CRF Blog

The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman

by Bill Hayes

In The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman for Smithsonian magazine, Jill Lepore tells the fascinating story.

Comic books were more or less invented in 1933 by Maxwell Charles Gaines, a former elementary school principal who went on to found All-American Comics. Superman first bounded over tall buildings in 1938. Batman began lurking in the shadows in 1939. Kids read them by the piles. But at a time when war was ravaging Europe, comic books celebrated violence, even sexual violence. In 1940, the Chicago Daily News called comics a “national disgrace.” “Ten million copies of these sex-horror serials are sold every month,” wrote the newspaper’s literary editor, calling for parents and teachers to ban the comics, “unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one.”

To defend himself against critics, Gaines, in 1940, hired Marston as a consultant. “‘Doc’ Marston has long been an advocate of the right type of comic magazines,” he explained. Marston held three degrees from Harvard, including a PhD in psychology. He led what he called “an experimental life.” He’d been a lawyer, a scientist and a professor. He is generally credited with inventing the lie detector test: He was obsessed with uncovering other people’s secrets. He’d been a consulting psychologist for Universal Pictures. He’d written screenplays, a novel and dozens of magazine articles. Gaines had read about Marston in an article in Family Circle magazine. In the summer of 1940, Olive Richard, a staff writer for the magazine, visited Marston at his house in Rye, New York, to ask him for his expert opinion about comics.

“Some of them are full of torture, kidnapping, sadism, and other cruel business,” she said.

“Unfortunately, that is true,” Marston admitted, but “when a lovely heroine is bound to the stake, comics followers are sure that the rescue will arrive in the nick of time. The reader’s wish is to save the girl, not to see her suffer.”

Marston was a man of a thousand lives and a thousand lies. “Olive Richard” was the pen name of Olive Byrne, and she hadn’t gone to visit Marston — she lived with him. She was also the niece of Margaret Sanger, one of the most important feminists of the 20th century. In 1916, Sanger and her sister, Ethel Byrne, Olive Byrne’s mother, had opened the first birth-control clinic in the United States. They were both arrested for the illegal distribution of contraception. In jail in 1917, Ethel Byrne went on a hunger strike and nearly died. [more]