Thursday, August 04, 2005

Who's that Girl? Part 1a: Wonder Woman's pal Gloria Steinem

The unpowered period of Wonder Woman lasted for five years but came to an abrupt halt in 1972. You may be interested to know why. I know I was. In large part it was because of Gloria Steinem.

I'm not going to give you a potted biography, there's a perfectly good one here. Suffice to say that she was a feminist journalist who had a long association with comics, having worked with Harvey Kurtzman on Help! magazine in the early '60's. Wonder Woman seems to have been a formative influence on Steinem as a child, and William Moulton Marston's original interpretation of the character is a very strong female role model. So when Steinem found that Wonder Woman had lost her powers and her costume she considered this to be a devaluing of the character she loved, and began a campaign to bring back the "true" Wonder Woman.

She got her chance in 1972 when she launched Ms. magazine, which was initially financed by Warner Communications inc, who also owned DC Comics. She was friends with Steve Ross, the head of DC and even though she was busy getting Ms. off the ground, she managed to find time to put together a collection of golden age Wonder Woman stories[1].

In this age of trade paperbacks and graphic novels such a collection hardly seems unusual, but there was more to this collection than meets the eye. Ignore for the moment that this is the only collection of pre-Crisis Wonder Woman produced over her 60 year history other than four thin volumes of Archive[2]; this collection is not chronological, it is not themed in any way other than being stories selected by Gloria Steinem.

She gives us a lengthy introduction but it is not about the stories in the collection; in fact nowhere does she even list which issues of what comics are being included. There is no information given about individual stories at all. The introduction is in fact an essay on what Wonder Woman means to Gloria Steinem, and the stories are very carefully selected to support her interpretation. A second "interpretive essay" by Phyllis Chester continues the theme and gives us a crash course in Greek mythology. In fact 23 pages are taken up with these essays before you get to the comics. This is a collection with an agenda.

If it weren't significant enough that Steinem is able to publish this reprint volume of DC comics as a Ms. book, it is extremely indicative of her influence on DC editorial policy at the time that the first issue of Ms. has a Wonder Woman cover. The interesting thing about this is that far from showing her wearing her golden age costume, as is often claimed, she is actually wearing a version that would not be seen until several months later in Wonder Woman#204[3].

The sadly ironic thing is that the comic had just started addressing feminist issues in a mature way when the plug was pulled. In fact the first result of the change back to "original" Wonder Woman was that the proposed sequel to the feminist storyline of #203 was cancelled, to be replaced with some cosmetic multiculturalism and Wonder Woman in her secret identity weeping over her lack of success with men when she was wearing glasses. I'm not sure that this was really what Gloria Steinem had in mind.

Gloria Steinem once said "The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off." The truth about Gloria Steinem that I am left with from all this is that she was deeply devoted to the idea of Wonder Woman, but rather less interested in the actual comic.

[1] Wonder Woman A Ms. Book published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston and Warner Books 1972.

[2] Superman has 10, Batman has 11, Legion of Superheroes are up to 12.

[3] You can tell the period of any Wonder Woman illustration from the shorts. In 1942 they are halfway down to her knees, by 1968 they are hot pants, but they are not cut as high as shown on the Ms. Cover until 1972.

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