Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman

As a comics fan, I’ve long been aware that the backstory of Wonder Woman was at least as interesting as the character herself and much less accessible. Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman solves the second problem, and leaves one free to look over the glorious craziness and fundamental importance of the first.

The fellow generally credited with creating Wonder Woman is William Moutlon Marston whose resume is quite remarkable in a vacuum, aand more interesting in the context that Lepore provides.  Marston was an early student of psychology and physiology as the connection between the two was beginning to be understood.  He claims to have created the lie detector and was certainly the fellow who first tried to get its evidence made admissible in trials.  He was an early feminist and proponent of women’s equality, if not superiority.  He was an unusual choice to create a comic character, but the one he created was an uncontested smash hit, selling Superman & Batman kind of numbers.  While comics fans remember many characters fondly, that kind of financial and popular success was beyond rare.

And yet, as Lepore draws out, there was more than a hint of the charlatan about Marston.  His lie detector didn’t seem to work reproducibly for people other than him, and even his successes were often inflated in his claims.  His attempt to get lie detectors made into legal and investigative tools failed as a matter of law, and quite probably was a key distraction that undermined the defense of the accused.  Worse, his claims and results are generally so unconvincing that investigators use the device as a bluff to get confessions rather than a tool to find facts.  He lectured widely partially because he was slowly failing himself out of academia, sliding down the hill from professor to lecturer and below.

He also lived in a basically polygamous arrangement with several women, all of whom contributed materially to the creation and success of Wonder Woman, and all of whom saw their contributions minimized to keep the details of their living arrangements hidden. His principles of equality of the sexes seemed to be limited by practicality.  As a result, when he died young, the core creators of Wonder Woman lost creative control quickly. Consequently, corporate profit overshadowed feminist principles – even the somewhat unusual ones of the creators – as a primary driver of plot and theme.

It’s a fascinating story that touches on many of the intellectual revolutions of the 1920’s to the 1940’s culminating in the creation of one of the most unusual and compelling characters in popular culture.  Lepore’s story follows these gripping people through their remarkable journey and can also be a jumping off point for many more historical and intellectual explorations.

If there’s a downside to Secret History, it’s that Lepore writes more like a scholar than a storyteller.  She  has her facts straight and documented, but often the people do not breathe as they could.  Fortunately these folks are largely dynamic enough that the facts speak fine.  Furthermore, just unearthing these facts is an achievement in itself.

Strongly recommended.

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