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Editor’s Choice: ‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’ by Jill Lepore

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, Knopf, 416 pages, $29.95. One of the most notable books of 2014. It’s a 21st-century paradox that the greatest comic book superheroes now seem permanently fixed in American mythology – even those like Wonder Woman who no longer has either a regular movie or TV berth – while their amazing and inventive creators are all but unknown, even to some who pride themselves on knowing who the great cultural creators are.

And that’s why wondrous Jill Lepore – a brilliant member of both the Harvard faculty and the staff of the New Yorker – has made such an important and witty and entertaining contribution here, upending some of the more smug engines of our ignorance.

Her premise is elementary: “Wonder Woman is the most popular female comic-book superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no other comic-book character has lasted as long. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she also has a secret history.”

So sit down with this extraordinary and completely unexpected book and discover the story of William Moulton Marston, “who believed women should rule the world.” He was “tall and devilishly handsome” and a Harvard Boy in love with Sadie Holloway of Mount Holyoke, “a whipsmart tomboy from the Isle of Man” who, in a later memo to DC Comics, advised them sternly to knock off such exclamations as “Vulcan’s Hammer!” and substitute “Suffering Sappho.”

Later, Marston invented the lie detector. And created Wonder Woman. And was an active secret bigamist, after he and his wife Sadie hooked up with Olive Byrne, a niece of Margaret Sanger, who became Marston’s writing collaborator and other partner.

Things got complicated in the Marston menage. It seems that bondage played an important part of the complicated Marston world view which, “Wonder Woman’s” editor Sheldon Mayer once defined this way, “Marston’s idea of feminine supremacy was the ability to submit to male domination.” A droll and giddy feat of scholarship.

– Jeff Simon