The surprising history of a comic legend

Booknotes looks at the facts behind the creation of "Wonder Woman."

Elizabeth Marston (left) and Olive Byrne (right): Two women who were synthesized to form Wonder Woman.

Elizabeth Marston (left) and Olive Byrne (right): Two women who were synthesized to form Wonder Woman.

Mike Selby

Okay, this one is weird.

“The Emotions of Normal People” first appeared in 1928. It was written by William M. Marston, a Harvard-trained psychologist and lawyer. This book introduced Marston’s DISC theory, which is still used today by psychologists as a tool in assessing behaviour. He followed this book with ‘Integrative Psychology’ in 1931, which he cowrote with his wife Elizabeth, another psychologist/lawyer.

Elizabeth was a bit of a “wonder woman.” Raised in a traditional Boston family, she railed against the stereotypes assigned to her gender at the time. Since her role was to be in the kitchen (barefoot and pregnant), her parents refused to pay for any post-secondary education. So she paid for it herself by selling cookbooks door to door.

Although she excelled at school, Harvard didn’t admit women to its law school, so she grudgingly attended Boston University.

After breezing through the bar exam, she enrolled in Radcliffe to get an advanced psychology degree. Although she had met and married Marston by this time, she refused to allow him to pay her way.

Elizabeth had a temper though, and Marston noticed his wife’s face would flush whenever she was angry. Noticing emotions appeared to influence blood pressure, Marston invented the first systolic blood pressure test. The success of this invention led Marston to create the first polygraph machine, and its accompanying textbook, “The Lie Detector Test.”

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Marston became interested in the increasingly popular superhero comic books, and decided to write one himself. He created the character Suprema, who had “all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” All American Publications were immediately taken with Marston’s idea, and Suprema made her debut in the December 1941 issue of All Star Comics.

Except the publisher had changed her name to Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman was an instant hit, and one of the most fascinating comic book characters ever created. The first woman to appear in a comic book who wasn’t tied to the railway tracks waiting to be rescued, she also possessed something unique about her besides her gender: she didn’t have a tragic backstory.

Wonder Woman was an Amazon princess who chose to use her gifts in the world of men. Unnaturally strong, she easily repelled bullets with the bracelets she wore, and her sandals let her run long distances without tiring. But her prime weapon was the Golden Lasso of Truth, a gift from the Greek god Hephaestus. (It is almost comforting to know that the Lasso of Truth was created by the guy who invented the polygraph.)

Yet it is here the comfort ends.

Although it would not to be too much of a stretch to guess that Marston based Wonder Woman on his unstoppable wife, he did so but in character only. Wonder Woman’s supermodel body was based on a college student named Olive Byrne; who was also Marston’s lover. And his wife’s lover. All three lived ménage à trois under the same roof, and both women gave birth to numerous children fathered by Marston.

Unusual enough, the Marston trio was also heavily into sexual bondage and domination. When this fact became public, many went back to the early Wonder Woman comics to see if there was any of this in the subtext. Marston’s sexual enthusiasms do not appear in the subtext of the comics he wrote — they are crystal clear on almost every single page. Someone is tied up and gagged in just about every third panel.

His editor at All American did indeed notice the amount of bondage happening and confronted him about it. Marston replied that it was the only way for villains to subdue the hero without killing her. Unconvinced, the editor tried to remove much of the kink from the stories, but in retrospect he felt he “was probably making it worse.”

Marston’s run on Wonder Woman was short lived though, as he died in 1947 at age 53. Elizabeth and Olive continued to live together and helped raised each other’s children. Wonder Woman continues to be as popular as ever, and her recent comic run was written by “My Sister’s Keeper” novelist Jodi Picoult. Picoult has the unique distinction of being Wonder Woman’s first woman writer, which no doubt would have pleased her creator.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library