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Wonder Woman’s Secrets in Context

I reviewed Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman for Hazlitt. The magazine was generous with their space, allowing me to give a detailed survey of a juicy book full of eye-popping information about William Mouton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman. Yet that review was aimed at a general audience, so skimmed over the comic book specific stuff that the more connoisseurial readers of TCJ might be interested in. For that reason, I’m offering these notes on the book.

1. The first and most important thing to say is that The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a splendid work of history, one of the three or four best books ever written on comics and a crucial contribution to the history of feminism. Key to the success of the book is Lepore’s stellar detective work, her almost Sherlock-Holmesian ability to ferret out obscure historical facts and join them together in a plausible narrative. She’s been lucky to have the cooperation of at least some of Marston’s family. But unlike many other comics scholars, she doesn’t simply regurgitate interview material. She’s gone back to the primary sources whenever possible. She never takes a bit of folklore or family legend for granted: she tests them all against the documents and for their internal coherence and likelihood. Comics scholarship is a field where folklore is still rife, where ancient tall tales and newspaper guff continues to be repeated as the gospel truth. Lepore’s book is a crucial step in writing the history of comics in a more serious way, one that respects the canons of historical scholarship.

2. The book’s central argument is that Wonder Woman was the crucial link, a partially hidden one, between the first wave feminism of the late 19thand early twentieth century and the second wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s. This is a bold claim, and a convincing one, which will force historians to reconceptualise the history of feminism, to see it not as a series of waves but as a constant flow. “The fight for women’s rights hasn’t come in waves,” Lepore writes. “Wonder Woman, one of the most important superheroes of the 1940s, was the product of the suffragist, feminist, and birth control movements of the 1900s and 1910s and became a source of the women’s liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The fight for women’s rights has been a river, wending.” It’s rare to see a work of comics scholarship so audaciously link it with the larger realm of social history. Yet Lepore is confident enough to stake out a large claim and make it stick.

3. There are a few small factual problems. In Chapter 12, we’re told that in 1929, Margaret Sanger “appeared on stage with a gag taped over her mouth, while Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. read a statement on her behalf.” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was born in 1917 and was twelve years old in 1929, so obviously he wasn’t the Harvard professor in question. It was likely his father, Arthur Schlesinger Sr.

4. Biographies are often disguised autobiographies: biographers use other people’s lives to explore issues in their own. It’s not too difficult to see aspects of Lepore’s own life story echoing in the tales she tells. Marston was a rogue Harvard scholar who shocked his staid colleagues by dipping his oars in mass culture, not unlike Lepore, the Harvard historian who writes about Dr. Who and Wonder Woman for The New Yorker. Holloway and Byrne both wrestled with the problem of “having it all” (balancing work with family). One of the themes of the book is the difficulty that “having it all” poses for any woman short of a super-heroine. Yet Lepore herself – an Ivy League professor, a prolific author, a staff writer for The New Yorker, and the mother of three – seems almost Amazonian in her ability to “have it all.”

5. Lepore is admirably forthright on the nature of Marston’s polyamory (which encompassed not just Holloway and Byrne but also the liberated librarian Marjorie Wilkes Huntley). Yet there is one area where Lepore become reticent. All the evidence in the book points to the conclusion that Holloway and Byrne were bisexuals who loved each other as well as Marston. Yet Lepore never says so in blunt terms, merely hints at it. It’s likely that this gingerly treatment of bisexuality derives from sensitivity to the descendants of the Marston/Holloway/Byrne love triangle. Such deference to a source is understandable but it would have been nice if it weren’t necessary. Lepore's restraint on this matter might be tied to the fact that her book is very much a novelistic narrative history: she unfolds the story the way a fiction writer would, delineating character by action rather than exposition. As with good fiction, readers are meant to infer more than they are explicitly told.

6. The major problem with the book is it’s unwillingness to engage the rich existing literature on Wonder Woman (in particular) and comic book history (in general). Lepore has written a narrative history, which means her extensive footnotes are largely devoted to giving the sources for her facts. She doesn’t feel the need to argue with earlier scholarly excavations and interpretations. This has the distorting effect of making it seem like she’s the first person to tell this story. Many innocent readers will think that everything in the book is Lepore’s discovery. Yet the broad outlines of Marston’s life – his work inventing the prototype of the lie detector, his polyamorous relationship with Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne, his ties through his lovers to the feminist and birth control movement – have been known for at least two decades or more. In a very real sense, Lepore is working on the foundations built by scholars like Geoffrey Crinson Bunn, Lillian Robinson, and Francine Valcour. (Bunn and Valcour wrote important doctoral theses which are as yet unpublished. The late Lillian Robinson was the author of the 2004 book Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes.) All of these scholars go unmentioned, which is a troubling omission. Particularly objectionable is the erasure of Bunn (whose scholarship was pioneering) and Robinson (whose theoretical approach would have enriched Lepore’s book). Other, more recent books that take up Wonder Woman – notably Ben Saunders' Do the Gods Wear Capes? (2011) – are also ignored. Ignoring these scholars is especially troublesome because of the power dynamics at work. Lepore has a lot of institutional strength: she teaches at Harvard, her book is published by Knopf, and was excerpted by The New Yorker. By contrast, Lillian Robinson was for much of her career a nomadic scholar, moving from one adjunct job to the next. Despite her precarious status in academia, Robinson wrote many important books. It seems churlish of Lepore to write Robinson out of history.

7. Connected with point 4, Lepore doesn’t make the best use of the comics scholars she does cite such as Gerard Jones and David Hajdu. She is so focused on Wonder Woman that she doesn’t ask whether aspects of the character might overlap with other superheroes or pulp creations. A fuller awareness of the milieu of early comic books would make Marston and Wonder Woman less strange. Progressive and even radical politics were quite common in the early comic book world. Both Superman and Captain America were products of the Popular Front (the loose anti-fascist coalition that ran from the leftwing of the Democratic Party to the revolutionary left). We see Popular Front themes in the villains Superman fights in the early comics: exploitive mine-owners and arms dealers. The cover of the first issue of Captain America (the superhero draped in an American flag punching out Hitler) was a veritable Popular Front poster. Jules Feiffer, then a teenage socialist, mocked red-baiting in stories he wrote for The Spirit. Lev Gleason, publisher of Crime Does Not Pay, was a left-wing activist. Marston’s ties to feminism seem less surprising when we realize that the comic book publishers, working in the ambience of New York immigrant culture, were often open to progressive and radical ideas. Nor is the outré sexuality of Wonder Woman – the constant bondage imagery – so surprising when we realize that the early comics overlapped with the world of soft-core pornography. As historians like Gerard Jones, Blake Bell, and Michael J. Vassallo have shown, the early comics publishers were also the producers of girlie magazine and lurid pulps, material that finds an echo in Wonder Woman. We shouldn’t forget that cartoonists like Joe Shuster and Steve Ditko moonlighted in BDSM art. Lepore takes note that Wonder Woman was constantly being tied up and spanked but might have done well to compare Marston’s stories to the more openly sadistic or leering work found in Will Eisner’s The Spirit or Boody Rogers’ Babe.

8. Like most historians, Lepore’s training is textual. She doesn’t do much with the visual side of comics. H.G. Peter, who drew Marston’s Wonder Woman stories, gets short shrift. That’s unfortunate because Peter played a major role in making Marston’s bondage theme acceptable in a comic book aimed at an all-ages audience. Peter, who was sixty years old when he started working on Wonder Woman and hence a good four decades older than many of his peers. He had a quaint, Victorian style that call to mind fairytale illustrations. If Peter had drawn with the illustrational sheen of an Alex Raymond or Hal Foster, the bondage theme in Wonder Woman might have been too sexually explicit. As it was, Peter’s art served to soften Marston’s script, keeping the stories safely in the realm of the make-believe.

In sum, Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a major event in comics scholarship. But no scholarly work stands alone; all are always part of a wider conversation. Where Lepore’s book is weakest is when she fails to engage with other scholars, who have done work she needs to acknowledge. At crucial points in her book, there is a failure to open up lines of communication or learn from pioneering scholars. Lepore’s book is still masterful but it could have been even better.

13 Responses to Wonder Woman’s Secrets in Context

  1. Peter Sattler says:

    A very nice set of reactions, Jeet – a helpful supplement to last week’s review in the Journal. I hope it won’t seem ungenerous, then, if I take issue with a few of your most positive points.

    2. Your summary of Lepore’s central argument is apt, at least to the extent that she connects Marston and Wonder Woman to Progressive Era feminism – even to the point where she implies that feminist ideology and iconography really created the superhero and anything distinctive about her. However, you seem to overstate Lepore’s ability or willingness to frame a compelling argument that links Marston’s work forward in history, to so-called second- and third-wave feminism. Indeed, she doesn’t even position her own claims against any particular arguments or historians who talk about feminism occurring in “waves” or who believe that (as she characterizes it) nothing much happened between the 1920s and the ’70s.

    Here is the totality of Lepore’s argument in that regard: “In between, the thinking goes, the waters were still.” The endnote to this passage, oddly, only refers to writers who have *challenged* the “wave” metaphor — which Lepore then does herself later, saying we should call it a river. Indeed, it is Lepore who really reinforces a different version of the “wave” argument, asserting that nothing much has happened in feminism between 1973 and today, characterizing the years as a series of generation of women who forget their ancestors and focus on single-issue, internecine arguments. In the end, her gestures toward making the history of Wonder Woman “relevant” and revisionary for the history of feminism are sloppily stacked and unsupported.

    5. I’m also surprised that you find this history to be novelistic in its scope or its style, with the possible exception of the detective novel, with many wonderful “Ah-Ha” moments of revelation, tracing out ramifying clues and connections. (This is not a criticism per se, even though I found many of those history-to-text equations to be more asserted than fully argued.)

    The issues that we might call “personal” or psychological — like questions of desire, love, relationships, or even the quirks and kinks of sexual attraction — are severely underplayed and ignored throughout the book. (Indeed, most *everything* that makes Marston’s version of feminism — and therefore his Wonder Woman — different and idiosyncratic are elided.) Simply put, the “secret history” of Wonder Woman, for Lepore, is not a secret of sex or love or the closet; it is a secret history of public-life politics. Any deference — or blindness — that she shows to the feelings and loves of the women (or men) in the story is built into her very anti-novelistic methodology.

    In the end, I really liked both your critique and Lepore’s book. I just did not care in hindsight for her achievements and arguments as much as you did. Comics studies needs her allegiance to the archive. As you indicate, though, the field needs it among writers who actually seem to care about the comics.

  2. Rob Barrett says:

    I also wonder if disciplinary cultures are a factor here: Lepore is a historian writing about fictions, not a literary scholar. So she’s gangbusters in the archive, but has a fairly staid approach to the comics themselves, more or less reading them biographically as instances of roman a clef (Real Life Person A = Wonder Woman Character A, Real Life Person B = Wonder Woman Character B, etc.). Put another way, as an English professor, I wasn’t surprised to find the book providing extremely flat readings of literary texts.

  3. Nate A. says:

    A quick survey of recent feminist theory belies the notion that the wave theory of feminism is uncontested or under-discussed. And in my field (political rhetoric), scholars have developed a rich historical account of the feminism in the public sphere that attends to distinctions within and connections between waves. The only way I can make sense of Lepore’s argument is if I assume she’s referring to vernacular understandings of the wave theory, but the very fact that she leaves this question open strikes me as problematic.

  4. Brandon Christopher says:

    I haven’t read it yet (it’s sitting in front of me right now), but I’m hard-pressed to see how a book that fails to engage adequately with the art, the publishing context, and a large chunk of current scholarship could be “one of the three or four best books ever written on comics.”

  5. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Brandon, I think Jeet is responding to the fact that the research is pretty dazzling Part of that’s her access to new sources, but it’s also just a meticulous use of available archives. So…it’s not one of my three or four favorite books of comics scholarship, but it does certain things very, very well.

  6. Jeet Heer says:

    Brandon: briefly, the faults I outlined in Lepore are outweighed by the strength of her archival research, an area where comics studies is very weak. Countless comics studies are paper thin in terms of historical research. Lepore has demonstrated how much a real archival research can uncover. That in and of itself is a major plus. Aside from Lepore, I can’t think of too many other books with this level of historical research in comics studies. Hajdu’s 10 Cent Plague is one. Not many more.

  7. Mike Hunter says:

    “Predictable” is an adjective with overwhelmingly negative connotations. Yet, that Jeet’s “Wonder Woman’s Secrets in Context” is a superb analysis of the book’s strengths and weaknesses, with a batch of fascinating insights and revelations all on its own, was…predictable. Kudos to the consistently excellent Heer.

    And, I’m curious as to how Noah’s forthcoming WW book (,5280.aspx ) might “fill in the gaps” in Lepore’s tome…

  8. Nate A. says:

    I do want to add that Lepore makes excellent use of her archive, and that I think her book succeeds as a narrative history in much the same way as 10 Cent Plague. What I am not impressed by was a failure to weave the history of feminism (a history that is bound up, pun intended, with the theories of gender and sexuality) into her history of Wonder Woman. Had she done this, she might have nuanced or reconfigured her argument, and in so doing made a more convincing case for looking to comics in general, and Wonder Woman in particular, for insight into social movements.

  9. R. Fiore says:

    Since the critical first stage in establishing male dominance in a society is when the men monopolize use of the weapons, the myth of the Amazon always has some kind of feminist resonance. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure that Wonder Woman is more a chapter in the history of kinkiness than the history of feminism. Marston’s connections with feminists may well have been a case of sexual outlaws finding common cause. Then again, in an affirmation-poor environment you might well grab at any sustenance on the bleak plain. I believe it was Anne Mackay who wrote about sitting through a whole movie because there was supposed to be and actress wearing a man’s watch, and what that would imply.

    The Women’s Suffrage movement actually inspired a whole reactionary subgenre of when-women-take-over stories. You might recall General Jinjur from the Oz books. The assumption behind these stories was not merely male superiority but the belief that there had to be a dominant sex, and that therefore the goal of feminism had to be a sex role coup d’etat. It took some time for the ideal of sexual egalitarianism to sink in. You want to see how an intelligent person can cling to an absurd idea, read H.H. Munro/Saki writing against women’s suffrage. (Once I was contemplating writing something about good artists with bad beliefs. Like many of my ideas it never got beyond the thought experiment stage, but what I found in my inner catalog was that four out of five times it was misogyny. I remember when William S. Burroughs started appearing on stage with Laurie Anderson and I thought, “My God, he’s turning into a liberal in his old age.”).

    The point I’m meandering around is, though Wonder Woman might not be intrinsically feminist, a sexual enthusiast’s concept might be of particular use to a feminist because he has no interest in seeing the quote unquote natural order restored.

  10. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Hey R. The idea that Wonder Woman isn’t feminist somehow because of kink (?) is really deeply confused. Feminism has a complicated history with BDSM and queer sexualities. It has a complicated history with gender essentialism too. But that doesn’t mean that Marston can’t be a feminist because he doesn’t happen to look like the feminism you’re expecting. Feminism’s a much broader tradition than it’s often caricatured as being, by opponents and supporters alike.

    You might read Lepore’s book? She certainly makes the historical case for Marston’s many, many connections with the feminist movement in terms of shared social networks, ideologies, interests, and even iconography.

    John Rieder’s Colonialism and the Origins of Science Fiction talks a lot about the visions of feminist utopia/dystopia and how they paralleled and worked off of each other.

  11. R. Fiore says:

    That’s not what I was saying. What I was saying was that if the question was whether Marston’s object in Wonder Woman was to make a feminist statement or to sneak his sexual proclivities into the public sphere under the radar, it was pretty clearly the latter. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he was also sympathetic to feminism.

  12. Noah Berlatsky says:

    He didn’t draw a distinction between his fetishes and his feminism.

    You don’t need to speculate about why he did what he did. He wrote about it extensively, in popular and theoretical works both. He thought women should rule, because they were erotically fitted to create a peaceful and ideal rule. Wonder Woman was a type of what he called a “love leader”; women whose erotic power would lead the world to the millenium.

    You can think that’s crazy or offensive or what have you, but he’s quite consistent about it. So, if you’re talking about his intentionality (as you seem to be) it’s really not correct to say that his sexual interests were more important than his feminism. He saw them as inseparable.

    I guess you coul take the Freudian route and say that the feminism was an excuse for the sexuality. But Marston had read Freud, and a talks about where he differs from him explicitly (short version is that Freud thinks sex is bad and needs to be repressed, and Marston does not.)

  13. Brandon Christopher says:

    Having now finished the book, I can see the appeal. The research is very, very impressive (quoting from Lauretta Bender’s high school valedictory address? That may redefine thorough), and the narrative approach is appealing, though I think it tends to mask an overreliance on 2nd-generation family reminiscences. For me, the historical stuff on the influence of early feminism (especially the Sanger connection) was great, and the family stuff was fun, but her repeated presentation of assertions as facts was grating at times.

    Overall, I think it’s a very good book. That this could rank in someone’s top 3 or 4 works of comics scholarship, though, is a pretty damning account of comics scholarship, in my view.

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