Tag Archives: comic books

Wonder Woman and a (Surprising) Brief History of U.S. Feminism

By sheer coincidence, or at the bidding of the book gods [1], I discovered a connection between U.S. poet E.E. Cummings and Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston:

And then, on Thursday, June 24, 1915, an unseasonably cold day, Marston graduated from Harvard. In exercises held at Sanders Theatre, E.E. Cummings, a member of Marston’s class, delivered a speech about modernism called “The New Art.” (Lepore, p. 42)

After reading Susan Cheever’s compact and engaging E.E. Cummings: A Life, I turned to Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, completely unaware of the connection. Paired, however, these well written and researched books are also powerful histories that reveal the (possibly distorted) influence of Harvard in the U.S. as well as insight into the intersection of early twentieth century intelligentsia, art, and pop culture.

My initial interest in Lepore’s examination of Wonder Woman rested on my comic book background—although I was a Marvel collector in the day and quite not DC. However, Lepore’s volume is much more than about Wonder Woman or even a solid biography of Marston; this is a somewhat shocking story about U.S. feminism and sexual politics, commercialization, pop culture, and the enduring power of myth.

As a lifelong educator who essentially hid my comic book reading/collecting throughout junior and high school, I was initially sympathetic to Marston, who struggled at Harvard:

“I had to take a lot of courses that I hated,” [William Moulton Marston] explained. English A: Rhetoric and Composition was a required course for freshmen. “I wanted to write and English A, at Harvard, wouldn’t let you write,” he complained. “It made you spell and punctuate. If you wrote anything you felt like writing, enjoyed writing, your paper was marked flunk in red pencil.” (p. 6)

Especially in the wake of reading again about how Cummings developed while at Harvard, I recognized in Marston’s life (among his proclivities for living with and fathering children by multiple women) the development of creativity as an act against the norms of one’s time or community.

The short version of Lepore’s work is that Marston stumbled—often badly—through a career as a scholar/academic and inventor of the lie detector test until he created Wonder Woman in the foundational years of superhero comic books, the 1930s-1940s. However, what Lepore details well is that Marston’s creation grew significantly from the U.S. feminism movement in the early twentieth century and his relationships with Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, Margaret Sanger, and Olive Byrne.

While comic books and superheroes in the early decades of the medium from the 1930s and into the 1950s were often discounted and even savagely attacked as corrupting of children, Lepore builds a case not for Marston (who certainly comes off poorly as often a charlatan and essentially a self-centered hypocrite) but for the potential of pop culture as social activism.

Wonder Woman was created and written by Marston (with significant help, it appears, from the many women in his life) as a manifesto for women’s liberation, equality—sexual liberation, reproductive rights, work-place equality.

The farther Wonder Woman drifted from Marston, who wrote most of her comic book adventures from the early to late 1940s, the less that ideal held against the influence of the market, where traditional womanhood sold better than radical feminism (or least, that is what publishers believed).

Superheroes as pop icons have entered the U.S. consciousness through many media—comic books, television (Batman, The Hulk, and Wonder Woman, notably), and film. At any given moment in history, then, the “hot” superhero is often dictated by the medium of prominence. As a result, few people are likely aware that Wonder Woman was among the first big three in superhero comics, along with Superman and Batman.

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Wonder Woman then: Sensation Comics #1 (January 1942) and Wonder Woman #1 (Summer 1942). Art by Harry G. Peter.

And while all three have endured 70-plus years in pop culture—with all three having peaks, valleys, and fairly dramatic reboots—Wonder Woman has certainly not maintained either Marston’s original intent or the same weight as Superman and Batman.

That in itself is a message about how far women have yet to go in the journey to equality so well detailed by Lepore in her portrayals of Holloway, Sanger, Byrnes, and others.

Regretfully, after reading Secret History, I have a parallel concern I raised about a black Captain America: If Wonder Woman reinforces female stereotypes, objectifies women, what good a woman superhero?

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Wonder Woman now: Art by David Finch

Hugh Ryan shares this concern by considering both the new team writing and drawing Wonder Woman, David and Meredith Finch, and how that essentially spits in the face of Wonder Woman as feminist ideal:

That comics are a bastion of sexism is a truism so banal it almost goes without saying. But it is particularly galling to watch the feminist superhero be treated in such a way. The Finches have made no small point of the fact that Meredith is one of only a handful of women to ever write Wonder Woman. “I love the idea that it’s a woman writing a woman,” David said in an interview with USA Today, “because we’re trying to appeal to more female readers now.”

Seeking to be celebrated for simply hiring a woman is tokenizing and offensive. From writer Gail Simone to artist Fiona Staples, there are incredible women already working in the industry. Let’s celebrate them. The Finch’s ideas of feminism, strength, and what appeals to women today seem retrograde, borderline misogynistic, and—to be frank—boring. Wonder Woman deserves better.

Cheever’s biography of Cummings and Lepore’s exploration of Wonder Woman reveal that truly flawed men (in these two cases) are often behind genuinely marvelous creation. And thus, the irony increases: Just as Cummings and Marston created as often flawed reactionaries, in spite of their environments, against the norms, we are now faced with rejecting a popular media failing not just Wonder Woman, but women once again.

See Also

In the U.S., Where the Female Nipple Is More Dangerous Than a Gun

[1] Since I am currently re-reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (author’s preferred text), I concede the possibility of the latter.

The Power of Superhero Mythology: “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”

Risking hyperbole, I believe Spider-Man saved my life, much like Max Dillon/Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2except mine was metaphorical.

Watching the sequel of the 2012 reboot that had the cinematic guts to replicate possibly the most important moment in the Spider-Man Universe (and even the entire Marvel Universe)—“The Night Gwen Stacy Died”—I was powerfully forced into two minds paralleling the Peter Parker/Spider-Man duality: my 53-year-old academic mind as it interacted with my teenaged self, a traumatic period in the 1970s when I found myself strapped into a full body brace in hopes I could overcome scoliosis without major back surgery.

In the summer of 1975, I was diagnosed with scoliosis, a medical shock tossed on top of my frail self-concept wallowing in the typical throes of adolescence. I was scrawny, and I was destined not to become the strapping young male and athlete I believed my father wanted. And then, scoliosis—a curving spine and an affliction mostly common among females.

Perfect.

The body brace I wore was a torture device of straps, metal rods, and a solid plastic body mold, designed to force my spine straight so that the defective vertebrae could regain their proper shape. Wearing the brace 23 of 24 hours a day was how I spent my ninth grade, an adventure horrifying all on its own without the brace waving out to everyone, “Hey, look at the nerdy cripple kid!”

And then there was Spider-Man.

My wonderful parents not only sacrificed financially for the brace and seemingly never-ending visits to the orthopedist, but also scrambled to find anything that would help off-set what they must have recognized as a significant blow to who I was becoming, how I saw myself.

The saving choice was comic books. And to this day, I cannot set aside how hard that must have been for my very-1950s, rugged, working-class father, a four-sport athlete in high school who lost all of his teeth to sport and fights before graduation.

At first, I began buying comics mostly to stand at the long bar separating our kitchen/living room and draw (starting with tracing, and then freehand with pencil followed by teaching myself how to ink those pencil drawings as comic book artists did).

Drawing led to reading and reading, to collecting. One of our spare bedrooms became my comic book room, and I even built a chest to hold my comics in my ninth-grade wood working class at school.

Those familiar with Peter Parker/Spider-Man likely already anticipate what had to happen; I fell in love with Spider-Man comics—the Holy Grail of low self-esteem nerd superhero mythologies.

Science nerd, orphaned, painfully thin and wearing glasses, Peter Parker walked into my life both as a stark reflection of my Self and a promise that transformation was possible (although with a price). But in 1975, I was dropped into the post-Gwen Stacy world of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, but that was about to change.

“The Night Gwen Stacy Died”

As my comic book fascination grew, somehow my father was snagged in the collecting bug, taking me to the local pharmacies and quick shops in my small hometown that carried comics and even to one comic book convention in Atlanta, GA. But he also noticed comic collections being sold in the ads of the newspaper.

Over two visits spurred by the ad of a 20-something still living at home but obviously making a decision to shift into adulthood, we bought about 1000 comics, essentially a complete run of Marvel comics spanning most of the 1970s.

Sorting, cataloguing, and carefully placing each comic in the prerequisite plastic bags of true comic book nerdom—these were my solitude. I also ravenously began to piece together the Peter Parker/Spider-Man Universe, significantly the death of Gwen Stacy.

In The Power of Myth, an interview between Bill Moyers and popular comparative religion guru Joseph Campbell, I came to understand many years later the mythological patterns in superhero comics and the science fiction I would also begin to consume.

Throughout 30-plus years of teaching, I have grown more and more fascinated with genre and form; and as a reader, I can now trace my early comic book love that fed into Arthur C. Clarke to the logical path through Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood, leading then to Neil Gaiman and Haruki Murakami.

Mine is the story of the power of secular mythology—as Campbell may explain, the Truth beyond the narrative that need not be factually true (in contrast to the literalist Christianity of my Southern childhood).

That brings me back to watching The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as both teenage-Me and current-Me.

The updating of the Gwen Stacy arc (set in contemporary times, for example) hurts my soul, but I found the film ambitious for remaining true to the only conclusion possible in the Peter Parker/Spider-Man narrative, the death of Gwen Stacy.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man has always been a bit about working-class insecurity, but the current-Me feels deeply uncomfortable about the failures in the original Silver Age arcs absent sophisticated portrayals of race and gender (the latter captured in the character of Gwen Stacy, blonde, pretty, and more Ideal than person).

I want to set aside, however, a critical re-reading of Spider-Man to embrace again why I believe the myth remains enduring and ultimately important, despite the many flaws.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man is grounded in the central superhero motif of duality: the mere human and the masked superhero.

Spider-Man grew out of the seminal Marvel method—personified by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby—of collaborative creation and genre blurring (superhero, romance, science fiction, fantasy, etc.).

As the domain of child, teen, and young adult males, comic books from Marvel in the 1960s succeeded by tapping into teenage angst and alienation, relationships, and the transition from formal school to work.

While often misquoted, however, the ethical dilemma of Peter Parker/Spider-Man endures: “WITH GREAT POWER THERE MUST ALSO COME — GREAT RESPONSIBILITY!”—anchoring the final panels of Amazing Fantasy #15, the origin of Spider-Man.

The duality motif in Spider-Man is about much more than hiding Peter behind a mask. Peter the nerd, before the spider bite, was lonely and alienated; and then, Peter Parker (Spider-Man) discovers over and over that he remains lonely and alienated because of not his super powers, but his great responsibility.

Silver Age Spider-Man, from the origin in 1962 until the death of Gwen Stacy in 1973, confronts the mythology of the individual heart in battle with that individual’s social responsibility.

Despite all the villains the Marvel bullpen could muster, Peter Parker’s greatest battle has always been with himself.

And the one moment that matters above all others is captured in a way that sequential art demands:

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Gwen Stacy’s death in The Amazing Spider-Man 121-122 (June/July 1973)

The Peter Parker/Gwen Stacy storyline—for all the camp and flaws—remains in mythological terms a disturbing and fatalistic story of the sacrifice of the individual heart against our obligations, about the limitations of the human need to connect and then protect.

As a parent/grandparent and teacher, I lay on the couch and re-watched The Amazing Spider-Man 2 through layers of me and then tears because I have lived and live a very real battle with myself that is our essential humanity: how do we follow our hearts and offer those we love and world the selflessness it deserves?

Beneath the mask of superhero lies a secular myth of duality that is each one of us, a calling not for superheroes but every human. All of which we can find in classic mythology about gods and humans.

In Peter Parker’s universe, Gwen Stacy had to die, and then die again in the re-imagined universe of film.

Gwen Stacy’s neck breaking is the frailty of human limitation, ironically, at the end of a web—Gwen’s own mortality as that intersects with Peter’s humanity, even as Spider-Man.

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My penciled and inked drawing from my adolescence.

In existential terms, our passions are our suffering—the essential duality of being human.

As we watch Peter Parker fight himself, it is ours to recognize that to avoid our passions is to avoid living, to avoid the very humanity that should be our joy.

Max Dillon/Electro fumbles badly the gift of being saved by Spider-Man; I continue to try to find ways to serve it well (parenting, grand-parenting, teaching), although I do so in the only way a human can—I race forward, I trip, I pause on the ground, and then I stand again, committed to doing better this next time.

Each time, the spider webs are metaphorical.

For Further Reading

Challenging genres: Comic books and graphic novels

See this sample, including a brief history of comics in Chapter 1.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon

Common Core in the Real World: Destroying Literacy through Standardization (Again)

I have a brief comedy routine I use with my students, typically early in each course I teach—in part to introduce them to me, and in part to make a point about literacy.* The joke goes like this:

“When I graduated high school,” I say, ” I had 7,000 comic books,” slight pause, “and no girl friend.”

The students typically laugh, and then I deadpan, “That’s not funny. That’s sad.”

When they suddenly stop laughing, I smile widely, and we all laugh together.**

I began collecting comic books—primarily to draw from them—in the summer before my ninth grade, the summer I learned I had scoliosis and would have to wear a huge back brace throughout my high school years (23 hours a day at first and throughout school hours into my junior year of high school). That situation provided me with yet another joke for my students; when I tell that part of my life story, I say that I called my back brace “the chick magnet.” More laughter.

By my sophomore year of high school, I was collecting, drawing from, and reading dozens of comics each month. I also had begun reading science fiction (SF) voraciously. I can still recall Lucifer’s HammerRendezvous with Rama and Childhood’s End vividly—not the contents of the books so much as the reading was hard and that I felt accomplished by making my way through each one.

Lynn Harrill was my driver’s education teacher the summer before my tenth grade, and then my English teacher in both my sophomore and junior years. Lynn would prove to be the most important man and mentor in my life after my father, but during tenth grade, he told me that I needed to stop reading SF and start reading “real literature.”

And I did (well, I starting reading real literature, but didn’t stop reading SF). In the next several years, I had read everything by D.H. Lawrence (to whom Lynn introduced me), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and many other literary authors.

I owe a great deal to Lynn, despite his being wrong about his proclamation marginalizing SF (and indirectly my comics) and honoring literary fiction. But another moment in my sophomore year of English deserves mentioning.

A required book in my tenth grade was A Tale of Two Cities. The summative assessment on the novel was a multiple-choice test—on which I scored a 96, the highest grade in the class. Most of the students in the class—which was the highest track—made much lower, and they all were mad at me from ruining any chance at the grades being curved.

But that isn’t the important aspect of this story—what is?

I never read the novel.

I scored a 96 by reading the Cliff’s Notes and taking careful notes in class.

Common Core in the Real World: Destroying Literacy through Standardization (Again)

An essay in the Educational Research Bulletin addressing reading requirements in high school opens with the following:

Within the last few years heated discussion has centered around the question of free reading for high-school students in English classes. Critics have insisted that interest as a basis for book selection merely tends to establish poor taste; they have stressed the importance of organization in reading as in any program; they have assumed that free reading, with its emphasis upon pupil-direction, lacks content. Indeed, the arguments in slightly more abstract form are those frequently advanced against any program in whose construction pupils participate, and have been offered as criticism of the whole progressive-school movement. (p. 29)

While this could easily be a description of the debates surrounding Common Core, this is by Lou LaBrant, written in 1937.

LaBrant presents a careful study of the positive consequences of free reading in the context of the traditional view that students must be assigned reading and that students must also read primarily (if not only) from the Great Books. She concludes from the study:

The theory that in a free or extensive reading program designed to utilize interest and to serve individual needs there will be fruitless reading of light fiction gains no evidence from this study. The report does, however, point to the possibility that the adolescent has much greater power to read and to think intelligently about reading than the results of our conventional program have led us to believe. (p. 34)

In the seventy-plus years since LaBrant’s piece, as literacy scholars such as Stephen Krashen have argued and detailed in their research, student literacy has been shown to spring from choice reading and access to books (in the home and libraries)—not from prescribed reading lists, not from revised standards, and certainly not from testing reading.

Advocates for Common Core insist that CC is not prescriptive and that CC is not the tests to come from these new standards.

Those advocates are simply ignoring the real world and the history of standards-bases education in the U.S.; they are, in fact, confusing the use of “to be” verbs with “should.” It may very well be that CC should not be prescriptive and should not be reduced to the tests. But should does not dictate what most surely is and will be.

Last week, for example, a former student of mine who is now a high school English teacher texted me distraught. Her English department is aggressively pursuing a new policy to end the use of young adult (YA) literature in the high school courses at her school. Why?

The department leaders have argued that CC requires literature that is “rigorous.”

Despite having abundant evidence on her side (including research and that students do read voraciously YA literature), she has been told to stop her resistance.

Another former student of mine who teachers high school English also faced harsh evaluations during her first year of teaching because she designed and implemented a wonderful unit around The Hunger Games. Despite the huge popularity of the unit among her students (and among student not in her class who were drawn into the books because of word of mouth), the leaders of her department also reprimanded her for depending on lesser literature—arguing that her students needed higher quality reading (required Great Books, again).

In the real world, CC and the tests that are to follow have and will once again reinforce the exact practices that have harmed literacy among students for a century; teachers will be emboldened to assign Great Books (and marginalize further everything else) and teachers will be compelled to teach to the test.

In the real world, as Gerald Bracey has explained, what is tested is what is taught—especially when standards and testing are part of high-stakes accountability. CC may in fact raise (eventually) some reading test scores, but I guarantee it will only harm the teaching of literacy and the literacy of students.

I have slipped past the age of 50. I have read thousands of books and written several myself.

My greatest literacy joys remain authors I was never assigned, but discovered for myself—Milan Kundera, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Neil Gaiman.

My literary life can be traced back to my mother and the wealth of children’s books that populated my childhood home and then my deeply self-conscious nerd self as a teen sitting in my comic book room surrounded by comic books and stacks of Arthur C. Clarke novels.

I graduated high school with mostly As in math and science, intending to be physics major, because school had profoundly misled me about the joy and wonder of words.

In college, on my own, I learned otherwise.

There is no justification for CC and the tests that have and will follow if we genuinely seek to offer children the rich and valuable literacy that every child deserves. Denying students choice is ignoring what we know about literacy development as well as the essence of basic human agency.

Common Core in the real world is once again destroying literacy through standardization.

* This blog was inspired by Christopher Lehman @iChrisLehman.

** My newer joke springs from The Big Bang Theory; at some point I tell students I watch and enjoy the show, and then pause before saying quite seriously I don’t understand, however, why people think it’s funny. Then I smile widely.