REVIEWS

Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism

berlatskywwNoah Berlatsky loves Golden Age Wonder Woman comic books, to the exclusion of all others. His new book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, is a detailed and often fascinating look at this era, and his appreciation for the work of William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter is evident throughout. Many historians see early Wonder Woman comics as an oddity, an interesting but bizarre run laden with mixed messages about feminism and fetishism. Berlatsky sees them as brilliant works of art.

In his conclusion, Berlatsky examines recent incarnations of Wonder Woman and finds little to recommend them. Ultimately, he states that this is because "they don't have anything particularly to do with Marston/Peter." Such a metric is applicable to Berlatsky's book as well. While it's engaging and thought-provoking throughout, the book is most historically successful when it ties the comics to Marston's other writings and establishes authorial intent.

The tension between intent and interpretation is constant in historical work. Looking back on events decades after the fact with the wide perspective of history, it's easy to make interesting connections that bring together different time periods and schools of thought. However, seeing such a connection and interpreting an author's work through that lens does not necessarily mean that this is what the author intended to communicate. The result can be a intriguing thought experiment, but it's more speculative than historically substantive.

Berlatsky's first chapter falls into the speculative category. It's a close reading of Wonder Woman #16, dated March/April 1946, in which Wonder Woman confront the god Pluto, who happens to live on the planet Pluto. Wonder Woman and the Holliday Girls hop a rocket to the planet to rescue their kidnapped friend Lorrie, and soon find themselves in trouble. Not only are they captured, they are then turned into zombie beings of pure color that exist independently from their now black, lifeless bodies. It was the Golden Age; it was a zany time. Shenanigans ensue, including a chariot race through the cosmos, and by the issue's end Wonder Woman has saved her friends and defeated Pluto.

For Berlatsky, this isn't just an endearingly odd comic book, it is "one of the strangest, most beautiful, and most moving comics I've ever read," though also "perhaps the darkest comic that Marston, Murchison, and Peter ever created." In the over-sized Pluto's kidnapping of the small and frail Lorrie, he reads a metaphor for incest. To bolster this connection, Berlatsky draws from Sigmund Freud's early theories on incest from 1896, an approach Freud later abandoned, as well as Judith Lewis Herman and Lisa Hirschman's 2000 study on father-daughter rape, along with several other, non-contemporaneous sources. He positions different characters as mother figures, sees hints at the subject matter in the background of Peter's art, including labial flowers, and discusses the issue's correlation with hysteria and castration. In the end, Berlatsky sees the comic as a sort of feminist reclamation of incest narratives, where the female characters overcome their abuser. He also argues that Marston's supposed approach to incest reconciles the limitations in the theories of Freud and others in terms of child sexuality and rape fantasies via Marston's kink positivity.

The chapter presents a very interesting take on Wonder Woman #16, but the question remains: Is this what Marston actually intended to convey with the comic? The chapter lacks any clear evidence that he did. The initial leap to incest is unsubstantiated; while the Pluto/Persephone narrative certainly hints at rape, the story lacks any direct parental connections to take it that one step further. Berlatsky instead reads between the lines and finds incest, bringing in outside sources to do so.

Rather than tying the issue to Marston's own psychological theories, Berlatsky relies on Freudian theories that pre-date the comic by half a century, and yet were still outdated in 1946, to try to extrapolate what he thinks Marston was saying about incest. He sees many similarities between Freud and Marston's hypothetical approach to incest through the comic, but Marston's psychological writing was his own unique and somewhat bizarre invention that had little in common with Freud. In fact, Freud's work is mentioned just once in Emotions of Normal People, Marston's main psychological text, and only in passing. Berlatsky doesn't bring Freud into the book because of any link to Marston, but because Freud best captures his own interpretation of the comics.

Berlatsky's close examination of Peter's art is similarly interesting but speculative. He sees the issue as laden with sexual imagery, and reads intention in each panel. There's a degree of over-zealousness to Berlatsky's art interpretation, particularly with his focus on mirroring. For example, he links a panel of Pluto kidnapping Persephone at the beginning of the story with a panel of Steve tackling Pluto at the end of the story. There is no literal mirroring; the panels are drawn from different angles and the attacks are different as well, with Pluto tackling Persephone around the waist and Steve tacking Pluto around the neck. The visual connection is tenuous at best, and while Berlatsky tries to link the panels thematically, arguing that Steve was positioned in a manner that would allow him to rape Pluto just as Pluto raped Persephone, it's quite a stretch.

Furthermore, reading intention in Peter's art is an inherently problematic endeavor given that Peter probably didn't draw significant portions of it. In 1946, Peter was 66 years old and was drawing Wonder Woman stories for Comic Cavalcade, Sensation Comics, and Wonder Woman. Because of this busy schedule, Peter employed a team of assistants to help with the art. With the breakneck pace at which they turned out pages, it's unlikely that a great deal of thought went into each panel, especially the backgrounds. Peter focused on the main figures and the backgrounds were often done by his assistants. The flowers may have been intentionally drawn by Peter to resemble vaginas, as Berlatsky suggests, but they also may have just been hastily scrawled by an assistant.

Berlatsky's second chapter is much like the first in terms of non-contemporaneous comparisons. He talks about the Golden Age Wonder Woman's heroism and pacifism in the context of Spider-Man's origin from the 1960s and JLA: The Nail from the 1990s, compares Wonder Woman's "education mother" role with Japanese mother-centered pop culture from the 1980s, and contrasts the comics' masochism with the 1870 novel Venus in Furs. It's often very compelling reading, and the disparate sources allow Berlatsky to bring several unique perspectives to the comics. At the same time, though, bringing in such different material that's so disconnected from the original comics makes the analysis feel somewhat detached from Marston, Peter, and Wonder Woman.

It's Berlatsky's third chapter that elevates the book from good though often conjectural to great historical work. The chapter looks at Wonder Woman's queerness and follows the same methodology as past chapters, but instead of wholly separate work being the lens through which Berlatsky examines the comics, he relies more heavily on Marston's other writings; non-contemporaneous sources remain important to his analysis, but in a less prominent role. The result is a brilliant and thorough examination of the Golden Age Wonder Woman as a queer figure.

Reading the Golden Age Wonder Woman as a lesbian isn't a new angle on the character. As Berlatsky points out, Fredric Wertham decried Wonder Woman's lesbianism in Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. Berlatsky takes a much wider view of the comics by examining queerness in different ways, from camp and closeting to same-sex eroticism and drag. He argues that Marston put a definite lesbian subtext in his Wonder Woman comics, and bolsters this claim by looking at Marston in four distinct ways.

First, obviously, is the actual comic books. Berlatsky lays out a long list of stories that "model erotic same-sex play" in different forms, and the breadth of these examples is striking. He then brings in Marston's psychological work, where Marston displayed a great deal of familiarity with the actual mechanics of lesbian relations, both through direct contact and through sexual stimulation via indirect stimulation, such as bondage. Marston was more than just accepting of such relations between women; he was enthusiastic about their psychological benefits, and thought that women had a larger capacity for giving and receiving love and thus were better suited to lead society (he was firmly against same-sex relations for men; his matriarchal inclinations made him leery of anything where women weren't involved).

Berlatsky further establishes Marston's affinity for same-sex relations by looking at his home life. Marston lived in a polyamorous arrangement with two women, his legal wife and their live-in lover, and he had two children with each of them. His advocacy of inter-female relations wasn't theoretical, it was a major component of his daily life. Finally, Berlatsky turns to Marston's other fictional work and finds that Marston made lesbian relations a key part of his novel for adults, Venus with Us: A Tale of the Caesar. The novel has several scenes that feature sexual relations between women in a manner far more explicit than his Wonder Woman comic books could ever be, all while advocating the same matriarchal theories that connected all of his writing. Berlatsky makes a strong case that since Marston was clearly fascinated with same-sex eroticism in his other work, it would naturally follow that he did the same in his comic books.

This deep focus on Marston's various works lays a strong foundation for the chapter, and allows Berlatsky to bring in other ideas seamlessly. In the first two chapters, Berlatsky looks at Marston just through the comics, which results in him extrapolating Marston's intentions and blurring these extrapolations with the work of others. Here, Berlatsky shows exactly where Marston stood. Thus, when he brings in outside ideas, such as modern theories on camp and closeting, they serve as a compliment to what he's already established about Marston's intent rather than as a means to try to interpret this intent.

It also helps that the outside ideas Berlatsky brings into his third chapter are broader than in the previous two. Freud's early thoughts on incest and things like mothers in Japanese pop culture or Venus in Furs are very specific viewpoints, but by and large Berlatsky relies on bigger theories when he looks at Wonder Woman's queerness. There are still some odd, non-contemporaneous comparisons; Berlatsky brings in Pussy Galore from 1964's Goldfinger in a section that ultimately compares James Bond to Dr. Psycho. But with Marston's intent so well established, these bits read as fun tangents that lead to interesting insights more than primary analysis (the Pussy Galore bit is particularly fascinating).

The art examination is more effective in the third chapter as well, again because we have a much clearer idea about the comics' actual intent. The chapter begins with a close look at a panel from Wonder Woman #1 where Diana Prince's pal Etta Candy, dressed in a butch cowboy outfit, explains how men are useless, especially compared to the candy that she is about to eat. Berlatsky contends that Etta's piece of candy lines up with Diana's crotch in a deliberate manner, and that the entire panel is a double entendre on the part of Marston and Peter that hints at the women's lesbian leanings. Based on the panel alone, such a claim is tenuous; it can easily be read as just another panel where the rotund Etta rhapsodizes about her love of candy. But with Marston's lesbian fixation firmly established, Berlatsky's reading of the panel becomes much stronger, especially because he also points out several instances of Peter very obviously using the art to depict same-sex eroticism. Berlatsky's discussion of a scene in Sensation Comics #41, which he describes as "Sleeping Beauty as yonic lesbian fever dream," captures this well. Lyra, the issue's Sleeping Beauty analogue, was ensnared by a giant octopus plant whose mouth closely resembled a vulva; once Berlatsky points this out, you can't not see it in the panel. So while labial flowers may be debatable, Berlatsky shows that vulvic plants were a clear wink by Peter.

Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948 is an engaging read from start to finish, and Berlatsky's love of Golden Age Wonder Woman comics comes through on every page. His interpretive early chapters offer unique perspectives on the comic books that, while speculative, are nonetheless engaging. His final chapter moves from interpretation to intent and his analysis is even richer for it; his discussion of Wonder Woman's queerness is a fascinating and compelling piece of comics scholarship. All together, Berlatsky has crafted a book that is a fitting companion to Marston and Peter's bizarre tales.

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3 Responses to Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism

  1. There’s a pretty well-established critical tradition of interpretations that float free of authorial intent. You might think the result is hogwash, but the methodology is New Criticism 101 — i.e. not Berlatsky’s fault.

    (For the same reason, it’s a moot point whether it was Peter or an assistant who drew the vagina-flowers)

  2. Paul Tumey says:

    A solid job of lassoing a worthwhile comics history/criticism book burdened with bad timing. It gives me a good sense of Berlatsky’s book, offering opinions buttressed with solid evidence. Tangential or not, I tend to love it when a critic connects comics to larger contexts — I think more of that is needed. As a result of reading this review, I am more interested in reading this book than the other, cough cough,recent and more promoted WW release, although I realize I will be reading both books in the long run.

  3. Dean Milburn says:

    If we were to take a New Criticism approach, and set WWBFMPC free of authorial intent, then at most, the idea that Noah is taking a New Criticism approach is, at best, one possible reading, and ultimately, irrelevant to interpretation of WWBFMPC.

    Based on this review, it seems to me one could remove Wonder Woman #16 from the analysis and replace it with any number of texts, even other golden age comics, without changing any of the surrounding out of context analysis, because the relationship between the analysis and the text is so tangential in the first place.

    Chapter 3 sounds pretty terrific.

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