Secret Origins: Wonder Woman

Written by Craig Butler

This character broke the superhero glass ceiling and proved saving the world wasn't just a man's job. Welcome to and today we will explore the secret origin of Wonder Woman.

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This character broke the superhero glass ceiling and proved saving the world wasn’t just a man’s job. Welcome to and today we will explore the secret origin of Wonder Woman.

Often thought of as the female answer to Superman, Wonder Woman certainly can give the Man of Steel a run for his money in terms of superpowers. But she’s far from a duplicate of Superman, with a backstory that’s quite interesting and unique.

Wonder Woman was the brainchild of William Moulton Marston, a psychologist who wrote Wonder Woman’s adventures under the name of Charles Moulton. He is often identified as the inventor of the lie detector, but this is only partially true. Marston did invent the systolic blood pressure test and he theorized that blood pressure rose when people lied. This was a crucial component of the first polygraph, created by John Augustus Larson with input from Marston. Marston was also a champion of women’s rights, believing they were in many ways superior to men. He also led a highly unconventional life, raising a family with both his wife and his lover – and with children from each relationship. The psychologist also held some interesting beliefs about dominance and submission, believing that submission was something women enjoyed – in spite of their superiority to men - which likely explains why Wonder Woman so often found herself bound in many of her earliest adventures.

Marston situated Wonder Woman’s roots in Greek and Roman mythology. In her origin, Ares, the God of War, planned for men to rule the world by force; Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, said her women would rule by love. She created a race of powerful women known as the Amazons to accomplish this. To their ruler, Hippolyta, she gave a magic girdle, which made them unconquerable. Unfortunately, Hercules stole that girdle and the Amazons were put in chains by their male captors. Hippolyta begged Aphrodite to forgive her and to help them. The goddess did so, with the condition that the Amazons wear their wristbands always to remind them of when they had been subjugated by men. Taking the magic girdle, the Amazons fled to Paradise Island, hidden away from the outside world. On the island, Hippolyta longed for a child. Sculpting one from clay, she prayed for Aphrodite to grant it life – and the goddess acquiesced. Thus was born Princess Diana, who grew up among the idyllic pleasures of Paradise Island.

One day in the 1940s, an American pilot crashed upon Paradise Island. Diana rescued him and tended to his wounds. Queen Hippolyta feared her daughter was falling for Steve Trevor, the handsome pilot, the first man ever on Paradise Island. When she consulted with the goddesses, she was told that someone must take Trevor back to the outside world and stay to help fight the evil there. A competition was held to determine who would win this right. Diana entered, masked, and handily beat all the other Amazons – even at the dangerous game of bullets and bracelets. Thus she was chosen to leave Paradise Island and start a career as Wonder Woman.

When Wonder Woman returned Steve to the outside world – which she did by flying an invisible plane, BTW - she realized she would need a civilian identity. Fortunately, Steve’s nurse, Diana Prince, was practically a dead ringer for the Princess – and she longed to leave America to be reunited with her fiancee in another country. Wonder Woman arranged to take Diana Prince’s identity as her own.

An immediate sensation, Wonder Woman quickly joined Superman and Batman as one of DC’s “Big Three” superheroes. Within months, she became part of the Justice Society of America – although she was considered their Secretary rather than a full member. She also received a gift from her mother – a magic lasso which could compel people to obey and tell the truth. In some ways, it was like a lie detector, which we already know Marston helped create.

Wonder Woman was one of the few superheroes to continue to be published after the Golden Age of Comics ended in the late 1940s. As time went on, her origin was altered somewhat. While on Paradise Island, she had adventures as a young Princess which demonstrated her remarkable skill. She even started wearing the costume she would eventually wear as Wonder Woman long before she made her way to Man’s World. In this retelling, Hippolyta is instructed to choose Paradise Island’s mightiest warrior before Steve Trevor shows up. When he does, Wonder Woman readily rescues him – and keeps him from setting foot on Paradise Island. Over the years, the mythology of the island had changed: in this version, if a man set foot on their island, the Amazons would lose their powers. Having saved both the pilot and her sisters, Wonder Woman leaves for Man’s World with Steve.

By the late 1960s, Wonder Woman’s sales had slumped terribly and the stories lacked spark. Hoping to jumpstart the series, it was decided that Paradise Island would have to disappear into another dimension. If Diana chose to remain behind, she would lose all her powers. For a few years “The New Wonder Woman” featured Diana using nothing but martial arts skills, learned from a man named I Ching. Dressed in mod fashions and seemingly modeled after Emma Peel of the Avengers TV series, it was certainly a change of pace for Wonder Woman.

But readers missed the old Amazing Amazon. After her appearance on the cover of Ms. Magazine #1 confirmed her new status as an icon of the modern woman, Diana’s powers and costume were restored in 1973. And she soon became the star of a popular TV series as well.

After the landmark Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC decided to give Wonder Woman a major revamp. Superstar artist George Perez took the reins, giving Diana a majestic makeover and emphasizing the character’s Greek mythological background. In Perez’ retelling, the Amazons were born out of the souls of women cut short who await rebirth in Gaea’s womb. One soul was left behind, for it had a special destiny. This soul, of course, eventually brought Diana to life. And the island where half of the Amazons lived was now called Themyscira rather than Paradise Island. But once again when the gods told the Amazons that they must send a champion to fight the evil which Ares has unleashed on Earth, it was again Diana who was chosen.

Perez’ reimagining was a huge hit, and Wonder Woman was back on top, both creatively and popularly. But more changes were still to come. For example, as part of DC’s company-wide New 52 relaunch in 2011, Diana’s origin was revised so that she was no longer a statue brought to life. Rather, she was one of Zeus’ many children and therefore a demi-god herself. And at one point, she even became the God of War – which may seem a little wacky, but in this version, Ares had actually trained Diana as a child to eventually replace him.

More recently, the DC Rebirth event took bits and pieces from Diana’s various past lives and synthesized a new one for her. In the course of this, there were some significant changes to her origin. For example, Diana was given her superpowers by the gods of Olympus only after she arrived in Man’s World. In addition, the Amazons were described as the daughters of Harmonia and Ares, and Themyscira was housed in another dimension, which could only be accessed through a special portal that resembled a tree. More importantly, the Amazons were created by the Gods to keep watch over Ares. He had been driven mad by war lust. His lover, Aphrodite, bound him with love, which restored his sanity. But he had to remain in a prison beneath Themyscira to keep the world safe from the ravages of unbridled war. And when his sons found their way to his prison, to release or kill him, Diana had to stop them. She did so by likewise binding them with unconditional love, thus saving the world.

Wonder Woman is one of the most recognizable superheroes in the world and as such has been featured in numerous screen adaptations. In addition to her popular 1970s TV series, she has been a blockbuster success in big screen film projects and in numerous animated series and films. Wonder Woman remains a symbol of hope and of equality for millions the world over.