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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: William Marston

Man of Steel

There have always been two flavors of superhero: Marvel and DC. When my dad was reading comics in the 40s, Marvel (AKA Timely) threw anti-heroes into DC’s original, and so much blander. good guy mix. When I was reading comics in the 70s, Marvel put out the sophisticated stuff, DC the embarrassingly childish. My twelve-year-old son reads the occasional comic now but mostly takes his superheroes in movie form like everyone else in the 21st century. But Marvel and DC are still the reigning flavors. Only these days Marvel Entertainment tends toward the comically playful, Warner Brothers the pretentiously somber.

Look at Iron Man 3, an incoherent but highly entertaining comedy. The slapstick moment in The Avengers when the Hulk punches Thor after teaming up to fight alien invaders made me snort so loudly I embarrassed my teenaged daughter. Dark Knight Rises on the other hand, not so much with the uncontrollable laughter. Ditto for Man of Steel. Is that a bad thing? Well, it means my wife writhed in her seat for 143 minutes, tweeting updates of her torture. My son at least enjoyed the fight scenes.

I’m not a big Zack Snyder. 300 enraged me, Watchmen bored me. But Man of Steel I can mostly live with. Except for the shot after shot after World Trade Center-inspired shot of collapsing New York. When the hell did the 9/11 get downgraded to CGI fodder?

But aside for the drone Superman downs in the epilogue because the government keeps trying to invade his privacy, Snyder isn’t interested in the War on Terror. He, like so many recent superhero writers, is stuck in World War II. General Zod is this month’s Hitler reboot. If a field of human skulls is too subtle a Holocaust allusion, Superman spells it out: “You’re talking about genocide.”

There’s been some internet kvetching about the damage the movie does to old Superman mythology. Ignoring a few four-winged dragons, I disagree. For all his pretentious somberness, Zack Snyder gets Jerry Siegel. Superman was born to battle eugenics, and eugenics is what Man of Steel is most about.

Snyder’s Krypton isn’t a luckless ice planet dying of old age. It is the pinnacle of selective breeding, a planet whose inhabitants have taken the reins of evolution and engineered themselves into a race of violently amoral ubermensch. They breed scientifically, culling only the so-called best from a gene pool Registry. As one of Zod’s sidekicks quips: “Evolution always wins.”

Siegel said as much in Superman #1: “Superman came to Earth from the planet Krypton whose inhabitants had evolved, after billions of years, to physical perfection!” In Superman’s newspaper comic strip premiere, Krypton is “a distant planet so far advanced in evolution that it bears a civilization of supermen—beings which represent the human race at its ultimate peak of perfect development!” How can aliens represent the human race? Easy. They’re not aliens. The original Krypton was Earth:

“In his laboratory, the last man on Earth worked furiously. He had only a few moments left.

“Giant cataclysms were shaking the dying planet, destroying mankind. It was in its last days, dying . . .

“The last man placed his infant babe within a small time-machine he had completed, launching it as—

“—the laboratory walls caved-in upon him.

“The time-vehicle flashed back thru the centuries, alighting in the primitive year, 1935 A.D.”

That’s the script Siegel mailed Buck Rogers artist Russell Keaton in the summer of 1934. After drawing a few test scripts, Keaton turned him down, and Siegel crawled back to his high school pal Joe Shuster.

But his Superman wasn’t from a galaxy far far away. He was barely even scifi. After the German invasion of Poland and France, William Marston wrote that Siegel “believed that the real superman of the future would be someone with vast power who would use his invincible strength to right human wrongs.” That phrase, “the real superman of the future,” is literal. The Superman was the stated goal of eugenics.

Krypton’s Registry, the Codex of the genetically fit that General Zod wants so desperately, that’s literal too. American tycoon John Harvey Kellog (yes, you’ve eaten his cornflakes) and his Race Betterment Foundation started it back in 1915. Long Island’s Eugenics Registry Office opened in 1910, advocating the prevention of unfit breeding through immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, sterilization, and “euthanasia.” The committee recommended every American smallville have its own gas chamber.

By the time Siegel was writing, Germany had adopted that American model and was expanding it into Auschwitz. That’s the Krypton Siegel was fighting against. His Superman was literally the Nazi Superman, plucked from the eugenic future and redirected to fight the superpowers who evolved him.

So I get why Snyder’s take is light with the laugh track. But didn’t we already win World War II? I wouldn’t mind a history lesson–in fact, yes, let’s please correct all the U.S. History textbooks that have conveniently written out the U.S.’s leadership in the eugenics movement.Eugenics was still taught in high school biology classes even while we were at war with the movement’s ultimate champions. A Superman fan in the late 30s and early 40s would have gotten Siegel’s allegories. But of the millions who saw Man of Steel opening weekend, how many registered anything but a Dark Knight-esque scifi romp? We should understand General Zod as more than just some alien supervillain. He’s us. He’s America’s darkest potential. I’m not sure even Snyder knows that.

I don’t necessarily object to Hollywood using the Holocaust and 9/11 to rake in profits. But I do expect something in the trade. Maybe some sly introspection? A little under-the-current thought-provocation on the socio-political issue of the film-makers’ choice? Instead, we get more destruction, a Superman who indifferently pulverizes his own Smallville and Metropolis during his ubermensch slugfests. Are we really not supposed to think about the collateral body count in the convenience stores and skyscrapers? There are a lot of reasons not to laugh during this movie.

I was being partisan as kid when I duped myself into thinking Marvel was so much more sophisticated than childish DC. Maybe I’m still duping myself. Marvel Entertainment has no trouble cranking out its own brand of pretension. But superheroes remain a goofy genre, endlessly championing CGI fight spectacles over story and character.There’s a rather low, Hollywood-imposed limit to what such a movie can do. Zack Snyder’s somber palette and frowning ubermensch (did I mention the Christ motif?) aren’t pushing any of those boundaries. Neither are the members of the cheerier, Joss Whedon team. But when I go to my smallville theater to watch some guy in a cape, I prefer to come out giggling.

superman laughing

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“I am one of those odd, perhaps unfortunate men who derive an extreme erotic pleasure from the mere thought of a beautiful girl, chained or bound, or masked, or wearing extreme high-heels or high-laced boots . . . Your tales of Wonder Woman have fascinated me on account of this queer ‘twist’ in my psychological make-up. . . . if you have experienced the same sensation as I have from actually applying such [implements of confinement] to a beautiful girl, you’ll understand exactly what I mean.”

This is one of Wonder Woman’s first fan letters. It was written by an American infantryman in September 1943, ten months after Wonder Woman premiered. But DC insisted there was nothing erotic about their Amazon. Company policy forbade it:

“The use of chains, whips, or other such devices is forbidden. Anything having a sexual or sadistic implication is forbidden. The kidnaping of women is discouraged, and must never have any sexual implication.”

William Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator, never got the memo.

The Harvard-trained psychologist, like his overseas fan, was a bondage enthusiast. In fact, the doctor believed sexual bondage could save the world. And he invented Wonder Woman to prove it.

“Without a sound foundation in ‘sex love,’” Marston wrote in 1939, “no human being of either sex can possibly submit to any social control and like it.”

Sexual submission was his answer to war and crime: “erotic love is the emotional source of that all-important social trait, willing submission to other people, to their needs, their opinions, their manner of living and submission also to the leaders who govern the social group.”

For Marston, there’s only one difference between a criminal and a good citizen: “the lawbreaker is a social rebel who cannot enjoy the experience of yielding his own will to someone else’s, while the law-abiding citizen is a socially minded individual who enjoys submitting to others on a majority of occasions.”

People obey laws because it feels good. Really good.  Criminals just need some “emotional re-education.”

After developing and publishing his psychological theories in the 20’s and 30’s, Marston decided it was time to apply his sound foundation in sex love to the children’s market. He had already publicly praised Superman, so he approached DC with his idea for “Suprema, the Wonder Woman.” His editors trimmed her name but not her message.

When Wonder Woman defeats a group of invaders from Saturn, she takes them to “Transformation Island” where they must wear “Venus girdles.”

“What does the beautiful gold girdle do to a prisoner?”

“It is magic metal from Venus—it removes all desire to do evil and compels complete authority to loving obedience.”

When the not-yet-reformed Saturn women break out, many of the other prisoners refuse to join them, even after removing their bonds:

“Without the girdle I feel dominant—invincible! But I don’t feel cruel and wicked as I used to—the Amazons transformed me! I love Wonder Woman and Queen Hippolyte—I can’t bear to have them hurt—I must save them!”

But the fan with the “queer twist” wasn’t the only reader who missed the moral. Where Marston saw loving submission, others, including members of DC’s own editorial advisory board, saw sado-masochistic torture. Marston was told to cut the chains.

But he refused to submit. Not only were “harmless erotic fantasies . . . good for people,” his were “the one truly great contribution of [his] Wonder Woman strip to moral education of the young. The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound—enjoy submission to kind authority.”

Fellow psychologist Frederic Wertham missed the message too. He considered Wonder Woman “one of the most harmful” crime comics and the character “a horror type. She is physically very powerful, tortures men, has her own female following, is the cruel, ‘phallic’ woman. While she is a frightening figure for boys, she is an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to want to be.”

Marston’s sales figures told him another story. He believed the young male readers of Wonder Woman were shouting: “We love a girl who is stronger than men, who uses her strength to help others and who allures us with the love appeal of a true woman!”

I don’t need to imagine Marston’s bedroom practices. Though he encouraged wives to become “love leaders,” his own home operated on a different principle:

Polygamy.

After marrying a fellow psychologist and law student, Elizabeth Holloway, Marston began an affair with his research assistant, Olive Byrne. Holloway did not object. Byrne moved in with them, and Marston fathered four children, two with each mother. Byrne took the role of stay-at-home mom, while Hollway became the family bread-winner. Marston landed a job at Family Circle magazine, but I doubt his employers were aware of the geometry of their psychologist’s own family.

I also doubt their household was a paradise, but it was an island of social rebels hidden far beyond laws of convention. It was Holloway who told Marston that his comic book character needed to be a woman. She was a bit of an Amazon herself, living 99 years and, more wondrously, supporting all four children and Byrne after Marston’s death in 1947.

The tale of Venus girdles and Transformation Island was one of Marston’s last, published a year after his death. As the first widely popular comic book superheroine, Wonder Woman defined the character type. Soon the Phantom Lady and other scantily costumed heroines were getting themselves tied up too.

Despite Marston’s edifying intentions, the erotic effect of his creation never progressed much past the “queer twist” stage. An internet search today shows how little has changed since 1943. Marston’s infantryman would have a wide range of softporn superheroine sites to peruse. Some find a disturbing thrill in seeing their wonder women defeated:

“What is it about superheroines that is so fascinating? For one they are sexy and we guess it’s the skin-tight costume, leotard, tights, mask, cape and the fact that the ladies are seemingly invincible. Since they are ‘super’ they should easily dispose of any villains. So, the fascinating part comes about when the tables turn and one sees these women get challenged physically and mentally and placed in perilous erotic situations.”

There’s a word for “perilous erotic situations.” Rape.

That’s been the not-particularly-veiled subtext of the superheroine since the Domino Lady started flirting with perilous erotic situations in the 30’s. Whatever Marston’s stated intentions, most of Wonder Woman’s bondage escapades are at the hands of her male adversaries. That’s not loving submission.

I don’t know if he was lying to his editors or himself, but you don’t need a magic lasso to get the truth out of his scripts. Marston ties up his heroine far more often than she ties up anyone else.

And she has remained tied down by her origins for decades. When Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz planned a reinterpretation of the Amazon in the eighties, their working title was Wonder Woman: Bondage. Sienkiewicz’ test sketches removed any ambiguity from Marston’s subtext. No more Venus girdles. This was S&M.

Which is why I’m relieved to see that Brian Azzaarello’s newly rebooted Wonder Woman does not submit to her history. Although this Amazon is still battling villainy in a strapless bathing suit, Cliff Chiang’s art, while visually explosive, avoids erotics. Compare her to Guillem March’s oversexed Catwoman, and the new Wonder Woman is downright wholesome. (If you don’t object to a dismembered centaur or two.)

Best of all, she’s not the kind of beautiful girl who’s going to let either a well-meaning psychologist or a twisted G.I. tie her up.

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