Looking back from 2021, the Wonder Family era of Wonder Woman is just an amusing bit of comics trivia, as minor as Marvel’s Golem or the Maniaks. In their day, though, the stories of Wonder Woman fighting evil with her sisters Wonder Tot and Wonder Girl — and of course their mother, Wonder Queen — were much more successful. Starting with the first official Wonder Family story in Wonder Woman #124 they appeared in close to twenty issues before Kanigher fired them (literally) in #158.
The seed that became the Wonder Family began with Wonder Woman #105, “The Secret Origin of Wonder Woman” (according to Brian Cronin, the first reference to someone having a “secret origin”). Teenage Diana, like her mother, is grief-stricken when word comes that the Amazons’ men have all died in battle. Hippolyta proclaims the Amazons will build a stout ship and sail away to an island where they can retreat from the wars of men. Her daughter, blessed at birth with the power of the gods, builds the boat single-handed, then steers it past a whirlpool and a region of fiery seas; on Paradise Island, she saves them a few more times. Her awestruck mom declares Diana is truly a “wonder girl.”
Apparently readers agreed, as Wonder Girl backups became a regular feature; two issues after her debut, she received the cover spot. That story of the “Amazon Teen-Ager” introduced Ronno the Mer-Boy, who filled the Steve Trevor role in WG’s adventures. Constantly trying to get a date with Wonder Girl, constantly getting himself in trouble trying to bring her a pearl from a giant clam or the like, constantly needing rescue. While Wonder Girl obviously dug Ronno, she gave him the brush-off even more than her adult self did Steve. Hippolyta’s magic sphere had shown Diana her future as Wonder Woman and she was resolved to train non-stop to live up to her destiny. No down time for her!
I can’t help wondering if that isn’t part of the reason she stuck around. Teenage girls were common in comics, but mostly as girlfriends, potential girlfriends or boy-chasers. Focusing on her studies rather than her dating life put Wonder Girl in a different category. Just being a teenage girl and a superhero did, too, of course — WG and Supergirl were the only options in 1959.
The next step toward the Wonder Family era came in #117’s “Wonder Girl Meets Wonder Woman.” WG persuades Amazon scientists to create a wristwatch time machine that can send her into the future to team up with her adult self. Trouble is, every time WG materializes at the scene of trouble, Wonder Woman has already fixed the problem and left. Before WG can catch up with her, some other emergency takes places, forcing Wonder Girl to stick around and save people. Finally she gives up, accepting it’s impossible for the two of them to ever meet. As later issues claimed Kanigher received lots of requests for such a team-up, was this his way of explaining why it couldn’t happen? If so, he obviously reconsidered.
In #122, we get a”Wonder Woman family” team-up when the Sinister Seer of Saturn demands WW win three contests to save the Earth (Kanigher was very fond of that sort of story structure). After she wins the first round, the Seer stacks the deck by de-aging her into Wonder Girl, then into a Wonder Tot for the final battle (massive spoiler: she wins!). The following issue Wonder Tot debuts in a segment of her own when Hippolyta shows Wonder Woman home movies of her childhood. This was inconsistent — she arrived on Paradise Island as a teenager but she was also a toddler there? — but Kanigher was never heavy on continuity.
Finally, in #124, we get the first Wonder Family tale, “The Impossible Day.” It opens with Steve and Diana Prince studying a prehistoric cave painting that impossibly shows cavemen fighting dinosaurs — and dinosaurs fighting Wonder Woman, Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot together. Diana flashes back to when she told her mother Wonder Woman readers were sending in thousands of requests for all three Dianas to team up together.
By what amounts to Amazon photoshop Hippolyta gives fans what they want: footage of her daughter at different ages combined to create the Wonder Family. The story has the “sisters” and Mom battle Multiple Man, a nuclear-born monster that takes a new shape every time they destroy him (I haven’t the slightest doubt Kanigher appropriated the idea from the Challengers’ nemesis Multi-Man). Eventually the Wonder Family and Multiple Man wind up back in the caveman era. The villain takes dinosaur form and attacks some cave people before the Amazons defeat him. That explains the cave painting … except if the story was just trick photography, how could it really have happened? Kanigher doesn’t answer (I got nothing).
The three Wonder Sisters reunite in #128, when an Amazon time-spanning communicator allows Wonder Woman to tell both Tot and Girl how she — they — acquired/will acquire their robot plane. We get a full Wonder Family story in #129, the first of several rematches with Multiple Man. While initially the stories’ splash pages emphasized they were “impossible,” #138 presents the tale as a straight story of Wonder Woman’s family. Some subsequent stories mentioned the impossible nature, others did not.
It’s easy to see how Bob Haney could have assumed Wonder Girl really was Wonder Woman’s sister/sidekick and available for the Teen Titans tryout in Brave and the Bold. I’m sure it helped that Wonder Girl was often the star of the stories. Kanigher would take a Wonder Girl plot — will Mer-Boy or his rival Bird-Boy get to be her boyfriend? — but with Wonder Woman and Wonder Tot present to kibbitz her decision. Other stories focused on the family as a whole, battling other dimensional giants or monsters.
The end came with #156, “The Brain Pirate of the Inner World,” in which Kanigher/Andru/Esposito attempted a sort-of Moulton/Peters type story. Apparently sales jumped because Kanigher promptly changed directions and went as Golden Age as he and the Andru/Esposito art team could manage. In #158, Kanigher calls the Wonder Family, Mer-Boy and Bird-Boy into his office and sacks them except for Diana, Steve and Wonder Queen. Those three continue on into the Retro Wonder Woman era which lasted — well it’s hard to figure out, but we were back in the present for at least a few issues before the white pantsuit reboot.
Why did the Wonder Family appear so often? Trina Robbins once said that part of Wonder Woman’s appeal is her world of goddesses, princesses, queens and Amazons, and the Wonder Family stories fit into that mold. Where else in comics back then could someone read about a trio of super-powered Amazon sisters fighting alien invaders alongside their mom? So maybe that was the key. Or maybe Kanigher was just bored writing regular Wonder Woman stories and found writing Wonder Girl, Wonder Family and Wonder Tot yarns more interesting.
Outside of giving unintentional birth to Donna Troy, the Wonder Family has had little effect on comics since. Retro Wonder Woman stories focus on the non-super Mike Sekowsky era that followed, never the Wonder Family (I don’t think that’s a bad choice). But to their credit, there are countless standalone series that didn’t stick around as long as the Wonder Family did.
#SFWApro. Wonder Woman covers by Ross Andru, Titans cover by Nick Cardy.