William Moulton Marston, Harvard-trained psychologist, sensationalist author, quiet polygamist, inventor of the lie detector, adopted his most famous role as Charles Moulton, creator of Wonder Woman. She was not the first super-female to emerge from the Rosie the Riveter era, but she became the most famous, and the longest-lived. She made her first appearance in an All-Star Comics #8 supporting story, (December 1941), followed that with a cover appearance on Sensation #1 (January 1942), and soon claimed her own title, still in publication, in the summer of '42.
Naturally, she experienced many retcons along the way.
Her mother is Hipplolyte, brunette queen of the Amazons, who led them from the evils of man's world to hidden Paradise Island. She fashions her daughter from the clay of the earth and invests her with powers, aided by the gods and goddesses of Classical mythology. In particular, they are helped by their patron, Aphrodite. At the start of World War II, pilot Steve Trevor crash-lands on the Amazon's island. The queen's daughter must disguise herself to enter a competition to determine which Amazon should return Trevor to civilization. Naturally, Princess Diana wins. She takes on an American flag-inspired outfit (initially with a skirt), takes him home in an invisible plane, and takes on the identify of nurse Diana Prince. Later, she gets a secretarial job with U.S. military intelligence. She becomes Wonder Woman whenever necessary; her powers include superior strength and speed. Her bracelets defect bullets; her lasso forces people to tell the truth. Superman has kryptonite; Diana loses her powers if someone welds her "bracelets of submission" or (as they are sometimes later called) "Vambraces" together.
Steve and Paradise Island experienced the first retcon not long after they first appeared. It soon became a fact that no man could ever step foot on Paradise Island without disastrous consequences-- even though Steve passed some time there without incident. The island's sexist nature has been revised several times throughout its odd history.
Perhaps the most bizarre element of the early comics are Wonder Woman's sidekicks, the girls of a rather fetishistic sorority at Holliday College.1 The Holliday Girls are statuesque women with interchangeable personalities. The exception is their apparent leader, Etta Candy. Etta is, initially, a large, heavy-set female who loves eating sweet things. A few issues in, she becomes short, rotund, and less domineering. She remains in the comic until the 1950s.
The comic goes through a number of permutations after the war, but Wonder Woman is one of the few super-heroes to survive. In deference to the 1950s attacks on comic books (Dr. Frederic Wertham's Seducation of the Innocence claimed, among other things, that Wonder Woman was a lesbian role model), she stops saying "Suffering Sappho!"
Beginning in 1959, we get supporting stories retelling Diana's early, childhood adventures. Retroactively, she now called herself Wonder Girl when she was young, and wore a variation of her adult outfit. Later, Wonder Tot adventures (again, with a variant of the outfit) appears. Finally, in 1961, a bizarre set of circumstances leads to all three versions of the character existing simultaneously. The possible effects of being mentored by the person you will one day become were ignored. The stories proved popular, and we'll return to them shortly.
In 1960, the comic attempts to introduce a new version of the Holliday Girls, including a new Etta Candy. They don't take, and quickly disappear. Although the Earth 1/Earth 2 dichotomy has not yet been established in DC comics, these may be regarded as the Earth 1 Holliday Girls. The Earth 1/ Earth 2 distinction created by DC Comics (wherein the heroes of the 1940s and the heroes of the late 1950s lived in parallel universes) could be used to account for a number of retcons, such as Wonder Woman's childhood career, Hippolyta's now inexplicably blonde hair, and Wonder Woman's newfound ability to ride air currents-- in effect, to fly. This ability removed the need for her invisible plane, an odd vehicle which has had many forms and origins throughout Wonder Woman's history-- and at times, does not exist at all.
Wonder Girl herself becomes the center of a good many retcons. She joins the Teen Titans, which consists of various teen sidekicks. Great confusion ensured as to her actual identity, since she coexisted with her adult self. As Wonder Girl disappears from Wonder Woman stories, the Titans' version of Wonder Girl is transformed into an entirely different character, Donna Troy, a sort of adopted Amazon. Donna has since undergone numerous transformations, and continues to fight crime-- while the name "Wonder Girl" has been taken by entirely different superheroines. By this point, Wonder Girl's origins and incarnations require more effort to explain than superstring theory, so we should return to her adult inspiration.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wonder Woman loses most of her powers and stops wearing her traditional outfit. These events are changes, rather than retcons, and they do not last long. She has her old powers and outfit back in time for the first successful Wonder Woman2 TV series. That show spends a couple seasons in the 1940s and then skips ahead to the then-present; Lynda Carter's version of the character doesn't age. It's a pity that idea hadn't occurred to Wonder Woman's writers in the 1980s; it would have saved some very odd retcons that came to pass.
Wonder Woman continues much as she had, as the 70s end and the 80s begin. A previously unrevealed second clay daughter of Hippolyta, Nubia, appears in the 1970s. Wonder Woman's ability to ride air-currents becomes the ability to fly outright. There are changes, too: the Earth 2 Wonder Woman marries Steve Trevor. His Earth 1 counterpart is killed and then restored to life-- twice-- before he and his Wonder Woman follow the Golden Age characters to the altar in 1986. The writers know, by this point, that these changes will not last.
DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths wipes out the universe in 1986; a new Wonder Woman will emerge, free of her previously established history.
Post-crisis, George Perez rewrote Wonder Woman. She emerges only recently from Paradise Island-- now called Themyscira--whose patron is now Gaia, and whose Amazon citizens are reincarnated souls of women who died by male violence.3 The Greek gods play important roles in many of her adventures, even more so than in the 1940s. She meets Steve Trevor and a very different Etta Candy; Steve and Etta eventually marry each other. This Wonder Woman acts as Themyscira's ambassador to the rest of the Earth, and eschews secret identities.
Later, she dies, and her mother takes her position. In a series of tales written by John Byrne, Hippolyte even travels back in time to World War II, thus giving the Golden Age of comics a Wonder Woman. The twist is interesting, though it undoes painstaking efforts to rewrite the history of the 1940s Justice Society of America without the Amazing Amazon.
Paradise Island is also destroyed. However, death rarely takes in comic books, and Diana returns, deified, the Olympic Goddess of Truth. DC restores Themyscira, and then eliminates it again, and then.... Diana becomes quasi-mortal once more, eventually takes on a secret identity, and something akin to the original Wonder Woman once again fights crime in four colors.
For a couple of years.
In 2011, DC once again rebooted, starting all issues with #1 and significantly rewriting their history. Wonder Woman's has been most problematic. Minor controversy surrounded changes to her outfit, but that could easily be altered. Many fans showed enthusiasm for her more mythic adventures. The classical gods, reimagined in a more Lovecraftian manner, play even bigger roles than in past incarnations. Changes to her origins, however, have left many fans-- female fans in particular-- angry.
The Amazons became much more bloodthirsty and anti-male. Now, they reproduce with the help of captured sailors, whom they destroy, Praying Mantis-like, after using. Male offspring they sell into slavery. Far from being enlightened symbols of some kind of feminism, they have become a man's nightmare-creatures.
Wonder Woman herself, formerly a creation of a woman with supernatural aid, has become another bastard child of Zeus, who impregnates Hippolyta. As with the changed Amazons, this just feels wrong, symbolically. In 2012, DC raised eyebrows again by entangling Diana romantically with Superman. DC also felt the need to have her declare her heterosexuality during an encounter with Batwoman.
Wonder Woman remains one of the longest-lasting and most-recognized comic book icons. We shall see what changes and revisions remain in store.
1. The early Wonder Woman comics feature frequent bondage scenes, and a handful of paddlings. Suffering Sappho indeed.
2. Previously, a pilot had been shot for a 1967 camp version of Wonder Woman. It never sold. Cathy Lee Crosby played the powered-down version of the character in a 1974 made-for-tv movie. Wonder Woman has also appeared in numerous cartoons; in 2008's Justice League: The New Frontier, Lucy Lawless provided the voice. A live-action film is currently remains beset by pre-production problems.
3. I'm thinking, if this were the case, that Paradise Island would be a good deal larger than it is.