REVIEWS

Wonder Woman: The Complete Newspaper Strip

TCJcoverIt's rare to get a second chance at a first impression, but William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter got just that when Wonder Woman launched her own newspaper strip in 1944. The amazing Amazon had debuted two and a half years before in All-Star Comics #8, and was an instant hit. By 1944, Wonder Woman appeared regularly in four different comic book series, and her eponymous book was one of DC Comics' top sellers. The newspaper strip allowed Marston and Peter to introduce their creation to a new audience, and these strips have now been collected for the first time in IDW's Wonder Woman: The Complete Newspaper Strip, 1944-1945.

The first week of strips was light on Wonder Woman. They were set in a newspaper office, with an editor keen to get the scoop on the new female phenom. Wonder Woman popped up briefly in each strip, saving a baby from a fire or stopping a runaway car, but most of the space was devoted to the increasingly frazzled editor.

It was an odd beginning to a strip that had a very specific purpose. Before becoming a comic book writer, Marston was a psychologist whose research led him to believe not only that women were superior to men, but that a matriarchal revolution was inevitable. He created Wonder Woman as "psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world." She was a way to get young readers used to the idea of a powerful woman, and thus pave the way for this revolution.

Giving Wonder Woman only two lines in the first week of strips seems like an ineffective way for Marston to further his cause, but week two launched into a detailed account of her origins that was chock full of matriarchal messages. The strips were an almost exact recreation of Wonder Woman #1. At first glance, it appears that Peter had simply reused the art, but almost every panel was actually an entirely new drawing based on, and often superior to, a panel from Wonder Woman #1. After years of drawing Wonder Woman and her world, Peter's comfort with the material showed in his more confident and detailed artwork.

The story included all of the familiar elements of Wonder Woman's origin in the same order, from the Amazons leaving the world of men because of Hercules' aggression to Queen Hippolyte sculpting Diana out of clay to Diana becoming the Amazons' champion and returning Steve Trevor to America. The only significant change was the increased presence of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Marston's matriarchal theories were rooted in his belief that women were inherently more loving than men and thus better suited to lead society, and the goddess of love's role as the chief god of the advanced Amazons was a key metaphor that was further emphasized in the strips.

One of the few new panels in this story shows Aphrodite being born from sea foam in an exquisitely rendered image that took up half a strip and ranks among the best artwork that Peter ever produced. The narration declared that "the greatest of all gods is Aphrodite," and her primacy was again underlined when she saved the Amazons from Hercules and gave them their trademark bracelets. In Wonder Woman #1, the bracelets were meant "to teach you the folly of submitting to men's domination," but in the strips this was changed to Aphrodite proclaiming, "they'll make you submit to me, goddess of love and beauty - never to men!"

Aphrodite was also a key player in Marston making his revolutionary aims more explicit. Wonder Woman #1 dedicated only one bland panel to Aphrodite's directions to Hippolyte concerning the sending of an Amazon to America. This was expanded to a full strip in the newspapers, with Aphrodite concluding that the Amazon champion would "lead our love and beauty attack on man's world!" When the Amazons reacted to Diana's victory, instead of a cheer for "our new champion," the text in the strips became a celebration of the "Amazon champion and future conqueress of the world of men!!"

An all-new panel added to the story to show the primacy of Aphrodite; May 15, 1944.

An all-new panel added to the story to show the primacy of Aphrodite; May 15, 1944.

While Wonder Woman comic books were never subtle, Marston clearly thought that they weren't direct enough. Along with increasing the focus on love and upping the revolutionary content in the strips, Marston also continued one of his most controversial metaphors: bondage imagery.

Marston used bondage to show the superiority of female rule. When women were in control, like on Paradise Island, bondage was a happy game, but in the world of men, bondage was unpleasant and could even rob Wonder Woman of her powers. There was a fetishistic element as well, which Marston encouraged; the allure of a powerful woman was key to the coming matriarchy. DC Comics' editorial advisory board took issue with the bondage, and his editors requested that Marston cut down on the imagery, but he refused. Wonder Woman comics were bestsellers, so eventually the editors just stopped arguing with him.

Bondage imagery appeared in roughly 27% of the panels in the early issues of Wonder Woman, a massive percentage that dwarfed bondage in any other superhero comic book multiple times over. This continued in the strips, with bondage appearing in more than 21% of the panels, a small step down from the comics but still a substantial amount. Furthermore, most of the newspaper stories following the origin were either heavily changed adaptations of the comics or all new, except for two bondage-heavy tales that stayed true to the original stories while adding more details.

The first was an adaptation of "The Adventures of the Mole Men" from Wonder Woman #4, where subterranean men kidnapped women from the surface to be their slaves. The story in the newspaper strips had the same beats as the original, with Wonder Woman getting captured and eventually overcoming her foes with the help of her allies, with one unusual difference. The regular chains that held the women captive in the original story were replaced with electrified bonds that paralyzed the captive if they were broken. It was a more elaborate touch that upped the cruelty of their captivity.

The second story was reminiscent of "Wonder Woman and the Cheetah" from Wonder Woman #6, but almost everything was completely different except for a major bondage scene. The scenario was one of Marston and Peter's most comprehensive, with Wonder Woman bound head to foot in a variety of items and thrown into a tank of water. The descriptions of the items showed that Marston was a bondage connoisseur; there was a leather mask from a French prison, a neck brace from Tibet, and ancient Greek manacles. The items reappeared in the strips, but with even more detail and danger. The iron leg clamp was no longer a generic "ancient Greek manacle" but instead became an "ancient Greek manacle from a Spartan dungeon," adding a harsh history to the device. The Tibetan neck brace that originally "prevent[ed] the prisoner from bending his head" became more severe with the warning that it "chokes a prisoner if he moves his head."

Wonder Woman's binding and escape were copied exactly from the comic book, and comprised a full week of newspaper strips. The story from then on was completely different and also added even more bondage to the strips. Instead of going to Paradise Island and kidnapping only Hippolyte, the Cheetah stayed in America and captured and bound an entire group of Wonder Woman's friends, the Holliday Girls. Wonder Woman saved them all, of course. Despite the problematic fetish element of the bondage imagery, Wonder Woman always broke free and saved the day, showing the power of women to overcome the obstacles that held them back.

A comparison of Wonder Woman escaping her bonds, Wonder Woman #6 (Fall 1943) and the December 14, 1944 strip.

A comparison of Wonder Woman escaping her bonds, Wonder Woman #6 (Fall 1943) and the December 14, 1944 strip.

Apart from the origin and the bondage-centric tales, the majority of stories in the newspaper strips were brand new and noticeably different from Wonder Woman's comic book fare. Her Golden Age comics were often over the top; Wonder Woman fought in World War Two and overturned entire Nazi fleets on her own, or visited the inhabitants of other planets by jumping from meteor to meteor on the back of a giant kangaroo. The stories in the strips were more grounded, literally, lacking fanciful plots and the colorful villains of the comics, like the mind-controlling Dr. Psycho or the nefarious Duke of Deception.

Instead, Wonder Woman became wrapped up in a lengthy murder investigation and broke up a ring of villains who drugged men into gambling all of their money away. The only unusual setting was the mole men adventure and the only classic villain was the Cheetah, the two bondage-centric stories that were copied from the comics. In fact, after the elaborate bondage scenario was over, the Cheetah story became a lengthy exploration of split personality disorder disguised as a kidnapping tale.

This shift in content may have been due to a change in audience. Early superhero comics were aimed primarily at young children, while newspapers had a much bigger audience with a wide array of different readers. Marston's primary goal was to spread the message of the power of women, and he may have lessened the zany frivolity of his Wonder Woman stories to appeal to older readers and thus spread his theories as broadly as possible.

The newspaper strips reflected Marstons' theories on gender and the superiority of women, even without bombastic storylines. The importance of female rule remained front and center; when a soldier falsely accused of murder spoke about his girlfriend, Wonder Woman was quick to point out that "men are always happier submitting to a loving girl." The men in the stories also embodied Marston's critiques of the gender. In the murder investigation, both the good guys and bad guys were violent and jealous, while greed was the hallmark of the gambling story, both with the innocent men who were susceptible to the pro-gambling drugs and the villains who stole their money. As a contrast, the women who worked with the villains were often duped, forced, or hypnotized, and demonstrated bravery by trying to help others. Even the Cheetah, the only real super-villain in the strips, was shown to be an innocent sufferer of a psychiatric disorder. And, of course, Wonder Woman was a constant presence, a powerful heroine stopping evil at every turn.

A comparison of the celebration of Wonder Woman, showing the increased focus on conquering the world of men, Wonder Woman #1 (Summer 1942) and the June 9, 1944 strip.

A comparison of the celebration of Wonder Woman, showing the increased focus on conquering the world of men, Wonder Woman #1 (Summer 1942) and the June 9, 1944 strip.

The format wasn't ideal for Marston, whose stories became increasingly drawn out as the strip went on. Marston wasn't a man known for his brevity. He was one of the earliest comic book writers to take advantage of a character having a series completely to themselves, and instead of presenting three different stories in Wonder Woman he often turned the book into a lengthier, connected three-part saga. But comics came with a set page count, and the strip had no such limitations. While Marston's early stories in the strip were fairly quick, the Cheetah arc and the murder investigation each stretched on for more than 18 weeks. There were plenty of twists and turns, but the arcs slowly get stale when read all together; this was probably even more pronounced in the original format, and may be part of the reason why the strip only lasted for a year and a half.

Peter's art throughout the strip was strong, and very consistent with what he was doing across a variety of Wonder Woman series. When the strip debuted, Peter was the regular artist on Comic Cavalcade, Sensation Comics, and Wonder Woman, and worked with a number of assistants to keep up that staggering output. Maintaining his unique style so clearly under such circumstances is an impressive feat, and doubly so because he was 64 years old at the time.

The black and white strips were an excellent showcase for Peter's solid linework, and the IDW collection captures that well. His style may have been old fashioned even in the 1940s, but Peter's expressive and energetic art soon became iconic. On top of the linework, Peter originally used halftone dots and occasional crosshatching to add greys and shading in the strips. This changed as the strip went on and Peter began to play with ink washes, with mixed results. When used with a light touch, the textured greys were a nice accent to the art. However, when used too heavily, the strips sometimes became dark and muddled.

A comparison of Wonder Woman swimming, showing how H.G. Peter redrew the strips based on the original comic, Wonder Woman #1 (Summer 1942) and the May 30, 1944 strip.

A comparison of Wonder Woman swimming, showing how H.G. Peter redrew the strips based on the original comic, Wonder Woman #1 (Summer 1942) and the May 30, 1944 strip.

Ultimately, Wonder Woman: The Complete Newspaper Strip, 1944-1945 is a valuable artifact in the history of Wonder Woman. The strips highlight Marston's matriarchal theories even more than the comics did, while continuing all of his favorite metaphors, as he attempted to spread his revolutionary message to a wider audience. IDW does a great service to fans and historians alike by collecting the often forgotten superhero strips of the Golden Age, in part for this historical value but also because there would be no other way to enjoy some classic stories that never made it to the comic books. This collection includes the only telling of the secret origin of Wonder Woman's pal Etta Candy, an amusing episode that began with the usually rotund character instead skinny as a rake (SPOILER: In a surprising twist, her full figure came from eating large quantities of candy. Woo woo!). While Wonder Woman's Golden Age adventures are historically fascinating, they're also an awful lot of fun.

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