The Secret History of Wonder Woman: Superhero Saturday

This week I listened to The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Harvard American History professor Jill Lepore – since I’m a superhero geek, a writer, and a historian it seemed like just my kind of book.

First I should confess that, unlike Superman or Green Arrow,  I don’t have a strong personal connection to Wonder Woman.  Two of my fellow writer geek friends are big fans though, and I liked her appearance in Dawn of Justice, so I was really looking forward to learning more about the history of the character.

But, in the end, the best two word review of this book I can give is …weird and incomplete.

There’s a great review by the New York Times here, which describes the high points and nature of the book.   Primarily the fact that the book isn’t really a history of Wonder Woman, it’s a biography of her bizarrely fascinating creator William Moulton Marston and the connection Marston and his um…wives? mistresses?…had to early feminism.  There’s no doubt that this book was thoroughly researched, but  Lepore’s exhaustive detail and emphasis on the racier aspects of Marston’s life gets old and a little creepy.

In addition, there’s three things about this book that bug me so much I almost didn’t finish it.

First, Lepore makes constant reductive connections between Marston’s real life and moments from the Wonder Woman comics. At one point she even suggests that this close connection between Marston’s real life and his creation meant that Marston didn’t actually have an imagination. The historian in me can kind of understand this – but as a writer it made me angry.   What’s next, the suggestion that Huckleberry Finn isn’t imaginative because Mark Twain was a riverboat pilot?  All artists draw from their lives and the world around them.  It’s how, and why, and what they add to it that makes it art.

Second, the book sells itself as a history of Wonder Woman and it’s not.  I really want to know how Wonder Woman survived as a character during the Silver Age of Comics (late 1950s to 1970)- and after reading this book, I have no idea.  Did she have her own titles?  Did they turn her into a housewife?  I don’t know – and I want to know, and the fact that a book that purports to be a history of a character didn’t answer those questions annoys the crap out of me.

Third, and for a geek blogger this is the most irritating thing, Lepore hints at Wonder Woman’s ties to larger comics and superhero history, but never fully explores them.  For example, there is a brief mention of the fact that Wonder Woman’s costume design is so patriotic because Marvel had just released Captain America and DC wanted their own patriotic hero – but then she doesn’t actually discuss the topic of patriotism in Wonder Woman.   Argghhh.  And how does Wonder Woman compare with other depictions of women in comics at the time?  Yeah, I don’t know.  Double Argghhh.

So now I need another history of Wonder Woman – one that spends less time talking about the entire whackadoodle life of her creator, and more about how this character became one of the iconic big three of the superhero world.

If anyone knows where I can find that book, I am definitely interested.


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