Comic book-born superheroes are so ubiquitous in contemporary culture we rarely think about their origins. Batman, Superman and their peers seem always to have been with us, like the ancient gods.
Of course, they're far from ancient; even Superman and Batman, the oldest among them, are a couple of decades from celebrating their 100th birthdays. Their real-life origin stories are historical, not mythical — and, in the case of Wonder Woman, wonderfully weird.
In The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore tells the astounding tale of the creation of the "most popular female comic-book superhero of all time. ... Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she also has a secret history."
Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard University and a staff writer at the New Yorker, came to her subject by accident. She was researching two entirely separate projects — an article on the history of Planned Parenthood and a scholarly paper on the history of legal evidence and the lie detector — and discovered that, improbably enough, both those things were linked to Wonder Woman.
The link — and links, as in chains, are a running theme in this story — was the man who created Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston. Born in 1893 near Boston, the "awesomely cocky" Marston became a Harvard-trained psychologist, a lawyer, a filmmaker, a businessman and, of course, a comic book writer. He also was arrested for fraud, fired from a series of academic positions and supported for much of his life by his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, a psychologist and editor.
That, however, just scratches the surface of Marston's complicated story. His connection to legal evidence: He invented the lie detector. His connection to Planned Parenthood: Margaret Sanger, its founder, who was a crusading feminist and one inspiration for Wonder Woman, also was the aunt of Olive Byrne, Marston's mistress. Byrne lived with him and his wife, as well as a third woman, Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, in a sexually experimental household, with Olive raising Marston's four children (two hers, two Elizabeth's) while he and his wife pursued their careers.
Not your grandpa's comic book story, is it?
Marston and Elizabeth met in eighth grade and grew up with a zest for the intellectual, bohemian life. Both were ardent supporters of women's suffrage and feminism as well as free love — the last leading to their unusual domestic arrangements.
Much of the book is devoted to the fascinating biographies of the Marston menage. He was a larger-than-life, charismatic figure who continually reinvented himself — Lepore reminds us several times of the irony of the inventor of the lie detector being a polished prevaricator. Elizabeth was the no-nonsense breadwinner. Marjorie, who was older than the others and lived with them only intermittently, remains mostly a mystery.
But Olive, in a way, is the heart of the book, a shadow of and counterpoint to Wonder Woman. The comic character's bulletproof bracelets, source of her power, were based on a pair of massive silver cuffs that Marston gave Olive as a token of their love, and which she never took off — although in her case they denoted bondage more than power. Unlike the childless and independent Wonder Woman, Olive was the one most like a traditional wife in her nontraditional family, the one who raised the kids, ran the house (she also worked as a journalist) and accepted having her identity disguised to fend off the inquisitive outside world.
One reason that the story Lepore tells here is so fresh is that Marston's women took the real nature of their relationships to their graves; Elizabeth and Olive continued to live together for more than four decades after Marston's death, until Olive died in 1990 in Tampa, where her son Byrne still lives. Only now are Marston's children and grandchildren opening up about their family.
Layered over those lives is the equally exotic story of Wonder Woman's genesis and success. Marston emphatically intended her to be a feminist figure, but to sell comic books she also had to conform to the image of female superheroes — Charlie Gaines, publisher of DC Comics, "wanted his superwoman to be as naked as he could get away with."
Lepore notes as well that almost every page of the comic books shows Wonder Woman or other female characters in chains, bonds or shackles — imagery that reflects both countless editorial cartoons about the suffrage movement and Marston's avid interest in sexual bondage, submission and dominance. Lepore describes one panel of a Wonder Woman comic: " 'Great girdle of Aphrodite!' she cries. 'Am I tired of being tied up!' "
The tension between Marston's political, psychological and sexual theories and the business of selling lots of comics to little kids is just part of the complex story behind Wonder Woman's success. And successful she was — within months of her first appearance in All Star Comics in 1941, she was being read by millions. Lepore also wraps in an overview of the history of comic books, which exploded as a force in American culture from their start in 1933 to U.S. Senate hearings on their supposedly pernicious influence in 1954.
In a life of repeated failures, Wonder Woman was Marston's greatest success. But he didn't enjoy it for long: In 1944 he contracted polio and never walked again; in 1947 he died of cancer, at age 53. Elizabeth tried to retain control of his creation, but Wonder Woman was soon handed over to a misogynist editor who transformed her from a crusading feminist and presidential candidate to a model, babysitter and lonely-hearts columnist.
Lepore gives only the briefest side-eye to Wonder Woman's TV incarnation in the 1970s, played by beauty pageant winner Lynda Carter. She devotes more space to the character's appearance on the cover of the 1972 first issue of Ms. magazine, but none at all to Wonder Woman's many incarnations since then. (Warner Bros. just announced a 2017 movie, to star Israeli actor-model Gal Gadot.)
The Secret History of Wonder Woman is so filled with interesting characters, real and fictional, and such swaths of American culture and history that at times it feels overstuffed, but Lepore is such a lively writer that she sweeps the reader along in this strange tale. It's as much fun as a ride in Wonder Woman's invisible airplane, and just as revealing.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.