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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, April 16, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "A SPY ON PARADISE ISLAND" (WONDER WOMAN #3, 1943)




Since I referred to the mythic content of Wonder Woman that barely saw light of day in BATMAN VS, SUPERMAN, I ought to allude here to some of that content, though not purely for that reason. As I've detailed in many posts, most recently here, Wonder Woman's mythic qualities are not defined by her ideological correctness. Creator William Moulton Marston is particularly vulnerable to this sort of misreading, given that he did his best to promote his superheroine as the harbinger of a gynocentric "loving authority" that would someday transform the world.

Fortunately, since Marston was an inspired creator, his Amazon alter-ego often indulged in a great deal of free-form fantasy, rather than mere ideological posturing. Thus even when he was trying to stick to an ideological point, he sometimes included material that diverged from his ostensible program, as will be seen in my examination of a 1943 story from WONDER WOMAN #3, retroactively entitled "A Spy on Paradise Island." I should note that all of the stories in this magazine are loosely related in that spy-mistress Paula Von Gunther is the main villain throughout (that's her disembodied head in the upper right section of the magazine's cover). Fortunately, "Spy" stands on its own.

The cover by itself requires a little comment, as it shows a scene nowhere in the comic: Wonder Woman assumes the role of the god Helios, who in the archaic mythology of the Greeks drove the chariot of the sun across the sky, the "quick-fix" explanation for the sun's seemingly daily revolutions. In later Hellenistic periods Helios was sometimes conflated with Apollo, brother to the hunter-goddess Artemis the Huntress (a.k.a. "Diana" in Roman myths). The mythology of Diana influenced not only this particular Wonder Woman story but arguably the author's ideal of Amazon society in general, not to mention providing the birth-name for the superheroine star of the story.

The retroactive title emphasizes the main conflict of the story: Paula escapes the custody of American justice and then undertakes an ambitious program to attack Paradise Island. Paula instructs a female underling, Keela, to stow away in Wonder Woman's plane before the heroine returns to her Amazon homeland. Once Keela arrives, she sends out a radio-beam designed to lead a Japanese submarine to the hidden island. In addition, Keela manages one or two other misdeeds to be covered later. However, the villains-- Paula, Keela and the Japanese sailors-- are mere functional cogs in the story, and even the heroine of the story herself doesn't receive that much attention compared to the culture and mythology of Paradise Island.

Wonder Woman's motive for returning to her homeland is to take part in a celebration known as "Diana's Day," explained in the opening caption as "the Amazon Christmas, when the mighty sun-god returns to Earth." By the 1940s it had become common in intellectual circles to view Christmas as having developed from the winter solstice festivals of pagan Europe, so in this regard Marston was on firm mythico-religious ground. On Page 3 Wonder Woman approaches Steve Trevor prior to her leave-taking. She tells him cryptically that she is "the moon goddess Diana," and that during Diana's Day some Amazons are appointed to impersonate the goddess, "just as you men play Santa Claus at Christmas." Marston then expands on the role of the daily sun-chariot by claiming that Apollo also drives the sun further away from the Earth in winter, only to start his return during the winter solstice (there's no attempt to deviate from the geocentric universe of the Greeks). Despite the opening caption's mention of the "mighty sun-god," Apollo's role in the ritual ends when he simply brings his Male Principle back to the mortal world, thus occasioning the celebratory rites of his sister Diana. Keeping symmetry with Wonder Woman's comparison of the Diana-ritual and "men playing Santa Claus," it's later related-- though not by Wonder Woman-- that Diana dispenses gifts "to all" on Diana's Day, seated in a silver chariot in place of Santa's sleigh, which chariot is pulled not by reindeer but by "wood nymphs."



The reader never sees the goddess Diana in the story proper, but Wonder Woman stands in for her, loading her invisible robot plane with presents to be dispensed to her fellow Amazons. She also takes her gal-pal Etta Candy along for the ride (and for comedy relief), but remains unaware of the spy Keela, who has stowed away on the flight back to the Amazon refuge.

Pages 6-10 then introduce new mythic elements taken largely from the mythology of Diana the Huntress. Wonder Woman dons a silver mask, which stands as a challenge to all other Amazons to unmask her. This was possibly Marston's fetish-y take on the rites of Diana Nemorensis, which involved a ritual combat, though not quite for the same stakes. No one manages to unmask Wonder Woman, but her own formidability-- particularly in staving off one of Keela's attacks-- discloses the heroine's identity.



At this point Marston finally comes to "the meat" of his story, which involves the second and last reference to a male myth-figure. Etta sees a group of Amazons dressed in deer-costumes, and Wonder Woman explains that this custom grew out of the Goddess Diana's passion for hunting deer, another major ritual associated with Diana's Day. Marston re-interprets the myth of Actaeon for his young audience, so that this time the male hunter is simply a "peeping tom" who spies on Diana during one of her forest-hunts. Understandably, since Marston doesn't want to portray his heroine's gods as being as bloody-minded as the originals, this Diana changes Actaeon into a deer, but nothing is said about the hunter having seen her naked or being killed by his own hunting-dogs.

However, though Marston elides the bloody ending of Actaeon, he can hardly avoid making reference to the bloody nature of hunting. Cleverly, though, the author finds a way around this difficulty. First some Amazons hunt their own kindred, who are clad in the costumes of does. The "doe-girls" then undergo a ritual of "mock death," being "shot with arrows," hung from a pole, and then "baked in a doe pie." However, the "slain" Amazons are allowed to return to life if they can perform a lively dance for the approval of the huntresses. At this point, however, the genuine menace of Keela intrudes on the rituals of Diana's Day, and the lesson in Amazon mythology is almost over-- though the contention between the villainess and the Amazon Princess does involve a wrestling-struggle, roughly akin to the ones Wonder Woman has with her kindred.



While searching for illustrative images on the Web, I noted that a certain HUddite had weighed in on this Marston story. I did not read the essay, but I suspect that the author was happy to read the story in line with Marston's own philosophy: to accept that all of the re-writings of Helios/Apollo and of Santa Claus into feminine mythoi was meant to enshrine the superiority of femininity. But even though Marston probably harbored some such thought when he crafted the story, I find it significant that the story is more dependent than most upon sacral male presences.

It may be that Marston knew that his readers, though not scholars of myth, would only accept so much rewriting. Thus he does follow the common trope of a male sun-god, and one whose return is necessary before Diana's celebration can begin. Thus in this story Marston emphasizes an uncharacteristic parity between male and female. Similarly, although I can imagine that the more ideological critics might view Actaeon's transformation as a negation of male power, Marston has actually maintained the familiar archetype of the male sacrificial victim also observed in (to cite the usual suspects) Balder, Attis, and Adonis. It's been theorized that whether or not any real archaic sacrifices took place to propitiate the gods and so on, at some point the sacrifices became "mock deaths" just as they are in the Marston story. But I find it most interesting that the deer-Amazons must identify, not with the deer-slayer Diana, but with the slain male-- though of course Marston doesn't explore this theme in depth.  So even though Marston had his ideological moments, as a creator he had less in common with the HUddites than with the "Brahma" of Emerson's poem (which also concerned the identity of the slayers and the slain):

The strong gods pine for my abode,
      And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
      Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

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