Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Wonder Woman Volume 4 Edited by Robert Kanigher
Wonder Woman was not the first female superhero in comics, nor even the first not to be a male character’s sidekick. But she was the first to get her own ongoing solo series, and designed to be an equal to the male superheroes of the time. Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston specifically to address issues raised by the violence in comic books and the overwhelmingly male superheroes. Dr. Marston, a psychologist and one of the inventors of the polygraph, had some…interesting…ideas about the role of women in society, and the place of sexuality.
This resulted in stories that were themselves psychologically interesting, especially in retrospect, with their themes of bondage and loving submission. After Dr. Marston died in 1947, the new writers, most notably Robert Kanigher, tended to water down the more esoteric elements in favor of fantastic adventure and mythological monsters. Unlike most characters published by what would become DC Comics, Wonder Woman was not created as “work for hire” under the standard contract, but would revert to Dr. Marston (or later, his estate) if DC did not publish her book on a regular basis. Thus she continued to be published throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s when superheroes had gone out of fashion for a while. As such, she became one of DC’s most recognizable characters, even if the management often treated her as an afterthought.
This black and white reprint volume covers 1965-68. At this point, Wonder Woman (as Diana Prince) was a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force Intelligence division, serving under her love interest, Colonel Steve Trevor. Steve is infatuated with Wonder Woman, but dismisses his mousy secretary Diana, little dreaming they are one and the same. Steve is kind of a dolt.
The first story in the volume is a two-parter, pitting Wonder Woman against one of her most dubious villains, the hideously racistly depicted Communist Chinese monstrosity Egg Fu. This giant egg-shaped mad scientist actually manages to kill Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor–thank goodness for Amazon science! They’re then afflicted with a condition that prevents them from touching each other, but still manage to defeat the Red menace.
This is followed by a metafictional story that featured the first of a series of retoolings the Wonder Woman comics would undergo. Robert Kanigher (face unseen) eliminates ninety percent of the supporting cast that had been built up, including such luminaries as Wonder Tot, and announces to a waiting crowd that starting next issue, it’s back to the Golden Age!
Sure enough, the next few issues are set in the 1940s with artists Ross Andru and Mike Esposito imitating the art style of the period. it’s not a very good imitation. Several of the villains who hadn’t been seen since Marston’s death appeared, but stripped of some of their more interesting aspects. For example, Cheetah’s alter ego and insane jealousy of Wonder Woman are dropped, making her just another costumed gang leader.
Dr. Psycho loses his creepy mind control powers and abusive relationship with his wife–this version is a “forever alone” misogynist who hates women for their reactions to his grotesque appearance and small stature. He’s so twisted up inside that even when Wonder Woman shows him genuine compassion, Dr. Psycho is unable to process it as anything other than a feminine trick to hurt him more than ever.
Rather abruptly and without announcement, the series is suddenly taking place in the 1960s again. Despite this, the revised Golden Age villains appear no older than before. The volume cuts off just before the next big retool, in which Wonder Woman loses her powers and becomes martial arts secret agent Diana Prince (aka the “white pantsuit period.”
As you might have guessed, this is not a highly regarded point in Wonder Woman’s history. Robert Kanigher, who had been writing the series for nearly two decades at this point, often seemed like he was phoning it in on the stories. The villains range from mediocre (Mouseman, whose power is that he’s very short, is presented as a serious threat to WW) to offensive (Egg Fu and his brother/clone/replacement Egg Fu the Fifth) and even the classic villains are often stuck with lackluster plots.
Steve Trevor is a horrible love interest; the relationship worked in the Golden Age (to the extent it did) because of Marston’s understanding of the nuances he was trying to convey. The nadir of that in this volume is a story in which Steve gets control of Wonder Woman’s magic lasso, and attempts to force her to marry him. (He eventually decides that impressing her by beating up some crooks was more important than safety and accidentally dropped the rope.) His most endearing trait is that despite several villainesses falling in love with him on sight, Steve remains completely loyal to WW.
Wanting to impress Wonder Woman is a common theme among the men in this volume, Steve, his boss General Darnell, would be superheroes, villains, even space gorillas! A slight variation on the theme has nebbishy Paper Man falling for Diana Prince because she’s the only woman who’s ever been kind to him. (When she nearly blows her secret identity by repeating the same phrasing Wonder Woman used while fighting the villain, he interprets this as WW trying to poison Diana’s mind against him.)
This volume is mostly for completeists. something to slog through because you want to read every Wonder Woman story. Check your library.