The Secret History of Wonder Woman: Book Review
I had arrived earlier than necessary at the Las Vegas airport for an unnecessarily long flight home from a trade show (I probably could have driven home more quickly). I knew I was in for a long day, so I went to one of the many newstand/bookstores to try and find some reading material so I didn’t have to depend on staring at my phone all day, scrolling through BS stories on Facebook. Sure enough a vintage image of Wonder Woman caught my eye. I had discovered The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. It was in trade paperback format and marked “National Bestseller” – I was surprised such a book has existed for so long without my ever hearing about it (me following comics, and my wife, loving all things Wonder Woman). A quick flip through, a look at its rating on Amazon, and I decided to buy it and spend my day with Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston. The way I read books, it really turned out to be spending a couple weeks with Mr. Marston and fam.
Anyhow, to say the least, I found The Secret History of Wonder Woman to be a really compelling read. Not only does it chronicle the life of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston, and his unconventional family lifestyle (he lived with his wife, mistress, children of all three, and at times, a third woman), but also details the close ties that he and his family had with the early (and ongoing) suffrage/feminist movement. In fact, while Marston and fam are, to be sure, the focus of this book, Lepore goes into lengthy detail about the feminist movement throughout the book. This is not without reason, as you will find that, like I said, leaders of this movement (in particular Margaret Sanger) are tied closely to the family (Olive Byrne, Marston’s mistress is Sanger’s niece). This also has heavy influence on Marston’s beliefs/theories throughout his life, and going into the creation of Wonder Woman.
Though The Secret History of Wonder Woman his heavily about feminism, William Moulton Marston is the star of the book. That said, I never quite know whether to love him, hate him, or feel sorry for him. He’s sort of a career academic psychologist, always in search of some sort of achievement that the world will forever remember him for. Interestingly, Marston was closely tied to the development of the lie detector. In fact, the idea was his, and he promoted it heavily, and throughout his life called himself the inventor of the lie detector, although the modern polygraph lie detector, as we know it, was later developed and implemented by someone else. It almost seems that his charisma, drive, and ambition are his own undoing. Then lengths that Marston goes to promote himself are almost comical, and, at times, a little sad. Finally, though, the success he’s looking for comes with his creation of Wonder Woman.
There’s so much in this book, it’s hard to do it justice with just a brief review. It’s pretty densely packed with information. Again, I found this to be a really good read, and it held my interest throughout. It would definitely appeal to folks interested in the early history of feminism, psychology (in particular development of the lie detector), and, of course, comic books.
I do have a gripe about this book. It’s marketed as a book about Wonder Woman. I didn’t really find this to be a book about Wonder Woman, in the fashion that it is marketed. Is it about the life of the creator of Wonder Woman? Yes. Does it tie the early feminism movement to the early stories of Wonder Woman before Marston died and the character was handed off to others? Yes. But it’s not about Wonder Woman. It really only references Wonder Woman as part of the life of her creator, and how she effected the lives of the people around him. But this all comes really late in the book. In fact, I’d say, at best, the information about Wonder Woman account for maybe a third of the book. This is really a book about William Moulton Marston, his influences, and the people that surround him. Sure, that all ties into Wonder Woman, but that doesn’t make it a book about Wonder Woman, in the way that it is marketed.
Take a look at the book. No subtitles to reference Marston or “the creator” or anything other than the character of Wonder Woman (in fact, he is never even mentioned individually anywhere on the exterior of the book). I flip the book over and look at the back. The copy on the back at least gives reference that it might dig deeper than just the history of Wonder Woman in comics. By its exterior marketing, this book sells itself as the the history of the Wonder Woman character. One might expect a thorough examination of the Wonder Woman character throughout her history, when in fact, it really only talks about Wonder Woman as she relates to her creator(s), and a brief overview of how the character was handled after Marston’s passing, and almost no reference to any modern incarnations of the character.
Again, none of that means that The Secret History of Wonder Woman a bad book. Jill Lepore has written a great book. I was just a little disappointed that they opted to market this book as a book about Wonder Woman, when there are probably countless other ways that they could have done it while being a little more up front about what the book is actually about.
All that said. Loved the book, totally recommend it to anyone who thinks anything I’ve written here sounds interesting. I learned quite a lot about a great many things, and getting to enjoy Marston as a character, no matter what you make of him, is well worth the read, in an of itself.