Posts Tagged ‘Book Look’

A Book Look: Kanigher’s Giant Birds

January 10, 2011

The Silver Age was a whacky, fantastical time.  The campy adventures brought about by the impressively strict Comics Code Authority in 1954 removed any lingering World War Two era grittiness from superhero comics.  Thus, Lois Lane often encountered new technologies that made her severely overweight or gave her the head of a cat, while Batman sported all manner of new costumes, including zebra and rainbow models.  It was a silly time.

Kanigher, the writer of Wonder Woman throughout the entire Silver Age, totally embodied the vibe of this period.  He relished Wonder Woman’s mythological origins, and came up with all manner of bizarre beasts for her to battle.  Kanigher tried to mix it up, with cannibal clams and sphinx creatures and the like, but his favourite go-to foe was the giant bird.  I have no idea why, but he went back to the giant bird well over and over and over.

Nothing better encapsulates the essence of Silver Age Wonder Woman stories than the fact that Wonder Woman had to battle six specifically different types of giant birds in a twenty issue span.  It was giant birds ALL the time, and I’ll enumerate them now for your infotainment:

Wonder Woman #101: Pterodactyl

Wonder Woman and Steve get trapped in a creepy amusement park fun house, where a dastardly villain transports them to a world full of dinosaurs.  Right away, a giant pterodactyl is all over them, and of course a spectacular battle ensues (their escape involves lassoing a flaming meteor).

Wonder Woman #105: The Eagle of Space

Steve is sent on a space mission in a new rocket ship, but gets ensnared of the beak of the massive eagle of space.  The bird is from Saturn’s moon, Titan, and flew to Earth on cosmic jet streams… Titan even has cave people, but then Wonder Woman totally violates the Prime Directive and telepathically teaches them all about Earth technology.

Wonder Woman #113: Roc

A roc is a giant mythical bird, and here it has interrupted Wonder Girl’s birthday party and stolen her cake.  Obviously that’s not cool at all, so Wonder Girl sets off after the roc, but ultimately the giant bird drops the cake into the ocean where it’s eaten by a whale. 

Wonder Woman #114: Giant Bird Balloon

Wonder Woman is attending a parade, when all of a sudden the giant balloon floats come to life.  Among the floats is this giant, spotted bird who comes after the invisible plane, but Wonder Woman cleverly dives into a gorge and the balloon bird scrapes along its rocky sides and pops.

Wonder Woman #119: Generic “Huge Flying Monster”

What this creature lacks in naming specificity it makes up for in danger!!  Mer-Boy is trying to win a fishing contest so he can give the prize to Wonder Girl (though I don’t know why mer-people would engage in a fishing contest… that seems like a catastrophe in the making), but his over-enthusiastic cast snares a huge flying monster.  Luckily, Wonder Girl was nearby and rescued him.

Wonder Woman #121: Dimorphodon

Mer-Boy has the worst luck with giant birds.  He and Wonder Girl had just swam through a time portal in a sunken ship and ended up in the age of the dinosaurs, and right away the poor dude was snatched up.  He really needs to learn to stay under the sea.  Wonder Girl again saves him, and the Hippolyta leads the Amazons in an epic space battle… it’s a weird (but AWESOME) issue.

What is most impressive about these six giant birds in twenty issues is that I’m only counting the times a NEW type of giant bird is mentioned.  There are several OTHER rocs and pterodactyls throughout this span… I’m only pointing out one instance of each sort of giant bird!!  Kanigher was completely out of hand with his use of massive avian foes, but this abundance of colossal winged enemies perfectly captures the wall-to-wall ridiculousness of the Silver Age.  It may not have been the best of eras, qualitywise, but it was certainly lots of fun.


A Book Look: The Lost (And Found) Matriarchal Past

December 29, 2010

When Wonder Woman gave up her superpowers and became a normal human being in the late 1968, it did not go over particularly well.  Nowhere was this more true than in the burgeoning women’s liberation movement, who quickly adopted the Amazon Wonder Woman as a feminist icon and advocated for a return to her roots.  It is in this period that Wonder Woman appeared on the first issue of Ms. magazine and Gloria Steinem published a collection of Wonder Woman stories from the 1940s.  Many feminists saw Wonder Woman as a powerful symbol, and ultimately the classic star-spangled costume came back in 1973, along with all her superpowers.

The restoration of the Amazon Wonder Woman brought in some new readers, and one of their letters gives us a cool insight into the beliefs of the women who saw Wonder Woman as a feminist symbol.  This letter is from Wonder Woman #212, published in June 1974… I pasted the letter page header on top of the letter just for fun:

First off, I doubt that “Forfreedom” is her real last name, though that would be really fun if it was.  OH COOL I just googled “Ann Forfreedom”… it seems that she’s sort of a big deal!!  Look for a separate Ann Forfreedom post later today.  SPOILER ALERT:  “Forfreedom” is not her real last name.

But on to the letter.  Forfreedom writes that “we contemporary women are now beginning to realize our great matriarchal Amazonian heritage,” and goes on to say that “our real foremothers combined many characteristics, which is precisely why patriarchs could not accept the continued existence of such all-female societies.”  Forfreedom is talking about the Amazons as if they were real, historically speaking, which may strike you as a little bit odd.  But the actual existence of the Amazons is only the tip of the iceberg.

In 1971, Elizabeth Gould Davis published The First Sex, which argues that humanity was originally a peaceful, matriarchal society in which everyone worshipped a female deity and things were lovely and harmonious.  Then men took over with violence and war, put in place male deities, and set about subjugating women for the next several thousand years.  Davis was building on the work of writers such as J.J. Bachofen and Helen Diner, who had made similar claims.  Diner’s most famous work was entitled “Mothers and Amazons”, while Bachofen wrote that “Amazonism is a universal phenomenon,” a step towards the matriarchal utopia at the dawn of all human societies.  “Amazon” did not strictly refer to the warrior women of Greek myth, but rather to this larger concept of matriarchal prehistory.  It is likely this broader definition that Forfreedom refers to, the idea of a powerful and peaceful era of humanity when women ruled.

This concept was empowering for many women in the early 1970s.  It suggested that men had not always been in charge, and thus offered inspiration to their efforts for equality.  This powerful matriarchy may have been lost, but knowledge of its existence gave hope that it could be restored.  Although this concept is less popular today, it was a source of great interest for many feminists at the time, and was linked to Wonder Woman beyond just this letter.  In her preface to Steinem’s Wonder Woman story collection, Phyllis Chesler wrote an imaginary conversation between herself, Bachofen, and Diner, linking Wonder Woman explicitly to their theories of originary matriarchy.

While this concept was a popular one, it was also largely hokum.  And I’m not saying that because I am a tool of the patriarchy, trying to keep women down… damn near every feminist with any historical or anthropological background has dismissed these theories as wildly inaccurate.  But regardless, this concept of a past matriarchy sheds light on why Wonder Woman became such a potent feminist symbol in the early 1970s.  Her direct connection to the Amazons, the most famous matriarchal society of all time, resonated strongly with those in the women’s liberation movement who drew hope from The First Sex and other similar books.  Wonder Woman was a link back to the era they aimed to restore, and was thus an inspiring symbol for many.

A Book Look: Tied Up In The Golden Lasso

December 10, 2010

Wonder Woman’s golden lasso is one of the character’s most iconic symbols, second probably only to her bullet-deflecting bracelets.  Crafted from the girdle of Hippolyte, the symbol of her ruling power (and, in the post-Crisis era, crafted from the girdle of Gaea), anyone ensnared in the lasso was compelled to tell the truth. 

William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, was one of the inventors of the lie detector test, and most historians associate the lasso with this.  In many ways, the lasso was a portable polygraph that gave Wonder Woman the ability to learn the truth from anyone.  However, there was far more to Marston’s view of the lasso than just a reflection of his past work.

In a 1942 interview in Family Circle magazine, Marston had this to say about the lasso:

Her magic lasso is merely a symbol of feminine charm, allure, oomph, attraction.  Every woman uses that power on people of both sexes whom she wants to influence or control in any way.  Instead of tossing a rope, the average woman tosses words, glances, gestures, laughter, and vivacious behavior.  If her aim is accurate, she snares the attention of her would-be victim, man or woman, and proceeds to bind him or her with her charm.

Basically, the lasso represents sexuality.  Being tied up in the lasso was the equivalent of being entranced by a woman’s feminine wiles.  The lasso wasn’t a lie detector so much as a mind-control device… forcing you to tell the truth was just one of the many facets of its mind-controlling nature.  Look at what Wonder Woman does when she first gets the lasso:

She’s not making the woman tell the truth.  Wonder Woman is controlling her mind, and making her do whatever she commands. 

Allure was a key component of Marston’s approach to feminism.  He believed that woman possessed dual natures that everyone yearned for: maternal love and sexual allure.  By effectively using the two together, Marston believed that women could get men to do whatever they said, and eventually take over the world.  The lasso was a metaphor, a physical manifestation of Wonder Woman’s, and all women’s, entrancing sexual charms, and the power therein.

Here’s where it gets tricky.  The following chart tabulates the use of the lasso in the first ten issues of Wonder Woman:

These numbers show that Wonder Woman was tied up in her lasso almost as often as she was tying someone else up!!  So for every one of these:

There was one of these:

So what does it mean that Wonder Woman was as regularly ensnared by her sexual power as aided by it?  Well, on the one hand it means that the dominant patriarchy (in this case, villains) will try to use a woman’s powers against her.  But on the other, it might mean that the all-male creative team behind Wonder Woman were not so keen to let a woman possess all the sexual power fun, which casts some doubts on the “women will take over the world” feminism that was supposedly behind her creation.

For more (and there’s SO MUCH more), you will have to hope that I sell my book.  But for now, when you read Wonder Woman you can see her lasso usage in a slightly weirder light.

A Book Look: Golden Age Heroics

December 6, 2010

Wonder Woman has always been different, even from the very start.  Yeah, she’s a woman in a pantheon of male superheroes, but there’s more than that.  There is an inherent optimism to Wonder Woman that is unmatched throughout comicdom.  Most of her well known colleagues are orphans with issues (Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, etc), but Wonder Woman is a together sort of superhero.

This difference was most stark at the dawn of the superhero genre, way back in the late 1930s and early 1940s.  Many early superheroes were vigilante rebels and cold-hearted warriors.  Unlike today, when superheroes rarely kill their foes (and when they do, it’s usually unintentional and they feel AWFUL about it afterward for unnecessarily long story arcs), death was a common fate for villains at the beginning of the Golden Age.  Superheroes who we today consider bastions of strong moral character are almost unrecognizable in their earliest incarnations.

Superman wasn’t much of a killer, but he certainly wasn’t afraid to threaten bad guys with death.  Look at him here in Action Comics #2, having a pleasant conversation with a nefarious character:

That panel is sort of hard to read, so here is the relevant text: “You see how effortlessly I crush this bar of iron in my hand? — That bar could just as easily be your neck!”  In the next panel, Superman has even more kindly words for his friend:

Here Superman informs the man that if he doesn’t leave town on that ship, “I swear I’ll follow you to whatever hole you hide in and tear out your cruel heart with my bare hands!”  So much for the Boy Scout we know and love today.

Captain America is another stalwart hero who is generally considered to be an upstanding guy, but here he is in Captain America Comics #1:

Instead of stopping a man from committing suicide, Cap stands idly by while he rolls over onto a needle full of poison and kills himself.  Again, this is not the sort of behaviour we associate with our heroes.

Today, Batman can be menacing and overly physical, but he is staunchly against taking the life of others.  Case in point: The Joker is still alive!!  If Batman was ever going to kill anyone, he’d off the Joker, yet the Joker remains alive.  But here is Batman in Detective Comics #27, his first appearance:

A strong punch from Batman sends the gun-toting villain into a vat of acid.  An accident?  Perhaps.  But there were A LOT of such “accidents” in early Batman stories.  Plus, look at the next panel:

He doesn’t seem terribly concerned with just killing a dude. 

Golden Age superheroes were a different breed early on.  They’d soon settle down, start to work with authorities, and adhere to stringent moral codes, but when Wonder Woman first appeared in 1941, this cruelty and disregard for human life was the norm.  But Wonder Woman was different.  Wonder Woman was created to be a new sort of crimefighter, one who embodied love and peace.  Consider how she deals with a would-be assassin in Wonder Woman #1:

Wonder Woman doesn’t just not kill her attacker, she actually saves her life!!  In the panels that follow, Wonder Woman takes the time to learn about her assailant and why she is involved in a life of crime, ultimately helping the woman out of her unfortunate circumstances.

It’s no accident that the original Wonder Woman was so different from her peers.  Her creator, William Moulton Marston, intentionally crafted her to be a counter to the harsh, violent male superheroes crowding the newsstands.  As to why he did so, well, this is just a peek at my book… I can’t give it all away.  But hopefully you will be able to read all about it soon!!

A Book Look: Advertisement Addendum

November 22, 2010

Earlier this week we looked at the advertisements in the first issue from Wonder Woman’s mod era in 1968, when DC was apparently trying to reach more female readers.  Here is another example of the ads not quite matching the aim of the series.

This ad for Iverson’s bicycles appeared in Wonder Woman #183, six issues into the revamped Wonder Woman run:

Then in Wonder Woman #186, nine issues into the new run, Iverson changed their ad:

Can you spot the major difference?  No, it’s not going from top hats to sombreros.  Let’s look a little closer.

Here’s George Barris telling us about the bicycles in Wonder Woman #183:

And then in Wonder Woman #186:

Yep.  They dropped the mention of the bike that was “especially for girls”.  In my book, I do a statistical study of the ads in Wonder Woman throughout the 1960s, categorizing them as aimed at boys, girls, or gender neutral.  Iverson’s is the ONLY company who switched categories, going from gender neutral to aimed at boys… and right in the middle of the mod era to boot.  The ads and the target audience were REALLY not matching up for DC.

A Book Look: Ads vs. Audience

November 19, 2010

I wrote a thesis about Wonder Woman, and have just finished adapting that thesis into a book (I took out all the boring, thesisy stuff, I promise).  Occasionally, I’ll post an interesting bit from the book, partly for shameless self-promotion, and partly because it’s just fun.

So in 1968, DC completely revamped Wonder Woman.  She gave up her Amazon powers and her costume and became a normal human (albeit it one with mad kung fu skills).  The new direction began here, with Wonder Woman #178:

A major goal of this change was to appeal to female readers, as you can tell from the following ad that appeared in other DC comic books:

Now, you would think that this female targeting would be reflected in all aspects of the book, but here are the advertisements from Wonder Woman #178.  There were a few of the gender neutral variety: 

But most of them were comprised of traditional “boy” items, such as toy vehicles:


Various types of soldiers:

And books to make you a he-man:

There wasn’t a single ad directed at girls specifically.  Weird, right?  If you were trying to reach a female audience, shouldn’t the ads have reflected your expected readership?  What’s the deal?!

Yeah, I’m not gonna tell you what the deal is.  I can’t spoil the book!!  But man, old comic book ads are the best.  Did you look at that astronaut toughness ad?  I wish modern comics asked me “Friend, dare YOU risk 25¢?”  Hell, it would just be fun if the ads referred to me as “friend”.  Or offered me books for a quarter and three square feet of battlefield (with aircraft carriers AND planes AND destroyers AND more!!) for a buck thirty.  Video games and DVD box sets are expensive!!

Anyway, I get a kick out of the juxtaposition of ads and audience in Wonder Woman #178… it just seems like a bizarre disconnect.  OR IS IT??  Oh right, I’m not telling you…

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