From their inception, comic books, like other forms of mass entertainment, have had detractors. None is more famous—or more fondly remembered—than Fredric Wertham, the child psychiatrist and author of Seduction of the Innocent, who charged that comic books turned their readers into juvenile delinquents and sexual deviants. If Wertham, who died in 1981, hadn't existed, he would have surely been invented by a clever satirist looking for a sex-obsessed, puritanical foil.
A true arch-enemy of the form, Wertham's critique of comics went beyond criminological concerns: Comics didn't just pervert children, you see, but ruined their ability to appreciate fine literature and art later on in life. He argued that tales about Batman—not to mention Tales from the Crypt—were like heavily seasoned food that destroyed young aesthetic palates before they could be trained to appreciate delicate, refined fare. Shakespeare, he fretted, just couldn't follow Superman.
If Wertham was the Lex Luthor of comics, hell-bent on their total annihilation, then William Moulton Marston was their Man of Steel, dedicated to championing their cause. Marston was a Harvard-trained psychologist who had a law degree to go along with his Ph.D. In the '20s and '30s, Marston was best known as a tireless advocate of the polygraph—he developed an early lie detector machine—and he lobbied unsuccessfully for its use in the courts.
Never one to slough off publicity, Marston even appeared in a 1938 Gillette razor blade advertisement that used a lie detector test to discover men's "true" feelings about various shaving aids. (The "scientific shaving tests," which measured subjects' subconscious reactions, overwhelmingly found that Gillette blades minimized the subtle "emotional disturbances" caused by competitors' products.)
In 1941, under the pseudonym Charles Moulton, Marston created the first great female comic book hero, Wonder Woman, a displaced Amazon princess who helped the Allies defeat the Axis Powers while seeking romance on the side. (Unsurprisingly, Wertham was appalled by the character, which he denounced for its "lesbian overtones.") Unlike most intellectuals, Marston celebrated the popularity of the comic book form and saw it as an opportunity to get kids to read—and to circulate radical feminist notions. Writing in Phi Beta Kappa's journal, The American Scholar, in the early '40s, he noted: "It's too bad for us 'literary' enthusiasts, but it's the truth nevertheless—pictures tell any story more effectively than words….If children will read comics…why isn't it advisable to give them some constructive comics to read?"
For Marston, the most "constructive" comics were those that laid the groundwork for what he insisted was the coming age of "American matriarchy" in which "women would take over the rule of the country, politically and economically."
As Les Daniels recounts in the fully enjoyable and always fascinating new book, Wonder Woman: The Complete History (Chronicle Books): "Marston believed women were less susceptible than men to the negative traits of aggression and acquisitiveness, and could come to control the comparatively unruly male sex by alluring them….He was convinced that as political and economic equality became a reality women could and would use sexual enslavement to achieve domination over men, who would happily submit to their loving authority."
Such notions, suggests Daniels, help explain some of Wonder Woman's crime-fighting accoutrements, especially her "magic lasso" that—shades of a lie detector!—forces men to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Marston's personal life was every bit as unconventional as his ideas about matriarchy; if nothing else, the details make one wonder about his fixation on liberated women. In 1915, the same year he graduated from Harvard, Marston married a Mt. Holyoke grad named Elizabeth Holloway, who went on to earn an M.A. and law degree, and to assist him in his psychological research. In the late '20s, when teaching at Tufts University, Marston met a student named Olive Richard, who moved in with him and his wife.
Marston had two children by each woman and he and his wife formally adopted his children by Richard. "It was an arrangement where they [all] lived together fairly harmoniously," one of Marston's sons told Daniels. A business associate vouched for Marston's offbeat arrangement, remembering him as "the most remarkable host, with a lovely bunch of kids from different wives…all living together like one big family—everybody very happy and all good, decent people."
Whether Marston's feminist utopia, which Daniels calls "simultaneously daring and touchingly naive," has come to pass, his contribution to popular culture has endured. By the time of his death in 1947, Wonder Woman was already a household name (and a cottage industry), appearing in various comic books and newspaper strips; she remains a vibrant part of popular culture, whether as a feminist icon, the hero of a campy late-'70s action-adventure show, or the subject of Strength of Will, a graphic novel by Alex Ross coming this fall from DC Comics.
Marston made at least one other contribution to popular culture that, while perhaps less eye-catching than his full-figured, superpowered Amazon, is no less significant.
In influential venues as diverse as The American Scholar and Family Circle, he anticipated, in what might charitably be called comic book prose, much that is taken for granted among contemporary scholars of cultural studies. He argued that mass forms such as comics deserve something other than opprobrium and scorn—and he suggested that like other, more accepted forms of creative expression, comics can sometimes touch "the tender spots of universal human desires and aspirations …[and] speak to the innermost ears of the wishful self."