It may be difficult for some younger comics fans to believe, but Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman haven’t always been perceived as a “Trinity” of characters standing head and shoulders above the rest of their fellow DC Comics heroes, in the Justice League and elsewhere. That’s not to say that fans in earlier eras didn’t appreciate the special status of these three characters — the only superheroes to remain in virtually continuous publication in their own titles from the 1940s to the present day — but that appreciation didn’t necessarily equate to seeing the characters as equals.
When I first started reading comics in 1965, Batman and Superman were each headlining two titles of their own in addition to co-starring in World’s Finest, and were also appearing regularly in Justice League of America. Add to that the two titles featuring Superboy, and (from late 1965 on), Batman’s frequent co-starring turns in The Brave and the Bold, and it was clear to me that these guys were DC’s Big Two, and no one else was in the same class. Wonder Woman, after all, starred in just one title, and also appeared in JLA — which simply put her in the same good-sized camp as Aquaman, Atom, Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman. Of course, Princess Diana also had the distinction of having been around in the same incarnation since the Forties, unlike most of those guys, as well as the unique quality of being the only female superhero with her own comic book, which put her a step ahead of Supergirl. Still, all that wasn’t enough to give her iconic status — at least, not in the eyes of the (admittedly ignorant) little boy I was at the time.
Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons why Wonder Woman didn’t enjoy a more esteemed status in the minds of DC’s readership in the Sixties was that that readership was comprised primarily of pre-adolescent males; and she, of course, was just a stinky ol’ girl. But another important reason was probably the way she was regularly portrayed in the pages of her own title. By May, 1967, Wonder Woman had been written as well as edited for a full nineteen years by Robert Kanigher, who succeeded the heroine’s creator William Moulton Marston in the former role following Marston’s death; while the book’s artistic team of Ross Andru (penciller) and Mike Esposito (editor), who had similarly succeeded Wonder Woman’s original illustrator H. G. Peter, had been on the job ever since issue #98 (May, 1958). As the Amazon Princess had made her debut in 1941, the nine year period during which these three individuals had collaborated on the character constituted a significant portion of her then-25 year history. Unfortunately, it also happened to be a period in which the series had won the Academy of Comic-Book Fans and Collectors‘ Alley Award for Worst Regularly Published Comic — not just once, but twice.
Why were the mostly older, somewhat more sophisticated fans who constituted the Academy so down on Wonder Woman? It probably had a lot to do with Kanigher, who, in spite of having willingly taken on the assignment of writer-editor for the Amazing Amazon in 1948, and then sticking with it for the next two decades, doesn’t appear to have liked the character very much — at least not as originally created and developed by Marston and Peter. That initial conception, infused with ideals of feminism, love, and peace (though with an undeniable undercurrent of bondage and submission themes), would in later years be described by Kanigher as “the grotesque, inhuman original Wonder Woman.”
Kanigher himself claimed to be a writer who didn’t know what he was going to do when he sat down to work, asserting that writers who did were mere “typists”, and much of his work on Wonder Woman seems to reflect this kind of flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants approach. Even before Andru and Esposito came on board, his stories moved the superheroine into a more conventional mode, where she spent less time promoting female empowerment, and more time pining for her boyfriend, Colonel Steve Trevor; then, from 1958 on, Kanigher’s plots took a wilder direction, and his villains grew sillier, with the introduction of such formidable foes as the Glop, Paper Man, and Mouse Man (more about him later) — and, lest we forget, the extraordinarily racially offensive Egg Fu — a giant sentient egg, depicted as being (somehow) ethnically Chinese, with prehensile moustaches and a deplorable accent.
Just one issue following the debut of Egg Fu, however, Kanigher drastically switched gears, as he retold Wonder Woman’s Golden Age origin story in #159 (Jan., 1966), illustrated by Andru and Esposito in what was supposed to be an approximation of H. G. Peter’s style. Succeeding issues presented similarly styled “new” Golden Age adventures of Wonder Woman, though of course Kanigher didn’t bother with any of that “Earth-Two” business that fellow DC editor (and office mate) Julius Schwartz had introduced over in his books a few years back. (“Earth-K”, anyone?)
The “new” direction doesn’t appear to have been very successful, however, either commercially or with the fan base, and the book reverted back to its previous format and style after five issues. Which brings us to within a few months of where I came in, as, in the spring of 1967, I finally deigned to put down 12 cents of my own money for a comic book starring a girl.
Today, fifty years later, I can’t tell you why, exactly, I decided to pick up Wonder Woman #171, after having passed on the title all those months up to that point. It may simply have been that there wasn’t anything else that interested me on sale at the Tote-Sum or Short-Stop that day. Or, it could have been that dynamic Andru-Esposito cover, with its green-pink-yellow color scheme, which I still think stands out as one of their stronger efforts of the era.
In any event, when my nine-year-old self finally got around to reading his new acquisition at home, he found that the issue contained two distinct, but interconnected stories. The splash page of the first heralded that Wonder Woman was about to confront the “Terror Trap of the Demon Man-Fish!”. The next two panels following the splash, however, found our heroine being terrorized by an altogether different sort of menace:
(If you had any lingering uncertainties concerning Bob Kanigher’s level of feminist enlightenment, these panels have hopefully helped clear things up for you.)
This inauspicious beginning to our story actually serves as a bit of foreshadowing, as Diana’s Mouse Encounter of the Absurd Kind sets up the following sequence, which finds Wonder Woman and her beau Steve Trevor paying a visit to one of her defeated enemies in prison:
Yes, friends, it’s Mouse Man! This diminutive arch-criminal, introduced in WW #141 and last seen (though not by me, obviously) in issue #143, appears on-panel just long enough for us readers to glean that he’s not at all interested in reforming his nefarious ways — and then disappears from the story. (Not to worry, though — he’ll be back for the issue’s second tale.)
Earlier, we noted Kanigher’s apparent disdain for Wonder Woman’s creator’s version of the character, so I think it’s worth mentioning here that Diana’s deep interest in rehabilitating villains is a theme the writer carried forward directly from Marston. Marston went so far as to even have the Amazons set up a rehabilitation center on “Reform Island”, later “Transformation Island”, where criminals would be reformed by being taught the Amazonian philosophy of “loving submission” with the aid of “Venus Girdles”. Kanigher wasn’t interested in taking things that far, obviously, but I do think it’s interesting that he kept as much of Marston’s concept intact as he did.
After their less-than-fruitful visit with Mouse Man, Diana ditches Steve and heads off to visit her mom, Queen Hippolyta, and her fellow Amazons on Paradise Island for the weekend. After a friendly sporting competition in which Wonder Woman handily trounces her rivals (of course), the women head off for some relaxing fun in the sun — but things don’t go quite as planned:
(Yes, it does seem odd that the Amazons, with their ancient Hellenistic-inspired culture, wear modern two-piece bathing suits when sunbathing, doesn’t it? But hey, this is a 1967 Code-approved comic book, and I guess they have to wear something.)
Diana manages to save her friends from being netted by the giant man-fish, but she herself is caught and dragged down to his underwater lair, where he deposits her alongside his other “catches” — an assortment of mermaids — in his aquarium, which looks like a giant goldfish bowl. (Luckily, our Amazon Princess can hold her breath for a really, really long time.) Diana finds that she can’t punch her way out of the bowl, but she still manages to escape by cutting her way out with the pointed crest of her tiara (“made of Amazonium, hardest known metal”). Before she and the freed mermaids are able to make a full getaway, however, their captor returns to the scene. Wonder Woman battles him for three pages or so, and eventually subdues him — but just then, three of his bros show up. Not to worry, though:
(Oooh, ” ‘Mama’ spank!” Maybe Kanigher wasn’t as down on Marston’s B&D tendencies as I’d assumed.)
And speaking of Mouse Man, you’ll never guess whom the Amazing Amazon will be menaced by in the next story, “Menace of the Mouse Man!” — oh, wait, no, you probably will:
(In the previous story, you’ll recall, we saw that Mouse Man was held captive not only by conventional prison bars and a specially trained guard cat, but also by a bird cage held suspended from the ceiling of his cell. How did he manage to get out of the cage, and then descend to the floor of his cell without breaking any bones? Your guess is as good as mine, since Kanigher never bothers to tell us.)
Once his hench-mice have lured the cat away, the villain easily makes his escape, and prepares to return to his life of larceny. Now, you may be curious as to how Mouse Man will use his not-so-formidable powers — which, as best as I can tell, are limited to his tiny size and his ability to command rodents — to commit robberies. Well, Kanigher, Andru, and Esposito show us on the very next page, as we see the mice invade “the exclusive Diamond-a-Go-Go Club”, driving the club’s female patrons up onto chairs and tables, in a scene that echoes Diana Prince’s mouse-capade some fifteen pages back. What’s the point of this action? Well, as the ladies hop around on the furniture, they somehow manage to… fling off their jeweled necklaces, which fall to the floor and then are… snapped up in the ruthless rodents’ jaws. Yeah, ’cause that would totally work. I guess jewelry clasp workmanship must have been really shoddy fifty years ago.
Wonder Woman baits a trap for Mouse Man by staging an event where “models dressed as Amazons” will “exhibit jewels for charity”. Of course, the villain suspects a trap, but decides to rob the show anyway. This time, however, he brings along a group of human armed accomplices instead of mice, and while Diana is battling these robbers…
Under Mouse Man’s control, Wonder Woman carries him safely back to his hideout:
(Yes, of course Diana offered to clean her captor’s place up for him. She’s a woman, after all!)
Once Mouse Man loses his grip on the lasso, you would figure that’s all she wrote — but the crafty little fella manages to hide from the Amazing Amazon amidst his collection of miniature soldiers and weaponry. Luckily, however, before he has the chance to shoot her with his tiny (but working) ray-gun, Wonder Woman has the great idea to use her super-sneeze power in reverse — and hoovers up everything in the room that’s not locked down:
That’s a pretty abrupt conclusion, isn’t it? I suppose, however, that if Kanigher really did write the way he claimed — i.e., not knowing what he was going to do when he sat down at the typewriter — properly pacing a story must have been a problem, at least occasionally.
In any event, despite Kanigher’s injunction in the final panel, my nine-year-old self ultimately opted out of coming back for “the next sparkling adventure of the Mighty Amazon“. It would, in fact, be another five years before I’d pick up another issue of Wonder Woman. I’ll have more to say about that issue, anon; but first…
Wonder Woman #171 bears the distinction of being not only my first issue of the series, but also (rather more importantly) Ross Andru’s last* as the book’s regular penciller While his longtime partner Mike Esposito would continue on as inker for another five issues, Andru ended his nine year run on the book here. The veteran penciller would hardly be idle, however; for one thing, he still had a few issues left to draw in his tenure on Metal Men, another feature on which he collaborated with Kanigher and Esposito — and one to which all three men’s talents were better suited, at least in my humble opinion. And following a couple of fill-in issues of X-Men over at Marvel, he’d resurface at DC, once again in collaboration with Esposito, as the two became the new regular art team on The Flash, a feature for which, alas, their talents weren’t as well-suited (again, IMHO). But that’s a post for another day.
Not only would both members of the long-running art team be gone after issue #176 (May-June, 1968), but so too would Robert Kanigher, ending his twenty year tenure as both writer and editor on the series (though he would return, albeit briefly, as discussed further below).
I’ve been a little rough on Kanigher in this post, and while I don’t think I’ve been unfair, I’d like to provide a little balance here by noting that almost every comics historian and critic that I’ve consulted consider his Wonder Woman stories to be the nadir of an otherwise estimable writing career. While it may seem a little odd to describe a writer whose body of work includes the co-creation of Black Canary and the Metal Men, not to mention the scripting of what’s often called the very first story of the Silver Age of Comics (the introduction of the “Barry Allen” Flash in Showcase #4 [Sept.-Oct., 1956]), as being perhaps not really at his very best when writing superheroes — the fact remains that Kanigher seemed to bring his “A” game most consistently to another genre, namely war comics, in which he is generally considered to have done his most memorable work. And since I never really got into war comics, either as a kid or after, I’m not the best equipped person to judge his overall oeuvre (at least, not until I do a whole lot of catching up). So I’d like to offer a metaphorical olive branch to Kanigher’s memory here by sharing this amusing and obviously affectionate portrait of the writer done by his frequent war comics collaborator, Joe Kubert. It was originally published decades ago in The Comics Journal (I think), and is to this day the image that always comes to mind whenever I read or hear Robert Kanigher’s name.
The departure of the penciller, inker, and writer-editor of Wonder Woman within months of each other definitely signaled changes in store for the series, though it’s doubtful many readers realized just how drastic those changes would prove to be. Jack Miller succeeded Kanigher as editor with #177, and, just one issue later, introduced a radical new direction for Princess Diana, as developed and executed by the creative team of Denny O”Neill (writer), Mike Sekowsky (penciller), and Dick Giordano (inker). This overhaul found the Amazing Amazon renouncing her powers to avoid being forced to leave earth, taking up martial arts training with an elderly Chinese teacher named I Ching, becoming a globe-trotting adventuress — and opening a mod boutique. Sekowsky, whose earlier work for Gold Key Comics on “Jet Dream” had foreshadowed his contribution to the makeover of Wonder Woman, soon emerged as the leading creative spirit in this new direction, taking on the additional roles of writer and editor after a few issues.
That state of affairs didn’t last, however; nor, ultimately, did the “new direction”. Inspired at least in part by the championing of the “classic” Wonder Woman as an iconic symbol by Gloria Steinem and other second-wave feminists — and also by the concurrent criticism of DC by those very same feminists for the company’s “dis-empowerment” of the heroine — DC brought back the Amazing Amazon in her star-spangled costume, powers fully restored, in the 204th issue (Jan.-Feb, 1973) of her series. (They even brought back Robert Kanigher as both editor and writer, though he’d only last for eight issues this time around.) After that, we were off to the Amazonian chariot races, you might say. The years to come brought Super Friends, Lynda Carter, George Pérez, and much more, all contributing to increase Princess Diana’s iconic status inside comic book culture as well as outside of it. Ultimately, in the early years of the 21st Century she was at last able to take her rightful place in DC’s hallowed Trinity; then, about a decade later, in her 75th year of publication, she finally got to be in a movie (and was unquestionably the best thing in it, even though she wasn’t supposed to be the main attraction) — plus, she got a way-cool set of U. S. Postal Service commemorative stamps issued in her honor; and this year, coming up quite soon now (less than one month away at the time of this writing, in fact), she’ll be opening in her very own major motion picture, at long last. Happy Wonder Woman Day, everybody!
But — a long, long time before any of that latter stuff — in the summer of 1972, to be more precise — with only a couple of issues left to go in the “new direction” era of the series, DC published Wonder Woman #202. That issue guest-starred Catwoman as well as DC’s hipster P.I., Jonny Double; was written by Hugo and Nebula Award winning science fiction novelist Samuel R. Delany; and featured the comic book debuts of Fritz Leiber‘s famous sword and sorcery characters, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. How the heck could my fifteen-year-old self pass that up?
I couldn’t, of course. And that was the second issue of Wonder Woman I ever bought, some five years after the first one — though it would certainly be far from the last.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself, here. That comic book won’t be eligible for its own post until July 4, 2022. Check back with me then (it’ll be my 65th birthday! — seriously, it will) — and assuming I’m still around, I’ll tell you all about it.
*According to the Grand Comics Database, as well as Les Daniels’ Wonder Woman: The Complete History (2004). Mike’s Amazing World, however, credits #172 as Andru’s final issue.
I’ve read that one reason Wonder Woman was continuously published in the 1950’s was that if DC ever stopped publishing her, her rights would revert to Marston’s estate.
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Nice write up.
I’ve been a comic book fan since I was 12 years old in 1966. Not a fan of DC Comics. I was a fan of Marvel Comics back then. 1966 was a great year to be a twelve year old reading Marvel Comics. Got me hooked on comic books for life. But that’s another story.
I wasn’t a fan of Wonder Woman until I saw the 2017 Wonder Woman movie. The Wonder Woman movie got me interested in the character. Read the books “Wonder Woman Unbound” by Tim Hanley and “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” by Jill Lepore. Got hold of the first three volumes of the Golden Age Wonder Woman that DC published that covered the first three years of the original Marston Wonder Woman Stories. The Marston Wonder Woman was a pretty edgy character and the stories were pretty edgy stuff for the time and maybe even for now. The bondage motif was pretty blatant. Peter’s art was primitive in the first two volumes (at least as republished) but was better in the third volume (1944). There was an erotic subtext to the Marston Wonder Woman that evidently disappeared after he stopped writing the stories.
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Glad you enjoyed the post, Joshua. And thanks for the comments!
I am definitely a fan of Wonder Woman, and I find the majority of the WW stories written by Robert Kanigher to be practically unreadable. I agree with a lot of other WW fans that Kanigher’s two decade run was pretty much the nadir of quality in Princess Diana’s lengthy career.
I am one of those people who subscribes to the theory that DC was basically publishing Wonder Woman in the 1950s and 60s in order to keep the rights from reverting back to William Moulton Marston’s family, and as long as the book sold enough to not lose money DC basically didn’t care what material ran in in, which resulted in two decades of Kanigher turning in a succession of uninspired stories.
The people who criticize the decision in the late 1960s to depower Wonder Woman and turn her into an Emma Peel type of character probably do not realize that at that point the series really was in danger of cancellation. Something obviously needed to be changed, and quickly. Yes, you could perhaps argue that DC could have gone with something other than “Diana Prince, martial artist adventurer” but the point is that at least they did try to save the title, and the new direction did attract attention. I will also argue that the Diana Prince stories by Mike Sekowsky and Co were definitely much more feminist, featuring a much stronger and more independent character, than anything Kanigher wrote during his 20 year run.
As to Kanigher, like yourself I am not really a fan of war comics, so I haven’t read much of his work in that genre. I am a fan of the Unknown Soldier, which he created with Joe Kubert. The Unknown Soldier is such an unconventional and often bizarre approach to a war comic that I really enjoyed it.
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Mouse Man? Really?
As a pre adolescent in the 1960’s Wonder Woman wasn’t on my “must read” list. I was only familiar with her through her appearances in JLA. (That would change when I got a little older.) In preparation for my reading this review I read WW 171 from a bootleg CD I have of the complete run. (Don’t ask!) If this is any indication I wasn’t missing much.
Mouse Man? Sounds almost as fearsome as Paste Pot Pete!