Hanley traces the long, strange existence of Wonder Woman, the world’s most famous female superhero and complicated feminist icon.
Wonder Woman’s creator, psychologist William Moulton Marston, proves to be by far the most fascinating character in the narrative. An accomplished three-time Harvard graduate, co-inventor of the polygraph (which found an analog in Wonder Woman’s truth-compelling magic lasso) and developer of the still relevant DISC theory of human behavior, Marston was also a polyamorous bondage enthusiast who believed in the imminence of a shift in society toward matriarchy. His creation was intended to prepare young boys for their inevitable disenfranchisement—indeed, to make them happy about it. From this heady stew of high-minded theory and sexual kinkiness, Marston added a pastiche of Greek mythology tropes, and his Avenging Amazon was born. Hanley charts the many incarnations of the character over the decades, from bland post-Marston escapist twaddle to the disastrous attempts to make her “relevant” and hip in the mod era to Gloria Steinem’s successful campaign to return Wonder Woman to her girl-power roots and establish her as an icon of liberal feminism. At each stage, Wonder Woman was beset by bizarre tonal inconsistencies, muddled ideology and frequent editorial neglect or incompetence. Hanley identifies the character’s lack of a coherent, consistent core and, paradoxically, her strength as an icon. Simultaneously semiotically loaded and a blank slate, Wonder Woman is uniquely positioned to reflect whatever values her various constituencies wish to project. Hanley’s analysis is well-argued and richly supported, but he is prone to long digressions—e.g., his discussion of Marston’s cheesy erotic novel and a fixation on Lois Lane. Ultimately, though, the author offers a compelling and insightful consideration of a cultural icon that has endured and engaged with the culture for many decades without ever truly being known.
A richly detailed, often surprising work of comic-book scholarship.