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Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Though I don't have any particular threads to hand, it seems to me that whenever I've gone to webforums and posted aboutthe William Moulton Marston WONDER WOMAN as an example of a progressive comics-feature, fans' attitudes break down into three types. First is dismissive disinterest, for any number of reasons (the stylized art of HG Peter being a frequent stopper for some fans). The second reaction ranks with the tittering of ten-year-olds: "Ooh, whips and chains! And paddles!" And the third is priggish harumphing against the notion that Marston-- no matter how covertly-- introduced scenes of potential sexual nature into what was then deemed children's entertainment.

The question as to whether sexual elements should ever be introduced in children's entertainment is for me a moot one: they do enter, no matter what the author's intention, as an inevitable result of depicting more than one gender in a story (and sometimes even when the story confines itself to one gender; a homoerotic reading of TREASURE ISLAND is certainly not beyond thought). One might cavil that Marston was guilty of over-emphasizing his particular fetish in the world of 1940s comic books, and certainly critics like Frederic Wertham and Gershom Legman jumped on him for it, though their accusations that WW inculcated homosexuality and sadism in young readers have not stood the test of time. But I found it interesting that according to this article, Wertham himself considered that his heavy usage of bondage was a means of imperilling his protagonists in a less sadistic manner, according to a 1943 letter Wertham wrote to his publisher M.C. Gaines:

"Sadism consists in [sic] the enjoyment of other people’s actual suffering…. Since binding and chaining are the one harmless, painless way of subjecting the heroine to menace and making drama of it, I have developed elaborate ways of having Wonder Woman and other characters confined."

Now, one may fairly argue that Marston is papering over the apparent fact that he had a personal liking for bondage, but it does emerge as more than just that, insofar as Marston weaves his personal kink into a Empedoclean philosophy of Love and War as it pertained to the cultural events he saw around him. That philosophy had its flaws, but no more than that of Robert Crumb IMO. So Marston does deserve some credit for being one of the first raconteurs in comic books (and strips, for that matter) to articulate any sort of philosophical stance.

WONDER WOMAN's lesbian element has been attacked less frequently in recent years than its quasi-sadistic elements, and the homosexuality arguments of Wertham, Legman, and a few later writers (Jim Harmon, for one) have been adroitly refuted by Trina Robbins here. However, the question of sadism requires more in-depth study, since it is also a frequent objection made against not just WONDER WOMAN but superhero comics in general, and so will be the subject of my next essay.

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