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William Moulton Marston, the Psychologist Who Created Wonder Woman

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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.

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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.

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These Evil Dead 2 Comics Will Look Groovy on Your Bookshelf
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Space Goat Publishing

Bruce Campbell has been quoted as saying the gallons of fake blood poured into his face during filming of the 1987 cult classic horror film Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn led to a week of red-tinged mucus leaking out of his nostrils. Fortunately, no Campbells were harmed in the making of two new comic collections from Space Goat Productions that are now being funded on Kickstarter. The Evil Dead 2 Omnibus features over 300 pages of stories set in the Necronomicon-plagued universe featured in numerous comic book miniseries; The Art of Evil Dead 2 reveals never-before-seen production art from both the comics and ancillary projects.

The campaign is the latest from Space Goat, the Bellingham, Washington-based company that’s made a cottage (or cabin) industry from products spinning out of the Sam Raimi-directed film, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. In addition to the new collections, the publisher has also issued an Evil Dead 2 coloring book; a comic where Campbell’s demon-fighting hero, Ash Williams, encounters Adolf Hitler; and a forthcoming board game where players can navigate Deadite threats while shaking their head at Ash’s questionable competency. (No matter the iteration, he seems ill-equipped to deal with the threat of his own possessed and lopped-off hand.)

According to Space Goat publisher Shon Bury, licensing the Evil Dead 2 property from rights holders StudioCanal in 2015 has been a buoy in navigating the difficult waters of comic book publishing. (Even Marvel, which rakes in billions through its film franchises, struggles to sell more than 60,000 to 70,000 copies of its most popular monthly titles.) One day into its Kickstarter launch, the Evil Dead titles had reached 50 percent of their $20,000 funding goal.

“It’s definitely our flagship on the publishing side,” Bury tells Mental Floss. “The board game is our top seller in the Evil Dead category, and the coloring book sells really well. They’re our evergreen products.”

The cover to 'The Art of Evil Dead 2' from Space Goat Publishing
Space Goat Publishing

Exploring Ash’s adventures in other media comes with a few caveats. While Space Goat is free to explore the characters and situations portrayed in Evil Dead 2, incorporating ideas from the rest of the series (including 1993’s Army of Darkness or the Starz series Ash vs. Evil Dead) is generally off-limits. And while the StudioCanal rights include a likeness of Campbell, the actor has veto power over how he’s depicted on the page. “For some reason, he doesn’t like the dimple on his chin to be drawn,” Bury says. “But he’s very insistent that the scar on his face from the movie is always there.”

Other actors featured in the film—like Richard Domeier, the future home-shopping host who portrayed “Evil Ed”—may not have granted their likeness rights, but his Deadite character design is part of the deal. “You want to inoculate the owner or licensor of the rights,” Bury says. “So we submit drawings and they might say, ‘No, too close to the actor.’”

That development process is part of what makes up The Art of Evil Dead 2, one-half of Space Goat’s current Kickstarter project that follows a successful Evil Dead 2 board game launch in 2016. The campaigns, Bury says, help target Ash fans with material that might not get enough attention if it were released directly to retailers. “Kickstarter is basically social media. It’s direct engagement, our way of saying to fans, ‘Hey, you’re really going to like this.’”

Bury expects fans to be just as enthused about Evil Dead 2: The Doppelganger Wars, a limited series due for release in 2018 that sees Ash and sidekick Annie Knowby enter the mirror dimension glimpsed at in Evil Dead 2 to discover the true origins of both the demon-summoning Necronomicon and the cult surrounding it. A meeting with H.P. Lovecraft may also be on deck, along with other narratives that would carry the license through the end of the publisher’s current agreement with StudioCanal in late 2019.

Still to be decided: whether Ash will ever encounter the werewolves of The Howling, Space Goat’s latest horror license. “Those conversations have occurred,” Bury says. “It would be a natural. But it’s also challenging because the royalties [for the licenses] double.” 

Digital versions of The Art of Evil Dead 2 and the Evil Dead Omnibus will be available to backers pledging $20 beginning in December. Softcover, hardcover, and Necronomicon slipcase editions ($30 and up) ship in May 2018. The Kickstarter runs through November 25.

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How Superman Helped Foil the KKK
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Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images

The Klansmen were furious.

Dozens of them had congregated in a nondescript room in Atlanta, shaking cloaked heads at the worrisome news that their sect leader had just shared: An act of gross subterfuge had transpired over the airwaves. Millions of Americans had now become privy to their policies, their rankings, their closely guarded methods of organized hatred.

All of it fodder for some comic book radio show. Their mission had been compromised, sacrificed at the altar of popular culture. Kids, one Klansman sighed. His kids were in the streets playing Superman vs. the Klan. Some of them tied red towels around their necks; others pranced around in white sheets. Their struggle for racial purity had been reduced to a recess role play.

Stetson Kennedy listened, doing his best to give off irate body language. He scowled. He nodded. He railed.

The covert activist waited patiently for the Klan to settle down. When they did, he would call radio journalists Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, offering the results of his infiltration into the group for public consumption.

He’d also contact Robert Maxwell, producer of the Superman radio serial. Maxwell, eager to aid the humanitarian mission of the Anti-Defamation League, would promptly insert the leaked information into his show’s scripts. In between fisticuffs, his cast would mock the KKK’s infrastructure, and the group’s loathsome attitudes would be rendered impotent by the juvenilia.

The Klan roared, demanding revenge on their traitor. “Show me the rat,” their leader said, “and I’ll show you some action.”

Kennedy cheered, just as they all did.

And when he returned home, his Klan robe would be traded for a cape.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kennedy, born in 1916, was an unlikely undercover operative. After a back injury kept him out of World War II, the Jacksonville, Florida native decided he wanted to combat anti-American forces on the home front. With Klan members alleged to have assaulted his family’s black maid when he was a child, the Klan—once again gathering steam in an era of segregation and racial divisiveness—was a favored target.

Having convinced a “Klavern” in Atlanta, Georgia that he shared their bigoted views, Kennedy donned the ominous attire of a Klansman, attended cross burnings, and covertly collected information about the group that he would then share with law enforcement and media. Radio journalist Drew Pearson would read the names and minutes of their meetings on air, exposing their guarded dialogues.

Revealing their closed-door sessions was a blow—one that Kennedy didn’t necessarily have to confine to nonfiction. In 1946, Maxwell, who produced the Superman radio serial broadcast around the country, embraced Kennedy’s idea to contribute to a narrative that had Superman scolding the racial divisiveness of the Klan and airing their dirty laundry to an enraptured audience.

“The law offices, state, county, FBI, House Un-American Activities Committee, they were all sympathetic with the Klan,” Kennedy said later. “The lawmen were, ideologically at least, close with the Klansmen. The court of public opinion was all that was left.”

Ostensibly aimed at children, Superman’s daily radio dramas were often broadcast to assembled nuclear families; one phone poll showed that 35 percent of its audience was composed of adults.

But regardless of whether parents listened, the activist believed the younger demographic was worth attending to. “Even back in the ’40s, they had kids in the Klan, little girls dressed up in Klan robes at the cross burnings," Kennedy said. "I have photos of an infant in a cradle with a complete Klan robe on. It seemed like a good place to do some educating.” 

In “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a 16-part serial airing in June and July of 1946, Superman opposes an organized group of hatemongers who target one of Jimmy Olsen’s friends. Exploring their network, Clark Kent uncovers their secret meetings and policies before his alter ego socks the “Grand Scorpion” in the jaw. The idea, Kennedy wrote in his account of his work, The Klan Unmasked, was to made a mockery of their overblown vernacular.

When traveling, for example, Klansmen might identify one another by asking if they “knew Mr. Ayak,” an acronym for “Are You a Klansman?” Although Kennedy may not have actually shared their code words on air—a longstanding myth that was debunked in Rick Bowers’s 2012 book, Superman vs. the KKK—their histrionics were perfect for dramatization in the breathless structure of a radio drama. Given shape by actors and sound effects, all the clubhouse tropes of the Klan seemed exceedingly silly.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Kennedy continued to serve up Klan secrets to Superman, he watched as Klan morale dipped and membership enrollment ebbed. Desperate, the Klan tried calling for a boycott of Kellogg’s, a new sponsor of the show, but racial intolerance was no match for the appetites of post-World War II homes. Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes remained breakfast table staples, and Superman’s battles with the close-minded continued. Emboldened by his success against the Klan, Superman took aim at Communism, a favorite target of the show’s anti-Red star, Bud Collyer.

Kennedy would go on to burden the Klan using proof of uncollected tax liens, and eventually convinced the state of Georgia to revoke their national corporate charter.

Kennedy died in 2011 at the age of 94. While some of his accounts of subterfuge in the Klan later came under fire for being embellished, his bravery in swimming with the sharks of the organization is undeniable. So, too, was his wisdom in utilizing American iconography to suffocate prejudice. Fictional or not, Superman may have done more to stifle the Klan’s postwar momentum than many real people who merely stood by and watched.

Portions of this article were excerpted from Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon by Jake Rossen with permission from Chicago Review Press. Copyright (c) 2008. All Rights Reserved.

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