Bullets, Bracelets & Candy – More of 1940’s Wonder Woman

The Wonder Woman Chronicles Vol. One contd.

Last time I pretty much just reviewed the first Wonder Woman comic, rather than the many stories that make up this collection and constitute most of the first year of Wonder Woman. In her second appearance in Sensation Comics, she successfully returns Steve Trevor to ‘man’s world’ in her invisible plane (which is never explained, though a later reference implies that every freaking Amazon has her own invisible plane – what the hell kind of island is it? Why do they need a fleet of invisible planes? They never go anywhere!

Once there, Diana’s weird instant obsession with Steve leads her to impersonate a nurse (she takes pains to explain to the audience that she is totally a trained nurse back home so it’s OKAY) and indeed to buy the identity of a nurse at the hospital who happens to look just like her and is also called Diana – Diana Prince! This floored me, as it’s an extremely dodgy piece of plotting, though kudos for trying to at least address the issue of how Diana could work for the US military without papers. Extra kudos also that the writer brough back the original Diana Prince before the year was out, showing ramifications for illicitly purchasing someone else’s identity. Ish.

Diana quickly gets herself transferred to military service as a secretary, once more obsessively following Steve Trevor, and is amusingly irritated not to get the job as his personal secretary, being as he already has one. She has to settle for being the secretary to his boss Colonel Darnell, and enters into an ongoing bitch-fight with Steve’s actual secretary Lila, often trying to actively poach her job from her. I really liked the treatment of Lila, who is set up as totally an ‘oh noes that wench is thwarting Diana and maybe she’s really an enemy spy’ kind of Girl Rival, but ultimately is just a not-entirely-friendly young woman trying to do her job. Diana, quite frankly, deserves to be thwarted a bit in her mad pursuit of Steve Trevor.

I very much liked the storyline in which Diana suspects Lila of being an enemy agent, and is proved wrong – and indeed that the real spy, a young girl who had been forced into the situation, is given a chance to redeem herself. This seems to be an ongoing theme of Wonder Woman not only catching “bad guys” (or rather, gals) but also understanding motivations for bad behaviour and often attempting to help them out of dire situations.

It’s also kind of awesome that there are so many female characters – and so many different kinds of women – front and center in this first year of comics. The main ongoing villainess, Baroness Paula, is appealing and appalling in equal measures, and serves quite well as a nemesis. There is commentary on the different roles of women at the time – from military servicewomen to housewives, and of course there is the occasional return to Themyscira and the Amazons. With their kangas.

One of the most important things I have learned about Wonder Woman’s heritage from these comics is that the Amazons ride giant steeds called ‘kangas’ as their rodeo steeds, that appear to be giant kangaroos. Yes, really. Once you’ve seen that on a cover image you really don’t forget it in a hurry.

Then there’s Etta Candy, Diana and Wonder Woman’s best friend and fabulous sidekick. I wasn’t sure what to think of Etta at first. She seemed like an alarming fat joke who had bounced her way out of an Archie Comic or something. But once I got used to her, and read up a bit on her history, I grew rather fond.

Etta appears seemingly out of nowhere – she met Diana off camera during the very brief ‘nurse’ period – and is interchangeably pally with both Diana and Wonder Woman. She is large, proud and unapologetic, which is rather enjoyable once you get past the ‘woo woo!’ catch phrase and the fact that she is constantly eating candy, even during action scenes. Mostly because – she gets action scenes! Etta hails from Holliday College (embarrassingly I read this as ‘holiday college’ for the whole collection and kept wondering what that was supposed to mean and how it was different from ‘real college’) and she and her sorority sisters always turn up when Diana or her alter ego need assistance from a mob. Etta battles at Wonder Woman’s side, sends and receives “telegraphic radio messages” and is basically funny and brave throughout the adventures, proving to be far more than the comic relief character she seems to be.

Apparently later versions of Etta Candy were far more self-doubting and wracked with insecurities about her weight and so on, and the fun-loving sorority girl was replaced by a military officer who wished she could lose the pounds (though scored Steve Trevor for herself in a reboot that thankfully erased he and Diana’s appallingly artificial love story – not that he’s much of a prize!). It’s interesting that Etta could only be unapologetic about her fatness in these early years and that for the most part, it’s not seen as something that makes her unattractive to men or lesser as a person. There is one awkward scene in which Diana thinsplains to her friend about how “hoarding during war is unpatriotic – even fat!” and urges her to lose weight so men will enjoy looking at her more. Etta is unconvinced, but eventually loses 10 pounds, decides she doesn’t like it, and takes back her candy. While her portrayal is problematic in some ways, it’s so rare to see a fat person in comics at all, and I love that she is allowed to be heroic and attractive to the opposite sex, and to enjoy her figure without agonising about it. In this decade, anyway!

I haven’t mentioned Steve this time around, mostly because Narelle informed me that a reboot got rid of the Steve Trevor problem later on by making he and Diana simply not fall in love. Anything would be better than the constant refrain of “Oh don’t give me the credit, Colonel, it was all my wonderful angel, Wonder Woman” as he takes on promotions and other rewards, and treats secretary Diana like dirt. Boring.

Diana’s lasso is introduced relatively late in the piece, six months after the introduction of her character. I liked the story which shows her mother fashioning the lasso from the famous girdle once stolen by Hercules, and also the hints at what Diana has left behind – her friends, her culture, her favourite kanga. Within a month, though, the first proper “Wonder Woman” title had been released, and her backstory had been rewritten for the first time. In this version, the lasso was gifted to her right at the beginning, with her costume.

There’s one element that is common to most of Wonder Woman’s stories – bondage. I’d heard a rumour that in fact this was a deliberate element introduced into her storylines, and formed a part of her initial character, and searching on the internet I found this article which seems to confirm that. William Moulton Marston, the writer and creator of Wonder Woman, was a clinical and consulting psychologist who had some rather odd ideas about matriarchy and feminism, and introduced a strong dynamic into Wonder Woman that suggested women were more caring and gentle than men, and ultimately could conquer them through sexual submission. Or something. He also liked it when Wonder Woman was chained up.

Rather disturbingly, Wonder Woman herself also seems to enjoy anything to do with chains – they bring out a gleeful delight in her, mostly because she believes it’s great fun to break them. Indeed her early adventures as a costumed superhero – something which seems to happen mostly by accident – come about because of her sense of silly fun. She also enjoys it when people shoot at her, because she is the champion at the game “bullets and bracelets” back home, and it’s fun to practice. One story reasonably early on shows the danger of Diana’s casual attitude to lesser people trying to do violence to her – she allows a villain to attach chains to her actual bracelets, thinking she will easily free herself, only to remember that in fact doing so robs her of her powers!

This is something which I think is changed in later comics – in the early stories, Diana’s great powers are conferred through her bracelets and other toys, not through any innate superpowers, though she is very highly trained as proved by her regularly beating all the other Amazons at their reindeer games. Having said that, by the time of the first official Wonder Woman comic, there are suggestions that she had unnatural strength since childhood.

Overally I really enjoyed reading these early comics – it’s very cool to see where the character comes from, and to get a sense of the history. There is a genuineness to the stories that allows me to bite my tongue about a lot of the problematic elements therein and I found the 1940’s genderwince a lot less painful than the 1960’s genderwince. The design of the old comics is lovely, particularly Diana herself with her strong body, reasonably modest costume (ruffled shorts! Later smoothed out, but still so much more dignified than the scanty swimsuit she wears these days) and frankly awesome hair. I also really enjoy the design of the prim and proper “Diana” and some of my favourite stories were those when she uses this identity to fight crime. The wartime storylines were the elements of most interest to me, as a form of social history – the story about the price fixing of milk and the effect of that on the country’s children was a lot more intense and interesting than all the spy stuff, to me! I also liked that characters made regular reappearances, giving a sense of a real continuous world.

Apparently Marston wrote WW until his death, only 5 years after he created her – but he left a coda in his will allowing DC to have ownership of the character for as long as they were publishing her comic. As soon as they stopped, ownership would revert to his estate. And that, quite simply, is the reason why Wonder Woman is one of the longest running comics in history!