The Secret History of Wonder Woman

by Jill Lepore

Paperback, 2015

Status

Available

Publication

Vintage (2015), Edition: Reprint, 464 pages

Description

A cultural history of Wonder Woman traces the character's creation and enduring popularity, drawing on interviews and archival research to reveal the pivotal role of feminism in shaping her seven-decade story.

User reviews

LibraryThing member ffortsa
I was never a reader of the comics as a kid, so I probably would have passed this title up if not for a strong recommendation from Jim. And so I'm not sure the title does the story justice, because it is really the story of the women's rights struggle from the beginning of the 20th century onward.

William M. Marsden, Wonder Woman's creator and the inventor of the first lie detector, was an odd mixture of intellect and P.T. Barnum, a man unable to hold a job but very able to build an unconventional family life with devoted women who seem both his intellectual equals and his practical superiors. Their collective story is intimately related to such feminists as Margaret Sanger and Emmeline Pankhurst, as well as significant events of the century. Marsen is in many ways an unlikely champion of women's rights, but Lepore uses him as the center post around which to swirl the history of feminism, birth control, comic books, bogus science and primitive psychological research. And although he died comparatively young, the women in his family, bound up with Wonder Woman and feminism, lived on through most of the century and bore witness to the accomplishment of at least some of their dreams.

I'd give it five stars, but must subtract a little for repetition now and then. It's still an excellent social history of the U.S. in the 20th century. The print edition has many photos and Wonder Woman strips and drawings; I listened to the audio read by the author, which held my full attention.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
Lepore focuses on William Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, and especially on his relationships with his feminist wife and his lover, the niece of Margaret Sanger.

Marston is a fascinating character - he comes across as a bit of a narcissist and snake-oil salesman, but there is no denying that he was a feminist and that he created Wonder Woman to spread some of his feminist ideas. In fact, his description of his purpose in creating her comes practically word for word from some of Margaret Sanger's feminist writing.

Lepore writes about Marston with detachment and does not make judgments or speculations about him. It would be very easy to portray him as a total nut-case, or bigamist, or masochist. However, Lepore lets the evidence speak for itself, noting that despite the prevalence of bondage in Wonder Woman comics, there is no evidence that Marston and his lovers participated in BDSM in their real lives.

This book clearly makes the case that Wonder Woman was conceived as a feminist icon, and that she lost that stature after Marston's death when other writers took over.

It is fascinating and disheartening for me to see that a lot of stuff that was said about Wonder Woman when she was first created is still being said now: girls need role models, we need greater diversity in popular culture, etc. And to see that for some reason the producers of comic books then and movies now are shocked when Wonder Woman sells well and makes a lot of money.

This book can be a little dry at times, but is a fascinating account of the history of Wonder Woman.
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LibraryThing member Keith.G.Richie
This isn't a general history of the character of Wonder Woman, or the publishing of her comics. It's instead a fascinating story about how Wonder Woman was created, and why. It mainly concerns the personal histories of her creators, and how the beliefs and philosophies of those creators were the driving force behind WW's origin and first few years of her publication.

The first half of the book has less to do with Wonder Woman herself, and much more about the lives and passions of William Moulton Marston ("Charles Moulton", the acknowledged creator of WW), his wife Elizabeth Holloway, and their live-in lover and co-parent, Olive Byrne. There was also a fourth member of their inner sexual circle, Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, who was much less a member of the "family" than the former three.

William Moulton Marston was an original inventor of what's commonly known as a "lie detector" (a blood pressure-based system), a law graduate, and a professor of philosophy and psychology. Elizabeth Holloway held nearly the same educational degrees her husband did, excepting the Ph.D (which she forgoed to support Marston's career). Olive Byrne was an exceptionally intelligent and educated woman herself - and had the distinction of being the daughter and niece of the two founders of Planned Parenthood (known then as the Birth Control Federation of America) - Edith Byrne and her sister, the better-known Margaret Sanger. Both Holloway and Byrne did much of the work and writing behind Wonder Woman - Leport's research seems to indicate that it is very difficult to tell often who wrote what.

Although the character and the comic changed drastically after Marston's death from polio in 1947, the character of Wonder Woman, and the stories she appeared in, were from the start intended to support and promote the creators' idea of feminism and female equality. In no small part, those early years were also dedicated to the sexual ideals of Marston, Holloway, and Byrne, especially Marston's interest in dominance and submission.

The influence of the early suffragette movement, the emergence and fight for birth control, and the connection between Margaret Sanger and the people behind Wonder Woman has been largely unknown until recently. Largely, this is because Olive Byrne wished privacy, and forbade Marston and Holloway from even telling Byrne's two children that their biological father was Marston (although both women raised all four of their children together, and they continued to live together for the rest of their lives, decades after Marston's death - and even though Marston legally adopted the two children he had with Byrne).

Absolutely fascinating - and illuminating. Many kudos to author Jill Leport for her (dare I say Amazonian?) feat of original research.
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LibraryThing member Gretchening
This is less a history of Wonder Woman and much more a history of her creator and the nexus of influences that led to her creation. I really enjoyed this book--William Moulton Marston's secret poly family, kinkster influences, his work as a psychologist and inventor of the lie detector test, and heavy early feminist ideologies were fascinating. I appreciate that the author gives a lot of background and context to the women in Marston's life--his 'secret' wife Olive was the niece of Margaret Sanger, and Lepore devotes a lot of time to Sanger's life and influences on the Marston household. I was expecting more content recapping early Wonder Woman storylines, but found myself more fascinated by the women in Marston's life and the contexts of the comic itself. Very interesting portrait of not just a man, but a family and of a moment in history. I like that Lepore's prose was unsentimental about Marston, too. He may have been ahead of his time in terms of feminism but he was also possessed of an enormous ego and had a lot of lingering sexist ideas. That said, the work he did still fascinates us today, and Wonder Woman as an unabashed feminist icon has an even greater place in my current personal pantheon. I recommend this book--I found it fascinating and very engaging.… (more)
LibraryThing member SESchend
Fascinating and in-depth bio of William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman (definitely) and the lie detector (tentatively, if not publicly embraced); for those looking more for Wonder Woman, her creation & details don't even enter the book save as illos until halfway through the book and after the color art insert.

WMM was hardly a paragon as he liked to portray himself, though his thoughts on feminism & women's equality were definitely ahead of his time.

Well worth reading for fans of comics history, women's history, or the history of psychology.
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LibraryThing member louis.arata
Who knew?

Who knew that Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, a psychologist and lawyer, who lived an unconventional life with his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and his former grad-student, Olive Byrne? Who knew that the character of Diana Prince and her homeland of Paradise Island was a direct result of suffragism, early feminism and the creation of lie detectors?

Author Jill Lepore delves into this complex history to weave together the variety of characters whose lives directly inspired Wonder Woman. As much as William Moulton Marston wants to present the notion that Wonder Woman sprung from his forehead like he was Zeus, there were many more people involved in developing the atmosphere – and not to mention in supporting the environment in which Marston worked – out of which the superhero evolved.

Lepore initially focuses on Marston’s work on the lie detector – which manifests itself in the comics as Wonder Woman’s golden lasso that forces people to tell the truth. In this opening section, Lepore’s narrative skills are a bit shaky. Episodes appear fragmented, facts are tossed in as though everything has relevance. But once she moves into the early history of the suffragettes, the author takes off, and the work unfolds in fascinating detail.

I kept being shocked by Marston’s charismatic egoism – he sounds charming and infuriating. He comes across as a grandiose personality that needs constant affirmation of his somewhat questionable skills. There’s no doubt that he had the best intentions in his work, but he sounds more like a smarmy salesperson than a professional academic.

What is most fascinating about Lepore’s book is how Margaret Sanger and other influential feminists deliberately kept themselves one step removed from Wonder Woman, as though the comic book character would taint their ferocious fight for equality. Even into the 1960s and 70s, Wonder Woman remains a questionable icon to Gloria Steinem. What does it mean to have this powerful superhero as a symbol of equality when women question the efficacy of her use?

Lepore’s book has less to do with the history of comic books and more the social mileau out of which Wonder Woman grew. It’s a fascinating read, once she gets going on the history of feminism.
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LibraryThing member thoughtbox
Overall, this is a well-researched book on the history of the creator of Wonder Woman, his crazy-ass family and the very deep feminist theory that undergirds most of the early comics.

The only knock on the book is that it is by no means a complete history of Wonder Woman. It might better have been titled, "The Secret History of Wonder Woman's Creation," or, most accurately, "Wonder Woman and Feminism: The Early Years."

You'll learn about William Marston, the inventor of an early version of the lie-detector test/failed psychologist/failed moviemaker/failed entrepreneur who used his lifelong obsession with women to craft the early tales of the Amazonian Wonder Woman. You'll learn about his wife. And his other wife. And his other other kind-of wife.

You'll be confused by what scholarship/writing should be attributed to whom between the primary threesome. You'll be bewildered by the lengths of the deception that the unofficial wife went to keep Marston's progenitorship a secret from her children. And you'll be slightly weirded out by how closely Margaret Sanger weaves in to all of it.

The book focuses heavily on the early comics (up until Marston's death), then sort of writes off the entire 50 other years with a "the people who came directly after Marston were chauvinist pigs" which, while not inaccurate, is not exactly meeting the mantle of "history."

That being said, this book is essential for truly understanding Wonder Woman, her origins and her standing/place in the culture at large.
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LibraryThing member bostonian71
Truly the origin story to end all origin stories. This is a fascinating and wide-ranging tale that in lesser hands would've struggled to tie all its topics together (including the early suffragist movement, the creation of the polygraph, and the debate about the morality of comic books). But Lepore lucidly and entertainingly weaves all of these themes into a coherent narrative while also providing insights into the lives of William Moulton Marston, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, and Olive Byrne, the three characters most involved in the birth of Wonder Woman. Given their commitment to feminist principles and Marston's self-promotion as the inventor of the lie detector test, there are a lot of ironies involved in the trio's highly unorthodox and very closeted living arrangements, which Lepore subtly highlights with excerpts from Byrne's Family Circle interviews with Marston (during which they pretend to be total strangers). I will definitely never look at Wonder Woman the same way again (even without Marston's fetishistic emphasis on chains and bonds -- ick!)… (more)
LibraryThing member jcbrunner
A wonderful weird book with a misleading title. The creation of Wonder Woman the comic character is but the occasion to offer an entertaining history of feminism in the United States from the First to the Second World War. The true hero or anti-hero of the book is William Moulton Marston, Harvard educated inventor of the lie detector and academic quack whose penchant for ethically dubious experiments and taste of chasing his students' skirts sends his academic career into a nose-dive. Marston arrived to early to convince the US government and justice system about the supposed benefits and scientific validity of the lie detector. Indirectly, Marston's hackishness contributed to the US Supreme Court's Frye standard of only including expert testimony based on accepted scientific evidence in cases to the detriment of Frye the defendant. Wikipedia has not yet incorporated Lepore's information about both Marston and Frye.

While making a living as a writer and Hollywood consultant, Marston also lived off the contribution of his women, plural. Based upon his unorthodox psychological ideas, he lived together in a ménage-à-trois, spiced up with some bondage and submission play (that would feature strongly in his Wonder Woman plots). His wife meanwhile served as a notable editor to editor for the US edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. The second woman, Olive Byrne, a former student of Marston's, reared both women's children and worked as a journalist. A great twist in the story is that both these professional women were feminists, Olive Byrne was the daughter of birth control activist Ethel Byrne and niece to Margaret Sanger, thus of impeccable feminist pedigree that led to the creation of the Amazon champion.

The biographical elements are used to great effect to lead the reader into the strange world of the past where women are forbidden to lecture at Harvard and even informing about birth control is illegal. In 1917, Byrne was convicted for distributing contraceptives in New York and sentenced to thirty days in prison which she spent in hunger strike until she nearly died. The book is thus both a tribute to an inventive quack and the early era of American feminism. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member gbelik
The history of the comic book character Wonder Woman is just a part of a story that includes the early Birth Control Movement, the marriage and mistresses of the comic character's author William Marston, the resistance to comic books as a bad influence on the youth of the country, conflicts within the Womans' Lib Movement and much more. The author Jill Lepore manages to add so much to this story that it does become unfocused at time, but it is all fascinating and well worth a read.… (more)
LibraryThing member nmele
Who knew Margaret Sanger was one of the inspirations for Wonder Woman? Lepore traces the origins of Wonder Woman in the women's movement during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. Much of her account traces the life and career of Willliam Moulton Marston and the women in his life, Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne. Byrne was Sanger's niece and met Marston as a student, worked for him and live in a menage with his wife, Elizabeth Holloway. Lepore treats the Marston family arrangements straightforwardly, as she does the very overt themes of bondage and submission in the Wonder Woman stories scripted by Marston. This is a fascinating book that revealed aspects of American history and culture I had not known previously.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sullywriter
A fascinating look at the bizarre creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston, and intricate ties the enduring comic has to suffragists, feminism, and the women's rights movement. A remarkable work of history by a first-rate historian who can tell a compelling story.
LibraryThing member AuntieClio
The Secret History of Wonder Woman is filled with secrets and steeped in the traditions of feminism starting with Margaret Sanger and her quest to legalize birth control.

Dr. William Moulton Marston was not an ordinary man, even by early twentieth century standards. His lifestyle (two wives, a third woman, and four children all under one roof) was odd, and his insistence on equal rights for women was decades ahead of the times. One of his wives and mother of two children was Margaret Sanger's niece.

As wild as Marston and his household was, the history of Wonder Woman herself reveals some of the most staunch feminists in the world. The struggle to get her published and kept published is quite interesting. Along with Batman and Superman, Wonder Woman has remained the longest running superhero in comic history.
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LibraryThing member andystardust
"For a long time, no one paid much attention to the fact that the creator of Wonder Woman was also the inventory of the lie detector ... mainly because the people interested in the history of comic books are not the same people interested in the history of the polygraph. (And very few people in either group are also interested in the history of feminism.)" I guess I'm in that select group. Rarely are books so tailor made for me, feeding not just my lifelong fascination with Wonder Woman, but by making extensive and nearly exhaustive use of primary sources to research its story - and then documenting it all in deliciously detailed footnotes - Jill Lepore's book also appeals to my interest in the role archives can play in revealing subtle truths about who we were, what we said, and what we did. A true pleasure to read from beginning to end.… (more)
LibraryThing member nancyewhite
It turns out the guy who created Wonder Woman was a polyamorous bondage fetishist who invented the lie detector. Needless to say, he was a tad eccentric. Women's suffrage and Margaret Sanger played a major role in the rise of this comic book as well. This is a great social history. Parts of the story bog down when they could have been excitingly told. That's why it isn't a 4.

This book reminded me about the little bios of heroic women that were in each comic. Those really taught me a lot when I was a little girl. I hope something like that is around for youngsters today.
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LibraryThing member BeckyGraham1016
Well researched, extremely well cited, however I think it is incorrectly titled. Anyone who has ever read a single Wonder Woman comic knows Wonder Woman was written by a feminist - it's obvious. The title implies there is some new, secret story of Wonder Woman's origins that we didn't already know - there isn't. A better title might be "The Feminist Origins or Wonder Woman" or "Why Wonder Woman is full of Feminist Propaganda" - depending on your position toward the Feminist Agenda.… (more)
LibraryThing member louis.arata
Who knew?

Who knew that Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, a psychologist and lawyer, who lived an unconventional life with his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and his former grad-student, Olive Byrne? Who knew that the character of Diana Prince and her homeland of Paradise Island was a direct result of suffragism, early feminism and the creation of lie detectors?

Author Jill Lepore delves into this complex history to weave together the variety of characters whose lives directly inspired Wonder Woman. As much as William Moulton Marston wants to present the notion that Wonder Woman sprung from his forehead like he was Zeus, there were many more people involved in developing the atmosphere – and not to mention in supporting the environment in which Marston worked – out of which the superhero evolved.

Lepore initially focuses on Marston’s work on the lie detector – which manifests itself in the comics as Wonder Woman’s golden lasso that forces people to tell the truth. In this opening section, Lepore’s narrative skills are a bit shaky. Episodes appear fragmented, facts are tossed in as though everything has relevance. But once she moves into the early history of the suffragettes, the author takes off, and the work unfolds in fascinating detail.

I kept being shocked by Marston’s charismatic egoism – he sounds charming and infuriating. He comes across as a grandiose personality that needs constant affirmation of his somewhat questionable skills. There’s no doubt that he had the best intentions in his work, but he sounds more like a smarmy salesperson than a professional academic.

What is most fascinating about Lepore’s book is how Margaret Sanger and other influential feminists deliberately kept themselves one step removed from Wonder Woman, as though the comic book character would taint their ferocious fight for equality. Even into the 1960s and 70s, Wonder Woman remains a questionable icon to Gloria Steinem. What does it mean to have this powerful superhero as a symbol of equality when women question the efficacy of her use?

Lepore’s book has less to do with the history of comic books and more the social mileau out of which Wonder Woman grew. It’s a fascinating read, once she gets going on the history of feminism.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Berly
From the back cover: "Wonder Woman, created in 1941, on the brink of World War II, is the most popular female superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, she lasted the longest and commanded the most vast and wildly passionate following. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike others, she also has a secret history."

This is a fascinating look at the truly bizarre origins of Wonder Woman, the creative genius of the Marstons, a most complicated and unconventional family (one man and three women!). If you want to know where the idea for WW's bracelets came from, why she gets tied up so many times, or why her ability to use her lasso to get the truth mirrored her inventor's life, you have to read this book! So many of the storylines and characters are thinly veiled realities of their lives. Additionally, this is wonderful history of the struggle for women's rights, including hunger strikes, the founding of Planned Parenthood and the birth of The Pill. Recommended. 4.0
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LibraryThing member bereanna
Readable. I learned some of the history that preceded the women's movement to gain the vote and equal opportunity by reading this book. However, the creator of the original Wonder Woman comics was a man who although he loved women, seemed to keep them in their spots in his life. One woman lover took care of the four children he fathered between her and his lawful wife. His wife earned the income to keep the "family" solvent. Upstairs, another woman sometimes stayed. Marston, the writer of WW, was ahead of his time in his belief in women, however, he depicted WW in chains or ropes from which she wondrously escaped unharmed. One wonders what the sex-life of the family was like! The OLLI book club discussed this making it seem more interesting than it was originally to me.… (more)
LibraryThing member librarianbryan
I giggled at how much Lepore hates Marston. Relatively speaking, he seemed like a nice enough guy, at least for someone with a big enough ego for someone else to write a book about. Marston and his personality were just as big a piece of the puzzle of Wonder Woman as Olive Byrne. And, it should be noted, this history really isn't all that secret to people the love comics. Or so the people that love comics tell me.… (more)
LibraryThing member Othemts
The story of Wonder Women begins as a creation of William Moulton Marston, a something of a quack psychologist previously known for inventing the lie detector test. Marston worked closely with his wife Elizabeth Hollaway and Olive Byrne who lived with them in a long-term relationship (and continued living with Holloway after Martson's death). Through Byrne they were also connected to her aunt Margaret Sanger who looms large in this book and the history of Wonder Woman. Lepore shows how the triad's interests in feminism and unconventional sexuality are expressed through Wonder Woman comics which contains themes of ruling with feminine love and bondage and submission. Lepore relates an interesting history of Marston, Hollaway, Byrne, Sanger, and others in the women's rights movements of the 20th century, and Wonder Woman's unexpected role in the center of it all.… (more)
LibraryThing member Birdo82
Though meticulously researched, The Secret History of Wonder Woman suffers from the occasional inaccuracy, and, though providing unique insight, focuses exclusively on the biography of Marston and the Women's Rights Movement, all while reducing the character's rich publication history to a few paragraphs in an epilogue. Still, it is a must-read for feminists, biography-lovers, and comic book fans.… (more)
LibraryThing member magicians_nephew
The Secret History of Wonder Woman was a surprise and a delight.

Of course they had me with the big brassy almost vulgar Harry G. Peters drawing of our girl on the cover.

As a comic book nerd in good standing, I bought it to read about Wonder Woman and the early days of comic books in the 1940's and the first woman super hero. (Be quiet, Invisible Scarlett O'Neill!).

And the psychologist and doctor who invented WW, and his menage a trois household arrangements that everyone seems to think was nothing much t get excited about.

Well the book has that and more but Jill Lepore who is a serious scholar and historian did the Life and Times too !

This book offers a wonderful survey course on Woman's History in the 20th Century, from the "Votes for Women" movement to the early days of Birth Control liberation, and it's just amazing. Margaret Sanger puts in an appearance. Wonder Woman doesn't even show up (except for illustrations) until page 157.

Then you get a deep dive into Dr. William Charles Moulton and his two wives, basically one who was a Wonder Woman herself and one who was more or less the good down to earth housewife of the family. (But also a writer and a breadwinner - sometimes more than the Good Doctor!).

Lazy writers say that Moulton invented the lie detector, which isn't quite right - but it does explain why The Amazon Princess bears a lariat that makes people tell the truth

And why Dr. Psycho and the Psycho-Pirate feature prominently in her Villains Gallery. And the wonderful Duke of Deception.

And Moulton was a fervent advocate of women's rights, but you know, our Heroine wears the bracelets of submission and can be tamed if a man links them together. (If you can find an early WW story that does not find her in some form of bondage award yourself a gold star). PS - you can't.

The outsider in the star spangled bustier exploring "Man's World" was the Wonder Woman I fell in love with. And Etta Candy is my favorite Golden Age Sidekick. Woo-Hoo! (Not Now, Doiby Dickles!)

Highly recommended. And not just for comic book nerds.
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LibraryThing member DoingDewey
Now that I'm back from my travels, I'm excited to really dive into Nonfiction November starting with my first nonfiction review of the month. I wish I could tell you I was equally enthusiastic about the book, especially since it covered a lot of interesting topics. The Secret History of Wonder Woman doesn't only cover the origins of the comic. It also includes a history of feminism, a biography of the comic's creator, and biographies of the many women in his unorthodox love life. Unfortunately, the mish-mash of topics didn't entirely work for me.

I haven't read many comics, so I loved learning about Wonder Woman and I appreciated the many comics which were included so I could follow the discussion. I also enjoyed learning about the origins and evolution of feminism. The biographies of not only the creator of the comic, but of his wife and his lover, were a bit much though. These biographies were important for their influence on the creation of the comic, but the author often jumped into them abruptly enough that I felt disoriented. There were quite a few times while reading this book that I found what I was reading interesting, but I wasn't sure why I was reading it.

Despite sometimes feeling lost, I always had fun reading this book. The material was fascinating, this was an easy read, and I enjoyed the author's sense of humor. Because of the organizational issues, I suspect there are better books if you're mostly interested in the history of feminism. If you're particularly interested in Wonder Woman or comics in general though, I think this unique, behind-the-scenes look at the comic could be a great read for you.This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey.
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LibraryThing member DoingDewey
Now that I'm back from my travels, I'm excited to really dive into Nonfiction November starting with my first nonfiction review of the month. I wish I could tell you I was equally enthusiastic about the book, especially since it covered a lot of interesting topics. The Secret History of Wonder Woman doesn't only cover the origins of the comic. It also includes a history of feminism, a biography of the comic's creator, and biographies of the many women in his unorthodox love life. Unfortunately, the mish-mash of topics didn't entirely work for me.

I haven't read many comics, so I loved learning about Wonder Woman and I appreciated the many comics which were included so I could follow the discussion. I also enjoyed learning about the origins and evolution of feminism. The biographies of not only the creator of the comic, but of his wife and his lover, were a bit much though. These biographies were important for their influence on the creation of the comic, but the author often jumped into them abruptly enough that I felt disoriented. There were quite a few times while reading this book that I found what I was reading interesting, but I wasn't sure why I was reading it.

Despite sometimes feeling lost, I always had fun reading this book. The material was fascinating, this was an easy read, and I enjoyed the author's sense of humor. Because of the organizational issues, I suspect there are better books if you're mostly interested in the history of feminism. If you're particularly interested in Wonder Woman or comics in general though, I think this unique, behind-the-scenes look at the comic could be a great read for you.This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey.
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Language

Original language

English

Original publication date

2014

Physical description

464 p.; 5.2 inches

ISBN

0804173400 / 9780804173407
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