For 76 years and counting, Wonder Woman has kicked ass, taken names, and been a seminal part of the fabric of our popular culture. Not only is she one of the big three heroes at DC Comics–the so-called Trinity–but she is perhaps the single most recognizable female superhero on the planet. Now, at long last, in this era of comic book movies dominating the box office, Wonder Woman is getting her own solo film, and it’s everything I didn’t realize I needed. It’s hopeful, it’s optimistic, and it made my comic book-loving heart grow at least three sizes. Yet in spite of Wonder Woman’s cultural resonance, many people don’t know much about the character or her history apart from half-remembering that one episode of Super Friends where she was trapped in a giant pinball machine. Well, today on The Dan Cave, we’re going to dive deep into Wonder Woman’s comic book history.
Wonder Woman, also known as Princess Diana of Themyscira or Diana Prince, was created by Dr. William Moulton Marston in 1941. Marston was a man with quite the resume. In addition to being credited with inventing the lie detector test (hence the golden Lasso of Truth), Marston worked as a consulting psychologist for Universal Pictures, and a writer of screenplays, books, and magazine articles. He lived in a polyamorous relationship with two women, his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston and his partner Olive Byrne, the latter of which is allegedly the visual inspiration for Wonder Woman thanks in part to the metallic bracelets she frequently wore.
In 1940, Marston found himself presented with a unique opportunity: he was given the chance to create a new character for the company that would become DC Comics. At the time, comics weren’t particularly well regarded; many saw them as cheaply made, four-color rags that were slowly corrupting the moral fiber of America’s youth. Marston wanted to create a new superhero who managed to triumph over evil using the power of love rather than fisticuffs, and at his wife Elizabeth’s suggestion, he made her a woman. Marston wanted to subvert the tired “damsel in distress” trope that dominated the medium, preferring to create what he termed in a 1943 article for The American Scholar “a feminine character with all the strength of Superman, plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” For more on the behind-the-scenes creation of Wonder Woman, I suggest you pick up a copy of Jill Lepore’s terrific book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.
Readers across the country first met Princess Diana of Themyscira in December 1941 in All Star Comics #8, as illustrated by artist Harry G. Peter. In the comic, U.S. Army Intelligence pilot Steve Trevor crash-landed on the mysterious land of Paradise Island after his plane ran out of fuel while pursuing a Nazi spy across the Atlantic. Paradise Island, also known as Themyscira, was a verdant utopian land populated entirely by Amazons, a tribe of incredibly powerful, hyperintelligent warrior women as depicted in Greek mythology. Two Amazon warriors, Diana (our hero) and Mala (her friend), discovered the wounded Trevor and nursed him back to health. While tending to his wounds, Diana found herself growing curious about life beyond the island; she even fell in love with this mysterious man from the outside world. But man was forbidden to set foot on Paradise Island, much less convalesce there, so Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta, declared that he would be summarily banished back to the United States after he was well enough to travel.
In Marston’s initial imagining of the Amazons, Hippolyta told her daughter that they were once a great nation in ancient Greece, but they were attacked by the demigod Hercules, who they managed to defeat thanks to Hippolyta’s magic girdle. However, when Hercules stole the girdle, he and the other men enslaved the Amazons, placing them in chains until Hippolyta managed to free her people with Aphrodite’s help. Stealing the enemy fleet, the Amazons set sail for a distant land where they could start a new life far away from crappy dudes. As a reminder of their suffering, the Amazons pledged to always wear the bracelets that once served as their shackles to remind them of their bondage, and never to succumb to men again.
While Steve Trevor was regaining his health, though, Hippolyta was visited by the Greek goddesses Aphrodite and Athena, who made her realize that it was time to send an envoy to the world of man rather than continue their sequestered existence. To ensure they sent only the strongest and most valiant warrior as their diplomatic representative, Hippolyta did what any one of us would to in those circumstances: made her warriors beat the ever-loving snot out of one another in a tournament to test their martial prowess. Although forbidden from entering the contest by her mother, Diana donned a mask and secretly entered anyway–because comics–and ultimately won after expertly deflecting bullets with her iconic bracelets.
Upon revealing her true identity to the crowd, everyone was shocked. Diana’s mom realized she had well and truly been dunked on, so they gave her a sweet, patriotic costume, dubbed her “Wonder Woman,” and sent her off to the good ol’ U-S-of-A to represent the ideals of Paradise Island abroad and stamp out evil wherever it may lurk. And she did just that, going on to become a defender of the free world and a pivotal member of the Justice League.
This was the basic template for Wonder Woman’s origin story, which has undergone many changes and evolutions over the years. Most versions of the story include the detail of Hippolyta making Diana out of clay and a Greek god bestowing life upon her, thus making her the only Amazon who was not conceived by a man. More modern versions have depicted Diana as an actual demigoddess, the daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta, raised far from the prying eyes of the world of man. Wonder Woman’s powers, on the other hand, have remained sufficiently badass since her inception.
She has superhuman strength rivaled only by the likes of heavy hitters like Superman; she possesses superhuman speed; she is largely invulnerable to environmental threats, and has a healing factor; she is hyperintelligent; and she can even fly at supersonic speeds. Well, she can now. Until 1986’s Crisis on Infinite Earths rewrote her origin story, Wonder Woman usually needed to use her iconic and oft-derided invisible plane, which was capable of reaching speeds of 2,o00 miles per hour and was even imbued with intelligence and the ability to speak at one point thanks to some pesky gremlins.
In addition to a hard-to-find aircraft, Wonder Woman is armed with a razor-sharp royal tiara, her Bracelets of Victory which can deflect projectiles, and her golden Lasso of Truth that compels those within its coils to spill their guts. She is also the master of sending a firm goddamn message, a skill she demonstrated when she snapped Maxwell Lord’s neck on a live broadcast. But hey, you probably would too if you met the guy.
And that is everything you need to know about Wonder Woman’s comic book history in a nutshell. What are your favorite Wonder Woman stories? What would you like to see in future films? Let us know in the comments below.
Images: DC Comics/Warner Bros.
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