Chloe Effron/iStock/photo:DC
Chloe Effron/iStock/photo:DC

William Moulton Marston, the Psychologist Who Created Wonder Woman

Chloe Effron/iStock/photo:DC
Chloe Effron/iStock/photo:DC

A new film version of the comic book Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot, won’t hit theaters until 2017, which leaves a little time to read up on the man who created the character more than 70 years ago. William Moulton Marston, who originated the most popular female comic character of all time, was something of a character in his own right—and his reasons for creating arguably the first feminist comic book were as complicated as he was.

Born in 1893 in Saugus, Massachusetts, Marston attended Harvard University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1915 and a PhD in psychology in 1921. He taught at the American University in Washington, D.C. and at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. Throughout his life, he wrote journal papers and articles on psychology, but he first gained national attention because of an invention. Marston, who had a lifelong fascination with the secrets people keep, is credited with inventing a precursor to the modern lie detector test.

As a graduate student at Harvard, Marston had introduced the idea of measuring systolic blood pressure to gauge whether a person was lying. The systolic blood pressure test was suggested by Marston’s wife, a law student named Elizabeth Holloway, who noticed that her blood pressure rose when she was upset. Marston worked hard to convince the public of the lie detector’s infallibility, but wasn’t successful; when he attempted to introduce the lie detector into court cases in 1922, the court (Frye v. United States) decided there was just too much opportunity for error. Marston also tried to convince the Committee on Psychology at the National Research Council to use his lie detector to ferret out spies, but they refused to endorse the idea, citing skepticism about its consistency and reliability. Even today, the American Psychological Association says that lie detectors are not reliable, because there is no verifiable bodily reaction that proves deception. 

Marston testing his lie detector in 1922. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain

Marston, however, was convinced that his invention was a game changer. He contributed articles about the machine’s veracity and usefulness to a popular women’s magazine and various medical journals—and he would eventually use a comic to indirectly popularize the idea. 

Besides being an inventor and a psychologist, Marston was also a writer. He won a nationwide contest for “best moving picture scenario” while at Harvard, which became the film Jack Kennard, Coward. In 1928, he was hired as director of the Public Service Bureau at Universal Studios, charged with  “[applying] psychology wherever psychology is needed.” The employment advertisement he answered requested a psychologist who would help analyze plot situations and forecast “how the public might react to them.” Marston also co-founded a film company, Equitable Pictures, with the hope of making films about women who were economically and sexually independent. But the film company was incorporated only days before the stock market crashed in 1929. Neither it nor Marston’s job with Universal survived the onset of the Great Depression.

Comics were popular escapist fiction during the difficult years of the Depression, and with the advent of superheroes who could solve insurmountable problems, the industry exploded. Superman debuted in 1938, and Batman first appeared in Detective Comics in 1939. Yet, despite their growing popularity, comics drew criticism; some criticized them for being too violent and racy. Newspaper editorials called them “a national disgrace” and nicknamed them “sex-horror serials.”

In 1940, former elementary school principal and comic book publisher Maxwell Charles Gaines hired Marston, who had spent most of the Depression unemployed, as an educational consultant for Detective Comics (now known as DC Comics). Marston agreed that existing comics tended to be violent and wondered why there was not a female hero, one who could find peaceful solutions to conflict. At the same time, he reasoned, that comic book heroine could serve as a role model for young women and inspire them to achieve.

Marston explored the subject of a female comic book hero in a 1943 essay titled “Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics,” published in the The American Scholar. While his words don’t sound particularly feminist today, Marston thought of himself that way, and worked to promote the idea that women should be strong and powerful.

“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power,” he wrote. “Not wanting to be girls they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peaceloving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weak ones. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”

Marston said he wanted to inspire girl comic book readers, and to introduce boys to what he saw as a feminist icon. A press release at the time explained, “‘Wonder Woman’ was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men.”

Gaines told Marston if he wanted to see that comic book become a reality, he would have to write it himself. So, he did—and thus Wonder Woman was born. The character debuted in All-Star Comics in late 1941, and was featured in Sensation Comics in 1942. Six months after that, the very first issue of Wonder Woman was released.

Wikimedia // Fair Use

Wonder Woman’s story was based on the Greek myths of women warriors. She was an Amazon princess named Diana who had lived in an all-female society on a hidden island. Fearless and skilled, she was the best warrior around. When Steve Trevor, a U.S. intelligence officer, crashed his plane on the island, Diana won a contest to take him home, since no man could remain on the island. At the same time, she was also charged with returning to the world of men so she could fight the Axis powers.

After taking Trevor home, Wonder Woman decided to stay near him, where she could protect him. She continued to rescue him but was reluctant to declare her feelings for him. In between battling super villains, who were often narrow-minded misogynists, she shadowed Trevor disguised as Plain-Jane assistant Diana Prince. He never suspected she was Wonder Woman, whom he also secretly loved. 

Though young readers seemed to respond positively to Wonder Woman, the heroine still had plenty of critics. Most of the criticism centered on her sexy outfit, featuring a red and yellow bustier and form-fitting blue shorts, which caused the Catholic Bishops’ National Organization for Decent Literature to put the comic book on its banned list.

"There are a lot of people who get very upset at what Marston was doing,” Jill Lepore, Harvard professor and author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, explained in a 2015 interview with NPR. “Is this a feminist project that's supposed to help girls decide to go to college and have careers, or is this just like soft porn?”

Critics also took exception to the suggestion of bondage, which some felt was implied by Wonder Woman’s frequent depiction in chains. The chains were a key part of Wonder Woman’s story: Just as Superman was vulnerable to Kryptonite, Wonder Woman was vulnerable to a man chaining her up, which caused all her strength to sap away.

Marston shrugged off criticism that focused on the frequency of Wonder Woman’s bondage, telling one critic that he’d spent his life studying psychology and was convinced that bondage could be a healthy means of sexual expression. And according to Lepore, the imagery of chains also evoked other influences in Marston’s life.

“Almost every story Marston writes in the '40s, she’s tied up or chained up or gagged,” Lepore said in an interview with The Telegraph. “He says that it’s totally necessary because she’s an allegory of the emancipation of women. If we want to show the emancipation of women she has to break her chains.”

The imagery of a woman enchained by oppression had been a popular cultural motif during Marston’s early life. As a young man, Marston had greatly admired the suffragettes, and during his college days he had witnessed suffragettes chaining themselves to fences as an act of protest. Marston was also a vocal advocate of Margaret Sanger, the birth control advocate who founded what would become Planned Parenthood. She published a collection of letters from women titled “Motherhood in Bondage,” which described the lack of birth control as enslavement. A 1923 magazine illustration for Sanger’s Birth Control Review pictured a woman chained to a ball that read “Unwanted Babies.” The popular motif implied that women would never truly be free until they could control the size of their families.

When Sanger was charged with obscenity for promoting birth control in her magazine Woman Rebel, her supporters sent a petition to President Woodrow Wilson. It read in part:

“While men stand proudly and face the sun, boasting that they have quenched the wickedness of slavery, what chains of slavery are, have been or ever could be so intimate a horror as the shackles on every limb—on every thought—on the very soul of an unwilling pregnant woman?”

Other details of Wonder Woman’s wardrobe and accoutrements were also significant. That includes the magical lasso she carried that forced her captives to tell the truth—likely a reference to Marston’s invention, the lie detector test.

“Anyone caught in the lasso found it impossible to lie,” said Geoffrey Bunn, author of “The Lie Detector, Wonder Woman and Liberty” [PDF]. “And because Wonder Woman used it to extract confessions and compel obedience, the golden lasso was of course nothing less than a lie detector.”

Wonder Woman also wore two thick bullet-deflecting bracelets, which may have been a reference to Marston’s unconventional romantic life. The jewelry was similar to the thick bracelets worn by Olive Byrne, Marston’s lover and Margaret Sanger’s niece. Though Marston had married Elizabeth Holloway in 1915, by 1925 he was also romantically involved with Byrne. She moved into their home a few years later, and together the three adults raised four children. Byrne kept their secret by pretending to be a widow, claiming that her children with Marston were from a previous marriage. It has been suggested that she wore the bracelets in lieu of a wedding band.

Marston died of skin cancer in 1947, at age 53. Following his death, his wife and Byrne continued to live together until Byrne died in the 1980s—which has led some to speculate that this unconventional relationship was Holloway’s doing as much as, or perhaps more than, Marston’s.

Marston’s personal life may have been unusual, and some of his ideas radical for his time, but the author and inventor managed to create the most popular female comic book superhero of all time, a woman whose strength resonated with both male and female readers. It’s no wonder she adorned the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine as a symbol of feminism; she inspired a generation of women with her strength and resolve.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Marvel Entertainment
The Litigious History of DC and Marvel’s Rival Captain Marvel Characters
Carol Danvers is just one of many heroes to hold the Captain Marvel mantle for Marvel
Carol Danvers is just one of many heroes to hold the Captain Marvel mantle for Marvel
Marvel Entertainment

Behind-the-scenes struggles and legal wrangling have played just as big of a part in the history of comic books as the colorful battles on the pages themselves. And one of the most complex and long-lasting disputes in the industry has focused on Captain Marvel—or at least the two distinct versions of the character that have coexisted in a state of confusion at both Marvel and DC for decades.

Like many comic book tangles, this dispute was made possible because of the debut of Superman. Soon after his first appearance in 1938's Action Comics #1, there was a deluge of knockoffs from publishers looking for a piece of the Man of Steel pie. Though most of these were fly-by-night analogues, Fawcett Comics’s attempt at its own superhero wasn’t an inferior model—it quickly became real competition.

ENTER: THE BIG RED CHEESE

Fawcett’s Captain Marvel was created in late 1939 by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck and debuted in Whiz Comics #2. On his first cover, Captain Marvel is shown carelessly throwing a car against a brick wall, as two criminals bolt out of the windows. In Action Comics #1, Superman made his debut by hoisting a similar car over his head and driving it into the Earth, as the criminals inside fled.

The similarities were unmistakable: Here were two caped strongmen with heroic squints and circus tights leaping around cities and battling mad (and bald) scientists. But while Clark Kent got his powers from his Kryptonian physiology, Captain Marvel was, in reality, a young boy named Billy Batson who would receive his powers by shouting the magic word “SHAZAM!” If Superman was the straitlaced Boy Scout, Captain Marvel earned his moniker of "The Big Red Cheese" through sheer camp, a wink, and a nod.

Seniority mattered little to young comic book readers, and once Captain Marvel found his footing, he was outselling Superman at the newsstand and beating him to the screen by receiving his own live-action film serial in 1941. But as Captain Marvel reached larger audiences, DC was in the midst of legal action against Fawcett for copyright infringement. The claim was simple: Captain Marvel was a bit too close to Superman for DC's comfort.

DC wanted Fawcett to cease production of the serial and comics by the early 1940s, but Fawcett fought to delay a court battle for years. It wasn’t until 1948 that the case actually went to trial, with the dust finally settling in DC's favor in 1954. Legally, Fawcett would never be allowed to print another Captain Marvel book. By now, though, the superhero market was near extinction, so for Fawcett, it wasn’t even worth it to appeal again. Instead, the publisher closed shop, leaving Superman to soar the skies of Metropolis without any square-jawed competition on the newsstands.

MARVEL CLAIMS ITS NAME

The next decade would see a superhero revitalization, beginning with DC’s revamped takes on The Flash and Green Lantern in the late 1950s, and exploding just a few years later when Timely Comics changed its name to Marvel Comics and launched a roster of heavy-hitters like The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and The Hulk, all by 1962.

Marvel was a buzzword again, and in 1966, a short-lived company called M.F. Enterprises tried to capitalize with a new character named Captain Marvel—generally considered one of the worst superheroes ever put to paper.

Marvel now needed to stop inferior comics from using its name on their covers, so it obtained the trademark for the Captain Marvel name and went about protecting it by introducing yet another character named Captain Marvel. This new alien version of the hero made his debut shortly after in 1967's Marvel Super-Heroes #12.

The character was born purely for legal reasons. According to comic book veteran Roy Thomas, Stan Lee only created a Captain Marvel at publisher Martin Goodman's insistence: "All I know is the basis of the character came from a resentment over the use of the ‘Captain Marvel’ name."

Comics are nothing if not needlessly confusing at times, and by the early 1970s, Superman wasn’t quite the sales force he used to be. In need of some fresh blood, DC turned to an unlikely source for help: Fawcett. The company had reemerged in the late 1960s as the publisher of Dennis the Menace comics, but its hands were tied when the superhero business revived since it was legally forbidden from producing new Captain Marvel books. So they did the next best thing by agreeing to license the character and his supporting cast to DC in 1973.

CAPTAINS IN DISPUTE

Now the world’s two biggest publishers both had high-profile characters named Captain Marvel. But there was a catch: Since Marvel owned the rights to the name, DC couldn’t call its new Captain Marvel comic Captain Marvel. Instead, all of his comics went by the title Shazam, as did the character’s live-action TV revival in the mid-1970s. Oddly enough, the name of the character himself was still—wait for it—Captain Marvel. So DC could retain the character’s name in the stories but couldn’t slap it onto book covers or TV shows. Only Marvel could monetize the name Captain Marvel.

Right after Captain Marvel’s first DC book launched in 1973, there was an immediate hiccup. The full title of the series was the slightly antagonistic Shazam: The Original Captain Marvel. That lasted all of 14 issues before a cease and desist order from Marvel turned the series into Shazam: The World’s Mightiest Mortal. Marvel, on the other hand, found itself in the position to keep its trademark by continuously pumping out more books with Captain Marvel on the cover, which is why the company’s history is littered with reboots and new versions of the character turning up every two years or so.

By the 1990s, DC had outright purchased its Captain Marvel from Fawcett, but it could barely promote him. There are only so many times you can put Shazam on a comic cover but refer to him as Captain Marvel on the inside without confusing your readers. So in 2012, DC and writer Geoff Johns decided to end the decades of confusion and simply rename the character Shazam, because, as John said, “everybody thinks he's called Shazam already.”

In 2019, these two characters that are seemingly forever linked will have another shared milestone when they both make their big screen debuts. Marvel’s Captain Marvel will hit theaters on March 8, 2019, with Brie Larson playing the Carol Danvers version of the character. And after nearly 80 years of switching publishers, changing names, and lengthy legal battles, Zachary Levi will play the title role in Shazam! a month later on April 5.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Evening Standard/Getty Images
8 Actors Who've Played Batman (and What Fans Had to Say About Them)
Evening Standard/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Batman is one of the most beloved superheroes of all time, which has made playing him a difficult task for more than one actor. (Playing characters with rabid fan bases can be a double-edged sword.) Here, take a look back at eight actors who've donned the Batsuit—and how fans and critics reacted to their performances.

1. LEWIS WILSON

Lewis Wilson as Batman
Columbia Pictures

Lewis Wilson was the youngest person to play Batman. He appeared in the 15-part 1943 Columbia serial. Critics complained about everything from his weight to his accent.

2. ROBERT LOWERY

Robert Lowery took over the role in the 1949 follow-up serial, Batman And Robin. He was a forgettable actor in this role.

3. ADAM WEST

Adam West at 'Batman'
Evening Standard/Getty Images

West played the Caped Crusader from 1966 through 1968 in the Batman television series in addition to a film spin-off. Fans were torn: Either they loved his campy portrayal or hated it.

4. MICHAEL KEATON

Michael Keaton's casting in the 1989 Tim Burton Batman film caused such controversy that 50,000 protest letters were sent to Warner Brothers’s offices.

5. VAL KILMER

Val Kilmer in 'Batman Forever' (1995)
Warner BRos.

Val Kilmer put on the suit in 1995 and received mixed reviews. Director Joel Schumacher called the actor “childish and impossible."

6. GEORGE CLOONEY

It's safe to assume Clooney regrets his decision to star in Batman & Robin. It was the worst box-office performer of the modern Batman movies and Clooney once joked that he killed the series.

7. CHRISTIAN BALE


© TM & DC Comics/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Though Christian Bale is largely favored as the best actor to play the Dark Knight, he was not without criticism. NPR’s David Edelstein described his husky voice as “a voice that's deeper and hammier than ever.”

8. BEN AFFLECK

Most recently: Fans immediately took to the internet to decry the decision to cast Ben Affleck as Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), recalling his previous roles in the poor-performing Gigli and Daredevil.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios