I’ve read all manner of stuff in comics over the fifty years that I’ve been involved with the things, weird, incomprehensible, brilliant, dull, inspired and just plain awful, but I don’t think I have ever read anything so head-scratchingly, bewilderingly bizarre as Robert Kanigher’s Wonder Woman.
For the last decade or so, DC’s Showcase series has been a cheap and easy way to read long runs of old series, mostly but not exclusively from the Sixties. The volumes provide you with a good long read: Wonder Woman Volume 4 reprints 21 issues from 1965 to 1968, nos. 157 – 177, mostly written by Kanigher and drawn by regulars Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. To make them cheap enough to be attractive, the stories are reprinted in black and white, which is a drawback, but in this instance, nothing that has any bearing on the contents.
I first read this volume several months ago, in utter disbelief, but having just run two Wonder Woman blogposts very shortly before, I decided against doing a post on it at that time. The time has come to read it again – it is equally incredible-in-not-a-good-way – and bite the critical bullet.
Kanigher had been writing Wonder Woman since the late Forties, succeeding creator William Moulton Marston after the latter’s death. His work on the series was already legendary, in the sense of notorious, for its slapdash, wing-it approach, in which incident would follow incident with a complete lack of logic, as if Kanigher did not know, when he typed one page, what the next would contain. And there was the accidental creation of such characters as Wonder Tot and Wonder Girl, who were supposed to be Wonder Woman at different stages of her earlier life but who, instead, started appearing alongside her.
It’s not hard to imagine the comic being the perennially low seller it has always been rumoured to be. Indeed, though I’ve never seen this officially confirmed, it’s long been common knowledge that Marston’s original deal with All-American comics included a clause by which ownership of Wonder Woman would revert to the Marston family if a Wonder Woman comic was not published for a certain length of time, and it was widely believed that the series continued because DC had too much income in licensing deals tied up in the character to afford to lose her, no matter how badly the series sold.
Assuming this to be true, it seems equally clear that as a consequence, nobody gave a damn what Kanigher did with the character. Certainly Kanigher didn’t.
Volume 4 covers the end of one differing phase of the series and all of the rest, although the difference is purely superficial. This is not immediately apparent from the meat of issues 157-8, but a back-up story in the latter, a mind-boggling piece of metafiction that takes what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would do by inserting themselves into stories and beats it, whimpering in fear, to the ground.
But we cannot ignore that two-part story, for many reasons. This is the (in) famous tale that introduces that most incredible of Sixties villains, the Chinese Communist Oriental mastermind, called Egg Fu.
No, let’s just stop right there. Egg Fu. Before we go even the slightest bit further, let us reflect that here is a character whose very name, even in 1965 amidst the Cold War, embodies a hideously embarrassingly, mind-numbing racism.
Egg Fu. Oh God. And who, or more properly what is Egg Fu? Dear reader, I am afraid there is no way of softening the blow in advance, he is an Egg. A gigantic egg, with yellow skin. He has a painted on face consisting of giant bushy eyebrows, eyes slanting inwards at a 45% angle, a gigantic mouth filled with absolutely non-stereotypical buck teeth, and curling moustachios. Oh, and he has the usual oriental incapability to pronounce the letter R, unress it is funny. A word is already stirring in my head.
The actual story-line begins with Wonder Woman’s boyfriend, Col. Steve Trevor of US Army Intelligence, being asked to volunteer for a mission that has already claimed the lives of eleven pilots, a mission he embraces with an impressive gung-ho loyalty. However, it being probable to the point of certainty that he too will be killed, Steve is given an hour to make peace with his fate, settle his affairs and say farewell to his loved ones, without of course giving away the slightest clue that he’s not coming back.
Steve being Steve, his only thought is to snog Wonder Woman one more time.
Now Wonder Woman, in this era, is close at hand, playing Lieutenant Diana Prince, also of US Army Intelligence, though Diana is only a glorified typist. Naturally, her Amazonian hearing has already alerted her to her beloved Steve’s suicide mission, and only her Amazonian Code is keeping her from the profuse weeping that she automatically breaks out in any time she is threatened with being separated from her handsome boyfriend by more than ten feet.
It should be acknowledged that in Wonder Woman we have an inverted Lois Lane situation: Wonder Woman loves Steve Trevor as both Wonder Woman and Diana Prince but Steve has only eyes for her as Wonder Woman, to such an extent that his only topic of conversation with Lieutenant Prince is his endless extolling of the virtues and beauty of Wonder Woman.
We are about to see a hideously perverse demonstration of this, a gesture of emotional contempt and self-absorption worthy of a monograph in itself. Steve, having arrived in Diana’s office too quickly for her to turn into Wonder Woman, accepts with comparative ease the fact he’s not going to see his Angel for a last time. So, in flagrant disregard for the secret aspect of his orders, he asks Diana if she’ll spend that hour with him, walking on the beach, talking, even snogging at one point – but solely on the basis that at every moment (even during the kissing), Steve will be pretending Diana is Wonder Woman because he can’t get hold of Wonder Woman, and what woman in her heart would deny him that last pleasure?
We’re only up to page 3 and I am reeling in shock that this very notion is not being greeted by, at minimum, a jolt to the testicles from an elephants knee.
But Diana being Diana, as well as Wonder Woman (and the absolute worst of love-struck simps in both guises), it’s the least she can do. And what if their beach idyll is interrupted by the arrival of Chinese Communist Saboteurs coming ashore and trying to shoot them both? Colonel Steve will save the day!
Pity that he can’t see that Lt. Prince has tears pouring out of her eyes in every frame
Once it comes to the mission, Steve is naturally a winner. The fiendish Egg Fu has created automatic defences that detect the vibrations of aerial photography and blow up anything that tries to use it, but Steve’s already bailed out and is taking pictures on the way down with a camera. Just in case he’s tried something sneaky like that, Egg Fu has him bombarded with X-rays, but these are special X-rays. Instead of wiping out photographs, they lift people fifty feet in the air and fill them with explosive energy that turns them into weapons to be flung against US Navy battle fleets of the kind Wonder Woman is fighting to save, in accordance with her Amazon code, whilst all the time leaking tears left, right and centre over poor Steve. Who, incidentally, as a consequence of said Amazon code, she’s compelled not to even smooch, let alone give him a (sanctified-by-marriage) Amazonian shag.
As it happens, Wonder Woman’s compulsion to touch Steve gets her – and him – destroyed, absolutely blown to atoms, by book end, but here comes Hyppolyta (aka Wonder Queen) with the marvellous ASR machine, which the Amazons have invented to restore mountains destroyed by earthquakes and volcanoes. Wouldn’t you just know it, it does work on humans, but whoops, now Wonder Woman has the same explosive content as poor Stevie, and every time the two hapless lovers so much as touch fingers, they are blown about in painful explosions.
However, the love between this pair is so strong and demanding that, despite the risk of concussion if they so much as brush against each other, they keep attempting to do so every two to three pages, because they are so much a pair of lovestruck idiots that they apparently forget, from what explosive contact to the next, just what happens if they try to cop a quick feel.
The solution to this conundrum is exactly as you’d expect from the story so far. Though Egg Fu is an egg, whose features are painted on, suddenly his moustachios move independently, and capture Wonder Woman and Steve in a trap. In order to get rid of them, he hurls them into space, only for them to make contact with one of a number of anti-matter particles falling on the Earth. But these are special anti-matter particles that do not destroy everything instantly upon coming into contact with positive matter, but instead wipe out atomic explosive particles forced into the body of people, freeing them up to touch without blowing each other seventeen ways to sideways.
Thus freed, Wonder Woman drops her lasso of truth, which forces people bound by it to do her bidding, around Egg Fu and orders him to stop his villainy. But Egg Fu lesists so fuliously that, well, he cracks. I mean, he’s an egg, remember!
You’d think that’d be enough for two issues, but Kanigher follows this up with an eight page back-up story announcing the new phase of the series starting next issue, which is either a brilliantly self-mocking piece of premature metafiction, or a piece of shite. You pays your money…
Murder is about to be committed, and Wonder Woman can’t stay. She flies off in her robot plane, like a true coward (I mean, heroine) whilst teenage protesters gather with placards outside a “certain comics company”, protesting against a “certain editor”, who is “killing” Wonder Woman. Much play is made of how said “Editor” is an untrustworthy psychopath, because he reportedly wears a yellow bow-tie (wait, it’s not… Barry Allen, is it?).
Meanwhile, the entire supporting cast cowers in the editor’s office, awaiting their fate. This means: Steve Trevor, Wonder Queen, Wonder Girl, Wonder Tot, Manno and Mer-Boy, Birdman and Bird-Boy and the Glop. Beads of desperate sweat pearl their collective foreheads.
The fleeing Wonder Woman defeats her very old foe the Duke of Deception, out to destroy Paradise Island as a parting gesture before Mr Bowtie murders him, the Amazons cower in subdued, panicky groups, and even Angle Man (who is equally quickly defeated) is in mortal fear.
Because next issue, Kanigher is taking the series Golden Age. Wonder Woman will henceforth retell all the original Golden Ages stories, starting from that secret origin, with artist regulars Andru and Esposito now having to draw with old Harry G Peters’ stiffness, and the entire supporting cast is killed – by having their photos flung into a desk drawer. Only Wonder Woman herself, Queen Hyppolyta (undergoing an abrupt makeover back from blonde to brunette) and super-cutie Steve are spared.
All this in two issues.
What follows does not, in all honesty, plumb the depths of execrability of these two issues. It is badly drawn, deliberately, all over the place, repetitive – Wonder Woman for the next thirteen straight issues cannot be introduced without the words “Beautiful as Aphrodite, Wise as Athena, Stronger than Hercules and Swifter than Mercury!” which as descriptive epithets go lacks the concision of “Boy Wonder” or even “Scarlet Speedster” – and starts to display an underlying psycho-sexuality that is disturbing to contemplate.
In truth, the Golden Age stuff doesn’t last long, not that it is easy to tell just where Kanigher’s focus is at any time. It’s partly a re-telling of Wonder Woman’s origins, her coming to America and her taking over the real Lieutenant Diana Prince’s life, mingled in with reintroductions of some of the Golden Age villains in, well, frankly, not really updated forms.
The characteristics of Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor do not change. In every respect except actual lust, Wonder Woman is slavering for Steve, repressed only by her sacred Amazonian code and her promise to Aphrodite not to reveal her identity or give up her mission, both of which are utter bars to any kind of relationship with Steve that anyone normal would recognise as emotionally healthy.
She loves him. She yearns to be near him. She will act in any old kind of stupid way to protect him, despite the evidence that he hasn’t got the sense of a rabid gopher.
Because Steve is obsessed with Wonder Woman, or his ‘Angel’ as he insists on calling her to everyone under the sun, most often of all his long-suffering colleague, Lieutenant Diana Prince. Once again, the issue of lust in any recognisable form is absent from this relationship, which, given that Steve is a US Army Colonel before he meets Diana, makes his subsequent less than adolescent passion seem even more improbable. At least Diana has the excuse of complete ignorance about sex (and men) prior to that fateful and ineptly retold moment.
Indeed, Steve’s obsession is not merely total it is monomaniacal. It doesn’t matter what the situation, where they are, how appropriate it may be, what conditions of peril and danger this pair of prize twits may be in, Steve wants a kiss from his ‘Angel’. And in the face of even the most rational degree of resistance from Wonder Woman, Steve will force that kiss on her, no matter what danger she is preoccupied with saving him/them from, no matter what greater peril or risk he is creating, just as long as she is doing anything that keeps her from fending off his advances.
Yet Wonder Woman does not seem to see anything remotely wrong about this behaviour. She does not even resent it as a momentary intrusion, no matter what effect his inappropriately expressed passion has upon her and the job she is doing. Any normal female would have worn her throat out shrieking variations on “Are you out of your stark, staring, fucking mind?!?!?!” long ago, but this is not in Diana’s vocabulary. Indeed, the slightest thing that removes her as much as an inch from her masochistic goal of being in the divine presence of her suitor brings tears to her eyes faster than snatching a favourite dolly from a two-year old girl. Wonder Woman, outside of the Justice League, appears to be the only superhero who spends over 50% of her time crying.
This emotionally disastrous state of affairs is further heightened by the willingness of both its partners to interpret the slightest signs of any friendly gesture towards a member of the opposite gender as incontrovertible evidence of undying love, and a cue for heartbroken withdrawal from the scene, no matter how implausible the circumstances, though misapprehensions of this nature usually get cleared up (without a backwards mention) in the next panel.
Yet the sight of Diana being nice to someone who, no matter how implausibly old or ugly they may be, happens to be male is not the only thing that can disturb Steve’s unhealthy state of mind towards his ‘Angel’. One of Wonder Woman’s many assets is her lasso of truth, which, if bound about a person, compels them to obey the wielder. Given the sheer power represented by this weapon, it’s already frightening that Wonder Woman manages to lose it and get bound by it in almost every story, usually because she forgets to protect it (forgets? forgets?! FORGETS!!??). Steve is well aware of this, having witnessed Wonder Woman end so many adventures by catching crooks in her lasso, yet when she is in her turn bound and force to obey an enemy who has her act against the United States, Steve instantly bellows his hatred of Diane for turning traitor, no matter how many times she points out that she is helpless to do anything else.
This bull-headed stupidity only serves to torture Wonder Woman more than the mere fact of treason could already do, yet once she frees herself and saves the day, there is not a word of explanation, nor any request for forgiveness over the whole, horrendous affair.
And it is to be contrasted with Steve’s complete hypocrisy in getting his own hands upon the magic lasso, binding his ‘Angel’ with it, and using his control over her to order her to marry him.
Hypocrisy? Hang on, that’s the least of things. Let’s just repeat that. The leading superheroine’s beloved boyfriend – a Colonel in the US Army, in Intelligence, a person of high responsibility – is actually prepared to cheat his loved one into a state of personal slavery, compelling her into a marital and sexual relationship not merely against her express wishes but in complete override of her personal autonomy. No matter how often she pleads with him to let her go, to let her marry him at the right time, freely and of her own love and volition, he takes overt pleasure in refusing her appeals, in insisting on his forcing her, in exercising his blatant control over her.
This isn’t love. It isn’t even obsession, this is an openly expressed intent to rape, enslave and subjugate another human being. In a comic aimed at 8 – 12 year olds.
And when Steve’s grasp of the lasso is jolted from his hands, and Wonder Woman regains control of herself and her destiny again, there is not the slightest suggestion that she holds any resentment towards him, that she regards his behaviour and his attitude towards her as anything more than natural and unexceptionable, nor that he harbours the remotest doubt as to his conduct, nor that he would think for even a fraction of a second before taking exactly the same steps the moment opportunity re-presents itself, thus presenting Wonder Woman with the prospect of sapending her every waking moment in a state of heightened watchfulness against the guy who professes to love her and who has openly stated his intention to obliterate her will. And then she’s also got to watch out for the bad guys.
This isn’t the only aspect of the bizarre and unhealthy psycho-sexual background to the series, which also appears in the revival of the Golden Age character, Dr Psycho. Psycho was a midget, drawn with an overlarge head decorated by a penile nose and a jutting chin that, being also cleft, resembled a scrotum. In mainstream comics: the Comics Code Authority was certainly not as fascisticly vigilant as it might have been.
From his Golden Age origins under Marston, Dr Psycho was an out-and-out misogynist, originally charged with eliminating the influence of women on creating an atmosphere of peace. As written by Kanigher, he’s just a woman-hater whose hatred is based in rejection due to his deformed looks. It doesn’t take much to transfer this generalised loathing into a specific mad-on for Wonder Woman, with Psycho’s determination to force her into a symbolic role as the ultimate in female ability and potential, so that defeating her will be a slap in the face for womankind.
That’s certainly a viable story role, though it’s undermined by Kanigher’s presentation of Wonder Woman as an extremely dodgy role model to begin with. There’s even a sequence where Dr Psycho pretends to want to reform, to become Diana’s friend. It’s all an obvious fake and it does the Amazon no credit that she’s prepared to be so thoroughly taken in by it – as well as it forming the basis for the most absurd of Steve’s outbursts about her abandoning him.
What strikes me throughout this whole sequence of stories, and which I suspect has been going on for many years prior to this particular set of reprints, is Kanigher’s attitude. His control over the series is completely unchecked, and has been since he took over editorial control of the character in the late Forties, following Marston’s death. To have a writer edit himself was unique at DC, and to have allowed the position to continue for twenty years reinforces my belief that the continually weak sales were irrelevant against the licensing income.
Kanigher was in complete control, with only the vaguest of responsibilities to anyone. His heart was, always and forever, in his war books, and it’s notable that the preponderance of the characters he created were in that field. As far as superheroics go, he created Barry (The Flash) Allen in 1956, and Black Canary in 1948, demonstrating an ability to take the form seriously at some point, but Wonder Woman under his hand is the product of contempt: unrestricted, unbridled contempt, for the characters he wrote, and for the readers that bought them.
It’s too sustained, too repetitive, to be anything else, and the only question is as to how much was conscious and how much unconscious. We have his reputation, but the extended Comics Journal interview in 1982 was enough of itself to demonstrate Kanigher’s innate self-superiority, his pretension and ego. Personally, I believe Kanigher knew what he was doing and that he wrote shit for characters he regarded as inherently imbecilic and readers who would buy any old crap he chose to dish up.
Back in the Sixties, I only once read Wonder Woman outside Justice League of America, in which, like all the other members, she was a cipher with powers. Partly, it was disinterest, partly that I had favourites for those rare occurrences when my parents would indulge me, and a lot of it was down to the small boy’s urge not to have his parents think he wanted to read about girls.
From the few memories I can disentangle, I suspect I bought a virtual reprint issue: it began and ended with Wonder Woman at the comic book shop (!) and in between there was this story that seemed to start in the middle and which looked funny: it was all very peculiar and off-putting.
So to finally read Wonder Woman of that era in extended form, and to have made all the allowances possible for time, space, maturity and everything else that distinguishes then from now, I am still in shock that this was considered, well, publishable. That DC thought it fit to publish not just a comic but so many comics, on and on, eight times a year, that demonstrated such naked loathing towards its subject and, I say again, contempt, for its readers.
It’s a constant, cheerless parade of notions clearly devised on the basis of what-can-we-do-next-that-the-little-fuckers-will-still-swallow? An exercise in trying to find out how inane, bizarre and stupid the story could go before the kids would actually revolt and recognise they were having the unmerciful piss ripped out of them every time they plunked down their 12c.
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