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.

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Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC

At its best, San Diego Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.

1. MAN IN HARRY POTTER T-SHIRT STABS ANOTHER MAN IN THE FACE—WITH A PEN

In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.

2. MEMORABILIA THIEVES INVADE NEW YORK

Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’s Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."

3. CATWOMAN SAVES THE DAY


John Sciulli/Getty Images for Xbox

Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”

4. MAN POSES AS FUGITIVE-SEEKING INVESTIGATOR TO GET INTO VIP ROOM

The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of 2016 and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Just a few months later, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

5. MAN WALKS 645 MILES TO COMIC-CON, DRESSED AS A STORMTROOPER, TO HONOR HIS LATE WIFE


Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Disney

In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.

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Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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