Featured Post

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...

Friday, June 16, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "BATTLE FOR WOMANHOOD" (WONDER WOMAN #5, 1943)

Since I just finished my review of the new WONDER WOMAN film this week, this week’s mythcomic will be another selection frojm the Golden Age WONDER WOMAN mythos created by Wulliam Moulton Marston.

Though I’ve analyzed other Marston stories here and here, both stories display a tendency seen during the first year-and-a-half of the feature’s existence: a lack of significant villains for the hero to battle. Prior to the 1943 story “Battle for Womanhood,” the Amazon’s only outstanding foes were the rather tedious spy-chief Paula Von Gunther and the evil scientist Doctor Poison, who was both the heroine’s first costumed enemy and her first transvestite opponent. There were also an assortment of villains from exotic cultures, outer space, and of course from the Olympian pantheon, but these evildoers tended to lack any strong character-traits. Nowhere is this better seen than in the otherworldly enemy who racked up the greatest number of bouts with the Amazon: the god Mars, who incarnated all the bad aspects of the male gender. But though Mars caused Wonder Woman a lot of trouble, he never became anything more than an abstract evil. However, the war-god indirectly gave rise to the heroine’s first major foe, Doctor Psycho, and this character opened the floodgates for one of the Golden Age’s best rogues’ galleries.

“Battle for Womanhood” commences with Mars receiving a report from a female slave (wearing leg-irons, no less). The report concerns the growing prominence of women lending their efforts to the Allied conflict with the Axis powers. Mars fears that women “will achieve a horrible independence;” further, once women are no longer considered “the spoils of war,” they will “grow stronger than men and put an end to war.” But because Wonder Woman has bested the war-god and his underlings in past encounters, none of them want to face her wrath again. One of the god’s underlings, “the Duke of Deception,” solves the problem, for he’s made contact with a mortal who hates women as much as Mars does. So the Duke—who looks like a short, wizened man in Greek armor—descends to Earth. Emulating the gods of Homer’s Iliad, who spoke invisibly to the Greek warriors in the field, the Duke appears at the side of the mortal cat's-paw, whispering in the man’s ear in order to egg him on—and that’s the last readers see of Mars or his servants in the narrative.



The cat's-paw is none other than a brilliant but embittered scientist, Doctor Psycho. The story implies that this is his real name, not an assumed cognomen, but it’s also probably a mild self-parody on the part of Marston, given that he held a PhD in psychology. Psycho—a short, ugly man with an over-sized cranium—is seen receiving an honor at a medical college. His specialty is never disclosed, though his research involves the use of radium. Psycho’s male classmates, mostly depicted as square-jawed swains, mock the runty fellow for his ugliness, calling him “pumpkin head.” Even Psycho’s own fiancée, a student named Marva, doesn’t want him to “get mushy” with her because he’s so homely, though she claims to admire his brilliant mind. Slightly later, Psycho even sees a college athlete, Ben Bradley, putting the moves on Marva, and it’s plain to both Psycho and the readers that her protests are weak at best. Psycho considers letting Marva out of her engagement, but before he has the chance, that same night someone steals radium from Psycho’s lab. He falls under immediate suspicion, and to make matters worse, Marva testifies that she saw Psycho leave the lab immediately after the robbery. Marva sincerely believes Psycho committed the crime, though the captions establish that she's simply mistaken: that the thief she saw was merely crouched down, not actually as short as Psycho. The scientist spends several years in prison due to Marva’s testimony, and when Psycho receives news that his former fiancée has married Ben Bradley, he’s convinced that the two of them framed him for the theft. As soon as Psycho gets out of prison, he captures Bradley and forces him to confess that he was the thief. Psycho gets his revenge by forcing Bradley to swallow a chunk of radium, knowing that it will burn holes in the man’s stomach. (Perhaps it’s an appropriate punishment, to attack the intestines of a specimen full of testosterone-fueled masculinity.) However, Bradley tries, without success, to save his miserable life by claiming that Marva masterminded the frame-up.



Psycho doesn’t want to kill Marva, though. Telling her that “death is too good for you,” the villain hypnotizes Marva, so that she agrees to marry him, and presumably no longer discourages him from “getting mushy.” However, Psycho’s main focus is that of using her as his own cat's-paw, to undermine the advancement of women generally. Though Psycho has studied the occult sciences, he apparently has no talent for channeling the ectoplasmic powers of the spirit world. However, he can tap such energies through a female medium. In all successive appearances of the villain when scripted by Marston, Psycho always needs a female to make his evil magic, so it may be that Marston was thinking of something along the lines of the legendary sorcerer Simon Magus, whose legend includes him traveling with a female companion who possessed mediumistic talents.

Psycho’s principal schtick is that he can, as he later tells Wonder Woman, “materialize a body and wear it like a cloak.” Thus he embarks upon a scheme to undermine America’s faith in its female workforce, which is presumably the goal that Mars’ agent inspired him to seek. He makes the public announcement that he and his medium can conjure forth the spirit of George Washington, the country’s founding father, to counsel the nation on its future fate. Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor are both on hand when “George Washington” appears on a stage, though it’s really just an ectoplasmic shell inhabited by Psycho and conjured forth by Marva. (In keeping with Marston’s affection for bondage, Marva is both bound and blindfolded during the experiment.) “Washington” voices the fears of a patriarchal culture, claiming that “women will betray their country through weakness,” and predicting that feminine carelessness will bring about the destruction of a major artillery factory. Naturally, Psycho makes this prediction come true.



Wonder Woman tries twice to expose Psycho’s tricks, without success, and it’s hard to say what would have been her next move, if Psycho hadn’t chosen to enact a frame-up on three female secretaries at the same army base where Trevor works. Though the frame-up works, and the secretaries are jailed, Trevor takes it upon himself to investigate Psycho once more. This time Psycho, instead of playing a waiting game, decides to render Trevor unconscious. The villain then creates an ectoplasmic double of Trevor and uses it to summon Wonder Woman via her much-used “mental radio” device. In short order Psycho not captures the Amazon, he splits off her astral body from her physical form, keeping the latter in a cage and chaining the astral form to a wall with “bands of psycho-electric magnetism.” Psycho, though he debates killing Trevor before deciding to use him, never says what he plans to do with Wonder Woman. Maybe he thinks death’s also too good for her as well. Or maybe he’s content to double his bondage pleasure by causing her to be literally "beside herself."



For once Wonder Woman does absolutely nothing to win free. Psycho is only foiled because he imprisons Steve Trevor instead of simply killing him. Because of this, Trevor is able to send his own mental message to Wonder Woman’s sidekick girl-gang, the Holliday Girls. They show up on Psycho’s doorstep, and Psycho tries to get rid of them by assuming another disguise: that of a handsome Latino lab assistant. Possibly Psycho’s own buried desire for female regard betrays him in this, for his handsome disguise causes the girls to start pestering him for dates. (Indeed, it’s not entirely clear as to whether they still remember the mission they’re on.) Because the villain becomes distracted, he loses mental control of the devices imprisoning the heroine, who rejoins her body and then frees both Trevor and Marva. Psycho is captured, and Wonder Woman addresses Marva’s general wimpiness with an empowering homily: “the better you can fight, the less you’ll have to.”



Marston was apparently intrigued enough with his new villain that, in addition to giving him the first of the three stories in WONDER WOMAN #5, the evildoer also appears in the third tale, retroactively titled “Return of Dr. Psycho.” It’s a much simpler story, in which Psycho uses an ectoplasmic double to escape his execution in prison and to fake his death. The only interesting aspect of “Return” is the fact that the villain once again needs a woman to create his psychic shells, though he’s forced to choose someone other than Marva to achieve this task. This is nearly tantamount to saying that only the gender that possesses a womb can also create things in the psychic realm, which seems like a rather strange dictum for a male author to propound.


Dozens of academic papers have been written on the notion that “narratives of masculinity” in fiction always have conceptual holes in them that allegedly prove the impossibility of the whole narrative. By this logic, it ought to be possible to find just as many holes in “narratives of femininity,” if one wished to play such a one-upping game. I don’t doubt for a moment that Marston means it seriously when he foresees women becoming a beneficial force on society through legal and cultural emancipation. However, I find it significant that in this story about a man seeking revenge on the female sex because of perceived wrongs, the main heroine lacks her usual competence, and even the females who come to her aid only are brought in at the last minute, by the agency of another man. Moreover, while a lot of Marston’s female victims are sympathetic despite being one-dimensional characters, Marva is both one-dimensional and unsympathetic. Marston says nothing about her motives for remaining engaged to a man she doesn’t love, but I speculate that the motives could have gone beyond mere admiration for his mind, into the realm of the fortune hunter. Surely Marston was familiar in his time with women who went to college not for their betterment, but to marry men who might earn big bank accounts in future. Even putting that aside as sheer speculation, Marva also seems rather stupid in her conviction that Psycho committed the radium theft, given that she didn’t even see his face. Since she does marry Psycho’s rival later, one might argue that on some buried PSYCHO-logical level, she wanted to get rid of an unattractive fiancée, even if her conscious mind wanted to marry for money. By creating a male villain who sins only because he’s been “sinned against” by a woman, Marston pokes a sizable hole in his own anti-male rhetoric, and draws a picture of feminine fallibility that no empowering slogans can efface.

No comments: