I knew Dr William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman, was one of the men whose researches led to the lie detector. I knew he had an interesting domestic arrangement. I knew he had a definite thing for tying up women. What could this book teach me, a lifelong fan of DC Comics' Amazing Amazon?
A huge amount, as it happens - and so much of it fascinating. Jill Lepore has spent years poring over not just the published history of the superheroine, but the private papers of Marston, his family, colleagues and rivals. She tracked down survivors and interviewed them for their memories, leading to a decidedly academic (70 pages of footnotes!), yet hugely readable, book.
While Wonder Woman made her comics debut in 1941's All-Star Comics #8, her origins can be traced back three decades earlier, to the beginnings of America's Women's Movement and the battle for equal civil and reproductive rights, when Marston was an impressionable young man at Harvard. He loved the Classics, psychology, the law and women - smart, beautiful, women. Is it any wonder that when invited to come up with a female counterpart to the super-successful Superman, Wonder Woman should embody his interests?
Forget Lynda Carter's admittedly excellent Seventies TV version, the Wonder Woman of comics' Golden Age was a very different beast, her strips packed with deception, mind games, gender wars and the notion that women should rule the world ('Women have twice the emotional development, the ability for love, than man has,' Marston argued). Oh, and bondage.
The incredible volume of chains and shackles artist HG Peter was required to draw echoed the imagery of the proto-Women's Movement, but also spoke to Marston's kinkiness. And his stubborn refusal to tone things down eventually got the strip into trouble with society's censors.
Lepore lays out just how much Marston was influenced by wife Elizabeth Holloway, legally trained but unable to find a decent law job due to contemporary attitudes, and Marston's former psychology student and polygamous wife Olive Byrne, whose mother and aunt were huge figures in the women's movement. He had two children by each woman and everyone lived together happily, though Olive's sons grew up being told their father had died, and Olive was usually introduced to strangers as the sister-in-law.
It's ironic that a man who loved to attach party guests to his personal polygraph should have a family life built on lies. And they didn't advertise the Age of Aquarius love cult whose acolytes included Marston, Margaret, Olive and one Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, occasional houseguest and mistress.
More than a treat for comic fans, Lepore's superb book is for anyone interested in the social history of America in the early 20th century. It's a secret history that deserves to be known.