The man behind Wonder Woman
Non-fiction: The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore.
Helen Brown, a devotee of Wonder Woman since childhood, learns the truth about her superhero.
On the afternoon of my eighth birthday, I sat alone in the garage, scrubbing a yellow crayon into a length of string. The Wonder Woman costume I'd received had come without the Lasso of Truth. Didn't the manufacturers realise the golden rope I watched Lynda Carter swing in reruns of the 1970s TV series was an essential part of her identity as a superhero? Those caught within its coils fell instantly under Wonder Woman's control and were forced to answer all her questions truthfully.
Like the children who thrilled to Wonder Woman's first adventures in 1941, I had no idea that the man who created her believed this was a "superpower" he actually possessed. For William Moulton Marston, who wrote his comics under the name Charles Moulton, was the self-styled "father of the polygraph". He was a big, bespectacled Clark Kent of an academic who devoted much of his professional life to the emerging science of lie-detection, while weaving a complex web of deceit around his unconventional domestic arrangement with his three "wives" and their children.
While the stated aim of Jill Lepore's book is to cast Wonder Woman as the "missing link" between early American feminism and its 1970s resurgence, the Harvard historian is more compelling in her presentation of the Marstons as a family carrying a torch for big feminist ideals while struggling to contend with household gender politics.
Marston's origins read like pure pulp fiction. His grandfather built a medieval castle just north of Boston, and Lepore invites us to picture Marston's mother and her four sisters gliding over the parquet in "wasp-waisted lacy gowns".
Born in 1893, William was the first grandchild: doted on by his mother and four aunts. He grew tall, "devilishly handsome" and was academically gifted. In his early teens, he fell for the "stern and stoic and tight-lipped" Sadie Holloway, a tomboy who beat up the boys on her street when they bullied her younger brother.
Holloway fought family prejudice and raised money for her education at a woman's college (eventually earning herself three degrees) while Marston headed for men-only Harvard where the issue of women's suffrage was dividing students. Barred from speaking at the university, Emmeline Pankhurst gave a lecture at a local dance hall.
Lepore has great photographs and cartoons to demonstrate how patriarchal attempts to gag suffragettes were almost always own goals in the propaganda war, easily converted into powerful imagery of women bound and chained with wide straps across their mouths.
Marston - who drew Wonder Woman's backstory from the early feminist utopian fiction he encountered at Harvard - would later come under fire for the many scenes of female bondage that appeared in his strips. He certainly fetished feminism, but also shackled his heroine so we could delight in the moments when she broke free. There is a great scene in which she is chained to a kitchen and strikes a mighty blow for the sisterhood by leaving the saucepans behind her. Yet the psychology he began studying under the Harvard professor who would become the model for Wonder Woman's arch-enemy, Dr Psycho, led him to a theory that all women got a thrill from "captivation".
His attempts to study the phenomenon further would see him booted out of academia.
Lepore reveals Marston as a curious blend of idealist and huckster. His book Emotions of Normal People (1928) was admirably forward-thinking in defending homosexuality, transvestism and sadomasochism as normal. But getting his mistress Olive Byrne to give it a rave review in a psychology journal was deeply unethical. The trials of his lie-detector test involved as much spin as science, and as he grew older he racked up failed careers in academia, law, advertising, business, screen and fiction writing.
By the 1930s he was out of work. But Holloway, who he married in 1915, worked as an editor and lecturer to support him, her two children, Marston's first mistress Marjorie Huntley, second mistress Olive Byrne, and Byrne's two children by Marston.
Byrne was the niece of the birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Her own mother, Edith Sanger, was a more radical campaigner for the same cause who became the first woman to be force fed in an American jail.
Nicknamed "Docile" by Marston, Byrne quit her studies to raise all the children. Marston drank and smoked in his upstairs office until his children's comics gave him the idea for a character who could serve as "propaganda" for the kind of woman he believed should be running the world. It didn't occur to him to ask a female artist to draw her. Harry G Peter based her looks on pin-ups, with nods to Marston's "wives". Byrne wore two wide gold bracelets to represent her "love binding" to Marston. Wonder Woman's gold cuffs were indestructible.
His wife Holloway and mistress Byrne named their children after each other and, after Marston died in his early fifties from cancer, lived together until they died - long after Marston's death, just six years after creating Wonder Woman. Were they lovers? Lepore doesn't say.
If 1940s readers would be shocked by Marston's ménage, modern readers will be more depressed by what happened to Wonder Woman when Marston lost control of her. When she was inducted into the superheroes' Justice Society, they made her the secretary. After Marston died, DC Comics refused to let Holloway take over writing the stories, handing the job to another man.
Lepore doesn't really make the case for Wonder Woman carrying the torch for women's rights between the 1940s and 1970s, though feminists such as Gloria Steinem, who reclaimed the superhero for the movement in 1972, were the right age to have been influenced as children.
Later in the decade, Lynda Carter would feel uncomfortable by the reaction to her television role.
"I never meant to be a sexual object for anyone but my husband," she said. "I hate men thinking what they think. And I know what they think. They write and tell me." She also felt economically exploited by the way Hollywood profited from dolls made in her image without cutting her in beyond the first run. The doll sold by DC today is still based on Carter.
Marston would have been dismayed. He wrote in 1928: "Love is a giving, and not a taking; a feeding, and not an eating; an altruistic alliance with the loved one, and not a selfish conflict with a 'sex object'."
Scribe, hdbk, 432pp, £20
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