Monday, August 8, 2011
MYTHCOMICS #23: WONDER WOMAN #1 (1942)
PLOT-SUMMARY: Captain Steve Trevor’s plane goes missing. Weeks later, the captain is brought to a hospital by a mysterious costumed female whom Trevor calls “my Wonder Woman.” Then, for most of the story’s thirteen pages, the narration recounts “the history of the unconquerable Amazons” in an extended flashback. The narration asserts that Earth has been ruled since antiquity by two rival deities: Ares/Mars, who incarnates the masculine principle of conquest through warfare, and Aphrodite, who embodies the feminine principle of conquest through love. Because men become dominant in the real world, the goddess creates from clay a race of “super women” who will reign supreme as long as their queen Hippolyte wears her magic girdle. Hercules, emissary of Mars, seeks to take away the girdle but fails to best Hippolyte in battle. Hercules then uses “woman’s own weapon” to flatter Hippolyte into letting him hold the girdle. Hercules and his men then enslave and bind all the Amazons. Aphrodite gives her children the power to break their chains, but only if they agree to wear the manacles ever after to symbolize “the folly of submitting to men’s domination.” After breaking free, the Amazons found a new city upon secluded Paradise Island. On the island the all-female community enjoys youthful immortality but cannot bring forth new Amazons except by molding them from magic clay, as Queen Hippolyte does to give birth to Princess Diana. Diana has grown to womanhood by the time Trevor’s plane crashes near Paradise Island. She rescues him, heals his worst injuries with Amazon technology, and falls in love with him. Aphrodite, provoked by Mars’ success at plunging the Earth into World War II, decrees that one of the Amazons must go forth to battle for democracy. Hippolyte holds a tournament to select the strongest Amazon but forbids Diana to enter. A disguised Diana does so anyway and wins the right to be the champion; this includes gaining mastery of the magic lasso, whose links are taken “from the magic girdle.” Before taking Trevor back to America, she helps him capture one of the spies responsible for Trevor’s crash. Back in the present, Trevor receives more nursing from the bespectacled Diana Prince, whom he fails to recognize as “his Wonder Woman.”
MYTH-ANALYSIS: This story is the third iteration of Wonder Woman’s origin, and the fullest in terms of its myth-symbolism. The first 6-page origin from ALL-STAR COMICS #8 offered a shorter version of the same basic story seen in WONDER WOMAN #1, while SENSATION COMICS #1 deals only with the heroine’s first adventure in WWII America, including her masquerade as nurse Diana Prince, which this story treats as a given.
ALL-STAR #8 does situate the WWII conflict as one of male and female principles, with the Amazon goddesses championing America specifically because it’s “the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women.” The story in WONDER WOMAN #1 (referred to henceforth as “Origin” since the tale sports no title) enlarges the conflict to more literally mythic proportions. Just as Empedocles used the abstract principles of Love and War (aka "Strife") to philosophically analyze the nature of the real universe, author Marston makes these principles the underpinnings of his fictional universe. It’s significant that although Love is the superior force in Marston’s world, it is only superior by virtue of absorbing the forcefulness of War in order to transform it.
The best-known element of the Marstonverse-- that of bondage-- also receives far more emphasis in “Origin” than in the earlier stories. The Amazons can remain supreme only as long as Hippolyte’s waist is bound by the magic girdle, which is best interpreted as a displaced vaginal symbol. Marston rewrites the Classical mythological story of Hercules’ theft of the Amazonian magic girdle so as to undercut its masculine theme of conquest through pure strength, in that Marston’s Amazons possess greater strength than any man as long as they remain true to Aphrodite’s commandments. Ironically, Hercules wins the girdle only through resorting to stereotypically feminine strategy. Though there is no literal sex in “Origin” the loss of the girdle logically signifies defloration. When the Amazons escape bondage they regain their strength through the goddess’ grace, but thereafter they wear manacles that may signify the deflowered vagina even as the girdle signified virgin wholeness. On a side-note, Marston doesn’t remain consistent about tracing the heroine’s magic lasso from the girdle, but “Origin” offers an interesting parallel in that the girdle allows the Amazons to enforce their will in battle while the lasso allows its wielder to assert his or her will over the person bound.
Diana’s rescue of Trevor, “dude in distress,” is obviously another rewriting of traditional masculine prerogatives. Still, though the rescue in “Origin” is tempered with a feminine symbolism as well, in that Diana is also Trevor’s nurse, both on Paradise Island and back in Trevor’s world. “Origin” also emphasizes Diana’s status as a bestower of life, in that Paradise Island’s royal physician actually pronounces Trevor dead before Diana brings him back to life. One could even say that her bringing him back from the dead allows her to achieve the goal of motherhood sans intercourse, just as Diana herself is conceived through virgin birth.
However, despite his helplessness Trevor’s presence on Paradise Island constitutes just as much of a trespass on feminine prerogatives as did the depredations of Hercules. ALL-STAR #8 explicitly claims that Trevor’s crash near Paradise Island was the result of a decree by the gods. This notion is not stated at all in “Origin,” but the effect is the same: Trevor’s male presence breaks down feminine reserve, and Diana’s loss of her immortality because of “men’s warring world” roughly parallels the Amazon’s loss of their original Greek city because of Hercules and his raiders. Still, Aprhodite’s strategy, delcaring a need for a champion is essentially feminine. As Aphrodite's champion, Wonder Woman will show the ability to equal men in terms of dispensing violence yet to temper that violence with a feminine eye toward what Marston calls elsewhere “lovingkindness.”
“Origin” could also serve as a satirical commentary on Laura Mulvey’s oversimple concept of “the male gaze.” Though Trevor is an intrusive presence, he sees nothing of the Amazon world for most of the story, and indeed his eyes seem to have been injured from his experience, since on page 12 he comments that “my eyes must be bad again” as he sees Diana in all her costumed finery, rather than as “the scientist who saved my life.” Rather than seeing, he is the one seen as Diana and her friend Mala rescue him from the waters. Yet only Diana, the one explicitly born on Paradise Island, falls in love with him and brings him back to life. Toward the tale’s end, when Hippolyte prepares to send Trevor back to his world in the company of Diana, the physician relates that she has removed Trevor’s “eye bandages.” Hippolyte orders that Trevor “must see nothing on Paradise Island,” and Diana retorts, “Nothing except me! I’ll bind him again--myself!” While Hippolyte protects Paradise Island from the rapacious gaze of men, Diana accepts Trevor’s gaze and his desire, though the binding of Trevor’s eyes may prefigure her intent to convert him, and every other man, to the bondage of Aphrodite’s law.
To be sure, Wonder Woman's mission to save democracy causes both of them to put off gratification of their desires. Marston certainly channeled this motif from previous superhero comics, especially SUPERMAN. This postponement may remind one of Max Weber's "deferred gratification," though clearly in this context the deferral doesn't serve a capitalist ethic. Rather, postponement of desire serves the very different economy of storytelling: distancing the problems of mature adults within a juvenile fiction-matrix as well as keeping the sexual tension at a predictable status quo. “Origin” ends on such a note of unresolved tension, in that Trevor does not recognize in his plain-Jane nurse “the glamorous beauty of the Amazon princess.” Diana’s last words re: her alter ego--“I’m sure she’ll always come quickly when you need her”-- offer the reader the promise that the thrill of the heroine’s rescues will remain constant. On a deeper symbolic level, Marston as author certainly knows that Wonder Woman’s conversion of “man’s world” to the law of Aphrodite is his personal fantasy, but as long as his creation Wonder Woman keeps saving fictional victims, that law is continuously validated.