Throughout the history of DC Comics, two female characters stand above the rest, in terms of appearances and popularity in the broader culture: Wonder Woman (Diana Prince) and Lois Lane. It can be argued that Catwoman (Selina Kyle) is as well known and has appeared nearly as often. In two recent books, Tim Hanley explored the long, complex, and fascinating histories of Wonder Woman and Lois Lane in Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine (2014) and the newly published Investigating Lois Lane: The Turbulent History of the Daily Planet’s Ace Reporter, respectively. Both books follow a similar chronological structure beginning with the characters’ origins in comics and working up to today, chronicling most of what came in between. Hanley provides a detailed publication history, analyzes key story arcs and multimedia appearances, and reveals just how often DC and its writers and editors seem to completely misunderstand their two most popular female characters.
It’s an understatement to say that Wonder Woman might have the most refreshingly bizarre beginnings of any iconic character that is still relevant seventy-five years later, thanks mostly to her creator William Moulton Marston and his progressive ideologies. Marston was a man ahead of his time. In some ways he was even a man ahead of our time. His accomplishments were many and varied—not only did he create Wonder Woman (with artist H. G. Peter) but he also invented the systolic blood pressure test, which became a major component of the polygraph test. He was a psychologist whose work often centered on submission and compliance in order to subvert man’s toxic dominance. He lived in a polyamorous relationship with his wife and mistress, with all three raising Marston’s and his wife’s children together in one happy family. Most crucially to the creation of Wonder Woman, he was an unabashed feminist who actually believed that women were not just equal to men, but were in fact superior to them. In Wonder Woman Unbound, Hanley provides context that makes it seem likely that Marston based Diana partly on his wife and his mistress, rolling their best qualities together into one dynamic character. It cannot be overemphasized just how unusual Marston’s life and philosophies were during the early twentieth century. Those original 1940s Wonder Woman comics of his are startlingly pro-feminist, featuring a woman who wasn’t subjugated by the violent world of men, but instead repeatedly saved the day by waging peace and love as her primary weapons.
In those Golden Age era comics written by Marston, Wonder Woman was for all intents and purposes an extremely positive female portrayal. In contrast to male heroes like Superman and Batman, Wonder Woman didn’t first resort to fisticuffs in order to solve problems. Diana’s background with willful submission and compliance with her fellow Amazons during her upbringing on Paradise Island informed her superhero life fully. She could defeat you in combat if necessary, but that wasn’t usually her primary tactic. Let’s deal with the elephant in the room: there was lot of bondage in Marston’s Wonder Woman comics. Hanley shows that while a good deal of the bondage was in accordance with Marston’s beliefs that willful submission leads to a happier and more peaceful world, there were also copious amounts of bondage perpetrated against Diana’s will by evil doers, which can be read more as fetishistic than progressive. Even so, Wonder Woman always escaped and usually rather easily, which highlighted how much smarter and stronger she was than most of the men in her book. Overall, Golden Age Wonder Woman was an exemplar of feminist values and progressive ideals at a time when there was precious little of that in comics or the broader culture. She was kind, intelligent, powerful, and compassionate while most superheroes were only one or two of those things. Unfortunately after Marston’s death in 1947, Wonder Woman was left in the hands of a series of writers and editors who mishandled her so egregiously, and for so many decades, that her initial defining traits became a fading memory. Wonder Woman during the Silver and early Bronze Ages was, to put it mildly, a shell of her former self. This version of Diana followed the dominant mainstream trend of women in comics during those eras: she became irrational, weepy, and derived her self-worth almost entirely from how a man felt about her. She pined for military man Steve Trevor constantly, while most of her plots revolved around trying to make Steve happy. To be blunt, it was pathetic. This was not the Wonder Woman that people had grown up with in the 1940s.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, feminists like Gloria Steinem reclaimed Wonder Woman as a feminist icon. While Steinem and her editors at Ms. Magazine ascribed characteristics and motivations to the Golden Age Wonder Woman that weren’t actually there, they were simply engaging in the tradition of fans seeing more in a character than even her creators did. Wonder Woman became a feminist ideal once again, albeit in different ways. This version of the character has held fairly steady in the decades since. She’s currently having a major moment in the zeitgeist, costarring in Batman v Superman—and in this writer’s opinion, stealing that movie outright from the men—and soon to star in her first headlining film. It’s emblematic of DC’s often woeful lack of understanding for the character that it’s taken this long for her to even appear in a film, let alone star in one. Things seem to be shifting, finally, and Diana is everywhere in comics right now also. She’s starring in her own series that’s relaunching this month with fan favorite scribe Greg Rucka returning to the character for the first time in years. She’s headlining The Legend of Wonder Woman miniseries by Renae De Liz is garnering extremely positive reviews and is produced by a female creator to boot, as well as Grant Morrison’s recent original graphic novel Wonder Woman: Earth One. She’ll also be costarring in several more books of DC’s books. It’s good to see the turn away from the downright sexist and gendered approach from the Silver Age into something far more in line with what Marston originally intended for Diana.
As Hanley demonstrates in Investigating Lois Lane, Lois’s comic book and pop culture trajectory mirrors Diana’s in some ways and diverges in others. One obvious similarity is how few female writers and artists have had a crack at Diana and Lois over the years; DC’s track record with this is shameful. A major difference between them is that while Wonder Woman was, from the start, the star of her own series, Lois was a supporting player in the world of Superman. Over time she quickly became the most important supporting player and reached heights of popularity that are practically unmatched by any other supporting character in comics. She even headlined her own book for 137 continuous issues from 1958 to 1974. It’s worth noting that the series was called Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane, giving Superman top billing and reducing Lois to nothing but her relationship to the Man of Steel. From her start in the Golden Age, Lois filled the damsel in distress role, but usually with a twist: she charged full speed into danger, unafraid of what harm might come to her as long as she got the story for the Daily Planet. Lois’s first priority was her career. This shifted during the Silver Age and, similar to Wonder Woman, Lois became defined almost solely by her relationship to a man; in this case, Superman. Hanley offers several examples of just twisted and unhealthy that relationship at that time. A prevailing plot point in her solo book was for Superman to teach her a lesson about how her impetuous nature could get her into trouble. This led to a series of stories where he often mistreated her or left her in dangerous or humiliating situations, only to swoop in later and rescue her while wagging his finger in her direction at the same time. Lois was frequently brought to tears by her repeated humiliating and degrading treatment at the hands of Superman. She was wholly defined by how he felt about her and when he was angry with her she fell apart. Similar to Wonder Woman, Lois was simply fulfilling the standard role for most women in comics during the Silver and early Bronze Ages.
Hanley delves into Lois’s rehabilitation at the hands of John Byrne in the post-Crisis DC universe in the 1980s. Lois was once again a strong, independent, intelligent, and risk-taking woman who worked hard at being the best reporter possible. Eventually over time and with different writers taking over the Superman line of books, Lois was relegated to the role of subordinate significant other. Hanley crunches the numbers and shows just how drastically her role was reduced: whereas in the Byrne era she was presented as a tough-as-nails reporter first, with most of her scenes centering around her work, in the 1990s and early 2000s when she made appearances in Superman’s books they were often scenes set at home, playing the loving and supporting wife. Or in some cases, Hanley points out, the jealous wife. There was a regression of sorts to the Silver and early Bronze Age tropes going on, clearly. Hanley also looks at how the trend from the early 2000s of “women in refrigerators” and women being reduced to sexual objects even impacted Lois. Suddenly she was wearing incredibly skimpy outfits, including belly shirts and skirts that were barely there. Not quite business appropriate attire for an ace reporter.
Unlike Wonder Woman, Lois has enjoyed a very long and fruitful multimedia presence. Whereas Diana has appeared in most of DC’s animated series and briefly in her own television series, Lois has been a lead character in several television shows, appeared in animation regularly, and costarring in every Superman film to date. Her pop culture presence has been quite strong for a long time. Hanley provides a thorough review of these film and television appearances and discusses each actress’s strengths and weaknesses in the role. From recent years, Dana Delany from Superman: The Animated Series, Margot Kidder from the Christopher Reeve Superman films, and Erica Durance from Smallville are singled out as some of the most fully realized multimedia portrayals of the character.
By providing a fairly comprehensive career-spanning overview of Wonder Woman and Lois Lane, Hanley helps remind us just how much potential lies within them. His exploration of how mistreated they were during certain eras, both in their comics and multimedia presentations, is illuminating. It’s clear to anyone who’s ever read enough comics that both are phenomenally rich and interesting characters, and in the hands of the right writers, artists, directors, or screenwriters, they can be just as interesting and engaging as Superman or Batman. Hanley does important work in both books, excavating the true strengths of each character from the depths of often inadequate or offensive treatments during certain eras. He presents a plethora of information on each character, exploring most of their important or most popular appearances (it might have been nice to see a little more on Gail Simone’s Wonder Woman run and Morrison’s All-Star Superman) He’s an engaging writer with a knack for highlighting the absurdities that constitute most comic book stories. When read back to back, his books provide both an enlightening and frustrating retelling of comic book history through the lens of two prominent female characters. Enlightening for just how special both characters are; frustrating for how frequently they’ve been mishandled or marginalized. To complete the trinity of DC’s most popular women, one can only hope that Hanley turns his attention to Catwoman for his next book. If he does, you can rest assured I’ll be reading it.