When it comes to comic book heroes, Wonder Woman is as iconic as Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman. But while most superheroes were made by comic book guys, Wonder Woman was created by a psychologist who also invented the lie detector. This, however, is not the most interesting thing you’ll learn in The Secret History Of Wonder Woman (Knopf: hardcover, digital), an insightful and engaging tome by Harvard history professor Jill Lepore.
A scholarly look at Wonder Woman’s creation, The Secret History Of Wonder Woman not only explores the origins of this comic book character, but her creator as well, William Moulton Marston. But to say that writer Jill Lepore did a lot of research for this book would be an understatement. While the text is three hundred words long, it’s followed by 88 pages of source notes, and that’s not including the index.
As informative as The Secret History Of Wonder Woman may be, though, it may not be the book that comic fans are looking for. Though interesting, it’s decidedly more about Marston, his life, and the role Wonder Woman played in the history of women’s rights, as opposed to just being a look at the comic book character and her role in pop culture. It doesn’t, for instance, talk about what the character is like now or her role in the upcoming movie Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, and only barely touches on her iconic ’70s TV show, and even then only in the epilogue. In fact, it isn’t until chapter 22, nearly two-thirds of the way through the book, that Lepore gets to the part where Marston creates Wonder Woman. (Which isn’t all that surprising if you saw Lepore on The Colbert Report admit she’s not a comic book reader.)
The Secret History Of Wonder Woman also isn’t as engaging as her best comic book adventures. Which is not to say that it’s dull, but more that Jill Lepore doesn’t write in a way that makes this book as entertaining as, say, the equally informative but far funnier non-fiction books of Mary Roach (Gulp, Bonk). Instead, The Secret History Of Wonder Woman is more academic, and decidedly more interesting in educating than entertaining.
This, however, isn’t a problem or a criticism, or even to imply that the book’s somewhat misleading title was an attempt to bait and switch, but rather that this takes a different approach than some may have taken, one that makes this decidedly more for those interested in the history of feminism and the role of pop culture in it than the character of Wonder Woman.
Instead, what makes The Secret History Of Wonder Woman an interesting read is what we learn about Marston, and how the things that shaped his life would also shape the tenets of Wonder Woman. Granted, much of his life story has been known for a while — like how he was in a polyamorous relationship with two woman — but Jill Lapore goes even deeper into his upbringing, his relationships, and his career history to show not just the origins of Wonder Woman, but why Marston was inclined to make her the way she was.
Ultimately, Jill Lepore probably won’t get to write an issue of Wonder Woman anytime soon, as interesting as that may have been. But, instead, we have an engaging look at a character some might mistakenly dismiss as mere fluff or eye candy, but was actually an important figure in the feminist movement during the 20th century. Which is not something you can say about Superman, Spider-Man, or Batman.