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Wonder Woman(pop culture)
As the legend at the beginning of each story tells readers, she is “beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, stronger then Hercules, and swifter than Mercury.” In her patriotic costume, she has fought the forces of evil since her 1942 debut, whether the threat came from Nazis, aliens, super villains, the Greek pantheon of gods, or those who would seek to oppress womanhood. In her sixty-plus-year history, her adventures have almost exclusively been told by men, and yet she is one of the most recognizable icons of the feminist movement. She is Wonder Woman, Amazon princess from Paradise Island/Themyscira, and the most famous super-woman in world history.
Wonder Woman was created by psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston, using the pseudonym of “Charles Moulton.” Marston was a bit of a maverick in the scientific community, in which he is credited as the main inventor of the lie detector test, and in his private life, in which he lived with his wife and another woman, and fathered children with both. Marston had written about comics in the early 1940s, and created Wonder Woman thereafter. She first appeared in a backup story in All-Star Comics #8 (December 1941-January 1942), then took the cover spot in Sensation Comics #1 (January 1942). She proved popular enough that a second series of her own soon appeared in summer 1942, titled Wonder Woman.
Details of Wonder Woman’s origin changed many times over the years, but the main plot mostly stayed the same. Air Force pilot Steve Trevor’s plane crashes on the uncharted Paradise Island, home of the immortal Amazons. The raven-haired Princess Diana finds Trevor, and the Amazons nurse him back to health. A tournament is held, officiated by Queen Hippolyta, for a champion of the Amazons to take the pilot back to “Man’s World,” but Diana is forbidden to enter. Disguising herself, she engages in the games— including the deadly “Bullets and Bracelets” ritual—winning them and being awarded the costume of Wonder Woman by the queen. Diana takes Trevor back to America in her invisible plane, and trades places with a look-alike army nurse named Diana Prince, who needs money to join her fiancé in South America. The new Diana Prince soon becomes Trevor’s assistant, and yet he never suspects that she is also the “beautiful angel,” Wonder Woman, who constantly helps him on his missions against spies and saboteurs.
In her first forty years of adventures, Wonder Woman wore a red bodice with gold eagle, a blue skirt with white stars (quickly discarded for blue shorts with stars), red boots with a white center stripe and upper edge, a gold belt and tiara, and bracelets on each wrist. The bracelets could deflect bullets or other missiles, while hanging from the belt was a magic golden lasso, which compelled anyone bound by it to tell the truth or obey her commands. Wonder Woman had prodigious strength, speed, and leaping abilities, and could send out “mental radio calls” that a mental radio device received. She was often aided in her adventures by corpulent Etta Candy and her Holliday College sorority sisters, the Holliday Girls.
Wonder Woman was popular with readers for many reasons. For a nation engulfed in World War II, her unwavering patriotism was welcome. Male readers enjoyed adventures with a scantily clad woman who often was put into bondage by male or female villains (and occasionally, by her fellow Amazons). Critics such as Frederick Wertham would later note that, not only was Wonder Woman a lesbian fantasy figure, but that the series was rife with bondage; the former point would not be addressed until 1990, while the latter was not even debatable, as almost every story Marston wrote included bondage (sometimes called “loving submission” in the comics). Finally, female readers liked the series because it presented a strong and confidant woman, who often gave lectures to others about the strength and power of womanhood, and the need for a strong sisterhood. In an industry wherein too many superheroines were used as either cheesecake titillation or adjuncts to their more powerful and popular male counterparts, Wonder Woman was a leader.
Wonder Woman’s villains often included women such as Dr. Poison (Princess Maru masquerading as a man), Baroness Paula von Gunther (a Nazi who was later reformed by the Amazons), catlike villainess the Cheetah, and female gorilla-turned-human, Giganta, as well as males like craggy war god Mars and short, misogynist Dr. Psycho. Besides her appearances in her own two series, Wonder Woman was a featured member of the Justice Society of America, over in the pages of All Star Comics.
Marston wrote Wonder Woman until his death in May 1947, with almost every adventure being drawn by artist Harry G. Peter. Robert Kanigher succeeded Marston as writer in 1948, but the popularity of comics was crashing in the postwar years. The heroine last appeared with the Justice Society in All Star Comics #57 (February 1951), and was gone from Sensation after issue #106 (November-December 1951), leaving her bimonthly series as the sole Wonder Woman adventure source. Wonder Woman began featuring her in stories wherein she wrote advice columns, went to Hollywood, faced aliens and dinosaurs, fought to protect her secret identity, and entertained marriage proposals from monsters. Peter was replaced by artists Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, among others.
Kaniger also introduced many elements into the mythos that mucked with established continuity, including adventures of a younger Wonder Woman, as Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot, and featuring origins for everything from the robot plane to her magic tiara. Romantic suitors for the various ages of Wonder Woman were no longer limited to Trevor, as Kaniger added Merman/Merboy, Birdman/Bird-boy, and even the gooey Glop. Villains tended toward the bizarre, as in the case of the giant Chinese egg known as Egg Fu, diminutive Mouse Man, wispy Paper Man, or multi-legged Crimson Centipede.
Wonder Woman was a founding member of the Justice League of America, appearing in their first story in The Brave and the Bold #28 (February-March 1960). A few years later, Wonder Girl joined the Teen Titans in The Brave and the Bold #60 (June-July 1965), though this version of the teen heroine was not a younger Wonder Woman, but a girl named Donna Troy, whom Wonder Woman had rescued as a baby, and who had been raised on Paradise Island. In 1968, Kaniger left the writing reigns of Wonder Woman, and eventually writer Denny O’Neil and artists Mike Sekowsky and Dick Giordano came on board. With issue #178 (September-October 1968), Diana Prince was stripped of her superpowers and costume, and she became a mod-dressed, undercover adventure heroine, partial to wearing white-zippered leather suits and thigh-high boots. Mentored by a blind man named I-Ching in martial arts, Prince dealt with the death of Trevor (he was later resurrected, then killed, then resurrected, etc.), fought Catwoman and Dr. Cyber, and dealt with feminist issues of the times. Famed science fiction author Samuel R. Delany scripted issues #202-#203 (September-December 1972), the latter of which was cover-bannered as a “Special! Women’s Lib Issue.”
That issue would also prove to be the last of the powerless Wonder Woman issues as well. Feminist leader Gloria Steinem had cover-featured the heroine on the July 1972 debut issue of Ms. magazine, and had helped assemble a 1972 hardcover collection of Wonder Woman’s adventures. Her introduction in that book promised, “In 1973, Wonder Woman comics will be born again, I hope with the feminism and strength of the original Wonder Woman—my Wonder Woman—restored.” Issue #204 did just that, reintroducing the heroine’s costume and powers; it also introduced a black Amazon named Nubia as a sometime foe of Princess Diana.
Wonder Woman’s profile grew during the 1970s, largely due to the media. Besides Steinem’s feminist support, Wonder Woman appeared as an animated character on ABC’s Super Friends, beginning in 1973 and continuing for thirteen seasons. She also appeared in 1974 in a badly received TV movie starring Cathy Lee Crosby that had little to do with the comic book character; much stronger was the series that began the following year, which starred Lynda Carter. The statuesque former Miss World USA perfectly embodied the Amazing Amazon, and early scripts were very faithful to the World War II comics. Later seasons, moving the time frame to the 1970s, were less faithful to their progenitors, but Carter was never anything less than spectacular to watch, as she embodied the world’s most famous superheroine.
Some of the 1970s Wonder Woman comics shifted stories back to World War II to match the television show, but DC continuity established that the World War II Wonder Woman was actually living on Earth-Two, a parallel world on which she had begun her adventures in the 1940s and joined the Justice Society. The Earth-One version was younger, and began her team adventures with the Justice League. Occasionally, the characters would meet, generally in the pages of Justice League of America.
In Wonder Woman #288 (February 1982), the costume of Wonder Woman was significantly altered. The gold eagle on the bodice was replaced with a stylized double-W symbol. The move marked not only the character’s fortieth anniversary, but also the establishment of the new Wonder Woman Foundation, a charitable organization created by DC Comics President Jenette Kahn.
Due to what they felt was increasingly convoluted continuity, DC launched a twelve-issue series called Crisis on Infinite Earths, in April 1985. The end result of the series was that the DC universe would be “reset” to have only one Earth, and one version of every hero and heroine. Wonder Woman #329 (February 1986) featured the wedding of Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor, but it was to be the end of their happiness. Crisis wiped out their continuity and existence, and Wonder Woman would be reinvented. A retro-style miniseries called The Legend of Wonder Woman, drawn by Trina Robbins, was released in May-August 1986; it was the first time a female artist had drawn a Wonder Woman book (Dann Thomas co-scripted February 1983’s issue #300, and was thus the character’s first female writer).
A grand relaunch of Wonder Woman occurred with issue #1 of a new series in February 1987. Superstar artist George Pérez (also the Crisis illustrator) signed on to guide the new series, initially working with writers Greg Potter and Len Wein, before taking over the writing reigns himself. The relaunched Wonder Woman shared a similar origin to her predecessor, though the backstory of the Amazons and involvement of the Greek gods were a stronger part of the series. Here, as before, Queen Hippolyta had formed her daughter as a clay statue, whom the gods brought to life. Diana is raised on Themyscira (the renamed Paradise Island), and possesses gifts given to her by the gods, including superhuman strength and speed, and the ability to fly. When the war god Ares threatens the Earth, the pantheon decrees that the Amazons send a champion out into the world to oppose him; after winning a tournament, Diana becomes that champion. Outfitted with a costume inspired by a female aviator the Amazons had known in the past (Diana Trevor, mother of Steve Trevor), Wonder Woman ventures out into the world.
Pérez and company established a number of new details for Wonder Woman as well. She was now a latecomer to the hero world, joining a later incarnation of the Justice League (Black Canary took her spot in history). She lived in Boston, with Greek history professor Julia Kapatelis and her daughter Cassie. She had no invisible plane, though her “Lasso of Truth” (woven from the Girdle of Gaea) still compelled people to tell the truth. She had no secret identity, but existed as an ambassador from Themyscira to the world, attempting to teach lessons of love, peace, and the power of womanhood. Steve Trevor was now a much older man who eventually married Etta Candy. Although she engaged villains such as Cheetah, Silver Swan, or Doctor Psycho, Diana was just as often in conflict with mythological threats to humankind from Ares, the witch Circe, Eris the goddess of discord, or other forces of evil.
The stories in the revamped Wonder Woman were densely plotted, and refused to shy away from controversy. A gay man first appeared in issue #20 (September 1988), before the Amazons’ Sapphic sexuality was addressed in issue #38 (January 1990), while issue #46 (September 1990) dealt with the fallout from a teen suicide. Pérez was also keenly aware of the lack of female involvement in Wonder Woman’s history; though his editor was a woman, Karen Berger, he also wrote the 1989 Wonder Woman Annual stories to be drawn by female artists, and he eventually worked with co-writer Mindy Newell and artist Jill Thompson on the series.
Following Perez’s departure with issue #62 (February 1992), Wonder Woman went through a series of creative teams, each of which attempted to put their own mark on the heroine, for better or worse. Brian Bolland signed aboard to do fantastic covers, but the 1992-1995 issues are remembered by most as the era that featured Wonder Woman in space, Wonder Woman taking a job at Taco Whiz, Wonder Woman being replaced by rogue red-headed Amazon Artemis, and Wonder Woman changing from shorts to a starspangled thong.
Popular writer-artist John Byrne took over the series with issue #101 (September 1995), moving Diana to Gateway City, replacing her supporting cast with similar characters Helena Sandsmark and daughter Cassandra “Cassie” Sandsmark, killing half the Amazons, and pitting her against villains such as Fourth World ruler Darkseid, Arthurian witch Morgan Le Fay, Dr. Psycho, Cheetah, and others. Byrne reintroduced the invisible plane, and turned Cassie into a new Wonder Girl, then killed Diana, had her resurrected as the Goddess of Truth, and had Hip-polyta take over her role as Wonder Woman. Continuity was a casualty in the following storylines, in which Hippolyta-as-Wonder Woman was inserted backward in time to World War II adventures with the Justice Society, and Donna Troy (the ex-Wonder Girl, now Troia) was given an extraordinarily convoluted origin—the latest in her long line of origin revisions.
Diana became Wonder Woman again in Byrne’s final issue (#136, August 1998), followed by a few years of rotating creative teams. With Wonder Woman #164 (January 2001), writer-artist Phil Jimenez came aboard to revamp the title yet again, but his stories harkened back to the strength of the Pérez run. Jimenez attempted to straighten out the (once again) convoluted history of Wonder Woman, while pitting her against such villains as the Joker, Silver Swan, Circe, a new male Cheetah, Giganta, and others. He also introduced a new male love interest, an African American man named Trevor Barnes. Unfortunately, Jimenez’s work was affected by a number of company-wide crossovers mandated by DC, including one—Our Worlds at War—which forced upon him the death of Hippolyta. Later, Jimenez reintroduced the concept of Wonder Woman spinning into her costume (a staple of the 1970s comics and the TV series), and even utilized some costume elements from the television show. His final issue, #188 (March 2003) was a virtual love letter to every incarnation of Wonder Woman throughout her sixty-one-year history.
Following a six-issue, semi-return to the non-powered jumpsuit-wearing Wonder Woman, the series rebounded with another new creative team. In issue #195, novelist Greg Rucka, and artists Drew Johnson and Ray Snyder, came aboard to redefine the character. Gone were elements that the team felt demeaned the heroine, as Wonder Woman published an autobiographical book of essays (titled Reflections) and embarked on a proactive stance on making the world a safer and better place. Behind the scenes, Ares, Doctor Psycho, and others are plotting to bring the heroine down, but it is unlikely that DC’s female figurehead will be bested easily.
In the series Infinite Crisis (2005–2006) Wonder Woman’s continuity was past revised, so that she once again had been a founding member of the Justice League of America.
In 2006, DC Comics launched the third new Wonder Woman comics series, written by television writer Allan Heinberg and drawn by Terry Dodson. In it Wonder Woman adopted the bespectacled secret identity of Diana Prince, now a secret agent working for the U. S. government’s Department of Metahuman Affairs. Gail Simone took over writing Wonder Woman in 2007, and has had the longest run writing the character of any female writer to date. Simone was succeeded on the series by J. Michael Straczynski in 2010.
In a controversial move that same year, Wonder Woman received a new costume, designed by DC co-publisher Jim Lee. including a black jacket and long, black, skintight pants. Readers should have expected that such a radical change to Wonder Woman’s iconic costume would not last, and it didn’t.
When DC Comics relaunched its entire comics line in September 2011, Wonder Woman starred in a new series written by Bran Azzarello with art by Cliff Chiang, as well as being featured in the new Justice League series as a founding member. Jim Lee designed yet another new costume for Wonder Woman, removing the jacket, and shortening the pants to knee length. It remains to be seen how long it will be before her traditional costume once more returns.
Over six decades, Wonder Woman’s likeness and logo have appeared on apparel, dolls and action figures, puppets, puzzles, school supplies, kitchenware, costumes, lunch boxes, candy dispensers, night lights, music boxes, telephones, cake pans, model kits, valentines, Christmas ornaments, and even packaged macaroni. Audio adventures of the heroine appeared on record and tape in the 1960s and 1970s, while a daily newspaper strip saw print in 1944-1945. She appeared weekly in the animated adventures of Cartoon Network’s Justice League and regularly when the series was retitled and revamped, in 2004, as Justice League Unlimited, which continued until 2006, and a Wonder Woman feature film has been in development for years. In 2010, Warner Bros. Television and writer/producer David E. Kelley developed a new Wonder Woman television series; although NBC commissioned the making of a pilot episode, they decided against buying the series.
Although she is not the first superheroine, Wonder Woman is the most famous, the longest-lived, and the most popular. Appealing to a vast demographic, she is the paragon not just of patriotism, but of womanhood itself. Whether preaching the loving submission and strength of sisterhood of her early years, or the diversity, tolerance, and love for humankind of her current incarnation, Wonder Woman has—as her TV theme asserted—arrived to change the world. And we are all the better for having her in it. —AM