I recently finished Les Daniels’ Wonder Woman: The Complete History, designed by Chip Kidd. I did enjoy it. The book is definitely tilted towards the earliest WW stories, with lots of info about William Moulton Marston and (to a lesser extent) Harry Peter — which is fine with me. Overall, I could have done with significantly less pictures of WW toys and ephemera, but that sort of thing isn’t nearly as irritating in this context as it was in Kidd’s Charles Schulz book. Schulz retained control over his creation till the end and beyond, and was always careful to keep the licensing schlock separate from the strip. In that context, Kidd’s insistence on mashing the two together came off as deliberate sacrilege. Whereas, like it or not, WW long ago left Marston’s control and became just another piece of corporate detritus. That’s not Kidd’s fault, and while I don’t necessarily need to see the process reverently documented, at this point I can’t work up a lot of bile about it either.
Anyway, as I said, Daniels includes a lot of interesting information about Marston. One of the most entertaining revelations is that Marston was a big, fat, duplicitous, self-promoting snake-oil salesman. I sort of knew this was the case already, but I hadn’t quite grasped the extent of his shillishness.
For example, in an earlier post I discussed Marston’s essay in The American Scholar. In that essay, he argues that WW was more popular than male heroes because boys want to be dominated by a strong woman. In support of his contention, he wrote as follows:
After five months the publishers ran a popularity contest between Wonder Woman and seven rival men heroes with startling results. Wonder Woman proved a forty to one favorite over her nearest male competitor, capturing more than 80 per cent of all the votes cast by thousands of juvenile comics fans….They 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!
This all sounded fairly dubious to me for various reasons (couldn’t it have been female readers who swung the vote?) I somehow hadn’t considered the possibility, though, that the vote had just been rigged. Les Daniels sets me straight by reprinting what appears to be the poll that Marston was referring to.
First, of course, it’s only WW against 5 other heroes, not 7…which could have been an honest enough mistake. The point though, is that this is a survey page which was printed in Sensation Comics…where WW was the star feature. The other heroes featured were the back up stories in the book, I believe. WW is even shown bigger than all the other characters — and she’s drawn twice. Moreover, anyone taking this survey is likely to be a Wonder Woman fan already. Plus, the heroes she’s going up against are all second stringer, or fourth stringers (the Gay Ghost indeed.) Thus, the survey shows us that people who buy Sensation Comics liked WW, which doesn’t seem like much of a news flash.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that WW wasn’t popular with boys; her books sold a lot of copies, and Daniels thinks the majority of that audience was male. But using the survey to suggest that she was categorically more popular than major male heroes is, it seems to me, deliberately deceitful. Moulton’s building his pseudo-scientific theories on premeditated blarney.
Furthermore, from Daniels account at least, this balderdash appears to have been extremely effective. Marston’s professional standing as a psychiatrist, and his sheer willingness to deploy that standing in all sorts of ridiculous way, gave him leverage that it seems like virtually no other comic writer of his day had. Moulton’s editors treated him with kid gloves. He had final say on scripts. He had final say on artistic choices — in fact, he hired Harry Peter himself and paid Peter himself, a situation which I imagine was virtually unprecedented. Marston apparently was very involved in the artwork as well; his scripts supposedly included detailed directions for panel content and layout. I doubt he was quite Alan Moore, but it sounds like he was closer to that model than he was to Stan Lee.
Marston did have various tussles with censors and with editorial. I was first inspired to start blogging about WW when I heard about one of those tussles: Marston’s editors wanted to tone down the series by having him tie WW up with things other than chains. What the account I read didn’t quite say, though, is that Marston won that fight. The editor suggested less chains, Marston said no way, and so the chains stayed.
And this seems to have been repeated whenever there was a battle over content. For instance, Josette Frank of the Child Study Association was employed to make sure that the comics weren’t too…well, just too. She pointed out, quite logically, that Wonder Woman “does lay you open to considerable criticism…partly on the basis of the woman’s costumes (or lack of it) and partly on the basis of sadistic bits showing women chained, tortured, etc.” Marston responded by calling Frank “an avowed enemy of the Wonder Woman strip” and by claiming that the strip was not sadistic because “binding and chaining are the one harmless, painless way of subjecting the heroine to menace and making drama of it.” He went on:
confinement to WW and the Amazons is just a sporting game, an actual enjoyment of being subdued. This, my dear friend, is the one truly great contribution of my Wonder Woman strip to moral education of the young. The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound….Women are exciting for this one reason — it is the secret of women’s allure — women enjoy submission, being bound…because all this is a universal truth, a fundamentla subconscious feeling of normal humans, the children love it….I have devoted my entire life to working out psychological principles…[and should have] free rein on fundamentals.
And free rein is what he got. The combination of professional credentials, high sales, and a very friendly relationship with his editor meant that Frank (in a decidedly unfeminist outcome) was essentially dismissed as a repressed harridan who was seeing evil where there was none.
I’ve compared Marston to artists like Henry Darger and R. Crumb in the past; creators who elaborated their fetishes into individual visions. Reading Daniels, it becomes clear that, in many ways, Marston was a lot closer to artists like Darger and Crumb than he was to the hired hands who surrounded him in the comics industry. Not because he had more genius (though I think in most cases he did), but rather because he was really in control of his creation in a way that most of his peers probably didn’t even bother to dream about. Marston did get script ideas and input from others (especially family members), but he — not an editor, not a censor board — had the last word on what went into his comics. In fact, when (I think) Gardner Fox wrote a solo WW story for Justic Society, Marston rejected it and rewrote it himself.
As this suggests, Marston was devoted to his character. In 1945, he contracted polio and was confined to a wheelchair. He did take an assistant, Joyce Murchison, who became a co-writer on the title…but Marston continued to write, to plot, to approve art, and to maintain control of the series. in 1947 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. But he just kept on. According to his wife he “wrote a script the week before he died. Two days before the end he was editing pencils, in writing so faint we could scarcely read it, but catching errors we had passed up.”
In short, Marston had a level of control over Wonder Woman, and a level of devotion to her, that none of his successors on the title could hope to match. Robert Kannigher, as editor and writer on the title for years, certainly had great control over the character — but he didn’t hire the artists out of his own pocket, and he couldn’t prevent her from being used by other creators on other titles, the way Marston could. George Perez obviously had a lot of affection for the character, but he certainly wasn’t going to work on her on his death bed; on the contrary he quit of his own volition to work on more popular titles elsewhere.
Marston was impassioned. He wasn’t a corporate drone doing a 9 to 5; this was his dream, which he controlled, and to which he was willing to devote the last days of his life. Everybody else who has worked on Wonder Woman, on the other hand, has been doing work-for-hire, subject to a string of corporate whims, in the full knowledge that at some point they’ll get a better offer (more money, more creative freedom) and they’ll jump ship.
Work-for-hire isn’t necessarily everywhere and always worse than creator-controlled work, of course. Still, looking at Marston’s WW and comparing him to others’ work , it’s hard not to agree with Marston’s editor, Sheldon Mayer. When it came to writing Wonder Woman, Mayer said, “there was just one right guy, and he had the nerve to die. And he shouldn’t have done it. “
This post is part of a series discussing Wonder Woman, Marston, and other WW creative teams. You can read the rest of the series here.