Wonder Woman: The Twelve Labors

Wonder Woman, billed as “superheroine number one,” was one of the few (only) bright spots in the recent Batman V Superman movie, as Gal Gadot brought the Amazon princess the necessary badassery she needed to take over the big screen. A full-length Wonder Woman cinematic adventure is now in the works, mere decades overdue. Only Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman remain from DC’s Golden Age of comics, and while her two male counterparts have hit the big screen a number of times, the 2017 movie will mark the first Wonder Woman-centric film. In fact, Batman and Superman are both in their third movie incarnations, while Green Lantern and even DC’s Swamp Thing made it to the big screen before her.

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While unfortunate, it’s the kind of the battle Wonder Woman has been fighting since her conception. Psychologist William Moulton Marston created her in 1941 as a feminist hero, who then helped to get America through World War II in comics. He described his reasoning in a 1943 press release: “to set up a standard for children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; and to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations, and professionals monopolized by men.” In her secret identity, Diana Prince was a government secretary, helping out war hero Steve Trevor, while Wonder Woman fought various Axis enemies of the U.S, including Nazis, easily besting every foe she came across. She was usually aided by women, like her friend Etta Candy, or her fellow Amazons. While many DC female heroes were offshoots of their male counterparts (Supergirl, Batgirl, Hawkgirl), Wonder Woman stood solidly on her own.

The war years of the ’40s were Wonder Woman’s golden era of strength and formidability, but trouble brewed as early as 1948. As noted in the recent (and stellar) biography The Secret History Of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, after the war, DC hired foe of women’s rights Robert Kanigher as Wonder Woman’s new editor, and as a result, “Wonder Woman grew weaker every year.” In the ’50s, she was mostly consumed by her love for Steve Trevor, but also became a babysitter, model, and movie star.

But even that decade may not have been quite as damaging as what happened to Wonder Woman in 1968, as she had a tough time transitioning into the hippie-centric era, kicked off by the summer of love in 1967. By Wonder Woman #178, Diana was doing little else but pining after Steve, who gets caught up in a conspiracy after meeting up with a mysterious blond hippie at a bar. Sample dialogue: “Hey—You look all zonked out.” “Sit down and flamed out, dad.” “I’m feeling kind of up-tight myself—how about a drink and we’ll loosen up together?”

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At this point, Wonder Woman was being written by Denny O’Neil, a progressive type who had transferred to DC in 1968 from Marvel and Charlton Comics. He eventually became most famous for the “Speedy is addicted to heroin” run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, bringing modern-era problems to the world of comic books. So his early, grittier Wonder Woman efforts resembled more of the classic True Crime/True Romance comics than the world-saving exploits that Wonder Woman was known for, effectively reducing the heroine to a romantic whodunit storyline.

Then O’Neil went even a step further. He arranged for Diana’s mother Hippolyta and all the Amazons of Paradise Island to leave the earthly dimension to go rejuvenate their powers elsewhere or some such nonsense. Instead of going with them, Wonder Woman insists on staying with Steve. This is after she bails him out of the murder mystery by finding the mysterious hippie girl and he repays her with, “I can never forget what Diana Prince did for me. And she’s so much more than I thought she was—in fact, I think I’ll ask her out one of these days and really get to know her,” effectively putting Wonder Woman in a romantic triangle with herself. Still, the most powerful woman in the world ponders, “If he can fall for Diana like this, he can fall for any woman! And I’ll lose him forever if I don’t do something to keep him interested in me. Wonder Woman must change…” It was meta commentary on Wonder Woman’s fear of being out of step with the swinging ’60s, but honestly, this is the guy she gives up all of Paradise Island for?

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With this pulp dialogue, O’Neil was setting the stage for Wonder Woman’s strangest reconfiguration yet. Stripped of her amazing powers when the Amazons depart, she loses the lasso, the invisible plane, and all the patriotic wear. Instead, she dons an era-appropriate hairdo and pantsuit, and undergoes a crash course in judo and yoga by the blind I Ching, who schools her in how to be a superhero without any supernatural powers (she should have just asked her pal Batman). While O’Neil was attempting to make Wonder Woman a more with-it character for the times, this diversion did not sit well with longtime fans: Among them, Gloria Steinem, who featured Wonder Woman, in classic historic garb, on the very first cover of Ms. magazine in 1972.

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From issues #179 to #212, Wonder Woman traveled the world fighting ghoulish villains like the evil Doctor Cyber, who was obsessed with Wonder Woman’s beauty and wanted to graft Diana’s face onto her own. She occasionally met up with tough-guy companions like Tim Trench (an obvious Sam Spade stand-in) while judo-chopping her way through various adventures. O’Neil had tried to craft a heroine more appropriate for the transitional time of the late ’60s/early ’70s, as women fought for the Equal Rights Amendment and rejected housewifely traditions. But this version of Wonder Woman, without the aids of gods, lasso, or invisible plane, running a fashion boutique between cases, just seemed like a pale imitation of the real thing. Which she was.

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As the ’70s marched forward, pop-culture sensibilities kept shifting, and the country took a swing toward patriotism with the impending bicentennial (and trying to quickly trot past Watergate). The vast majority of comics creators at this point were men; although Jenette Kahn was about to be named publisher of DC Comics, that wouldn’t happen until 1976. Still, around 1974, DC made the fortunate decision to restore Wonder Woman to her old self again. (Not coincidentally, the ’70s also saw a few Wonder Woman depictions on the small screen: After 1974 one-off with Cathy Lee Crosby, a more reverent turn by Lynda Carter followed, and ran for three seasons. Still, many feminists were dismayed that Carter was a former Miss World America, hoping for a Wonder Woman who was more warrior than beauty queen.)

Steve Trevor had managed to get himself killed by this time, so Queen Hippolyta decided to take it upon herself to wipe out Diana’s memories of her time with I Ching. The Justice League is of course thrilled that the old Wonder Woman is back and want her to rejoin immediately, but her time away and those memory gaps trouble Diana. So, drawing from her own Greek demi-god heritage, she insists on a series of 12 Herculean trials, each judged by a different Justice League member, to determine if she’s again worthy of JLA membership.

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Again, this seems horribly sexist: Wonder Woman signs up to be judged essentially by a group of men (with Black Canary the only other female JLA member). But at least Diana came up wth the idea herself, and it turned out to be an inspired setup. The inclusion of a JLA “guest star” narrator for each predicament easily helped Diana re-assimilate to the non-judo/fashion boutique superhero world.

Which she does, adeptly. This version of Wonder Woman was a formidable, refreshing upgrade from the insecure Diana Prince that preceded her. The “Twelve Labors” featured the best comics creators DC had to offer at that time (including artists Curt Swan, Kurt Schaffenberger, and Dick Giordano, who crafted exceptionally lovely images of the Amazon princess) alongside valuable slices of ’70s pop culture. A read today reveals references to Aristotle Onassis, Billie Jean King, Golda Meir, even the urban myth of Walt Disney being cryogenically frozen. On the surface, these escapades are a blast and a half, even when they take a turn into the nonsensical.

But the real value of this Wonder Woman arc requires an even closer look at these issues. Diana Prince is no longer a secretary, but a formidable aide at the U.N., where she can easily be kept aware of the largest crises affecting Earth. In her aviator glasses and now-modest pantsuits, she resembles no one as much as Gloria Steinem herself.

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She does so not just in fashion, but in manner. The “Twelve Labors” are full of hilarious, feministic asides, as Diana injects herself into the man’s world of 1970s New York. She opens car doors for men, instead of the other way around, and insists on paying for her own dinner on dates. When she and her supervisor, Morgan Tracy, are frequently attacked on the street, she is usually the one who fends off the attack. In this way, Diana Prince surpasses the secret identity facades of helpless wimp Clark Kent and drunken playboy Bruce Wayne. Even when a passerby surmises that Diana and Wonder Woman must be the same person—as who else could fight off an attack like that?—an incognito Aquaman tries some reverse psychology: “Pal, are you on the wrong track! If this Prince chick were really Wonder Woman—do you think she’d risk going into action in her civilian identity?” Well, of course she would, because a meek Diana Prince would do the women’s-lib cause no favors—but a kickass Diana Prince is a great role model for everyone.

Best of all, Diana Prince’s aghast asides over her male coworkers must have resonated with women of the ’70s, and may still land with women across the globe. When a crisis happens at the U.N., she despairs, “Why is it that we women at the crisis bureau are the last to find out whenever a crisis comes up?” Morgan Tracy tasks her with keeping track of some female leaders, adding, “I know it’s a pretty hefty job just for a woman,” while Diana smirks to herself, knowing the goddess that she is. Later, she stokes her supervisor with compliments, telling him that he taught her everything she needs to know about being a diplomat, but thinks to herself: “And that, Mr. Tracy, is the last boost your fragile male ego will ever get from me!”

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The escapades, far-fetched though they may be, also tie into the equal-rights movements of the day. Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, follows Diana as she enters a suspect “liberated” beauty parlor, where men sooth to women as they shampoo their hair, “It’s not important what your husband wants—only what you want.” Ralph’s wife is on board, but he thinks it “sounds like a crock.” Unfortunately he’s right, as the beauty salon is a setup for inter-dimensional planet Xro, whose females of the species have the opposite reactions when they’re on Earth, and vice versa. So their leader Mchsm is trying to draft Earth’s feminists (those Billie Jean King and Golda Meir stand-ins) to help prevent an uprising on his planet. Far-fetched to say the least, yet it allows us some over-the-top shots of Xro female warriors shouting, “Smash the male chauvinist pigs!” and “Death to the male oppressors!” Mchsm eventually blows up his own space vessel, muttering, “I’d sooner die than be dominated by women!” In the Batman-centered issue, the Disneyworld send-up, Dazzleland, has to be seen to be believed. And no one should be surprised to see Doctor Cyber make yet another appearance, as narrated by Hawkman.

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In all of these Twelve Labors, Diana is far from the besotted schoolgirl she had been with Steve Trevor, even in the few issues that mention romance. Diogenes Diamondopoulos is the Aristotle Onassis stand-in who is in love with her, and thus is determined to discover the secret of why no man can set foot on Paradise Island. In an effective turn, Black Canary narrates this particular episode, escaping to Paradise Island herself, where she is dubbed “Amazon-worthy.” She poses as a female reporter to meet Diana, who enthuses, “It’s so nice to meet a female reporter for a change!” Wonder Woman scoffs at Diamondopoulos, a man whose idea of love is to bring down her ancient civilization, correctly identifying it as domination. The secret of what happens when a man steps foot on the island is eventually revealed, but in solidarity with the sisterhood, Black Canary omits that section from her report, as “there are some things that must be known to no man—not even the men of the Justice League Of America.” In the Superman issue, a mystic manipulator tries to make Diana think she’s in love with him, and Wonder Woman lets him have it. But unlike Batman, she doesn’t go after her attackers violently, and saves her fury only when it’s called for (like when Doctor Cyber makes her inevitable return visit, for example).

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In the end, of course, Wonder Woman is welcomed back to the JLA with a bouquet of flowers. But for the next few issues after this series, she went on her own discovery, as the Amazons of Paradise Island, aghast that Diana subjected herself to scrutinization by men, set up their own test for her. This was topped off by the bonus of Aphrodite bringing Steve Trevor back to life, one of his umpteen escapes from death.

Wonder Woman continued over the next decade as a badass yet relatively straightforward superhero until an inspired mythology-steeped reboot by George Peréz in 1986. (A nostalgic Trina Robbins miniseries that resembled the Wonder Woman of the 1940s preceded it, marking the first time a woman drew a Wonder Woman comic.) Her latest incarnation, Earth One, also highlights her Amazonian ties, as well as references to bondage and possible sapphic tendencies (along with the return of Etta Candy from the WWII days).

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In all these later versions, fortunately, Wonder Woman is the strong, superior warrior we need her to be, and Marston designed her to be. By “softening” her in 1968, Denny O’Neil may have had his heart in the right place—saying that “I thought I was on the side of feminism,” in a History biography—but he did the character a disservice. From the war years, to the women’s lib era, to the battles that women are still fighting today, Wonder Woman means more to us now than ever. Forty years after the heroine rejoined the JLA, Black Widow remains one of the only Avengers without her own movie, although that hopefully will change soon. Early sets of Avengers and The Force Awakens action figures sets and games failed to include Black Widow and Rey, the female lead character. Wonder Woman’s own cinematic stand, with these decades of solid comics history behind it (and all the pop-culture impact that will follow), can’t come soon enough.