Some Thoughts on The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Secret Life of WWFor those of us who have worked in the comic book field, the kinky side of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, is old news. We knew about his odd home life with wife Elizabeth Holloway along with his “secretary” Olive Byrne. The mainstream world, though, is just coming to terms with this amazing tale thanks to Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

Marston was the lawyer and psychologist who helped develop the lie detector before he turned to writing Wonder Woman until his death in 1947. How he developed his feminist notions has never been thoroughly explored, not in Les Daniel’s  Wonder Woman the Complete History or my own Wonder Woman. Amazon. Hero. Icon. We focused on the character while Lepore focused on the man which is why her biography is so eye-opening.

I certainly heard the stories handed down about Marston and how Byrne helped him write the stories and even heard a bit about Joye Hummel, a young woman who was among the last people Marston brought into his world to help with the workload. And there was plenty of work to do. At his height, Marston was required to pump out stories for the lead in Sensation Comics and Comics Cavalcade while filling the quarterly Wonder Woman and the daily comic strip. Poor Harry G, Peter, the 60-something artist, was tasked with illustrating each tale.

Little else was really known because the participants so rarely were candid with others about their inter-personal relationships and backgrounds. Thankfully, the 432-page book does a sterling job connecting the dots between the various players which makes the remarkable story even more interesting as we learn about Olive’s mother, Ethel, and her aunt, Margaret Sanger. Sanger, of course, was the fiercely outspoken leader of the Birth Control movement, but her sister’s efforts were obscured, overshadowed, and all but scrubbed from history before now.

Jill LeporeAll the key players in the suffragette movement, from Alice Paul to Louise Bryant, make an appearance and it is utterly fascinating to be able to trace specific meetings, incidents, and books that deeply influenced Marston and made their way into the Wonder Woman stories. Even his checkered academic career, a study in climbing down the ladder of success, makes for story fodder.

Marston loved women and saw them as superior to men, ultimately fated to rule our global society but somehow had a warped view that insisted they had to be bound in order to be free. And here comes all the bondage, spanking, and other kink that made the Golden Age of Wonder Woman so unique. The story content coupled with Peters’ stylized and old-fashioned artwork made the feature unlike anything else published during this time.

Lepore’s scholarly research is remarkable and nearly half the eBook edition is made up of her notes. Where she comes up short is when writing about the comic book world. She has some facts wrong, equates cover dates with calendar dates and other things that could easily have been corrected. But what is lacking, for me, is a better explanation of the working relationship between Marston and Editor Sheldon Mayer, who initially disliked the assignment and then grew warm towards the extended Marston family. Additionally, Lepore makes no notice of Max Gaines selling his portion of All-American and Marston having to deal with the likes of Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donenfeld.

Wonder_Woman_-_Peter-MarstonShe does a better job exploring the stories beyond their kink value. Whereas Jerry Siegel famously took on social issues in the earliest Superman tales then abandoned them for lighter fare, Marston’s stories remained socially powerful taking on unions, corrupt businesses, and bad husbands.

There’s also no real exploration of the contract Marston signed with Gaines in 1941. It merely appears in the footnotes but apparently allows the Marston’s some mechanism to reclaim the character if DC Comics ceases publishing for a specified period of time (one reason the title was frequently reinvented and rebooted between the late 1960s and today). Holloway thought it gave her some rights to succeed her husband as the new writer, but Liebowitz turned the job over the Robert Kanigher. It’d be interesting to better understand this thinking. Was Holloway an annoying presence? An unqualified writer? We’re left wondering.

Holloway and Byrne’s later years are interesting as they remained distanced from Warner and DC, not at trying to capitalize on the character’s television popularity or other expansion opportunities. They merely faded away into retirement and history until now and these fascinating women finally get their due.

The four children they bore and raised together, also reflect a bit on their unconventional lifestyle, barely touching on how Byrne made up a fictitious deceased husband rather than tell her boys that Marston was their daddy. Their expanded views would have also made for a more rounded understanding of how their life choices impacted their nuclear and extended families.

The book is well worth reading and a solid addition to our field’s understanding of its roots.

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