As long as I’ve been blogging my way through the William Moulton Marston/Harry Peter original run on Wonder Woman, I thought I’d see if I could unearth some of Marston’s other writing as well. Thanks to my trusty University library, I managed to unearth what’s probably his best known essay: “Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics,” published in 1944 in the American Scholar, the magazine of Phi Beta Kappa.
As you’d expect from Marston, the essay is somewhat bizarre: a mix of unabashed hucksterism, earnest utopianism, insightful criticism, and what I can only assume was calculated subterfuge. He starts out by claiming that 70 million people read comics every month; a number he gets by taking 18 million (the number of comics magazines sold each month) and multiplying by 4 or 5, since that’s the number of readers who look at every magazine according to “competent surveys.” Then he adds in the figures for the number of kids who read comics…40, 600,000, according to other competent surveys, I guess. Loosely adding all those numbers together gives him something like the 100 million readers of the title — though since he gives no citations for any of his figures, I’m forced to assume that he may well just be pulling them out of his ass.
Be that as it may, Marston goes on to defend comics from their detractors. He does this, not on artistic grounds, but on the basis of popularity and what I think can be technically described as “pseudopsychological nonsense.”. “Eight or nine people out of ten get more emotional ‘kick’ out of seeing a beautiful girl on the stage, the screen, or the picture-magazine page displaying her charms in person, or via camera or artist’s pen, then they drive from verbal substitutes describing her compelling charms. It’s too bad for us ‘literary’ enthusiasts, but it’s the truth nevertheless — pictures tell any story more effectively than any words.” You have to admire the way he slips almost accidentally into the sex element…and then disavows his own interest almost instantly. Who me? I’m a literary enthusiast. You think I write picture stories about scantily clad women in bondage because I like that sort of thing? No, no. In my free time, I get all my kicks from E.B. White.
Anyway, Marston goes on to give a brief history of “picture stories,” starting with the ancients — he was the Scott McCloud of his day, I guess. He bolsters his theories here by gratuitously name-dropping an article by Mr. M. C. Gaines, Marston’s publisher on WW, and presumably a man not immune to flattery.
Marston’s historical arguments may be shaky, but his analysis of his contemporaries is quite astute:
The third comics period began definitely in 1938 with the advent of Superman and constitutes a radical departure from all previously accepted standards of story telling and drama. Comics continuities of the present period are not meant to be humorous, nor are they primarily concerned with dramatic adventure. Their emotional appeal is wish fulfillment. There is no drama in the ordinary sense, because Superman is invincible, invulnerable. he can leap over skyscrapers, fly through the air and catch air-planes, toss battleships around, or repel bullets with his bare skin. Superman never risks danger; he is always, and by definition superior to all menace.
Superman and his innumerable followers satisfy the universal human longing to be stronger than aall opposing obstacles and the equally universal desire to see good overcome evil, to see wrongs righted, underdogs nip the pants of their oppressors, and, withal to experience vicariously the supreme gratification of the deus ex machina who accomplishes these monthly miracles of right triumphing over not-so-mighty might….”
In short, Marston sees Superman as a Mary Sue; a character that gratuitously and obviously fulfills the desires of the young reader. But where Mary Sues these days are generally seen as immature aesthetic disasters, Marston sees in them an opportunity for, as he says, “moral educational benefits.” Marston argues that:
What life-desires to you wish to stimulate in your child? Do you want him (or her) to cultivate weakling’s aims, sissified attitudes. Your youngster may not inherit the muscles to do 100 yards in nine seconds flat, or make the full-back position on an All-American football team. But if not, all the more reason why he should cultivate the wish for power along constructive lines within the scope of his native abilities. The wish to be super-strong is a healthy wish, a vital, compelling, power-producing desire. the more the Superman-Wonder Woman picture stories build up this inner compulsion by stimulating the child’s natural longing to battle and overcome obstacles, particularly evil ones, the better chance your child has for self-advancement in the world.
Marston adds that kids don’t believe that good will triumph over evil, nor that God will make everything all right in the end…but they do understand a hero pounding a bad guy to pulp. Thus, heroes can teach morality — “The Superman-Wonder Woman school of picture-story telling emphatically insists upon heroism in the altruistic pattern. Superman never kills; Wonder Woman saves her worst enemies and reforms their characters.”
Marston admits that comics do have some faults…though none that he can’t fix:
It seemed to me, from a psychological angle, that the comics’ worst offense was their blood-curdling masculinity. A male hero, at best, lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness which are as essential to a normal child as the breath of life. Suppose your child’s ideal becomes a superman who uses his extraordinary powers to help the weak. The most important ingredient in the human happiness recipe still is missing — love. It’s smart to be strong. It’s big to be generous. But it’s sissified, according to exclusively masculine rules, to be tender, loving, affectionate, and alluring. “Aw, that’s girl stuff!” snorts our youn gcomics reader. “Who wants to be a girl? And that’s the point; not even girls want to girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power. Not wanting to be girls they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peaceloving, as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weak ones. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of a Superman plu all the allure of a good and beautiful woman. This is what I recommended to the comics publisher.
My suggestion was met by a storm of mingled protests and guffaws. Didn’t I know that girl heroines had been tried in pulps and comics and, without exception, found failures? Yes, I pointed out, but they weren’t superwomenthey weren’t superior to men in strength as well as in feminine attraction and love-inspiring qualities. Well, asserted my masculine authorities, if a woman hero were stronger than a man, she would be even less appealing. Boys wouldn’t stand for that; they’d resent the strong gal’s superiority. No, I maintained, men actually submit to women now, they do it on the sly with a sheepish grin because theyr’e ashamed of being ruled by weaklings. Give them an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to and they’ll be proud to become her willing slaves!
Marston goes on to assert that Wonder Woman won a popularity contest over “seven rival men heroes,” a success he attributes not to the writing or drawing but rather to Wonder Woman herself, or rather to “the wonder which is really woman’s when she adds masculine strength to feminine tenderness and allure. The kids who rated Wonder Woman tops in an otherwise masculine galaxy of picture story stars…were saying by their votes, “We love a girl who is stronger than men, who uses her strength to help others and who allures us with the love appeal of a true woman!”
So there’s the latest formula in comics — super-strength, altruism, and feminine love allure, combined in a single character.”
There are several interesting things in all that, I think. First, Marston seems to view Wonder Woman as almost exclusively for boys. Wonder Woman was designed to help boys by legitimizing their desire to submit; Wonder Woman was voted tops because boys love to see a strong woman with, ahem, feminine allure and “love appeal.” It’s an odd argument for a couple of reasons. First, it seems really needlessly obtuse; after all, if Wonder Woman beat seven male heroes, might the reason not have been that the seven male heroes simply split the guy vote, while girls (with no one else to choose) voted overwhelmingly for the female hero? And second…it’s very hard to believe that Marston was in fact, this obtuse. The Wonder Woman stories are just not, by any stretch of the imagination, addressed exclusively to boys. They’re filled with exhortations to girls to be strong, to trust in themselves, to trust in their femininity, and to take control of men. In addition, they make extensive and quite clever use of traditionally female genres, especially fantasy adventure.
In short, Marston definitely wrote for girls as well as for boys — it’s part of the reason so many girls, from Gloria Steinem to Judy Collins, have testified to enjoying his work. So…why not say as much? That seems the more natural argument after all — emphasize that Wonder Woman is a role model for girls, and maybe stay away from the masochistic talk about how boys like to be slaves. Perhaps he just couldn’t help himself, I guess…or maybe he thought that to the American Scholar’s middle-brow readers, his feminism would actually be less acceptable than his (muted) fetish? In any case, I’m certainly curious to know if he ever talked about a female audience for his comic, or about what he hoped to teach girls. I do finally have that Les Daniels book, so perhaps there will be some hints in there….
One last thing: I was caught off guard by the use of “sissified.” Most of the other language here (“allure”" for instance) is familiar enough from the Wonder Woman comic. But I don’t remember ever seeing him call anyone a “sissy.” It’s a weird word for him to use, inasmuch as he seems to really like it when men are sissies — like the llittle girlie men in Wonder Woman #8 for example. Again, hopefully I’ll find some more of his prose and see if I can’t figure out more clearly what he thinks he’s doing, exactly. I mean, I guess my question is, does he really worry about men being sissies? Or is it more than he knows that men worry about being sissies, and they need to find an excuse not to do that? It sort of sounds like he believes the second; that women need to be strong so that men will no longer worry about being weak when they are loving. But then, are men not weak when they submit to a strong woman? Or is the whole appeal that they are weak?
Ah well. Who cares when the essay has…two Harry Peter drawings!
It’s fun to see them in black and white, actually. The first of them makes the explicit feminist statement that Marston was leery of:
The second is pretty hysterical:
The black and white makes this look more cartoony and less children’s-booky than the comics themselves. You can perhaps see Peter’s versatility even more clearly though. WW is stiff and iconic; elegant and posed. The editor, though, is an animated caricature, rushing up from behind the desk with motion lines and smoke out of his phallic pipe; limbs bents, clothes ruffled.
I just checked the Daniels book; it’s not going to tell me who did the coloring for the series I don’t think. Instead we’ve got lots of pictures of — Wonder Woman dolls! Fucking Chip Kidd….