from this past March:

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