If you can get over that the fact that the advertising and title of The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a bit misleading, what you’ll find is a very solid book about the five incredibly strange people who contributed to the iconic DC Comics character.
The issue with the book’s title is that it should really be called The Secret History of Women Woman’s Creators and Influences. While the influences of Wonder Woman can be seen throughout early pages, we don’t get to the actual creation of the character until page 180 – the last third of the book. If you’re a comic book buff, then this isn’t really the book for you. It’s definitely aimed at more of a general interest audience.
And the history that the book does get into is amazingly bizarre, strange and interesting, to be clear! The “creator” of Wonder Woman was William Moulton Marston, but he clearly took “inspiration” from Ancient Greek tales, the women’s liberation movement, and his wife Olive Byrne, who wore bracelets on her wrists.
By the way, Marston was a huge believer in the equality and possibly superiority of women. He also had two wives. And he didn’t work for a decade at one point, forcing his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston to be the primary wage earner for the family. The three of them all lived together, with Byrne raising her two children and Holloway’s two children. Marston was the father of all four. Marston was also one of the first to look into measuring heart rate and pulse as a way to detect deception in others.
Want more crazy? Well, Byrne’s mother was Ethel, a noted women’s rights proponent in the early 20th Century. She largely started this work after abandoning Byrne and her brother when they were children. Ethel’s sister was Margaret Sanger, another noted activist, who appropriated portions of Ethel’s background and wrote her out of history to secure her own legacy. Both were clearly influences on Wonder Woman, and both also supported the odd Marston family compound.
It’s all oddly fascinating, but it does highlight one other flaw with the book – It ends after about 300 pages. The rise of Wonder Woman tale basically replaces much digging into the family’s background, and in this part of the book, you can really tell that Lepore is a history professor and not a journalist or reporter.
There’s not really much about what the four children did, and how they dealt with the odd family arrangement, or about how Byrne and Holloway lived together for decades even after the passing of Marston. Conversely though, there isn’t much dissection of Wonder Woman storylines from the (admittedly horrible sounding) 1950s and 1960s. As a result, the book kind of crumbles a bit in the end, although the first two acts are still satisfying enough that I recommend it.
The image of Wonder Woman #1 comes from the DC Comics wiki here.