Wednesday, June 16, 2010

All-Star Comics #8: “Introducing Wonder Woman” (December-January, 1941)

At last, in a world torn by the hatreds and wars of men, appears a woman to whom the problems and feats of men are mere child’s play—a woman whose identity is known to none, but whose sensational feats are outstanding in a fast-moving world! With a hundred times the agility and strength of our best male athletes and strongest wrestlers, she appears as though from nowhere to avenge an injustice or right a wrong! As lovely as Aphrodite—as wise as Athena— with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules—she is known only as Wonder Woman, but who she is, or whence she came, nobody knows!

To begin the story, a World War II era propeller plane sputtered out of gas and crash landed on an uncharted isle amidst a vast ocean. Two beautiful inhabitants spied the accident, and rushed to survey the scene. The blonde Amazon Mala was startled to find a male pilot, while her raven-haired princess pulled the man from the wreckage. The Princess rushed the pilot to the local hospital on foot, carrying the grown man through ancient Grecian streets as though he were but a boy. Toga clad Amazons looked on in disbelief that a man was on their island, and the Queen was alerted.

The doctor, wearing a fabulous skin-bearing white dress and squared diamond shaped eyeglasses determined that the pilot had a concussion, and could not be moved for days. Just then, Queen Hippolyte arrived, full of questions. The doctor explained everything up to the present, and provided her queen with documents found on the pilot’s person. The papers revealed him to be Captain Steven Trevor of the United States Army Intelligence Service. Hippolyte ordered Trevor’s eyes covered, so that he would learn nothing of the island on waking, and requested Trevor receive the best possible care. The Queen also ordered Trevor’s plane be repaired, so that he could leave the island as soon as possible.

The Queen’s only daughter remained at Trevor’s bedside, helping the doctor on fourteen-plus hour shifts to see to the pilot’s care. After a number of days, the doctor asked that the Princess be disallowed from the hospital due to her strange behavior around the ailing man, which Hippolyte recognized as love. “I was afraid of that! You are quite right, Doctor. I shall take steps immediately.”

The Princess was barred from the hospital, and begged her mother to explain why she would put up barriers between herself and the only man she could recall ever seeing. Queen Hippolyte explained that in Ancient Greece centuries past, their people ruled the foremost nation in all the world, Amazonia. One day, the demigod Hercules was taunted into landing an attack force on the Amazons’ shores. With the help of Hippolyte’s Magic Girdle, a gift from the goddess Aphrodite, the Queen defeated Hercules in combat. However, Hercules later used “deceit and trickery” to secure the Magic Girdle for himself, and enslaved the Amazons. Angry that her people had “succumbed to the wiles of men,” Aphrodite turned from the Amazons in their time of need. After submitting to the men for an unendurable time, Hippolyte successfully appealed to Aphrodite, and had the Magic Girdle restored to her possession. Empowered, the Queen and her Amazons swiftly turned the tables on their masters, and then sailed off on Hercules’ ships to a new shore. Aphrodite had demanded as a condition of their release that the Amazons take up residence on an isolated island bereft of men, and that they forevermore wear the liberated shackles of their former captors as bracelets, reminders “that we must always keep aloof from men.”

After some time on the seas, the Amazons located and settled on Paradise Island-- so fertile a land that there would never be cause for conflict amongst one another. Further, the island granted the Amazons tindeed a race of Wonder Women!” Such was the promise of Aphrodite, while the Goddess of Wisdom Athena graced the Amazons with a gift of her own just after they defeated the Herculeans. Through the Magic Sphere, an incongruously flat viewing portal to events across time and space, the Amazons were able to keep up with developments in the outside world “and even, at times, forecast the future! That is why we Amazons have been able to far surpass the inventions of the so-called man-made civilization! We are not only stronger and wiser than men—but our weapons are better—our flying machines are further advanced!” Hippolyte had also used the sphere to teach her daughter “all the arts and sciences and languages of modern as well as ancient times!”

Hippolyte completed her history lesson for her daughter, then employed the Magic Sphere to see the events leading up to Captain Trevor’s arrival. Although his superior officer felt Trevor was Army Intelligence’s most valuable man, Steve insisted he alone be allowed to pursue a vital clue that could bring down a spy ring in the U.S.A. Trevor managed to get the drop on their Teutonic leader, Von Storm, but was knocked out by Fritz the driver’s crashing their vehicle into a tree. Trevor was then dumped in a robot plane which was used to launch an air strike against an American hanger. Trevor was roused early into the assault and wrested control of the plane, flying it in pursuit of an enemy bomber over the ocean. Pushing the plane to its limits, Trevor crashed on Paradise Island.

The Princess insisted Trevor must be returned to America to complete his mission, but the Queen needed to consult her goddesses first. The young lady thought, “It wouldn’t be any trick at all for me to fly him back myself, but mother would never hear of it.” Aphrodite and Athena bade Hippolyte to defend American liberty and freedom through her strongest and wisest Amazon, as the U.S. was the last citadel of democracy and equality in the world’s war against the forces of hatred and oppression. The gods had decreed the arrival of Captain Trevor to set the wheels in motion, and Hippolyte would call all but one of her Amazons to a tournament with which to determine their champion. Only her daughter was forbidden. “The winner must take this man back to America, and never return, and I couldn’t bear to have you leave me forever!”

The Great Day was upon the Amazons, as each wore a number and took part in tests to prove their speed, strength and agility. The final contestants were Number 12, the Princess’ friend Mala, and No. 7, the mysterious Masked Maiden. The pair’s final and greatest test would be “Bullets and Bracelets,” in which five shots would be fired from a handgun at each finalist. They would have to deflect every shot, or else be wounded and lose by default. The Masked Maiden defended herself against each shot, while Mala was fast, but not fast enough to avoid a strike to her shoulder. Queen Hippolyte congratulated Number Seven, and asked the Masked Maiden to reveal herself as the strongest and most agile of all the Amazons. Hippolyte “knew it—I felt it,” but still exclaimed “DAUGHTER! YOU!” Acknowledging it was too late to change the results now, “You’ve won and I’m proud of you! In America you’ll indeed be a ‘Wonder Woman’… Let yourself be known as Diana, after your godmother, the goddess of the moon! And here is a costume I have designed to be used by the winner, to wear in America!” The Princess exclaimed “Why mother, it’s lovely!”

And so Diana, the Wonder Woman, giving up her heritage, and her right to Eternal Life, leaves Paradise Island to take the man she loves back to America—the land she learns to love and protect, and adopts as her own!

Can you imagine being a boy in late 1941, reading 67 pages of Justice Society of America related stories in All-Star Comics #8, and finding this nine page gem stashed at the very back? A time when you could actually be misled into believing that Queen Hippolyte was perhaps this mysterious "Wonder Woman," given that the only other brunette is her unnamed lovesick daughter? How about all those girls in just brassieres and short skirts? Or the strip being interrupted two pages in by a couple of pages of heavy text with small illustrations, telling the history of these Amazons? What a trip! It even works both ways, as one notices the unnamed cameos (General Darnell, Dr. Althea,) the absence of Diana's birth legend or Lasso of Truth, and the only action being driven by Steve Trevor. I think the "Masked Maiden" alias is given more often than Diana's name, revealed only in the next-to-last panel in such a way it could lead one to wonder if it was also an alias. Heck, with all those Amazons vying for the title "Wonder Woman" over the years, you'd think at least one would have settled for "The Masked Maiden."

Regardless, the first appearance of Wonder Woman is an engrossing read, making up with some of William Moulton Marston's storytelling deficits with fascinating details and the uniqueness of the premise. Harry G. Peter's art is technically crude, but undeniably dynamic, and he packs a lot of story into some seriously tiny panels (some roughly and inch & a half square!) It's also worth noting that the Wonder Woman figure in the splash panel is nearly identical to the one featured on the cover to Sensation Comics #1, aside from a thicker outline and a thinner face for Diana. All in all, a most impressive debut!

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