By Rohit Chauhan
Several superheroes have gained iconic status in the comic book world thanks to their super-human feats and amazing stories beginning with Superman, Batman, Spider-man, Captain America, Hulk, the list goes on. But, if we were to do a similar listing of female superheroes who have enthralled us over the years, the list would start and stop at Wonder Woman. She has been dazzling the world for almost eighty years, has a massive fan following the world over, and is one of the most recognised heroes in the DC universe along with Superman and Batman.
Diana, aka Wonder Woman, is born in an all-female tribe of women called the Amazonian’s. She wins a contest amongst all the Amazon’s for the right to return Captain Trevor, whose plane had crashed on the Amazon's isolated homeland, to the “Man’s World” and to fight crime and evil. She is unique and special as heroic women representing women's power in a world where women have been marginalised by law or custom for an extremely long time. Wonder Woman skilfully demonstrates that being physically fit, clever, and brave are human traits, not specific to any gender. They can be easily performed by anyone. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, was an outspoken feminist and wrote in the 1943 issue of The American Scholar, “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they do not want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” Marston had created a truly special woman, one that featured both the feminine and masculine traits allowing the character to gain instant likening for its diversity by comics fans. The binary nature of the character did become an enigma for many editors after Marston’s death in 1947. They were faced with an uphill task to redefine Wonder Woman in a way that resonated with the period after the end of WW2, with most men back to work and most females back to their domestic roles.
The genesis of De-powering
Initially, writer Robert Kanigher wrote Wonder Woman as a romantic series with occasional action scenes but soon lost the plot as fans were keen to see Wonder Woman’s heroic actions and not her romantic escapades. The tussle with gender roles and expectations of its target market continued to plague the character leading to declining sales. At the end of the 1960s, the new editor of DC Comics set up a new creative team of writer Dennis O’Neil, Mike Sekowsky, and Dick Giordano to bring Wonder Woman back on track. Both O’Neil and Sekowsky raised similar concerns about Wonder Woman's origin story and her magical powers as they felt that it was highly unlikely for a lady to perform superheroes' duties. The character would appear more heroic if she had human-like skills and abilities. And so Wonder Woman was completely reinvented from a superhero to an ordinary human being. She begins using her human identity to open a mod boutique and meets a Chinese martial arts expert, I-Ching, who teaches Diana the finer nuances of martial arts. Using her fighting skills instead of her superpowers, Diana engages in short stints of fighting crime with her hand-to-hand combat skills. Sekowsky did not see Wonder Woman’s superhero mythos as special instead he felt it was out of place for a female lead character to act like a superhero even in the fictional world! So, by de-powering her godlike status and giving her a typical female look and a story arc that revolved around the premise that, ordinary women could do everything with training and determination, would allure the feminine world as well as give the character a gender-specific identity. Easy for the male-dominated industry to imagine. Sekowsky’s quote in Comic Book Herald, summarises his intention “What they were doing in Wonder Woman, I didn’t see how a kid, male or female, could relate to it. It was so far removed from their world. I felt girls might want to read something about a super-female in the real world, something very current. So, I created a new book, new characters, everything, I did up some sketches and wrote out some ideas.”
The process of De-powering
Starting with issue #178, the Wonder Woman storyline underwent drastic changes that would make one want to pity the desperation of the artists. It all begins when Steve Trevor is arrested on false charges. Diana Prince decides to go undercover to find the truth and changes her look to blend with a young crowd. Her new hair and makeover for this one mission looked weird as was Diana praising herself for the new look. Most likely the artist had a bout of amnesia for in her origin story “Diana Prince” was created as a disguise for Wonder Woman’s Amazonian beauty. The next issues grew more bizarre as Wonder Woman loses her homeland, family, friends, and her magical power. Her home the Paradise Island is 10,000 years old and needs to move to another dimension to recharge its energies. Again, the artists went overboard to ensure that Wonder Woman was deprived of her unique abilities. The entry of martial arts expert I-Ching draws the curtain down on Wonder Woman as by now she is trained in martial arts, having lost her dear friend Steve, she is running her storefront and is made to drop the dual identity of Wonder Woman. She is now just an ordinary lady named Diana Prince.
The transformation of Wonder Woman from a superhero with magical powers to a spy agent with martial arts expertise initially drew a mixed response from the audience. Some were intrigued by the modern look and fighting abilities of a female character, while others were missing the female superhero magical adventures. The over-enthusiasm of its creators to de-power the character as fast as possible led to the rendering of a superficial Wonder Woman which lacked depth and the spirit of a superhero. One could easily see the shallowness of the new version as each issue threw up more questions as to why Diana had no friends, when did she quit military intelligence, and if she went broke how she managed to run a fashion boutique, and the cherry on the cake…the blind martial arts expert I-Ching mentoring a superhero! Even the DC honcho’s supposedly got a headache seeing I-Ching, so they have never thought of reviving him. The fans were left grasping for answers, hoping the next issue might bring some sanctity to the character. Instead they were left in the lurch to find the real Wonder Woman, which sadly was erased. As the number of fans unhappy with Wonder Woman's loss of powers grew, the pressure increased on DC to revert the iconic character to its original roots. In early 1972, an American feminist journalist, Gloria Steinem (now an internationally renowned feminist), raised her voice through an all-out attack on DC’s de-powering of Wonder Woman with the now-iconic cover of Ms. Magazine featuring Wonder Woman in her traditional costume. DC comics were caught with their pants down. Gloria heavily criticised the reboot, accusing the creators of stripping the female beacon of Women’s Lib by removing her original powers and for the source of her new abilities to a male mentor. She also argued that as Wonder Woman, she was stronger than men and from a paradise unspoiled by man-induced wars. De-powering her of her Amazonian roots and her magical powers, the creators had not only muted the character’s impact but also made her meek as an ordinary lady living in a man’s world. The magazine also carried an article “Wonder Woman Revisited” which echoed the anti-feminist make-up of Wonder Woman and how an artistic decision had weakened feminism.
DC brought back Silver Age writer Robert Kanigher, tasked to power back Wonder Woman to her original avatar. Kanigher in issue #204 published in January 1973 delivered in double quick time as he restored Wonder Woman by wiping out the famed, I-Ching, when a crazy sniper fired randomly. Diana eventually kills the sniper but loses her memory. Memory replays from Amazon's memory bank help her regain her memory, costume, and the golden magic lasso. Holla, Wonder Woman was back!
Some of the Modern Age writers have been fascinated by Wonder Woman’s martial artist era. The story “Who is the Wonder Woman”, published in 2006 is a throwback to the late 1960s Wonder Woman as Diana Prince. The fact that women have been historically underrepresented across all media is why Wonder Woman became a tricky issue for so many editors and creators. Only a handful of the creative community could understand the ethos of Wonder Woman or could have imagined the way a woman would do so. Times have changed with the progression of women into fields which were once male-only domain. The internet age fans are more vocal, demanding and can easily look through any creative act meant to disguise or distract their favourite fictional characters' origin story, superpowers, or even their popular costumes.