Welcome! Historia is a brand new bi-monthly series that will be examining The Amazing Amazon’s rich history. The feature will span the war-haunted Golden Ages in which she was forged, through the sweeping currents of The Silver Age, the shifts of The Bronze Age, the trials of The Dark Age, all the way to The Renaissance and The Prismatic Age of the modern century.
We’ll be looking at and discussing the various influences and archetypical antecedents that underlie the Wonder Legend, the power of the conceits it upholds, the politics of the whole enterprise, the terrifying nature of myths and narratives, and how the character and property have changed, evolved, or even regressed. What is this curious little experiment that began under a polyamorous polymath psychologist that became an icon of the feminist movement and a vital corporate symbol? Let’s dig in.
And so we return. Previously, in the debut installment, we very much established the roots of the entire Wonder Woman premise, examining the myths that became its bedrock, their deliberate alteration, her queer conception and the political nature of the book. Now that we’ve done that, we can go a bit more specific on a lot of the key elements, ideas and iconography that makes up Diana’s world.
As such, this second essay will differ in structure to the first, acting as a historic tour of everything one needs to know about Wonder Woman stories during The Marston Era. Often, Diana is almost put on trial by people. ‘Why does Wonder Woman not have great stories like Batman/Superman/X or Y?’ ‘What is her supporting cast?’ ‘Why does she not have a good rogues gallery?’ ‘Why isn’t she good enough?’ You’ve likely heard some version of this echoed before. There’s this sense of Diana constantly being tried and judged for not being good enough, for being lacking, which obviously, is not an indictment of her, but of her handling.
Nevertheless, we’ll be taking a good, strong look at her most prosperous era here, if only to prove that she DOES indeed have all those things people want and ask for, even if they’re mostly unaware, given they’re buried in ancient comics DC’s only just gotten around to collecting properly. By the end of this, ideally, you should have a strong grasp of all the key facets of Diana’s world, from her cast to the threats she faces, the ideologies she confronts and wrestles with and vitally, why all of that matters, at all. It’s not about lore or mythos, as much as it is about meaning. Since that’s what Marston, her creator, really cared about. Everything else was a vehicle to get to it.
While comic books were still a new medium and the form was still in its infancy, Marston understood its appeal and potential. Even this new fangled thing that would go on to be the superhero was a fascinating thing for him. And as a figure with very little power in Academia who favored the approach of getting his ideas out in any way possible, from doing pop psychology books, attention-drawing stunts comparing blondes to brunettes in regards to their psychology, Marston saw the power of these things with striking clarity.
We touched on prior how defined Wonder Woman was from the get-go and this is why. Marston knew precisely what the superhero was and much like he’d do popular stunts to grab attention to his philosophy, he knew how to use this rising new mechanism to get his worldview out there. All of which is to say, he knew what he was getting into. Wonder Woman wasn’t a mere superheroic character as much as a symbol that was part of a larger intellectual framework of philosophy, a utopian vision of how we, in one man’s perspective, may finally rise above our shackles, may achieve fairness and at last, peace.
Thus, unlike Superman (who’d need The Silver Age to pop, with Otto Binder finally spinning him into a cosmic everyman-metaphor with superdogs, super-pals, & super-foes) or Batman (who was still a work-in-progress), Diana came bursting with ideas. In this sense, she’s the most comparable to her Golden Age peer, Captain Marvel. Although Marston and Peter clearly had more clarity and ideas from the get go, the team of Bill Parker, C.C Beck and Otto Binder, which forged Cap was another hailstorm of ideas and conceptual power, also rooted in fantasy.
The most vital similarities may be the fact though that both of these comics would essentially build the fundamental mechanics of superhero comics. So while Batman was going about with guns and fighting vampires, with a lack of clarity in the vision, the opposite was the case for Wonder Woman. To get a sense of that clarity, to understand how clearly the thematics were established and laid out and how the storytelling mechanics were setup across the board with clear long term plans and a vision, one need only look at this excerpt Marston sent to Sheldon Mayer, the editor, for the launch of Wonder Woman #1:
“We now have the Amazon History, the Aphrodite versus Mars theme, Paradise Island, the anti-men rules, losing the birthright business, the mental radio, The Magic Lasso, the Amazon Girls’ sports, exposing Mala to Steve for future reference, the silent Invisible Plane, the Aphrodite-Athena Method for creating daughters for Amazons–a very necessary bit for later use, W.W as a Wonder Child pulling up cherry trees, Steve a Major, Colonel Darnell as Chief Of Intelligence and Diana Prince as W.W in disguise…this ought to launch our pal W.W on both feet with new readers.” – William Moulton Marston
There’s a purpose to a lot of these things here, which is why we’ll dig into a number of these and why they actually matter. Thus, this’ll be structured a bit differently. Much more a museum tour of the platonic realms of Marston/Peter’s WW than the broad bird’s eye-view of the first. Specificity is the idea here, so let us begin.
The Utopian Alternative
Often, you’ll see The Amazons nowadays as ancient warriors stuck in archaic ways, carrying medieval weaponry, being militaristic and what have you. They’re a sort of female Sparta, who haven’t actually changed much in about 4000 years of isolation from Man’s World. They’re still stuck in those ancient times they departed in and have hardly changed, which seems, if not highly improbable, deeply strange.
This was never Marston’s vision. It wasn’t to make Xena Warrior Princess The World. His Amazons could fight, yes, they could use swords and did use them and other weaponry at times, yes, but they were almost always for sport and vitally, the Amazons offered an alternative. That is to say, the idea of these women almost barely changing in thousands of years, even as we do, is deeply uncurious and inquisitive. It asks them to remain static and familiar.
Tough warrior is easy. A genuine alternative culture and society that grew without men’s influence for ages? That is a challenge. And that’s the challenge that these comics took on head on. The Amazons were of Paradise Island and it was called that for a reason. It was an advanced place with science far beyond our own, with fashion of its own, with its own rich culture, laws and belief systems.
This brings us to the chief deity of Paradise and her law. This may strike a lot of people by surprise, as most people know or understand The Amazons to be ‘warriors’ (and thus Wonder Woman also) and so assume it’s natural for them to kill. If anything, the opposite is true. Aphrodite’s Law is what all Amazons must live by and part of said law is to not kill, but to do one’s absolute best to save even one’s most deadly enemy and worst nemesis.
“We fight, but we do not kill,” they say in Wonder Woman #7, calling in an armada of women who are armed with tools that upon a single strike relax the muscles of their opponents and put them to sleep. They restrain, they do not kill. Lest we forget, their key threat, the very ideal they face and fight eternally, on a day-to-day and cosmically macro level, is Mars/Ares, The God Of War. It’s violence.
Mars would love for nothing more than to see The Amazons surrender and give in to violence and war, to kill on and on, to be no different than any other army, on any other battlefield, in any other war. To be just like Man’s World. In fact, that’s what his ultimate dream might be, it’s what he’s counting on. Which is why it matters so much that they’re not that. They’re not generic warriors with swords and arrows, they’re something more, they’re something different. They’re a genuine alternative to pretty much everything else. In this sense, the subtitle of Aphrodite’s Law is very much that it is effectively ‘Marston’s Law’.
There’s almost a sort of Light Side/Dark Side conflict in play here, akin to The Jedi/The Sith. Aphrodite being The Light and Mars being The Dark. One asks you to rise above your worst parts, to submit and let go all your worst instincts, the other asks you to embrace all your worst instincts and give into them. Do not rise higher, you’re good as is. This is all you were meant to be, just be that. And thus, we have invisible planes, mental radios, lassos and plenty more, serving as a genuine alternative to Man’s World.
Aphrodite’s Law is, also, it must be remembered, the law which decrees an Amazon loses all her power if she permits herself to be bound/shackled/chained by a man, which, again, that’s allegory. You can be the most amazing, wonderful, powerful woman, but be wary of men who’re looking to shackle you. Remember what was done, those Bracelets Of Submission you and every Amazon wears are a reminder of the history. Not to be angry, mind you, but to be wary and to never let such things pass ever again. It’s also why Wonder Woman and the women in the WW book always break those shackles, proving again and again a very clear point and making their feminist message clear.
One of the fascinating things about Marston and Peter’s work here is just how much goes into trying to make Amazons something distinctive. They felt like a truly strange, well-thought out culture in the context of the work. They had their silent ships which could sail the stars, they had telepathic comms gear, they had temples and their patrons, sure, but they also had weird festivals and rituals, as any culture does.
So, for instance, instead of Christmas, The Amazons celebrate ‘Diana’s Day’, wherein the moon goddess, the goddess of the hunt, after whom Wonder Woman is named, basically goes full Santa Claus and brings everyone gifts. Except replace the reindeer with women who are wood nymphs, because this is a Marston comic and women tying up other women is a recurring image. And so you have the idea of these genuinely strange rituals, with their own unique history and justification, as well as practices, which put forth this genuinely odd yet fascinating culture.
You have a festival where all these women dress up in doe-costumes and run about, and other Amazons chase ‘em about with a bow and a quiver full of safe arrows, which can attach to an individual and bear a thread, which can be used to capture the ‘prey’. The hunt is, like most Amazonian acts even close to resembling violence, done as fun sport and neat tradition.
But it must also be said, it was never just the Amazons that were exclusive to such ideas. Marston and Peter would create plenty of worlds with such fascinating matriarchies, such as this one on Planet Eros in Sensation Comics #11, where ‘Prisons’ were actually paradises run by women, where everything was jolly and there were constant parties and there were fun games like, and bear with me here…Man-Fishing.
Now that’s comics unlike anything you’ll find. And they were comics that were clearly a great deal of fun for the people making them. They were building civilizations and belief systems by which to examine our own and the Amazons were the highest embodiment of those aspirations.
The Magic Lasso
The Lasso is an iconic element of the Wonder Woman myth. Everyone knows it, everyone’s heard of it. Even a toddler could identify it if questioned. It’s ubiquitous with Wonder Woman. But while it is often known as The Lasso Of Truth now, that isn’t quite what it was then. It was very much The Lasso Of Submission, given that was the central thesis of the comic. The idea of control and submission, but by a loving figure who you want to be controlled by. The sexual aspect of the texts is massive and a huge component, for sure, but that it isn’t merely limited to that alone is also what makes it fascinating.
In this original incarnation, The Lasso DID make people tell the truth, but that was merely one aspect of the Lasso. Its true power was far more all-encompassing and greater. Once used, it was a tool that made anyone submit to the wielder.
But let’s talk about what it actually meant and still arguably means, because that’s the fascinating part of all this. Marston was, of course, as he dubbed himself, ‘The Inventor Of The Lie Detector Test.’ While the accuracy of that itself is highly dubious, in the realm of fiction, it’s a conceit one can run wild with.
Truth and Lies were things that fascinated Marston, evidently, in his time as both a consulting psychologist and as someone running his special tests. It’s no surprise that when designing the book, he built in an idealized magical tool capable of discernment for Diana. This is why one of the most common usages of The Lasso, was making the guilty speak true and honest.
Yet even beyond that, the magical tool is something much more symbolic and vital. The Amazons all have lassos and so do plenty of female characters in the text and this was part of Marston’s worldview. Obviously, Diana cannot use ‘weapons’ which smash, cut or stab, neither can all the principal women, given Mars is the enemy, so the lasso as key iconography, a tool to restrain, makes a lot of sense.
The other part of it is, to Marston, The Lasso was a symbolic idea made manifest. The Lasso was the tool all women had to exert their will and ‘rope’ in anyone with their power. The tool being a visual for the power, through words and actions, that women held. Sometimes your ‘lasso’ or ‘rope’ worked, other times it failed, like for most women in the comic. Only Wonder Woman was an exception, with her Lasso made from Lyta’s Magic Girdle, allowing it to always work.
Now, this conceit can be read negatively, but given Marston’s open and constant love of the idea of loving submission, of being tied and how wonderful and great that is, it’s intended to be a great positive.
All of which is to say, if so much rhetoric of the time (and since then to this day, really) was ‘women are nothing like us men’ and scoffing at them and considering them inferior and horrifyingly little, Marston attempted to reverse it. ‘Yeah, women are nothing like us men and isn’t that wonderful? They’re so much better. They’ve faced so much and they’re still so amazing.’
Obviously, Marston’s philosophy is flawed and messy, as anything that personal and from the 40’s is bound (I’m sorry) to be. But it is strikingly touching, too, at how it’s just this one dude screaming into the void as an entire world is going through a harrowing war, trying to educate and spread the belief through these comic books that the only way to save the world was to submit to women and pave the way for the inevitable matriarchy.
The Plane, The Ray, The Sphere and The Radio
We’ve touched a bit on the fascinating sci-fi civilization aspect of The Amazons, but it’s perhaps worth taking a look at the weird array of tools they bear. None is more iconic than, of course, The Invisible Jet. Although this isn’t that at this point. It’s very much, as Marston put it, The Silent Invisible Plane.
Then there’s the lovely Purple Ray, which Diana invents to heal and save Steve Trevor. It’s a sci-fi magical marvel that can heal ailments like nothing else. Then there’s The Magic Sphere, which Hippolyta owns, that permits sight and visions into all of space-time within the boundaries of Earth. One can see the past, the present, the future, you name it. And finally, of course, The Mental Radio, the telepathic tool which allows instantaneous contact with one’s allies. The sort of mentally-activated Skype, if you will.
Note how each of these plays into the various facets Marston was interested in. The Plane obviously is a very visible visualization of the Amazon conceit. Something simple, obvious, that can pass unnoticed and unseen as just an ordinary thing, blending in with all its surroundings, when in truth, when in secret, it’s so much more. It’s perhaps the most perfect superhero symbol in that sense, the disguise of one’s super-self. But beyond that, there’s other readings there. ‘Invisible’ also plays into the idea of women as ‘invisible’, as unseen, as ignored and overlooked, unnoticed and dismissed despite all they’ve done and accomplished. That idea of being invisible, that’s powerful. And that notion, applied to the most advanced thing then, a big plane, an aircraft to cut the sky open? Wondrous.
The Purple Ray, of course, plays into the ‘healer’ aspects of Diana and The Amazons. Often, you may see some takes where The Amazons are ready to pull out a knife and stab a stranded man in rage because that assumption of these women of power is easy to write for some. But in the original incarnation here, the Amazons just want to help and heal and send Steve Trevor along to safety. And for no other reason other than…it’s the right thing to do. It’s decent. It’s just kind.
And more than anything, that ray? It’s a visualization of Amazonian power. So much amazing power, such advancement, all put in service of a ray of hope, a ray that heals and saves us. One that salvages men thought lost. And the sheer awe and power of that, that’s what this whole mission is about. Isn’t that a nice thing? If we can imagine anything, any fantasy, let’s not imagine one of more weaponry and violence but impossible things that can save us.
The Radio obviously is a nice little way to tie-into Marston’s fascination with the mind and the ties of an individual they care for. But also importantly, it’s a bit of a sci-fi update to the classical fantasy idea of people in trouble calling out to those they care for and those people learning via vision or dreams. Now it’s just The Radio to contextualize that. So whenever Steve’s in trouble, cue the S.O.S. on The Mental Radio!
Next Time on Historia: Wonder Woman’s Allies!