Posted by: diamo22a | December 16, 2014

Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman (11/19/2014)

I’m pretty sure that the most obvious thing about me is my love for superheroes. Five minutes into any given conversation, no matter how unrelated the subject, and I probably either will have already brought up superheroes or will be grimly considering the best way to do so. It’s kind of a problem.

(To everyone who’s had to put up with this, I sincerely apologize. It’ll probably still happen the next time we talk, though.)

Part of why I’m constantly talking about superheroes is my thesis, which I’m writing about Batman (or, as I like to call him, the Absolute Worst). My thesis is probably the thing I’m most excited about in my life; I’m more or less constantly excited, constantly connecting everything I read or see back to, say, Arkham Asylum or Batman: Year One or trying to figure out the best way to spend time talking about Oracle and Batwoman and Red Hood and any number of the much cooler characters in the Bat-mythos.

I’m also constantly trying to find sources. There has not been a lot written on superhero comics. Arkham Asylum, lauded as the best-selling graphic novel of all time, turns up a scant four academic articles in the MLA database (all of which have to be requested through InterLibrary Loan).

So, when I heard about Jill Lepore’s new book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, you can probably understand my excitement. A Pulitzer-nominated Harvard historian writing about probably the greatest superhero of them all? This is literally what my dreams are made of.

(I’m not joking. One time I dreamed I got to talk to Will Brooker, author of Batman Unmasked and known in comics studies as “Dr. Batman,” for about four hours about the Absolute Worst. I am that nerd.)

Anyways: Jill Lepore, Wonder Woman — and she would be speaking at Mount Holyoke. Of course I bought the book, read as much as I could before November 19th, and attended the lecture.

Lepore’s central thesis about Wonder Woman is that she represents a missing link between the early feminist movements of the 1910s and 1920s, and the more modern movements (think Gloria Steinem, the stunning first cover of Ms.), and in my opinion she makes a compelling visual argument grounded in the cartoonist connections between H.G. Peter (the original artist of Wonder Woman and All-Star Comics) and suffragist cartoonist Lou Rogers.

For example, here’s a cartoon Rogers drew:

Lou Rogers' 1912 cartoon: the "Spirit of 1,000,000 Women Voters" is chained by patriarchal rhetoric: "Politics is no place for women!"

Lou Rogers’ 1912 cartoon: the “Spirit of 1,000,000 Women Voters” is chained by patriarchal rhetoric: “Politics is no place for women!”




And here is one of the early H.G. Peter Wonder Woman sketches:

Wonder Woman breaking triumphantly free of the chains of "Prejudice," "Prudery," and "Man's Superiority" (1943-44)

Wonder Woman breaking triumphantly free of the chains of “Prejudice,” “Prudery,” and “Man’s Superiority” (1943-44)

One would think it a coincidence, if an odd one, but Lepore reveals that Peter actually worked alongside Rogers in the 1910s, and was occasionally responsible for filling in for her if she was overbooked. He had to have been familiar with her work, and, one thinks, even decades later he’d have that in mind when designing what Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston (who, oddly enough, also invested early forms of lie detectors), described as “psychological propaganda for the type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.”

Lepore tailored her presentation to Mount Holyoke, since Marston’s wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, was a Mount Holyoke alum and worked closely with him throughout his psychological pursuits. (In fact, Holloway was much more successful than Marston, earning three degrees and supporting their family financially more often than not.) But the main takeaway from Lepore’s talk (and her book, though I still have to finish it & look forward to doing so over break) is Wonder Woman serving as an artistic and, as Marston would say, psychological link between early suffragist movements and modern feminism. To that end, she references the 1972 Ms. cover:

Ms. Magazine, 1972: the first issue

Ms. Magazine, 1972: the first issue

However, I’m far from an expert on Wonder Woman, having unwisely spent most of my DC adventures in Gotham, so here are a few links:

An article by Jill Lepore for the Smithsonian magazine

An interview with Jill Lepore

The Comics Journal‘s review of The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Another review by Wonder Woman scholar Noah Berlatsky

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