I’m not a comic book fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve enjoyed enough superhero television shows and feature films in my days to appreciate a laidback history of the most famous superheroine of all time, Wonder Woman. My childhood included the occasional coloring book and Lynda Carter rerun, but other than that, I was completely unfamiliar with the character. Despite being an American cultural icon, she doesn’t have a movie that would familiarize the general public with her story. Nor did she really have much of a following after her “Golden Age.” Comic book historian and blogger Tim Hanley explains why in Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine (Chicago Review Press, 2014).
While many people think of DC Comic’s Wonder Woman as just a female Superman – I even called her “Superwoman” the first time I saw her! – the origin story of her comic book series is a lot more complicated than that. Creator William Moulton Marston saw an opportunity to brainwash…er, educate the young male population on his particular views about female superiority, sexual bondage, and submission. Later, under new supervision, the Amazonian morphed in and out of pitiful female stereotypes: emotional, vindictive, shallow, and – ironic of all – someone obsessed with pleasing the man in her life. Despite a short-lived revival as an icon for the 1970s feminist movement, Wonder Woman never regained popularity, and has all but faded from popular memory save the occasional t-shirt.
The author has clearly made a valuable contribution to comic book historical research, yet I found that Wonder Woman Unbound is best enjoyed if it’s not treated like a scholarly tome. While I’ve watched enough old movies to notice on film the trends Hanley mentioned in how women were portrayed and treated, he really needed to document this more carefully. In addition, his discussion about Gloria Steinem, Ms. magazine, and the 1970s feminist movement was seriously lacking. And the graphs were very sloppy. On the plus side though, I thought he made a very good case against the popular belief that Wonder Woman, more so than other female comic book stars, was a vanguard of modern feminism. In addition, he gave a very balanced and insightful presentation on psychologist Fredric Wertham and his infamous Seduction of the Innocent. Hanley shows that many of the psychologist’s criticisms of comic books were well-founded, even if many fans and historians haven’t been accepting of them.
If Wonder Woman Unbound ends up on the required reading list for a college course on gender studies, popular culture, or freshman composition, I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s the kind of book that can get conversations going, and no professor is going to miss this opportunity to push sex into the forefront of the discussion. Yes, the book made me uncomfortable at times, I’d have to concur. It would’ve been nicer to continue with a sanitized imagine of Wonder Woman, as she’s generally know. Yet in the end I thought the enlightenment – and corresponding disillusionment – was probably for the best.