Superheroes have been around a long time, and most of the characters and genre conventions are pretty well established. But did every character always look and act the way we expect them to today? In this series, I’ll be looking at the first appearances of iconic superheroes to see what’s familiar, what’s fallen by the wayside, and what’s goofy as heck. Today: Wonder Woman!
Wonder Woman debuted in All Star Comics #8, which was cover dated December–January 1941–1942, but actually hit stands on October 21, 1941, so this month marks her 80th anniversary. She was created by William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter, and designed both to appeal to little girl readers and to support Marston’s belief in female superiority. Early Wonder Woman comics are infamously weird, so let’s take a look at this one, and see how it measures up to today!
All Star Comics was the home of the Justice Society of America at the time, so Diana doesn’t appear on the cover at all — that honor goes to a bunch of old guys in various states of shirtlessness. It’s only after a lengthy JSA adventure that we get to Diana’s story, but what a splash she makes!
So much is made of what an unconventional person writer Marston was — he invented the polygraph! he was polyamorous and into BDSM! — that artist Peter’s contributions to early Wonder Woman are often overlooked, which is a crying shame. His art is not just beautiful but incredibly distinctive: those curling shapes, that intricate detail, that delightfully bizarre fashion. This page is stunning.
The sequence of events is familiar if you’ve ever encountered a Wonder Woman origin before: Princess Diana lives on what was then called Paradise Island (later Themyscira), which has no men until Steve Trevor crash lands on it. The only thing surprising is how skimpy those outfits are for 1941, although having been to Greece in the summer, dressing light makes sense to me.
Diana lifts Steve in her arms like a child and carries him to the island’s hospital, where her mother, Queen Hippolyta (spelled “Hippolyte” at this point), agrees that they should care for him, but decrees that he be blindfolded so that he sees nothing of their home when he regains consciousness. (There’s that BDSM creeping in!) In later years, it would be established that no man could set foot on Paradise Island (before that was eventually retconned away again), but that’s clearly not the case here.
Diana manages to fall in love with the unconscious Steve, worrying her mother. I’m obsessed with both Hippolyta’s Madonna-style cone bra and the doctor’s everything.
Look how gorgeous this panel is! Look!!!
Hippolyta exposits the truth about the Amazons to Diana not in normal panels, but a prose story with in-set illustrations that takes up nearly two pages, which is another reminder of how long ago this was and how experimental early comics could be with form as they figured out the best ways to convey information.
In short: the Amazons once ruled the land of Amazonia (amazing), but Hercules, hating the idea of women who were stronger than him, attacked them and stole the MAGIC GIRDLE (referred to in the comic exclusively in all-caps) that ensured that Hippolyta could not be beaten. The Amazons were enslaved until Hippolyta prayed to Aphrodite for help. Aphrodite helped Hippolyta regain the MAGIC GIRDLE, but only on the condition that the Amazons move to an all-woman island and forever wear the manacles they’d worn as slaves, as a reminder to stay away from men.
They then peer into the “Magic Sphere” they were given by Athena, which is actually just a circle, but that’s okay, it’s not like geometry comes from Greece or anything. *cough* Anyway, the Magic
Sphere Circle allows them to look into Steve Trevor’s past to see what his whole deal is:
Turns out that Steve had discovered who the leaders of the vaguely named “spy ring” are and decided to go after them alone, even though his commanding officer declares him “the most valuable man in the army intelligence department,” which is a hell of a performance review.
Steve may be the most valuable man in the army intelligence department, but he’s possibly not the most actually intelligent, because his method of arresting spies is to jump onto the outside of their moving car, which is easily countered by the spies, uh, driving into a tree.
Steve is knocked out, and the Nazi spies put him in a “robot plane” which is programmed to drop bombs on America. (Side note: like Captain America’s debut, this is just a few months shy of Pearl Harbor, so weren’t at war yet.) Steve wakes up, regains control of the plane, and pursues a Nazi plane that was observing him over the Atlantic until he runs out of gas directly over Paradise Island…and the rest is history.
Luckily for Steve, Aphrodite and Athena then appear to Hippolyta and order her to have her strongest Amazon accompany him back to “America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women,” which…oof. Sure, okay.
Hippolyta announces a tournament to find this champion, but forbids Diana to enter it, because whoever wins can never return to Paradise Island. However, on the day of the tournament, one contestant is wearing a mask. Whoever could she be??? No, seriously, you all have a finite population, the process of elimination should not be that hard.
The final challenge is the famous “bullets and bracelets,” in which the contestants take turns firing a gun (where did they get it?) at each other and parrying the bullet with their bracelets. Please do not try this at home, unless your home is Paradise Island! The masked contestant wins, of course…
…and it’s Diana! Hippolyta, resigned, agrees that Diana will go to America, and gives her a bizarrely patriotic costume to do it in.
And that’s the end of the story! Today it would be a fine first installment; at the time it’s a little oddly truncated, considering that there was no guarantee that any given kid would be able to find Diana’s next adventure on their newsstand. That next adventure, by the way, is advertised on the next page: Wonder Woman will be appearing in Sensation Comics #1, on sale in November:
Do we think Gene Tunney actually read this Wonder Woman story, or did DC just make that up?
This first story doesn’t really give us much characterization for…well, anyone but Hippolyta. Diana doesn’t really get to show off her powers or espouse her philosophy of love, and Steve’s unconscious the whole time. There’s no Etta Candy or Cheetah or giant space kangaroos. (I told you early Wonder Woman was weird!) There’s just not a lot of there there, but it was enough to keep Diana around long enough to become the foremost superheroine in comics, and hey, that’s not nothing.
Either way, the 1941 version of me is game to look for Sensation Comics #1 and follow Diana’s continuing adventures. I hope we learn more about the MAGIC GIRDLE!