Ripped from the headlines? Social justice and election shenanigans in Golden Age Wonder Woman

So, recently I just got through reading the Wonder Woman: The Golden Age books (volume 1 and volume 2 of the tpbs, rather than the much larger, similarly titled omnibus books).

And man, there’s some pretty in turns interesting, funny and weird stuff in there. I won’t go into William Moulton Marston’s, erm, unique philosophy on sex and gender relations, particularly where this concerns his views on bondage, as I think the topic has been beaten to death at other places (including several books published in the past decade, like this one, this one and this one). Still, I can’t not point out that they often had a humorous effect…

*snort*

Furthermore, I won’t dwell on the unfortunate racism and racial stereotypes contained therein. I’ll just note that it’s there, and it’s something that ran through a lot of comics of that era. (I will just add that even though I was expecting to see the racial attitudes of the day reflected in these comics, I was still pretty shocked by the way-too-frequent use of  anti-Japanese ethnic slurs in particular).

But there’s something else I found quite intriguing in some of the stories: the political commentary woven into them, wherein Wonder Woman was one step away from tearing down the capitalist system in America – or at least shaking it up pretty seriously.

The first time this comes to the fore is the lead story in Sensation Comics #7. Wonder Woman learns that America’s children are malnourished due to a milk shortage. When she, in her secret identity as Diana Prince, confronts the CEO of a large monopolistic milk distributer, she finds out that the shortage is artificial, engineered by said corporation so they can maintain their profit margin.

One issue later, in Sensation Comics #8, the theme is underpaid, overworked store clerks (that one really resonates today). And the spotlight is put on quite a few issues here: the unfair treatment of women in the workplace (since most retail clerks are women), the ripple effect low wages and a lack of health care has on society (i.e., leading to crime, suicide, etc.), and, of course, unfair enrichment by the store owners – again, all pretty topical today, isn’t it?

In one of the stories Wonder Woman #4 (unlike Sensation, which just featured WW in a single lead story, her solo title contained all WW stories, usually four, that are usually at least thematically connected), the spotlight is again placed on unscrupulous war-profiteering, this time involving the rubber industry. Part of the story’s plot involves the heads of all America’s major rubber suppliers – one might say rubber barons – getting together to form a cartel and fix prices.

Of course, these are stories written for children in the 1940s, so Wonder Woman finds a way to foil the vile plans of the greedy, dastardly business moguls and sets everything right, and the kids get enough milk, the store clerks get fair wages and the rubber corporations decide not to withhold their manufacturing process from the US government and thus not confound the war effort (the solution to the latter, by the way, involved Wonder Woman teaching the value of submission to female dominance to the cartel heads). Even so, there’s something a bit subversive about just including even these mild critiques of capitalism in power fantasies aimed at children.

And just to cap off this ‘ripped from today’s headlines’ theme, as a postscript I’ll add this story from Wonder Woman #7.

The set-up is a bit complicated: Wonder Woman visits Paradise Island, and while there, Hippolyta shows her a machine they have that can look into the future. They look ahead a thousand years, when the world is at peace, as the ideas of love and female dominance have spread throughout the world, and also everybody is now also immortal (sure, why not?), so Steve Trevor and Etta Candy are still around. However, there is an underclass of disgruntled men who want to bring back the good old days when women knew their place, so – without telling him of their true intentions – they get Steve Trevor to run for US president. During the vote count, when things don’t look good for the men, they take matters into their own hands:

Man, I’ll tell you, I was reading this particular story about a week after this year’s US elections, and I found these panels really unsettling. They gave me the impression that maybe Moulton Marston did have some kind of device to look into the future, but it only went ahead about 80 years and the lens was a bit distorted, so he was actually seeing the fever-dream wish fulfillment of the incumbent and his rabid followers.

By the way, I had most of this text prepared a few weeks ago, but given the way things are going this year with US politics, I decided to wait until after the Electoral College vote before actually publishing it…

If only, Hippolyta, if only…

*  Note: that if you click any Amazon link to a book in the post, and end up buying anything, a (very) little something comes back to us here at the Atomic Junk Shop. Thank you.

 

 

 

 

9 Comments

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Yeah, I’m sort of the same (with a few exceptions, i.e., stuff written by Eisner, Jack Cole and a few others). I read these two books over the course of a few weeks – I’d read two or three stories at a time, and then put it down to read other things and come back to it a few days later. With Marston’s Wonder Woman, though, there’s so much weird, interesting and often ridiculous stuff going on that my brain never shut off.

  1. I’ve read the first two hardback omnibuses and yes, Marston’s work is interesting even without the bondage. Rumors of artificial milk shortages and price hikes had circulated in the real world before this, so it really was ripped from the headlines (though the company working for Baroness von Gunther and the Nazis made the critique a little less pointed, I think).
    Marston’s Dr. Psycho is another example of crystal gazing. He’s channeling incel philosophy before “incel” was a word.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Oh, man, yes: Dr. Psycho is like the avatar or prototype for incels. I know he’s been used a lot since the Golden Age, but I think a good way to use the character now would be to tweak his origin so that he emerges from the cesspool of online incels, gamergaters or whatnot.

      1. Morrison actually did this in Wonder Woman: Earth One (book 2) but for some reason it didn’t really work. I think maybe because Morrison’s Psycho is a little too smooth without the underlying viciousness Marston’s had.
        On the writing of the stories, I wouldn’t be surprised if the women had a hand in it. The list of writers whose wives/partners were uncredited cowriters is not small.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    You have to remember Marston and his wife (and other wife, Olive Byrne) all came from the Ivy League Intellectual Left of the era (Byrne was the niece of Margaret Sanger and the daughter of Ethel Byrne, who were noted Progressive Era activists), part of the Progressive Movement. They had long attacked the robber barons and capitalist interests who were exploiting the working and poorer classes. It as much for these reasons that Wonder Woman was attacked as the sexual allusions.

    I have often wondered how much of the writing on Wonder Woman was Marston and how much might have been Elizabeth (a not psychologist, herself) and/or Olive Byrne. Certainly their influence looms over the work, if not their direct action.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      On the possibility of either Holloway or Byrne were actually writing the WW tales, I was reading something a few years ago (possibly a review of one of those books I linked above?) in which that very topic was discussed, with the suggestion that one of them, very likely Elizabeth Holloway, was in fact actually scripting the stories. It wouldn’t surprise me if that actually had been the case.

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