By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
Wonder Woman is one of the longest-running characters in American comics, which allows for a lot of different interpretations. Showcase Presents: Wonder Woman
Vol. 3 (DC Comics, $17.99) reprints the apex of one such editorial vision.
This tome collects 19 issues of Wonder Woman
from 1963 to 1965 – almost 500 pages, albeit in black and white. And while the stories are often kind of silly, they were that welcome comics rarity: Comics that dared to appeal to girls. For that alone they should be celebrated.
This volume is the peak of the second memorable WW era. The first was by writer/creator William Marston and stylized magazine illustrator H.G. Peter, one that involved a lot of questionable psychobabble and an over-reliance on bondage imagery. But for all that, the Amazing Amazon’s comic books from 1940 (when she debuted) to 1947 (when Marston died) were ones that enthusiastically embraced the heart-warming concept that love conquered violence, and which frequently took whimsical flights of genuine fairy-tale fancy that appealed to young girls and boys alike. (That era is currently being reprinted also.)
After Marston’s death, this pacifist character was taken over by writer-editor Robert Kanigher, otherwise best-known (ironically) for war comics. For roughly a decade, Kanigher’s run was drab and unremarkable – and, to be fair, hobbled by Peter’s declining health, and DC’s 1950s emphasis on conformity and domesticity, which isn’t exactly Wonder Woman turf.
But the strip blossomed anew in 1958, when Peter was replaced by penciller Ross Andru and inker Mike Esposito, who were frequent Kanigher collaborators in the war books. This, says Les Daniels in Wonder Woman: The Complete History
(DC Comics, 2000), “seemed to free the writer-editor from the pressure of the past, and he soon embarked on the most creative and best remembered period of his long tenure as the Amazing Amazon’s chronicler.” He also, Daniels said, “seemed to be reaching out for an audience of young girls.”
One tactic for reaching that audience was the introduction of Wonder Girl (1959), the adventures of Wonder Woman as a teenager. In addition to acts of derring-do on Paradise Island – which seemed to inhabit a timeless, mythical place where dinosaurs, Greek gods, Phantom Fisher-Birds and other cryptozoology appeared without explanation – the young princess had to deal with the romantic attentions of Mer-Boy and Bird-Boy (which were exactly what they sound like).
Even though technically cross-species romance, these sweet stories of teenage courtship proved popular enough for Kanigher to introduce stories of Wonder Tot, Wonder Woman as a baby, in 1961. Later that year he abandoned reality altogether by writing self-described “impossible stories,” featuring “the entire Wonder Family,” with Wonder Queen (Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta), Wonder Woman, Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot all appearing together as a sort-of team. The only nod to the fact that Wonder Woman was herself three of the four stars at different ages was usually no more than a throwaway reference in the introduction. Then it was on with the “impossible” show!
Despite the innovation, I found Kanigher’s writing leaned toward the ham-handed and repetitive. He favored staccato, three-panel progressions that hammered his point home like a baseball bat (or just killed space). And he tended to repeat subject matter a lot, especially dinosaurs. And he was somewhat inconsistent in his mythology, like sometimes mixing up Athena, Aphrodite and Artemis, or changing Diana’s super-powers on the fly.
But he was remarkably consistent in portraying love interest Steve Trevor as an incompetent, petulant, chauvinist who, like Lois Lane, was too stupid to see past a pair of glasses to recognize the person he loved. Oddly, I think Trevor’s behavior was meant to be admirable for the times, but just doesn’t age well.
That being said, Kanigher’s stories never dragged. They were occasionally inventive. And sometimes he flirted with the fairy-tale quality so necessary for the original Princess Diana.
As to art, Andru and Esposito were fairly pedestrian. But they were clear and concise storytellers, and their Diana was – amazingly – somewhat small breasted and petite. That’s rather refreshing compared to today’s Mammazons. Plus, they did good dinosaur.
This volume shows the Kanigher/Andru/Esposito team at their vital peak, with the “Wonder Family” virtually taking over the book. The next volume’s stories will shift into some odd sales-boosting experiments and the team’s 1968 exit. So read now for the best this team had to offer.
It isn’t Edith Hamilton, but it isn’t bad.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at