First Appearance Flashback: Wonder Woman


Superheroes have been around a long time, and most of the characters and genre conventions are pretty well established. But did every character always look and act the way we expect them to today? In this series, I’ll be looking at the first appearances of iconic superheroes to see what’s familiar, what’s fallen by the wayside, and what’s goofy as heck. Today: Wonder Woman!

The cover to All Star Comics #8. Several members of the JSA (Hawkman, Doctor Fate, the Atom, the Sandman, the Spectre, and Johnny Thunder) look into a crystal ball containing Doctor Midnight and Starman.
No Wonder Woman, but Doctor Midnight’s owl Hooty makes an appearance! Also Johnny Thunder, my favorite useless buffoon in comics (and there are a LOT).

Wonder Woman debuted in All Star Comics #8, which was cover dated December–January 1941–1942, but actually hit stands on October 21, 1941, so this month marks her 80th anniversary. She was created by William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter, and designed both to appeal to little girl readers and to support Marston’s belief in female superiority. Early Wonder Woman comics are infamously weird, so let’s take a look at this one, and see how it measures up to today!

All Star Comics was the home of the Justice Society of America at the time, so Diana doesn’t appear on the cover at all — that honor goes to a bunch of old guys in various states of shirtlessness. It’s only after a lengthy JSA adventure that we get to Diana’s story, but what a splash she makes!

A page with four panels, the largest of which shows Wonder Woman running, with the Wonder Woman header above her and a "by Charles Moulton" credit below her.

Panel 1: A narration box says "At last, in a world torn apart 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!"

Panel 2: A WWII-era plane flies over an island.

Narration Box: To begin the strange history of "Wonder Woman," let us go out over the sea and follow in the wake of a plane, entirely out of gasoline! As we watch, it flounders helplessly in the sky, and finally crashes on the shores of an uncharted isle set in the midst of a vast expanse of ocean...

Panel 3: Diana and a blonde Amazon, both in green miniskirts and leather bikini tops, spot the crashed plane.

Narration Box: Bursting from the surrounding foliage, two beautiful figures race toward the wrecked plane...
Blonde: Look, princess, a strange plane!
Diana: Well, what are we waiting for? Come on, let's see if anyone is hurt!

Panel 3: Diana cradles an unconscious Steve in her lap.
Blonde: Princess, it's - it's - 
Diana: A man! A man on Paradise Island! Quickly! Let's get him to the hospital.
I’m sorry, I just think the OG skirt is so stinkin’ cute.

So much is made of what an unconventional person writer Marston was — he invented the polygraph! he was polyamorous and into BDSM! — that artist Peter’s contributions to early Wonder Woman are often overlooked, which is a crying shame. His art is not just beautiful but incredibly distinctive: those curling shapes, that intricate detail, that delightfully bizarre fashion. This page is stunning.

The sequence of events is familiar if you’ve ever encountered a Wonder Woman origin before: Princess Diana lives on what was then called Paradise Island (later Themyscira), which has no men until Steve Trevor crash lands on it. The only thing surprising is how skimpy those outfits are for 1941, although having been to Greece in the summer, dressing light makes sense to me.

Diana lifts Steve in her arms like a child and carries him to the island’s hospital, where her mother, Queen Hippolyta (spelled “Hippolyte” at this point), agrees that they should care for him, but decrees that he be blindfolded so that he sees nothing of their home when he regains consciousness. (There’s that BDSM creeping in!) In later years, it would be established that no man could set foot on Paradise Island (before that was eventually retconned away again), but that’s clearly not the case here.

Panel 1: The doctor, wearing glasses and a white dress with the back cut out, approaches Queen Hippolyta, who is lounging on a divan in a crown, red skirt, and gold cone bra.

Narration Box: Leaving the princess to watch over the injured pilot, the doctor seeks audience with the queen...
Hippolyta: What has happened that you disturb me at this hour? Is the man - 
Doctor: No, he is alive. It is the princess I am worried about. I don't think she ought to be allowed in the hospital anymore. She acts rather strangely about that man.

Panel 2:
Hippolyta: So she is in love! I was afraid of that! You are quite right, doctor. I shall take steps immediately.
Doctor: That would be wise. It's for the child's own good.
I’m trying to come up with a joke about Madonna wearing the cone bra on the Blonde Ambition tour and Hippolyta going blonde in the Silver Age, but I can’t quite make it work. Let’s all pretend I did, okay?

Diana manages to fall in love with the unconscious Steve, worrying her mother. I’m obsessed with both Hippolyta’s Madonna-style cone bra and the doctor’s everything.

Diana extends her arms pleadingly toward Hippolyta, seated on her throne, while three Amazons watch.

Narration Box: And so the princess, forbidden the pleasure of nursing the only man she can recall ever having seen in her life, goes to her mother, Hippolyte, the queen of the Amazons!
Diana: But Mother - I don't understand - I must see him! I must know who he is, how he got here! And why he must leave? I - I love him!
Hippolyte: I was afraid, daughter, that the day would some day arrive that I would have to satisfy your curiosity. Come - I will tell you everything!
This is basically what it looked like when I wanted to go to an NSYNC concert back in 2000 but my mom wouldn’t let me because it was a school night.

Look how gorgeous this panel is! Look!!!

Hippolyta exposits the truth about the Amazons to Diana not in normal panels, but a prose story with in-set illustrations that takes up nearly two pages, which is another reminder of how long ago this was and how experimental early comics could be with form as they figured out the best ways to convey information.

In short: the Amazons once ruled the land of Amazonia (amazing), but Hercules, hating the idea of women who were stronger than him, attacked them and stole the MAGIC GIRDLE (referred to in the comic exclusively in all-caps) that ensured that Hippolyta could not be beaten. The Amazons were enslaved until Hippolyta prayed to Aphrodite for help. Aphrodite helped Hippolyta regain the MAGIC GIRDLE, but only on the condition that the Amazons move to an all-woman island and forever wear the manacles they’d worn as slaves, as a reminder to stay away from men.

They then peer into the “Magic Sphere” they were given by Athena, which is actually just a circle, but that’s okay, it’s not like geometry comes from Greece or anything. *cough* Anyway, the Magic Sphere Circle allows them to look into Steve Trevor’s past to see what his whole deal is:

Diana and Hippolyta look at a machine with a round portal on it surrounded by two dials, one that lists a handful of years (1776, 1941, 1300 BC, etc.) and another that lists a handful of locations (Athens, Troy, England, America, etc.).
As you can see, this “sphere” shows all ten years and six locations in existence.

Turns out that Steve had discovered who the leaders of the vaguely named “spy ring” are and decided to go after them alone, even though his commanding officer declares him “the most valuable man in the army intelligence department,” which is a hell of a performance review.

Five panels.

Panel 1: Two Nazi spies in a car.

Nazi #1: Tonight we strike. We send our planes into the stratosphere where they cannot be seen, and bomb American air fields and training camps. Since our planes will not be identified, it cannot be construed as an act of war - 

Panel 2: Steve jumps onto the running board, holding a gun.

Narration Box: Suddenly, as the car passes Steve's hiding place...
Nazi: Vas ist?
Steve: Just take it easy, boys - you've got company!

Panel 3: 

Steve: If you'll be good enough to stop the car and step out quietly, there won't be any trouble, gentlemen - 

Panel 4: The driver veers into a tree and Steve goes flying.

Narration Box: The driver swerves the car suddenly and crashes into a tree...
Nazi #1: Goot work, Fritz!

Panel 5: The Nazis stand over Steve.
Nazi #1: Ha, gentlemen! The quick thinking of our driver has netted for us an American officer.
Nazi #2: He is not hurt, just unconscious. He will come in handy for our plans, nicht war?
Oh, Steve. Bless your heart.

Steve may be the most valuable man in the army intelligence department, but he’s possibly not the most actually intelligent, because his method of arresting spies is to jump onto the outside of their moving car, which is easily countered by the spies, uh, driving into a tree.

Steve is knocked out, and the Nazi spies put him in a “robot plane” which is programmed to drop bombs on America. (Side note: like Captain America’s debut, this is just a few months shy of Pearl Harbor, so weren’t at war yet.) Steve wakes up, regains control of the plane, and pursues a Nazi plane that was observing him over the Atlantic until he runs out of gas directly over Paradise Island…and the rest is history.

Two panels.

Panel 1: Aphrodite and Athena appear to Hippolyta in a cloud of mist.

Narration Box: In the queen's solitude, the spirits of Aphrodite and Athena, the guiding goddesses of the Amazons, appear as though in a mist...
Aphrodite: Hippolyta, we have come to give you warning. Danger again threatens the entire world. The gods have decreed that this American army officer crash on Paradise Island. You must deliver him back to America - to help fight the forces of hate and oppression.
Athena: Yes, Hippolyta, American liberty and freedom must be preserved! You must send with him your strongest and wisest Amazon - the finest of your wonder women! - for America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women, needs your help!

Panel 2:

Hippolyta: Yes, Aphrodite, yes, Athena, I heed your call. I shall find the strongest and wisest of the Amazons. She shall go forth to fight for liberty and freedom and all womankind!
Is Hippolyta doing an early version of the bullets and bracelets/Amazon salute on the left, or is she just cold? Who can say?

Luckily for Steve, Aphrodite and Athena then appear to Hippolyta and order her to have her strongest Amazon accompany him back to “America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women,” which…oof. Sure, okay.

Hippolyta announces a tournament to find this champion, but forbids Diana to enter it, because whoever wins can never return to Paradise Island. However, on the day of the tournament, one contestant is wearing a mask. Whoever could she be??? No, seriously, you all have a finite population, the process of elimination should not be that hard.

Four panels.

Panel 1: Diana, wearing a mask, and a blonde Amazon face off in an arena, both holding pistols, with Hippolyta presiding.

Hippolyta: Each of you will shoot five times. Your opponent must catch the bullets on her bracelet - or else expect to be wounded! Now take your places. Number 12 will shoot first.

Panel 2: The blonde shoots at Diana, who deflects the bullet with her bracelet.

Narration Box: The command...and the girl fires point-blank at Number 7, the masked maiden!

Panel 3: Diana deflects two more bullets.

Narration Box: The ultimate test of speed of both eye and movement! No. 7's bracelets become silver flashes of streaking light as they parry the death-thrusts of the hurtling bullets!

Panel 4: The blonde grips her bleeding shoulder as the crowd cheers.

Narration Box: No. 7 passes the test unscathed! Now it is her turn to fire. Her opponent's fast - but not fast enough!
Blonde: Ugh! My shoulder!
No, seriously, how do they know about firearms?

The final challenge is the famous “bullets and bracelets,” in which the contestants take turns firing a gun (where did they get it?) at each other and parrying the bullet with their bracelets. Please do not try this at home, unless your home is Paradise Island! The masked contestant wins, of course…

Three panels.

Panel 1: Diana removes her mask as she kneels before a shocked Hippolyta's throne.

Narration Box: The winner...Contestant No. 7 - the masked maiden!
Hippolyta: You may remove your mask, Number 7! I want to see the face of the strongest and most agile of all the Amazons. Daughter! You!

Panel 2: Hippolyta presents the Wonder Woman costume.

Hippolyta: I knew it - I felt it! I thought perhaps - well, it's too late now! You've won and I'm proud of you! In America you'll indeed be a "Wonder Woman," for I have taught you well! And 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.
Diana: Why Mother, it's lovely!
Narration Box: 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!

Panel 3: Diana poses majestically in the costume.
I guess all Amazons wear the same size dress?

…and it’s Diana! Hippolyta, resigned, agrees that Diana will go to America, and gives her a bizarrely patriotic costume to do it in.

And that’s the end of the story! Today it would be a fine first installment; at the time it’s a little oddly truncated, considering that there was no guarantee that any given kid would be able to find Diana’s next adventure on their newsstand. That next adventure, by the way, is advertised on the next page: Wonder Woman will be appearing in Sensation Comics #1, on sale in November:

A full page in house ad for Sensation Comics #1. At the top it reads "Boys and girls - here's what Gene Tunney, former undefeated world's heavyweight champion, thinks of 'Wonder Woman'!" Below is a replica of a letter from Tunney congratulating DC on their new character, the cover of Sensation #1, and headshots of the other featured characters: Wildcat, Mr. Terrific, the Gay Ghost, the Black Pirate, and Little Boy Blue.
Can’t wait for the gritty Little Boy Blue movie in 2023.

Do we think Gene Tunney actually read this Wonder Woman story, or did DC just make that up?

This first story doesn’t really give us much characterization for…well, anyone but Hippolyta. Diana doesn’t really get to show off her powers or espouse her philosophy of love, and Steve’s unconscious the whole time. There’s no Etta Candy or Cheetah or giant space kangaroos. (I told you early Wonder Woman was weird!) There’s just not a lot of there there, but it was enough to keep Diana around long enough to become the foremost superheroine in comics, and hey, that’s not nothing.

Either way, the 1941 version of me is game to look for Sensation Comics #1 and follow Diana’s continuing adventures. I hope we learn more about the MAGIC GIRDLE!

Catch previous Flashback Fridays, including Superman, Captain America, Harley Quinn, and Archie Andrews.


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