The original Wonder Woman comics from the 1940s, written by William Marston and drawn by Harry G. Peter, are the greatest superhero comics ever created. Marston, a psychologist who lived in a polyamorous relationship with two bisexual women, was a passionate feminist, bondage-enthusiast and crank; his stories were gloriously strange parables about the joys of kink and the coming matriarchal utopia. Harry Peter's art occupied an odd middle ground between Henry Darger, Beardsley, and Victorian children's illustration; his stiff figures and fluid lines lent a cheerfully quivering eroticism to images of battle kangaroos, women bound, pink ectoplasmic goo and more women bound. Together, Marston and Peter created enormously popular, sexually adventurous comics for eight year olds, as well as a brief for third-wave sex-positive feminism before the second wave had gotten off the ground. Superhero comics would never be as weird, as daring, or as beautiful again.
Marston and Peters' comics were, in fact, so weird and daring that they still fit uneasily into the superhero genre. Jack Kirby and Alan Moore have been widely imitated, celebrated, dumbed down and ripped-off; for better or worse, they are now part of the DNA of superhero comics and of the movies inspired by same. Marston and Peter, though, are seen as curiosities, not as inspirations. Marston's polyamorous relationship with Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne has recently received a good bit of attention in Jill Lepore's scholarly biography and Angela Robinson's fanciful film biopic . But in both, aesthetic appreciation of the comics themselves is muted. Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman —a happy warrior who lost a great love—has even less to do with Marston and Peters' version.
There have been a couple of Marston and Peter tributes over the years. One of the most heartfelt is a long out of print and difficult to find 1986 four issue mini series by writer Kurt Busiek and artist Trina Robbins. Robbins is also a comics critic and a long-time vocal fan of the original Marston/Peter comics. Her series, reprinted in a new collection titled Wonder Woman: Forgotten Legends, is a charming exploration of her love for the comics. It's also a good, albeit unintentional, summary of why Marston/Peter's influence remains both limited and unassimilable.
Busiek and Robbins' comic tells a 1940s Wonder Woman story reviving one of Marston and Peter's lesser known and loopier villains—Atomia, queen of the sub-microscopic atom world, from Wonder Woman #21. Atomia has absolute power over the (all female) inhabitants of her atom world, but she longs to conquer the human world too. "My spirit blazes at the thought of denying them their pleasures—of forcing them to defer to me!" Atomia muses, in sinister super-villain rant mode.
Legend of Wonder Woman captures a lot of what was special about the Marston/Peter comics. In a 2006 essay, "Wonder Woman: Lesbian or Dyke?", Robbins wrote about the importance of female/female relationships in Marston/Peter comics, and sure enough, The Legend of Wonder Woman is sure to picture lots of female communities and friendships. There is, of course, the community of Amazons on Paradise Island, but even when she's in what is ostensibly Man's World, Wonder Woman has female friends and allies. A big section of the book involves Wonder Woman working with the twin queens of yet another female ruled matriarchy, the Mirror Realm. Later, Wonder Woman's friend Etta Candy asks Wonder Woman's alter ego, Diana Prince, to watch a bratty, adventurous little girl named Suzie. Robbins explains in an introduction that Suzie functions for her as a kind of self-insert character; she's a stand in for women and girl readers, giving them a chance to pal around with—and, in Suzie's case, irritate—their idol.
Robbins' introduction also discusses her sense of alienation from the violence of many comics. Marston and Peter always tried to reform their villains rather than beating them to a pulp, and Busiek and Robbins follow suit. Robbins' cartoony illustrations make most of the battles look more like friendly wrestling than war; even the weird red fish monster isn't brutalized too badly and gets to return to its fishy life at the end. One evil mirror queen learns the error of her ways, as does Suzie, who gets to experiment pleasurably with being an evil queen herself before deciding that goodness is the right path. Robbins' battle kangaroos are a lot sleeker and less tactile than Peter's, but still, they emphasize the essential point—super-adventures don't have to mean you hurt anyone. They can just mean you get to ride around on awesome battle kangaroos.
It's also notable what Busiek and Robbins leave out of their homage, though. Most notably, The Legend of Wonder Woman removes most of Marston's kink. Robbins has said that "as a kid I didn't even notice the bondage" in the Marston/Peter comics, but her own version makes it clear just how central that bondage was. Wonder Woman's lasso, which compelled obedience in the original comics, is barely used in Busiek and Robbins.
Moreover, structurally the Marston/Peter plots were organized around camp bondage switch tableaux; Wonder Woman would tie up her enemies and compel them to obey; then they'd tie her up and compel her to obey. The stories didn't follow a linear rush to victory; instead they stalled out comfortably in BDSM play, with a good bit of cross-dressing thrown in. Busiek and Robbins' comics isn't especially violent, but it still is basically about people hitting each other rather than flirting with each other (or more than flirting with each other.)
That's especially clear at the conclusion. In Marston's Atomia comic, the queen is finally pacified with a Venus girdle, which fills her with (eroticized) love and kindness. At the end of Busiek and Robbins' story, on the other hand, Wonder Woman punches Atomia out and declares, "Aphrodite's Way tells me I should hope that you can reconcile yourself to your life of luxury and privilege—but personally I hope you're miserable!" Robbins knows what Marstons' script says; Wonder Woman is supposed to love her enemy. But that love, in Marston, is infused with kink and (frequently lesbian) eroticism, and Robbins isn't quite willing to go there, no matter what Aphrodite says.
Decades after Marston's death in 1947, inspirational feminist BDSM for kids is still an uncomfortable fit for the superhero genre. Just how uncomfortable is shown, perhaps, by the fact that Wonder Woman: Forgotten Legends doesn't include any Marston/Peter comics. The collection fairly calls out for a reprint of the original Atomia story—a delirious effort in which Marston cheerfully, brilliantly, and bizarrely incorporates the then-dawning era of atomic paranoia into his kinks. But while the new book includes a couple of forgettable additional stories by Robbins and Busiek working separately, the original Marston/Peter comics are not represented. Even when celebrating Marston and Peter, DC, it's clear, doesn't quite know quite what to do with them.