America’s Silver Age

By Tim HanleyApril 12, 2014

America’s Silver Age

Wonder Woman by Robert Kanigher, Mike Esposito, and Ross Andru

FOR OVER 50 YEARS, black-and-white versions of Silver Age Wonder Woman were all we had. The full-impact, late-1950s adventures of America’s favorite superheroine have lain dormant since original publication, unless you could fork out $400 an issue for decent copies of first-run pamphlets (or almost two grand for Wonder Woman’s revised origin story in Wonder Woman #105). DC Comics released four black-and-white reprint volumes of this era in 2007, but they are not the same. The zany spectacle that characterized Silver Age superhero comics requires color; the aliens, pterodactyls, and mystical realms that offer mere backdrops to the much wackier narratives just aren’t the same without it. These delightfully unpredictable stories have been collected in color for the first time in DC’s Wonder Woman: The Amazon Princess Archives Volume 1. This high-quality hardcover volume reprints Wonder Woman #98-110, the start of a new era for the amazing Amazon, written by Robert Kanigher with art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito.

The character of Wonder Woman was the creation of William Moulton Marston, a psychologist who saw great potential in the burgeoning comic-book industry of the early 1940s. This, the Golden Age of comics, was chock-full of angry, violent male superheroes, so Marston created an alternative. He believed that women were superior to men, and that they would soon take over the world and usher in an age of peaceful matriarchy. Wonder Woman was his way to prepare young minds for the idea of a strong, capable woman, so as to better facilitate the coming matriarchy.

When Marston died in 1947, Kanigher took over the series, but he spent the next decade doing a poor Marston impression. The original artist, H. G. Peter, stayed on the book, fostering an illusion that nothing had changed; every story was still credited as “By Charles Moulton,” Marston’s pen name. In 1958, Peter was replaced by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. Peter’s art was already old-fashioned when Wonder Woman premiered in 1942, and became increasingly flat and lifeless as the years went on; Peter was 78 when he stopped drawing her. Andru and Esposito brought a vibrancy to the book, utilizing new angles and panel layouts to better communicate the action and energy of the story. Peter’s squat and unexpressive Wonder Woman was replaced with a lithe and animated heroine, and the entire book developed a more modern sheen with sharper angles and bolder colors.

Once Peter was gone, Kanigher was freed from the last shackles of the Marston era and determined to make Wonder Woman his own, bringing the book into the Silver Age starting with Wonder Woman #98. His most blatant change was creating a new origin for the Amazons, which did away with the very heart of Marston’s womanist-minded intention for the series.

Marston’s Golden Age Amazons had been disgusted with the world of men. Deceived and captured by Hercules when he stole Queen Hippolyta’s girdle to complete his ninth labor, they defeated their captors and formed their own society on Paradise Island. There they lived in peace and prosperity through the blessings of their goddesses and their own technological superiority.

Hippolyta’s daughter Diana was born into this utopian society, crafted from clay by her mother and given life by the goddesses. When Air Force pilot Steve Trevor crashed onto Paradise Island, a competition was staged to grant one Amazon the right to return him to the United States and defend America from Axis forces. The contest was close: after besting her sisters in a fierce sword fight and wrestling competition, Diana sealed her victory by successfully deflecting bullets with her bracelets. The benefits of matriarchal rule had allowed the Amazons to flourish into a race of Wonder Women, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. The contest confirmed Diana as the best of the best: she became Wonder Woman, and taught women and girls in the oppressive world of men that they too could be Wonder Women.

Everything changed in 1959. Kanigher kick-started Wonder Woman’s Silver Age adventures with a new backstory in Wonder Woman #105. The Amazon men were all killed at war while the Amazon women remained at home, and a grief-stricken Hippolyta led her daughter and the rest of the Amazons to Paradise Island, away from the sorrows of war, where no one could hurt them again. The Amazons were no longer a race of Wonder Women; instead, Diana was specially gifted, given superpowers by the gods. Marston’s message was further undercut by Kanigher’s choice of supportive deities: Aphrodite and Athena granted Diana beauty and wisdom, while her actual superhero powers, speed and strength, came from two male deities, Hermes and Hercules.

Instead of showcasing female strength and power to speed up revolution, Kanigher’s Wonder Woman wanted to quit her superhero gig and settle down with boyfriend Steve Trevor. She spent as much time appeasing Steve as she did saving the world; he was perpetually annoyed by Wonder Woman taking off to help someone in need, so she was forced to prove that she truly loved him, again and again.

Kanigher’s Amazon revision and celebration of marriage and domestic bliss over independence and heroism weren’t intentional: Kanigher just typed whatever popped into his head, with no conscious agenda. As he told The Comics Journal in 1983, “I’m an instinctual writer. I am not a writer who sits down, knowing what he is going to do in advance.” The result was an unvarnished, subconscious portrait of how a middle-aged man in 1950s America thought a woman should behave and what she should desire. Kanigher was so cavalier with his work that years later he had no recollection of ever writing a story where Wonder Woman had a father. Despite his faulty memory, the tale became Wonder Woman’s standard origin story for a generation, and was reprinted in introductory comics like DC’s Secret Origins, a series dedicated to such stories.

While the Golden and Silver Ages of Wonder Woman stand in stark contrast regarding the role of women, characters of color fared far worse under Kanigher’s pen. Not that he wrote a specific racist story or enacted a radical shift in the behavior of characters: people of color just disappeared from the storylines. The Silver Age Wonder Woman was almost entirely whitewashed.

In the 13 issues collected in this volume, people of color speak in a grand total of two panels. In Wonder Woman #103, a group of unnamed Inuit at the North Pole speak three lines as a glacier collapses behind them: “Run for your lives!”; “The great glacier will crush us!”; and “Run! — RUN!” A Pacific Island nation afflicted by a tidal wave appeared in five panels earlier in the same story, with no dialogue at all. The only other panel with dialogue from people of color came seven issues later, in Wonder Woman #110, when the world was besieged by flying saucers. In a montage panel, a Chinese man looks to the sky and says, “What — ?” while a Bedouin man in front of a pyramid echoes him: “What?” The full extent of nonwhite characters’ dialogue is 14 words, total, in this full-color volume.

The supplementary features in the original books, which don’t appear in this volume, depicted far more people of color, however problematically. The regular “Marriage a la Mode” strip showcased the marriage traditions of ethnicities around the world — illustrating that marriage was a global institution that all young girls should aspire to. The strips from these issues included gender normative looks at a Central African tribe, Navajos, Koreans, Venezuelans, and New Guineans, to name a few. More distressing, a special advertisement in one issue from the National Social Welfare Assembly, celebrating “Brotherhood Week,” asked readers to rate their feelings on “Foreigners,” “Jews,” and “Negroes” on a scale from “Ugh! Dislike” to “Um! Like.”

However wise the decision, DC Comics leaves out such supplementary features in their Archives editions, reprinting just the central stories, and without them these Wonder Woman stories now appear as an alabaster sea. The Amazons, Steve’s military co-workers, and the jam-packed crowds at the carnivals and beaches where Steve and Wonder Woman go on dates are wall-to-wall white. People of color only exist in exotic locales, and very briefly, futile in the face of natural disasters and there solely to be saved by Wonder Woman.

This extreme lack of diversity from Robert Kanigher is somewhat surprising. A decade later, Kanigher wrote several stories for Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane that showed Lois interacting with a wide array of American people of color. DC was courting a teen audience by having their comics address social issues and better reflect the real world, so Lois met protesting Native Americans in the Southwest, helped out Latina mothers in Metropolis, and, in a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided attempt at racial understanding, turned into an African-American woman in the infamous story “I Am Curious (Black)!” These weren’t good stories by any means, but they included people of color in American life, both in the background and in key roles. This remains rare, even today.

William Moulton Marston was far more kaleidoscopic in his approach to racial diversity, for good and for ill. The very first floppy issue of Wonder Woman featured multiple Japanese, Burmese, African-American, and Latino characters, dwarfing the people of color in the entirety of Wonder Woman: The Amazon Princess Archives Volume 1 in both number and dialogue. The tropes these characters enacted are less flattering: the Japanese were harsh, wartime stereotypes; the Burmese were circus workers who tried to sacrifice Wonder Woman to their elephant gods; and an African-American male character was colored jet black with large pink lips, and his phonetic dialogue read, “Dis suitcase sho am heaby! Must be fulla books!”

Before he wrote comics, Marston was a psychologist whose major treatise on human interaction was published as Emotions of Normal People, by Harcourt, Brace and Company in 1928. He believed an ideal relationship involved an active party pleasantly inducing a submission response from their partner, but that miscegenation was detrimental to this dynamic. In Emotions of Normal People, he wrote that “skin colour, and general racial types of body and social customs, must also be similar within comparatively narrow limits to be felt as sufficiently allied to evoke submission response.” His submission-based theory of relationships led him to the conclusion that women were better suited to lead in all forms of society, but his view on race was less progressive: Marston remained firmly against interracial relationships.

When writing on the topic of romantic relationships, Marston was known to cite books by eugenics sympathizers like Havelock Ellis and Ben Lindsey. Another relatively obscure title referenced was H. W. Long’s Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living, published by the Eugenics Publishing Co., Inc.

Marston’s connection to Margaret Sanger (an advocate for a “cleaner race”) was professional and personal. He cited Sanger’s work as well, but Marston and his wife, Elizabeth, lived with Marston’s research assistant Olive Byrne in a polyamorous relationship, and Byrne was Sanger’s niece. Her mother, Ethel Higgins Byrne, was Sanger’s sister, and took the fall when the police shut down America’s first birth-control clinic, run by the siblings, in New York in 1916. Sanger went on to lead the American birth-control movement, which in its early days was not just about women’s rights but also about a eugenics-fueled lowering of the birth rate of the “unfit” or “inferior” classes.

As Sanger’s de facto nephew-in-law, one might expect Marston’s depictions of people of color in Wonder Woman to be noticeably racist. There were some, to be sure; an offensive Japanese caricature was a constant presence throughout World War II. Yet people of color were commonplace in the Golden Age comics and treated much like white characters: some were heroes, some were villains, and some were villains who were inspired by Wonder Woman’s positive influence to become heroes. Even unrepentant villains were described in positive, if fetishistic, terms, like the “Hindu princess” Yasmini, who was the “genius” head of an Axis spy ring, and a “brilliant chemist,” a Japanese woman named Dr. Poison.

Marston’s tendency to stereotype was abetted by Peter’s art. Yasmini was dressed in Indian finery, a brave Inuit girl lived in an igloo, and Mexican characters wore sombreros. These stereotypes often had negative connotations, to be sure. Yet while black Americans were illiterate caricatures with menial jobs, they were present in American life: gainfully employed, friendly, and given speaking roles. At a time when most black comic-book characters were ferocious savages in grass skirts, comics that portrayed people of color as active, verbal, and visible in American society were rare.

Since Marston was hardly forward-thinking when it came to race, it’s a little ridiculous that Kanigher, Andru, and Esposito were unable to hit the low bar he set. Kanigher wrote people of color with a blatant intentionality; the stories meant well, however ham-fisted and obvious they were before they failed to escape troubling tropes. There doesn’t seem to be a nefarious agenda behind his Wonder Woman’s white monopoly, either: the racism in his days of the series instead seems accidental, merely a symptom of ignorance and indifference, the result of daily existence in a culture that rendered people of color invisible. The civil rights movement was in full swing when Wonder Woman’s Silver Age stories began; Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott were five years past. But Kanigher ignored all that in creating Wonder Woman’s America. Everything was harmonious, but people of color couldn’t be seen.

Come to think of it, the black-and-white Showcase reprints might be fine for Silver Age Wonder Woman. There’s clearly no need for a variety of hues when it comes to depicting characters. Sure, it’s fun to see the comics as they were originally presented, and Wonder Woman: The Amazon Princess Archives Volume 1 contains all of the bizarre frivolity one expects from Silver Age comics, but it can’t hide the white male hegemony of the era, and how it so casually and insidiously attempted to remake the world.


Tim Hanley writes about Wonder Woman and women in comics. His book Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine came out April 1.

LARB Contributor

Tim Hanley is a comic book historian and the author of Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World's Most Famous Heroine. His website, Straitened Circumstances, discusses Wonder Woman and women in comics, and his column "Gendercrunching" runs monthly on Bleeding Cool. He has contributed to several comic book sites, including DC Women Kicking Ass and Women Write About Comics, and has also worked with the Ladydrawers Comics Collective. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, between his massive stacks of comic books.


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