In the annals of popular culture there are many times when a reading public has been drawn to subject matter that for a long time escapes the attention of the pundits and intellectuals. Penny dreadfuls were mostly ignored by the cultural commentators, as were pulp magazines until decades later, where the contents were often reevaluated as "art." In Britain, George Orwell brought to light in a famous essay the crude sex comic books that entertained the working class. In the 1970s and 1980s women readers in America consumed romance novels outside the scrutiny of media watchdogs.
Comics on the other hand were always high profile. Descendent from newspaper comic strips, which were already a national mania, comic books quickly became kids stuff, the source of concern from parents and societal watchdogs even as movie studios, especially Disney, and other businesses, hijacked them as a marketing adjunct. Yet within the comic book industry there were pockets of bizarre novelty and obsession.
One of these pockets as home of Wonder Woman, one of the many DC comic book superheroes introduced in the wake of Superman and Batman. It's difficult to evaluate true popularity, but Wonder Woman never seemed to be as popular as her elder siblings, nor of the other DC line of characters, such as the Flash, the Green Arrow and Aqua-Man. As late the 1960s, Wonder Woman's comic books maintained an archaic style that harked back to the 1940s, and worse, to young pimply-faced comic maniacs, Woman Woman was probably only for girls.
If she was, what on earth were those girls thinking? In Whit Stillman's film The Last Days of Disco, one of the characters goes into an impassioned Tarantinoesque diatribe against the implications of Lady and the Tramp, arguing that Tramp is in reality a "self-confessed chicken thief and all-around sleaze ball" and that the film constitutes a "primer on love and marriage directed at very young people" philosophizing that "smooth talking delinquents are a good catch for nice girls," while the "only sympathetic character," the Scottie, is "mocked as old-fashioned and irrelevant and shunted off to the side." Casting an equally gimlet eye on Wonder Woman, you wonder what lessons the heroine was teaching her readers.
Like a lot of women, Wonder Woman sent mixed messages. Resembling Superman, Diana Prince, A.K.A. Wonder Woman, was a super-powerful person first, but only disguised as a mere mortal in everyday life. A resident of an island of Amazons, she came to the regular world after Steve Trevor, a fighter pilot, crash-landed there at the start of World War II. Following him back to the United States, Diana - Wonder Woman fights Nazis, mad scientists, and common criminals, and often finds herself tied up in highly detailed ropes and chains drawings that rival Betty Page for variety.
Dr. William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman, and she made her debut in All Star Comics No. 8, published in December 1941 (becoming a DC figure when that company was formed in 1944). Marston was an evangelist for the educational benefits of comic books and wanted Wonder Woman to be a role model for female readers. To that end, Wonder Woman was mechanically competent (she flies an invisible plane), a good fighter (she has a golden lariat and wrist bracelets that look like bondage attire to help her out by repelling bullets), and is at times a scientist and military strategist.
Wonder Woman's mixed message seems to be that not only is it fun to triumph over male egregiousness, but it is also fun to be tied up for awhile before you get there. In its first period, the comic was famous for contriving some way to have Wonder Woman hog-tied, chained to a wall in a dungeon, or strapped to a St. Andrews Cross. Many kids seem to have a natural affinity for bondage, but is the attraction really inborn or does it come from media such as Wonder Woman comics? If so, does Marston and his cartoonists bear the responsibility? Moreover, what's wrong with a little playacting bondage in the first place?
For the most part the new book Wonder Woman: Amazon, Hero, Icon (by Robert Greenberger, Universe Books, 208 pages, $35 dollars, ISBN 978 0 7893 2034 6) avoids dwelling on the bondage theme, preferring to celebrate the character in straightforward prose that recounts the background to, history of, and permutations in the comic book. The bondage theme comes up only on pages 112 and 115, where the reader learns that Marston insisted on the bondage postures as an "educational" alternative to scenes of violence. On the other hand, he also insisted that various slave girls in chains also decorate the bondage theater, so who knows what he was really thinking? Was the well-meaning educator also a libertine with Sadean leanings? The book then chastises feminist Gloria Steinem for avoiding the issue in an anthology of WW stories, even though Icon doesn't do much better.
Icon is divided into 12 brief chapters. The reader is presented with background history on the creation of the character, background on her Amazon roots and influence by Greek mythology, is given a survey of her weaponry, a list of her friends and her opponents, is followed into the swinging '60s where changes in the WW persona were finally implemented, and then shown how the character has evolved since then. The prose is informative if brief, but the book's main function is to show how numerous artists have interpreted the character over the decades, giving gravity to both the pulpy origins of Wonder Woman and the glossy "graphic novel" treatment of recent years.
The knowing comic book buff wants a little more sleaze, however. For a detailed treatment, the reader can turn to Michael Fleisher's Wonder Woman volume in the Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes series, published in a less prudish 1976. Not only does Mr. Fleisher detail every episode of bondage and humiliation from issue to issue, such as on pages 87 - 88, where we learn how a Baroness Paula von Gunther used operant conditioning and a photograph of her holding a bullwhip to transform her victim into a "mindless, obedient slave, powerless to resist the baroness's commands," but there is also a four to five page section at the end of the book that goes into detail about the images of bondage, humiliation, and slavery in the series and their implications in terms of the comic's "philosophy" ("Nowhere in the comic book literature is the practice of slavery so prevalent as in the Wonder Woman chronicles"). Despite his almost comically sober prose, Mr. Fleisher has written one of the hottest accounts of a comic book ever put to paper.
In an age when bondage images are readily available, readers don't have to turn to a comic book for fleeting images of women hogtied. But at the time, Wonder Woman's giving and receiving bondage may have been part of a coded language between disciplinarians on both sides of the drawing pen. But because the portraits of Wonder Woman tied up are embedded in longer (dull) action stories, the physical charge is evanescent at best, and it doesn't help that the early illustrators for Marston's vision aren't particularly good.
It is also confusing that her name is Diana Prince, the word for a male role in royal hierarchy, especially given that Wonder Woman is a princess back on her home island. Aside from the name, however, there is little gender bending in the comics outside of WW's toughness and greater command of a male associated tools and machines. Yet given her competence it is confusing that she finds herself tied up all the time. A psychologist might hint that there are no accidents, and that Wonder Woman's propensity for finding herself in bindings betrays a secret hankering, in line with her "girlish" emotionalism toward Steve Trevor. What is clear, though, is that Wonder Woman's bondage is only a transitional stage, and that once through it, she triumphs against maledom, not unlike, one imagines, a woman who starts out as a masochist or bottom in the BDSM world and evolves to become a top or Dominatrix. In that regard, Wonder Woman may actually have something accurate to say about human psychology, however coded it might be. Some readers will yet wish, however, that Wonder Woman had been better drawn.