Before the United States entered World War II, our male superheroes like Superman and Captain America were fighting Axis Powers in comic books. But in December 1941, the same month Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, a new kind of superhero debuted in issue #8 of “All Star Comics”: Wonder Woman arrived to teach angry, brutish men how to heal the world through love and peace.
The next month, January 1942, Wonder Woman appeared on the cover of the first issue of “Sensation Comics.” By summer of 1942 she had her own title with DC Comics. But Wonder Woman was not the first female crime fighter: She was predated by the likes of Phantom Lady, Miss Fury, and Lady Luck. However, she was by far the most iconic, as her first run ended with issue #329 in February 1986. Her comic was relaunched in 1987, and has been printed continually ever since.
Besides her own comics, Wonder Woman also appeared as a member of the Justice Society of America in 1941, and then in 1960, she joined the Justice League with Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter...
Based on Greek mythology, Wonder Woman is a warrior princess, who grows up among a tribe of Amazons on Paradise Island, called Themyscira in later remakes. While Diana (Wonder Woman’s given name) and her ilk, possess superhuman strength and superior fighting skills, they’ve long adopted the ways of peace and love. When Diana comes across a downed American pilot, Steve Trevor, she offers to take him back to the war-torn “man’s world” to show them how things had gone awry. Her mother, the Amazon queen, implores her to fight for women’s rights, too.
This feminist messaging came from the mind of psychologist William Moulton Marston, inventor of the first lie-detector test, who came to the conclusion that women were more honest and dependable than men. Marston hoped to use comics to create a strong role model for girls, to teach girls how to stand up for themselves. Writing under the pen name Charles Moulton, he wanted to stay away from the violence he saw in the male-superhero comics, and depict a female heroine would could be strong and liberated, as well as traditionally “feminine” in that she was also peace-loving and submissive.
The Wonder Woman of the 1940s, drawn by Harry Peter, often found herself tied up in ways that suggested sexual bondage play, and comics with those images on the cover go for top prices now. That said, her body wasn’t drawn in the voluptuous pin-up style of Sheena Queen of the Jungle or Phantom Lady. Wonder Woman’s first costume wasn’t that revealing, and even though she wasn’t particularly muscle-bound, she was shown hoisting cars over her head. Her only weapon was the magical Lasso of Truth, which forced men to tell the truth, and her only armor were bulletproof bracelets and a tiara. Later, she traveled in an invisible plane.
However, when Marston died in 1947, so did the comic’s pro-woman storylines. Instead, the tales focused on Diana Prince’s relationship with her boyfriend, Steve, who was always trying to convince her to give up saving the world and focus on being his wife. Her early '40s supporting cast of strong women disappeared by the '50s, too. The Lasso of Truth became a trick rope used to snag the baddies, but not to make them spill the beans.
Another psychologist, Frederic Wertham, went on a tear against Wonder Woman in his 1954 book, “Seduction of the Innocent.” While he believed all comics were corrupting youth, he found Wonder Woman to be emasculating and insisted that her stories promoted lesbianism. As the Comics Code was imposed in 1955, she was weakened yet again, and the references to bondage were removed. By the late '60s, Wonder Woman had no superhuman powers and no longer wore her costume—she was more like Emma Peel in “The Avengers” TV series. These late '60s issues (#177-214) are coveted by collectors now.
However, in the early '70s, Gloria Steinem began to champion early Wonder Woman as a feminist icon, and so Wonder Woman went back to her roots, with her powers and her costume. Thanks to that decade’s TV show starring Lynda Carter, Wonder Woman’s popularity boomed. But by 1986, her 44-year-old comic was coming to a close, as Diana Prince finally married Steve Trevor.
Then, her history was completely wiped out and reset as part of DC’s big revamping of its universe called “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” Princess Diana was destroyed, turned into the clay she was formed from, and scattered over her home island. Of course, she was reborn in 1987 with “Wonder Woman,” Vol. 2, #1, totally unaware of the outside world or her past.
The 1990s incarnations of Wonder Woman were much more sexualized with voluptuous curves and smaller, tighter versions of her costume. And in the last 20 years, she’s gone through head-spinning cycles of death, life, and rebirth, with a litany of costume iterations along the way, including—gasp!—pants in 2010.
The first edition of “Wonder Woman” is particularly rare and can command five-figure prices in mint condition. But collectors have to beware that the comic was reprinted by DC in 1974 with oversized (13½ by 10-inch) pages and another cover that labeled it as a “Famous First Edition.” Some con artists have removed the outer cover and tried to sell this larger comic as the original.
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