The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Image of The Secret History of Wonder Woman
Release Date: 
November 25, 2014
Reviewed by: 

The book satisfies one’s appetite for a good story, salts and peppers it with scandal, and provides a tome’s worth of education . . .”

Wonder Woman’s story really was a secret until Jill Lepore dug out enough pieces to put the jigsaw puzzle together. It’s surprising how deep, rich, long—and complex—the story is for what most of us perceive as a comic book character.

“The story of Wonder Woman’s origins wasn’t a neglected history, waiting to be written,” Lepore states; “It was a family secret, locked in a closet.”

The book is a thus collective biography of, shall we say, a very unconventional family, who was way ahead of their time. The central character is the charismatic William Moulton Marston (unheralded creator of the lie detector test), supported by his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, and presumed mistress, Olive Byrne.

All of these were directly or indirectly connected to, and strongly influenced by, the pioneering feminist Margaret Sanger and others. Put together they personified moving and shaking through the patriarchal world of the early 1900s and on through the century. Wonder Woman emerged from them in 1941, to “fight fascism with feminism.”

She “is no ordinary comic-book superhero. The secrets this book reveals and the story it tells place Wonder Woman not only within the history of comic books and superheroes but also at the very center of the histories of science, law, and politics. Superman owes a debt to science fiction, Batman to the hard-boiled detective. Wonder Woman’s debt is to the fictional feminist utopia and to the struggle for women’s rights.”

So the book covers a volatile century in U.S. history, presented at a brisk canter. It is organized at a high scholarly level while remaining accessible to general readers, though if your interest is more in Wonder Woman and the world of comic art, you might get impatient with the plural biographies after a while.

History (herstory?) is leavened by black-and-white illustrations and color inserts from the Wonder Woman publications of multiple eras, including some of the earliest sketches of the character and notes for storylines. Photographs of the key players are also included, and almost 100 pages of resources support and expand upon the central material.

The book satisfies one’s appetite for a good story, salts and peppers it with scandal, and provides a tome’s worth of education to digest afterward. Readers unfamiliar with Lepore’s previous work will be inspired to check it out to see what other fascinating and informative topics she has dished up, explained, and exposed.