By the time this article is seen, Wonder Woman will return to Patriarch’s World on the big screen thanks to DC Comics, Warner Brothers, Patty Jenkins, and Gal Gadot. As such, I really wanted to write something for Sequart’s aptly named Wonder Woman Week. But to be honest, I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to say about Wonder Woman, Diana Prince, or Princess Diana of Themyscira that hasn’t been covered before and by more qualified scholars, experts, and comics fanatics all around.
I am going to do something a bit different. But before I do, I will tell you that what interests me the most about Wonder Woman is her origins. I’m not just talking about the fact that, originally, she was autochthonic in the mythological sense of the word: a being, or state of being, formed out of the land where she born, or more specifically like clay. This is definitely part of my later fascination with her as her creation parallels the Spartoi dragon-tooth soldiers of Thebes, in addition to Plato’s Myth of Metals from The Republic that was, most likely, adapted from general ancient Greek ideals of its citizens being grown – ready-made – from the earth of their city-states. It’s also not just about the origins of the Amazons, the all-female species of Themyscirans, their society, their innovations, and their ideals though they are also part of my fascination.
But if I had the Lasso of Truth – or The Perfect – in my hand, or entwining me into this narrative I would tell you that I’ve been partially lying. The above elements are part of what I want to talk about in addition to the creative forces that put them all together. It all really started, for me, when I was reading Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman. The text elaborated on many facts that Wonder Woman fans have known for years: that the American psychologist William Moulton Marston, the co-creator of Wonder Woman, was not only into bondage or BDSM in the form of submission, but he was in a polyamorous relationship with his wife Elizabeth Halloway Marston, and their mutual lover and partner Olive Byrne. Unfortunately, Lepore’s writing style was difficult for me to follow and, for me, often verged on the dry and dramatic, while the theme of Marston, Halloway, and Byrne’s relationship as well as some of his professional endeavours being “scandalous.” Perhaps it all goes back to “The Secret History” part of the title as something of a marketing focus: not unlike most comics advertising in various eras for that matter. To be honest, I really wanted to look at some of the original materials and texts – the sources – that Lepore referenced, or at least find them utilized in other scholarly texts in order to come to my own conclusions.
I think that this is where it ultimately began for me. Sequart’s Julian Darius, as I like to reference, writes about a term called comics reconstructionism: where comics characters and stories from older eras are deconstructed, but also endowed with contemporary sensibilities with the spirit and sentimentality of the original. In fiction, as well as in scholarship, like the idea of going back to the source, to the original idea, and looking at the forces and philosophies that ultimately makes the character and world in question.
There have been quite a few iterations of Wonder Woman since her creation by Marston and the artist Harry G. Peter apparently based off of the academic Elizabeth Halloway’s intelligence, determination, and ideals, along with Olive Byrne’s likeness and trademark bracelets. But it should also be noted, in addition to the emphasis on the bondage and submission rituals inherent with how she subdues criminals and villains with her Lasso, a powerful artifact that can make those bound tell the truth and also destroy all illusions and lies, she was actually granted life by Aphrodite: the ancient Greek goddess of love.
This fact is something worth noting in and of itself. In recent times, particularly with regards to Greg Rucka’s run, and supported by Gail Simone, and even Grant Morrison’s Wonder Woman Earth-One story there has been a little more emphasis on Wonder Woman’s sexual orientation, and a look at how Themysciran society functions without men. Greg Rucka has come out and said that Wonder Woman is bisexual, or is otherwise queer-identified.
This concept makes a lot of sense when you think about it. If you see Themyscira, or Paradise Island, as an enchanted land mass or area where men do not exist due to the edicts of the gods, or goddesses, in addition to the many bad experiences its immortal inhabitants had with patriarchal civilizations in the Mediterranean and the ancient world in general, while at the same time seeing them as human beings it makes sense that same-sex relationships happen. In fact, it has far less to do with fear of the past or maintaining a safe space, and more to do with the creation of a new civilization, based possibly on homosocial norms, that by its very nature is separatist, but at the same time no longer defines itself in a dichotomy with male gender dynamics: or at least now has the opportunity to examine these cultural assumptions in a different place and under more relatively controlled, and peaceful circumstances. Of course, there are other interpretations of Paradise Island, or Themyscira, but these are the essential traits to consider with regards to the Wonder Woman mythos and they make for a good story in and of themselves.
Certainly, in Sensation Comics featuring Wonder Woman issue #48 written and drawn by Jason Badower, or its chapter in the trade paperback volume 16 of the same name Wonder Woman herself officiates the wedding of two women while explaining to Superman, later, that she isn’t so much a proponent of “gay marriage” as she supports “marriage” itself: which is all she ever knew back in Themyscira which is a place where only women dwell. Interestingly enough one of the brides, who volunteered and worked with Wonder Woman in many disaster areas of the world, is named Elizabeth.
One story that definitely encapsulates Wonder Woman’s relation to sexuality, life and, again, love itself – which relates back to her origins – is a comics story you can find in the anthology Love is Love: edited by Marc Andreyko which also, incidentally, has a Forward written by Wonder Woman’s director Patty Jenkins. The one page story itself was created by Liam Sharp, Lovern Kindzierski and Carlos M. Mangual. The following passage, on page 75 of the extended digital version says it all when Wonder Woman states in the narrative:
“And still you have to ask? When the flames have all died down, and the wars have all ended, you seek new excuses. New excuses to hate. New excuses to build walls, and manufacture divisions. And you ask me … ‘Are you?’ ‘On an island with only women?’ ‘Surely you must be …?’ And you ask only so you may judge. Because judge is what you like to do. And when you have judged, what then? What will you do? And tell me … Do you know what it is to die … for love?”
As you can see, in addition to truth in the form of the Golden Lasso and possibly a metaphoric representation of Marston’s work in developing the lie detector test, as well as bondage and submission – which Grant Morrison attempts adapt from Marston’s source material and ingrain into an Amazonian culture that unfortunately becomes clunky, aggressively misandrist, and even misogynist towards non-Amazonian women with near-disastrous results when Wonder Woman attempts to bond Steve Trevor, a black man, with a chain and collar – who thinks she is “out of his league” — love is an important aspect of her character creation. It’s the force that motivates her mother the Queen Hippolyta to ask the gods to give life to her clay child, the goddess that ultimately makes her, and the influence that makes her subdue and defeat criminals at the beginning of her life in addition to the power that motivated Marston to mould her just as equally out of the clay of his interactions.
One major thing that I took away from my reading of Jill Lepore’s book was the idea that Wonder Woman herself, as a character and icon, serves as something of a link between first and second wave feminism: that place, if you generalize, where women sought the right to vote and own property, and then issues of sexuality, family, reproductive rights and full-body autonomy and other issues. In particular, Lepore puts great consideration in mentioning that Olive Byrne is the daughter of Ethel Byrne, and the niece of Margaret Sanger: both noted progressive radical feminists advocating for, amongst other things, birth-control in a heavily censored and “anti-obscenity” America. The argument is that Marston and his family had links to Byrne and Sanger as well as the feminists of that period which, possibly linked to their other aspects of their life, informed the philosophy that led to Wonder Woman’s creation.
And yet Olive Byrne is linked to Marston, in addition to her ties to her mother and aunt, as well as having been his psychological assistant, through polyamory. Polyamory is a philosophy and lifestyle – a form of non-monogamy in which people can love more than one person and have relationships with multiple people. There are various permutations and arrangements of relationships under this label, with some emphasizing the fact that it is also something of an orientation or a “non-normative” or at least “mono-normative” behaviour, but what is important to understand here – with all the advantages and possible disadvantages involved – is that polyamory is ideally about two things: open communication, and the idea that love is infinite. Essentially, polyamory or non-monogamy can be summed up as radical truth and love.
Now consider this idea for a few moments. Imagine the people of Themyscira: immortal, superhuman, given divine wisdom, and having several centuries if not millennia to gather their knowledge, lore, and innovation to explore the deeper parts of human nature. This would not exclude biology, emotions, and relationships that form between sentient beings. Is at all inconceivable that the Amazons might have created practices beyond potentially taking control of the collective trauma of their people by de-colonizing the tools of their former oppressors, of men, into courtship rituals of chasing and binding such as the ones that Grant Morrison problematically depicts as grandiose BDSM cultural series of practices, and gone even further?
Perhaps some of the Amazons realize in their aeons long life that change must be incorporated into their existences: that no one person can become everything to the other. Maybe they have had to work through jealousy, insecurity, and attachment to the self and the idea of people as subjects instead of objects. Perhaps they have done their work, or they do their work in an ongoing and eternal process within a radically different system where sex is not about procreation tied to blood and owning land and property but rather careful courtship with intent to emotional bonding and companionship, or perhaps a way to express or release energies. There is no gay marriage or relationships in a land or realm where everyone is one gender after all: assuming there is a concept of gender beyond academic interest.
This could be the world where Princess Diana originates: this Paradise of the mind, or a way of life that couldn’t exist out in the open from the 1910s, with perhaps some airing out in the relatively liberal 1920s, to the 1940s and onward. It is that tenuous argument in which it’s not only that Wonder Woman’s story is queer-coded due to her possible sexuality, or her earlier practices and even current resonances in bondage – specifically female domination and consequent idealization – but also because of its associations with a relationship and even familial structure that isn’t monogamous. There are different interpretations of this, I’m sure, but that is not the point of this writing.
A few years ago, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site I discovered The Mindless Ones blog when researching Will Brooker’s My So-Called Secret Identity for the online magazine GeekPr0n: where, in an earlier iteration of what he wanted to do, he wanted to create a version of Barbara Gordon – of Batgirl – that was different: that drew on her origins as a Graduate student, on her great natural intelligent, and her powerful sense of agency, and “Do-It-Yourself” work ethic. He actually went as far as to create a pitch for this new idea and, ironically enough, while he created his own original aforementioned work from such, DC Comics also made a version of Barbara Gordon that fit this more contemporary Graduate student version in 2014 with Brenden Fletcher.
Will Brooker, arguably, practised reconstructionism with Barbara Gordon and was able to explore the history of her character and the feminist implications of the creative decisions enacted on her, while also suggesting something of a Vertigo 1990s aesthetic and sensibility to her reboot and arc. While I cannot be as extreme or indepth as Will Brooker, I feel compelled to do something similar, but a little more simpler for Wonder Woman in the context of everything here that I have so far described.
It would be a whole other kind of Elseworlds story, something of a miniseries that would probably not make it into mainstream film like Patty Jenkins’ movie. I probably would never be allowed, or be able, to write this story. Part of this idea began when reading Bruce Timm and J.M. DeMatteis’ Justice League: Gods and Monsters – Wonder Woman #1: the story of the Wonder Woman version of the New God warrior woman Bekka. There can be an article on this issue in and of itself, but what I took away from it most of all was how Bekka came to Earth and spent time in the 1960s American commune: teaching both its young men, and especially its women, the nature of the universe, equality, and even spiritual practices: to improve themselves and also to some extent learn from her own past mistakes.
And so I thought to myself: what if Princess Diana, with the greater world-building focus on Mediterranean mythology and ancient myth emphasized after Marston, came to Patriarch’s World during the turn of the century, the Roaring Twenties: another formative moment in America’s history? Women’s Suffrage had just been achieved in the United States around that time after being for years, especially during the 1910s. From my understanding as well, many Women’s Rights movements, sometimes interlinked and also separate from socialist worker’s groups, and even some New Age groups were still trying to figure out what they were, and what they could accomplish in the midst of powerful patriarchal and conservative elements. Even so, there is a streak of liberalism in major cities that contrasts with the social order as they persisted before World War I tore many institutions and cultural assumptions apart. It is also during this time, all the way until the 1920s, that many of the elements and apparatus that lead to William Moulton Marston’s formulation of the language and absorption of the ideals that Wonder Woman is supposed to represent are still being processed.
So imagine Princess Diana being sent to Patriarch’s World during the time where she is ultimately being gestated, still being moulded slowly out of the clay of different ideas, all the way into World War Two where she is created as a character in our world. But I am not talking about a completely meta-fictional approach here.
Think about this pitch. A long time ago in Earth’s history, magic as an alternate set of cosmological rules existed in our universe. The ancient Greek deities, among others, were commonplace in the ancient societies of humankind and other places. But gradually, over time, this reality began to recede into small pockets. The gods began to leave humankind alone for the most part as belief in them slowly changed over time. They left, with their most loyal followers and creatures, to live in small pocket universes. Perhaps the bridges between “Man’s World” and the supernatural realms were more permeable in ancient times, but the veil between worlds thickened for various reasons as humans, mortals, stopped believing in other powers and only in their own: in the monotheistic, patriarchal societies that had been gradually gaining power over time.
Themyscira becomes one such realm. And it wasn’t created for the Amazons initially, but rather for a host of different creatures such as centaurs, satyrs, naiads, and other mythological beings that honoured their gods and creators. The Amazons are not reincarnated souls of women that died by men’s hands, but they are rather their own people: the result of the original inhabitants of Turkey, perhaps, adopting and intermingling with many female and child refugees from lands all across the world. Perhaps they had evolved when the people of the land they lived in ran out of male soldiers in various wars and skirmishes. Maybe they had always had a voice on the ruling council and in society but gained more influence as the male population dropped, and their embrace of the goddesses made them see that it wasn’t so much men that brought evil on them, but rather what those men and the women in other societies believed to be normative: the glorification of war, stratified hierarchies of power dynamics, the self-entitlement over the lands and lives of others, and other actions deemed “masculine.”
The Amazons don’t hate men, but rather the world of which one particular idea of masculinity was embraced at the cost of many other perspectives and lives. Perhaps towards the end of their period in Patriarch’s World, they are already dividing into two camps due to the sister-queens Hippolyta and Antiope: the Amazons as we know them, and those Amazons that will become the warriors of Bana-Mighdall. The former initially want to help the world but retain their autonomy, choosing men from other city-states and keep their daughters while having men raise any sons among them elsewhere. However, Antiope’s faction believes that the tools of Men – the weapons of the oppressor – must be made theirs in order to survive at any cost and they are not above war, rape, slavery, and rapine.
This growing divide only got worse when the former city-state of Themyscira is invaded and the women warriors of that place enslaved: their lovers of either sex, or many genders lost or killed. Hippolyta is the one, through the guidance of Aphrodite, seemingly one of the youngest of Zeus’ children but paradoxically coming from the castration of Zeus’ grandfather Ouranos, and other goddesses that leads her faction of Amazons to “Paradise Island” that they call Themyscira once established there. Then, over time, the island changes from a geographical place in Patriarch’s World into its own pocket dimension.
It’s Hippolyta, with her wife and consort General Philippus along with a Council of Elders that spend time honing their arts, sciences, and medicine while interacting with the divine mysteries of Paradise Island and its other inhabitants. I see these Amazons as far less than the heavy-handed misandrist depictions of other creators such as Grant Morrison, and more human and nuanced characters as written by Greg Rucka. While the Amazons are creating and negotiating their new civilization on Paradise Island turned Themyscira, women of different cultures intermingling and creating new customs to complement Amazonian ones, Hippolyta utilizes her mystic arts to keep monitoring Patriarch’s World: for potential threats, female refugees her people can welcome, and also new developments. She wants to see if the world they left behind will change for the better.
I would keep the origin story of Diana being formed out of clay by her mother, Aphrodite, and the other goddesses exactly the same. I would send a story or two showing Diana growing up in Themyscira and interacting with the other Amazons. I would show her relationships, friendships and romances, with other women. Submission and bondage rituals would also exist but only a specifically consensual context filled with love and affection. At the same time, there is another opportunity here to consider. Let us say that Diana is the only child that has ever been born, or grown up in Themyscira, aside from possibly those children born from female refugees that still made their way to their realm. Think about Diana growing up on this Island where children, at least among the Amazons, are rare and she mostly has adults for company. What is it like to be an only child in an Island of eternal adult survivors of war and abuse? These can definitely be moments where an exploration of immortality, and time, and relationships between a youthful adult Diana is explored with different Amazons from other city-states on the Island: where it occurs to Diana, finally, that her guardians become contemporaries are much older than her and have had experiences outside of their Island.
But story potential aside, the main question is this: how do you get Diana to Patriarch’s World during the 1920s? The challenge, of course, is predicated on the fact that Steve Trevor is the factor that brings Diana out of Paradise Island when he crash lands there as a pilot from WWI, WWII, or some other conflict. But if you are going to create a miniseries where Wonder Woman exists in the 1920s, between World Wars, how does this happen? Of course, it doesn’t have to be Steve Trevor that brings her out. Indeed, there are advantages to that. I know that Jill Thompson made it so that a young Diana’s impetuous decisions that cost her the life of her potential friend and crush in Wonder Woman: The True Amazon, but what if we did something like the following. Let’s say that Steve Trevor is an American pilot that crash lands onto Paradise Island in the latter stages of WWI. But he is not the only reason that she leaves.
There is an artifact called “The Perfect,” as I believe Greg Rucka’s writing refers to the Lasso of Truth. Diana, being extremely competitive, in another Amazonian Contest of Will, wants to win it as a prize. However, I would put a lot more emphasis on just how terrifying “The Perfect” actually is. Think of an artifact that can show you, and make you tell the complete and utter truth: with neither mercy nor pity. Imagine seeing the world, your world, after touching “The Perfect” and all of your conceptions and misconceptions laid bare. It would be unbearable. There are reasons why Amazons must undertake great training and arduous tasks to win the right to wield the Lasso. The training for this starts with their rites and rituals of binding and such: to teach responsibility in wielding power over another, over one’s self, and then the ontological Truth. I can see Hippolyta knowing, from a vision given to her from the last time she held the artifact that whoever after her can wield “The Perfect” without misusing its power and going completely mad has the obligation to spread its Truth into all of the world. Hippolyta was the last wielder, and there were others after her who… were not so fortunate with its power: even some Amazons who went utterly insane and are currently being treated, immortal patients, by eternal healers.
But let’s say Diana succeeds. She brings her background of compassion and love to temper the harsh, stark reality of the Truth so that she can bring it to the truths of others. Now she has to leave Themyscira and go to Patriarch’s World. At around the same time, Steve Trevor crashes onto the island. But this isn’t the brash adventurer or hearty image of American masculinity. He is a shell-shocked mess. It’s similar to how Greg Rucka depicts him in his Rebirth run, and I can see the Amazons actually trying to heal him instead of planning to execute him in an arena, or ritualistically murder him. They can tell that Ares – left behind in Man’s World – has tainted him, and possibly the rest of the outer world. This is an imbalance that must be met.
I think at this point I’m more than dangerously near the zeitgeist of Patty Jenkins’ film, but I think this will all be the background that brings Diana to Patriarch’s World and America itself. The stories that I would tell have more to do with Diana helping others in 1920s America, fighting the subtle and overt forces of Ares’ warmongering, Circe’s manipulations, the gaslighting Dr. Psycho, a radical eugenics obsessed Doctor Poison, the Baroness Paula Von Gunther, and even the Bana-Mighdall. But I would definitely like there to be another form of emphasis as well on the storytelling: namely on the relationships that Diana initiates and makes a part of her life in this strange place in Man’s World.
I could definitely see her going to Vaudeville theatres, navigating Prohibition, and dealing with remnants of magic and immortality influencing human hubris and behaviour that generally doesn’t need the help. It would really fascinating to see her meet other autochthonic beings – immortals or near-immortals made of clay – such as a Czechoslovakian Jewish golem from the Renaissance, a surviving Spartoi soldier or two who once served in the Theban Sacred Band, a former Pharaoh, and even a certain husband and wife who may or may have many other names in different cultures. I can also visualize her calling out male leaders on their “utopian visions” — these supposedly non-normative relationships and ideas of Marston’s time still struggling with their cultural biases – while still subjugating women, or the chauvinistic assumptions inherent in these “new age” groups and philosophies.
At the same time, she counters extremists from the Bana-Mighdall, finding herself in a “comics revisionist” arc foiling an Autochthonic Movement to supplant “the birth-born,” while trying to find common ground with them, while advocating for more women’s rights, and calling out racism and classism when she sees it.
It would also be fascinating to watch Diana go through her own self-discovery: through realizing that she is bisexual after a life of living among the Amazons, seeing more human children than she had back on the Island, facing an arc where there are horrible sorcerous and scientific “comics revisionist” experiments to replicate the creation of Autochthonic beings like her, as well as navigating non-monogamy in this time before the Great Depression and the Second World War. For instance, one ongoing issue in the story could be Wonder Woman dealing with her radically truthful nature in a society that would see others of her lifestyle or orientation “closeted.” It might also be fascinating to see Wonder Woman form a romantic relationship with Steve Trevor and Etta Candy, separately and together, or even meeting Artemis of Bana-Mighdall in changing her views. I think it would also be interesting if Etta Candy were a black woman – as she is in contemporary interpretations – and that the racism and prejudicial assumptions of this time is something else that gets challenged in the narrative.
The story itself, perhaps set over a few issues, could end in World War II where Diana’s activities have gotten her a lot of attention and she goes into battle with the American soldiers to stop the Nazis that have formed during this time, supported by the Baroness and Ares’ plan to increase his power, which leads to the United Nations and the introduction of Themyscira as a recognized country: cementing her place as an Ambassador of Peace while spending as much time with her partners as they inevitably age.
So basically, to summarize this ad hoc pitch, I am attempting to sell an intersectional and polyamorous Wonder Woman story set primarily in the 1920s onward where Diana may, or may not, be a flapper. It is a daunting conception and I don’t think I am up to that task as I am, or how things are, right now. Certainly, the forces that influence Wonder Woman are bigger than me or any one person. But I think that one thing, in looking at Princess Diana of Themyscira is that while she may well be the Spirit of Truth, or an Ambassador of Peace, she also possesses a deep, immeasurable, and unabiding sense of compassion and love. Hippolyta created her daughter out of a surfeit of love. Aphrodite allowed this to happen because she embodies love. William Moulton Marston, and the people in his life, for all of their strengths and frailties as human beings create the love that made the person who would have been Suprema but became Wonder Woman, Diana, instead.
I think I will end this here by asking this final question. What is truth without love? The answer is that, whatever else it may be, it is certainly not Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is both of these elements. And she is so much more.