At the Toronto book signing for Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, a guy at the back of the room got up during the Q&A section and asked an elaborate question about a specific story in a specific issue of the comic. Before Lepore could reply, another audience member stood up, vehemently yelled, “I disagree!” and the two began to argue about the plot while Lepore looked vaguely terrified. Fortunately, moderator Nathalie Atkinson (a culture writer for The Globe and Mail who happens to be married to the owner of a comic shop; one can guess she’s witnessed such an exchange more than once in her life) shut down the argument quickly and expertly, allowing Lepore to reiterate a point she had made earlier in her presentation – she is a historian, not a comic expert and her book was written from that perspective.
This is a good thing to remember when looking at The Secret History of Wonder Woman alongside Wonder Woman – Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948 by Noah Berlatsky. Berlatsky is the editor of a (mostly) comic-oriented blog called The Hooded Utilitarian. As such he comes at the story of Wonder Woman and her creator William Moulton Marston from a completely different perspective than Lepore. Which is why the two books work together so well to tell Marston’s story.
In fact, The Secret History of Wonder Woman is really the secret history of Marston, documenting his early life, his promising beginnings at Harvard where he earned degrees in both psychology and law, his marriage to Elizabeth Holloway and his subsequent relationship with his student/assistant Olive Byrne, who came to live with Marston and Holloway in a long-term poly-amorous relationship, giving birth to two children with him while also caring for his children with Holloway. Also important is the fact that Byrne’s family had a great effect on Marston – she was the niece of reproductive rights activist Margaret Sanger, someone who Marston greatly admired. Lepore doesn’t even get to talking about Wonder Woman until page 180.
In contrast, Berlatsky gives Marston’s bio a couple of paragraphs and then focuses his work on the issues of bondage within the comic. He only really comes back to Marston’s life in the third chapter on homosexuality when he discusses Marston’s seemingly extensive knowledge of lesbianism (which shows up frequently in the Marston-Peter era of the comic) and the burning question that nobody can answer definitively – did Byrne and Holloway have a lesbian relationship – either within their relationship(s) with Marston or separately? Lepore suspects yes, but with no proof she won’t say for sure (historians are all about documentation and she claims to have found nothing within the Marston family documents to indicate such a relationship), but Berlatsky comes up with a fair list of probable causes (most notably Marston’s familiarity with specific lesbian sexual positions and the fact that “the ladies” – the family’s name for Holloway and Byrne – continued to live together after Marston’s death for another 40-odd years). This fascination with lesbianism is an ongoing theme throughout the Marston era of Wonder Woman, and the story as a whole, and thus is an important topic when it comes to the links between Marston’s real life and his art.
Lepore’s discussions of the bondage within Marston’s Wonder Woman mostly focus on the work done to justify the storylines and/or get it past the censors. The bondage was never violent, Wonder Woman always managed to get out of her bonds and/or save the other people who were bound, there was no nudity or sex. But Berlatsky digs to find the meaning behind the bondage, exploring Marston’s seeming obsession with sorority rituals such as “Baby Parties” that included bondage, blindfolds and caning or paddling (he attended and wrote about such an event with the assistance of Olive Byrne); Greek mythology; and the idea of women being superior to men. This gets a little over-analytical, with references to Freud, James Bond and Sacher-Masoch, and while it’s likely Marston did actually put that much thought into the Wonder Woman storylines, it helps to step back and remember that these are still comics, meant for kids.
The most concrete of Berlatsky’s theories are the ones that can be traced back to Marston’s family life; the importance of female-female relationships in the creation of “stable, domesticated femininity” which is represented by the Amazon community that supports the super hero, or the “education mother” role in which the female figure rules with love and even submission. In The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Lepore details how Holloway supported the Marston family with a steady, well-paid job, and Byrne was almost solely responsible for raising both her own and Holloway’s children, while Marston, regularly out of work, writing books and articles that would sell poorly until Wonder Woman was created, ruled the house with tantrums and a healthy dose of fear.
The big secret of both books being, of course, that Marston had to hide his lifestyle (and his fetishes) from the world. Few people knew of his polyamourous living arrangements, and he wrote Wonder Woman under a pen name to protect himself and his family.
While both The Secret History of Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman – Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948 are effective as stand alone works, they speak to different audiences, or different aspects of an overall story. They work extremely well together, the themes of each being more easily explained by the other: Berlatsky is more interested in and does a better job of explaining the comic, while Lepore’s well-researched biography of Marston provides the “ah-ha moment” where the reader can clearly see why storyline is included in the comic because it is based on Marston’s personal/sexual experiences.
This post originally appeared on Vermicious, a totally cool alternative culture blog curated by the awesome John Seven.