NOTE: The following article deals with adult situations.
|Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston and his family.|
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.
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|
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|
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:
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|
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.|
Marston may have been nave 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.
- Les Daniels' book "Wonder Woman: The Complete History" is the best available history of both Wonder Woman and her creator.
- More on William Moulton Marston.
- More on Elizabeth Marston.
- Olive Richard's second interview of Marston for Family Circle can be read here.
- Excerpts from one of Marston's last Wonder Woman stories.
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:
- Justice (Part 1): How Mitchell Siegel's Murder Gave The World Its Greatest Hero
- Justice (Part 2): Real Life Inspiration for Superman's Greatest Challenges
- Justice (Part 3): Siegel & Shuster Get Their Due