A dark alley. A doomed Krypton. A ball of clay? Even the most casual of superhero fans could recite you the origins of Superman or Batman, but Wonder Woman’s origins are an entirely different matter. Some would tell you that her origin is that of a girl born of Zeus and Hippolyta, while others still would tell you that her original story – being born of clay to a world with no men was the true origin of Wonder Woman. The truth is though, neither side is wrong.
William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman and one of the inventors of the polygraph was also a man far ahead of his time. A progressive mind, Marston had very forward thinking beliefs on sex (in particular his fondness for bondage and submissiveness), gender, and the relationships between men and women in society. In 1941, he created Wonder Woman – a prototypical female warrior who he dubbed Diana – as the physical embodiment of a paradisaical society that could eschew the chains of a patriarchal world wracked by pain, anger, and war.
For Diana, Marston surrounded her with his view of a utopian world – aptly named Paradise Island – and inhabited it with the all-female Amazons. It was here on this island that the Amazons had developed not only super strength, but mental acumen as well. In his idyllic world, Diana was born not of mother and father but of a small clay piece of the very paradise she would come to live. Marston’s Amazons too were his way of showing that more feminine qualities like compassion and love could be just as noble as strength or power, typically viewed as male qualities, remarking in a 1943 issue of The American Scholar:
Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.
Sadly though, the prominent feminism of Willam Marston was not shared by many of his contemporaries, and when Wonder Woman joined the Justice Society of America she was relegated to the role of team secretary despite the fact that she was one of the more powerful members. After his death in 1947, most of Moulston’s less than conventional traits were written out of Diana’s books, culminating in a reworking of her origin in 1959s Wonder Woman #105 that attributes her powers to various Greek gods and goddesses.
Wonder Woman’s origins were further retconned in 2011’s New 52 relaunch, which saw most DC’s heroes undergo a revamp in an attempt to attract new readers. Helmed by writer Brian Azzarello with art by Cliff Chiang, Diana learns that her clay origin was a lie and is instead the daughter of Zeus – a move that would become a sore spot among fans of Wonder Woman’s more feminist origins. She is then trained by Ares in combat, further undermining Marston’s original intention of the female utopian society.
New 52 was eventually discarded in terms of Diana’s continuity through DC’s Rebirth, with writer Greg Rucka going so far as to title his first arc The Lies which dealt with Diana and her existential crisis due to her many origins over the course of her history. She’s eventually overcome emotionally and is sent to a psychiatric ward and later finds out that her New 52 origin was a lie, and that she really was made from clay. It’s a wild ride.
Making matters worse though, 2016s Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot features elements from both the discarded New 52 era and her original Marston incarnation. Although she is told as a child on Themiscyra (Paradise Island was renamed in a 1987 reboot) that she is made from clay and that Zeus merely gave her life, during the climax of the film Ares tells Diana that she is actually a true daughter of Zeus and that her mother and the Amazons have hid her true power. In a more frustrating move, the film leaves her true origins open for the viewers’ interpretation, continuing the cycle of confusion over an origin story a near eight decades in the making.
So why is it that one of the most powerful of heroes in the DC pantheon has such a convoluted origin? Well, it’s mostly due to the fact that for the most part, comics were always seen as a boys club. William Marston was progressive in his intention, but even he has been accused of using his feminism as a fetish, and his contemporaries never had any of the feminist sensibility he had. Up until very recently too, Wonder Woman was written for a boy-reader sensibility.
Years of tweaking and altering her origin for what was seen as market-friendly attitudes seem to be at an end though as female comic readers now make up between 40-50% of the market. Now that her muddled origins have hit the big screen, it may just be that writers tackle it in a new and interesting way (similar to her early Rebirth run) and dive into the psychology of Wonder Woman. What is clear though is that Wonder Woman popularity is at an all time high and with her success in the DCEU and her continuing escapades in comics, she’s ready to break up the boys club.
Image credits: DC, Warner Bros.