The Wonder Family
by Carol Strickland
With William Marston gone from Wonder Woman in the mid-Fifties, National Comics (DC) found themselves in a quandary: what to do with the character? They had to continuously publish her in order to keep the rights, but what could they DO with her?
Wonder Woman was a feminist icon in an era when women were ordered to stay at home, preferably in the kitchen. Movies and fledgling TV told America that women weren't quite human; they were THINGS that were either wholesome and pure, or sinful beyond redemption.
Our Diana bounded about like, well, an Amazon at a time when women were told that if they were athletic they would not only be unfeminine, but probably hurt their reproductive organs as well. Frederick Wertham had declared WW (gasp) a lesbian and a generally unhealthy character for children to read about -- or for parents to buy comics for their kids.
Editor/writer Robert Kanigher tried all kinds of experiments. It would have been too butch of Wonder Woman actually to fight men, her "natural superiors," so Diana would confront (male) criminals and bargain with them: if she could fulfill some kind of impossible mission, they would give themselves up. How sporting of them! Sometimes the criminals plotted to make her marry Steve Trevor, for as everyone knew, married women didn't work and Wonder Woman would have to quit her super job.
Sometimes Wonder Woman battled doubles of herself: robots and such. But she never, ever fought directly against anyone who was human. It would be unladylike to do so.
How to make Wonder Woman wholesome? Darn it all, she was a girl. Hm. Young girls who were tomboys were not only wholesome but downright all-American. If there were only some way to make sure the tomboy didn't seem to be a lesbian. Maybe... give her a boyfriend?
It started off as a few adventures of Diana as a girl, some of Diana as a very young girl, almost a toddler. Then came stories where we'd see Diana at different stages in her life, all in one story... or of young Diana looking at herself in a time viewer, even of her using time travel to try to catch up to her adult self.
And eventually it became a full-blown Wonder Family. When you have that many different-aged Dianas in the same story -- the same panel! -- all calling each other "sister," it sure looked like a family to this reader. But this way Diana could stage contests with herself that didn't involve actual threats to anyone: safe, sedate, and almost ladylike.
Oh yes, National tried to pass some of the stories off as "Impossible Tales," the Wonder-equivalent to the rest of the National Universe's "Imaginary Stories," or tales that were out of continuity. But the Impossible Tale label was forgotten on a number of Wonder Family stories. Besides, they were just so much more fun than the regular issues that it would have been a shame to write them off. With so many non-Impossible Tales, it is up to the reader to decide that some of the Impossible Tales were mis-labelled and took place within continuity. Certainly the appearance of Wonder Girl within the rest of the DC universe during the same time period is a solid claim of continuity for some of these stories.
Okay, so you got the Secret Files issue for the Titans that said that Donna Troy's first appearance was the Brave and Bold #60 where she joined and the group got its name? And do you believe everything you're told? Obviously, a chronicler decided to disregard an entire important era of Wonder Woman. You can't really blame them; even as late as WW #307 (1983), the editor of the book claimed that Wonder Girl of the Teen Titans was Wonder Woman as a girl.
Sorry, but Donna Troy's first in-continuity appearance was Wonder Woman #123. Chalk it up to her convoluted origin, if you need to. She was so popular she even took over the title for two issues. WW #152 and 153 show in small letters: "Wonder Woman presents" and the large issue logo: "Wonder Girl."
What the Wonder Family stories displayed was a loving family who lived on an island of people living an ideal existence (no men!) with advanced science alongside Greek mythology come to life. Everyone encouraged each other in this mystical place where mermen played just off-shore and genies washed up on the beaches. Giant monsters lived in the ocean, where atomic bombs frequently went off, far enough away not to be of any real danger to Paradise. Dimensional nexuses caused clashes of (mostly giant) cultures with that of the Amazons. Bird people, or perhaps harpies, nested on neighboring islands. From the shores of Paradise you could sometimes hear the sound of underwater malt shop jukeboxes playing rock and roll.
It was magical, it was innocent fun. It was like watching TV's Gidget if an occasional alien with delusions of world conquest showed up and it was left to Gidget to handle things while making sure that she also won the beach dance contest with Moondoggie Saturday night and that the neighbors' giant brontosaurus didn't trample Mom's begonias in the front yard.
During this era when Wonder Woman herself was so cardboardish, so uncomfortable in her longline strapless bra and girdle while she swooned over her overbearing boyfriend, the younger sisters and mother came across with sparkling personalities and genuine zest for life. Certainly for me, it wasn't Wonder Woman that got me interested in her title; it was Wonder Girl, Wonder Tot and Hippolyta the blonde Amazon queen.
Unlike today's Wonder Woman, the pre-Crisis versions of the Amazing Amazon had to work and train unceasingly for her powers. Though the gods had blessed her at birth, the blessing seemed more ceremonial than otherwise and Diana (and all the other Amazons) needed Amazon Training to develop their own power -- quite a feminist idea. (I bet Kanigher didn't realize a bit of it.)
Once the WF series got rolling, it concentrated on the teenaged Wonder Girl. Teenagers were making a big impact in the movies at the time. The issue that seems to mark the beginning of WW's Silver Age, #105, April 1959 -- Kanigher writing and editing, with Ross Andru and Mike Esposito doing the art -- features Wonder Woman as a teenaged Wonder Girl. The next month was to bring DC another major super teenager: Supergirl. Coincidence?
Issue 105 showed the new origin of Wonder Woman in which it was heavily implied that Diana had a father. Later issues would hint that he was Prince Theno, Queen Hippolyta's long-lost love. Diana was a girl when the Amazons first came to Paradise Island, thousands of years ago, making her much older than her JLA teammates. (Which would be true in any case, since later origin stories showed Wonder Woman rescuing Donna Troy as a toddler, which would make Diana at least a good handful of years older than Superman or Batman). With Andru and Esposito illustrating her new power of gliding on air, the ambiance of having Wonder powers seemed not only a Grave Responsibility but a heck of a lot of fun as well!
Diana as Wonder Girl was a workaholic, studying Amazon Training with every waking moment when she wasn't protecting Paradise Island from giant-sized deep-sea-fishing bird invaders. But she was also a teenager and boy-crazy. Her beau was a blond (or in some early stories, a red-headed) merboy named... Mer-Boy. (Gotta love those subtle Kanigher names.) He started out as Renno, and when the stories showed that Wonder Woman's Mer-Boy had grown into a man, they called him Manno. Perhaps these were two different characters, since a couple thousand years had passed, and perhaps it was just sloppy continuity.
Mer-Boy always lusted innocently after Diana and got caught in various dangers while competing in contests to win her baubles and such. If the two argued -- and they did so frequently -- Diana was always won over in the end.
In the stories in which the grown-up Mer-Boy faced Steve Trevor, the two displayed Lois Lane-Lana Lang adversarial tendencies, though they never got into all-out catfights like the ladies did. Although Manno couldn't stand the thought of Steve being around Diana while she was in her Diana Prince identity, Steve hated being physically inferior to the merman who was at home in the sea and could hop with the best of them on land.
The Impossible Stories began: with Hippolyta splicing film of her daughter at different ages together to form one adventure, with young Diana viewing herself in a time monitor (which makes it out of continuity, since Diana had no idea she was to be Wonder Woman when she entered the Great Contest. However, she could have aspired to being A Wonder Woman, that is, the champion of the Amazons in an Olympic sense and not a superhero one.), and some of the setups were even more hazy, flowing in and out of continuity until you didn't know if you were reading an Impossible Tale or not.
And some were just never labelled Impossible. Editorial sloppiness gives us a lovely out.
A slightly different teenaged Wonder started getting a lot of play in the comic. She wore boy-cut briefs, had straight bangs, didn't have a tiara or earrings, and wore no bows on her shoes. I classify this as Donna Troy, a stand-on-her-own character entirely different from Diana. And there followed an even younger girl, a tyke known as Wonder Tot, who referred to the other two "incarnations" as "sister." Again, I consider this an independent character as real as Donna Troy, whose origin was never told.
Wonder Girl had her own Mer-Boy, but later she also got Bird-Boy, a harpie or bird-person who liked to eat worms and shout at Mer-Boy. (Whereas Mer-Boy loved rattling Bird-Boy's cage.) WG would go to dances or visit the hangouts of her boyfriends as breaks from her rigorous Amazon Training.
One day Wonder Tot was practicing gliding on air currents over a neighboring island when she found a mysterious old chest with a genie inside it. Mr. Genie became the somewhat bewildered friend to the youngest Amazon and involved her in adventures that totally mystified her mother. Issue 129 gave us Mer-Mite for Wonder Tot.
During this era Hippolyta (aka Wonder Queen) was not only the wise, loving mother, but she was shown to still mourn the loss of her Prince Theno, presumably her husband and the father of Diana. She gained a hobby: she was an avid collector and probably harvested the beaches of Paradise for all the magickal flotsam that you just knew floated ashore after storms. As a member of the advanced Amazon race, Hippolyta often commanded spaceships to protect Earth from alien invaders. And she emotionally supported her daughters to the hilt, like the best of mothers.
Diana? She was just (yawn) Wonder Woman. Even as a grade-schooler, I felt sorry for her having to wear that silly, uncomfortable-looking outfit. I hated the way Steve lorded over her, and distrusted her for taking the abuse. No, better to concentrate on the other members of the Wonder Family.
The stories themselves were just plain weird. They were a guilty pleasure, pure fun on a stick that you'd hide if someone were watching. Sportsmanlike aliens, undersea malt shoppes, bird people offering their guests worms for dinner. The slightly radioactive oceans around Paradise didn't just contain whales, they contained angry, murderous whales. GIANT, angry, murderous whales.
No threat could be normal sized. It had to be giant. So you ended up with those giant whales, giant undersea brontosauruses, giant alien invaders, giant rocs, giant crocodiles... Even a giant version of the Wonder Family intent on catching the real ones in butterfly nets and doing who-knows-what (in a wholesome manner of course) with them.
And often people used giant fishing rods to go after the giant creatures. There's a lot of fishing in these stories. One might invent a drinking game involving fishing and giants if one wanted to be unwholesome while reading these yarns. Of course I couldn't approve.
If DC really wanted to garner new, younger readers, they'd gather the best of the Wonder Family stories into a series of small, cheap trade paperbacks, perhaps changing the art so Wonder Woman looked more like the modern WW, including more minorities, and updating the language. I think they'd really appeal to kids today. And DC could use those half-page story breaks to hype current comics.
Of course they could always reprint the stories as originally done for the collectors, too.
Contenders for "Best of the Wonder Family" trade collections:
WW 109: The first appearance of Renno/Mer-Boy, as undersea centaur punks try to rumble the merpeople. Diana gets in a nice sermon about learning to live together and everyone becomes friends.
WW 113: The first Silver Age appearance of Wonder Tot, though it's Diana as a kid. We see how every year disaster befalls Diana's birthday cake.
WW 118: A "Wonder Woman through the years" tale traces her relationship with her finnish friend from Mer-Boy to Merman, and the reaction from Steve Trevor towards same. Some nice action in all the rescues.
WW 124: Okay, this story winds in and out of continuity, but it shows the origin of Multiple Man, a recurring villain who can be linked to Multi-Man, adversary of the Challengers of the Unknown and the Doom Patrol.
WW 126: One of the most adorable stories DC ever published shows Wonder Tot first encountering Genro the Genie and then reporting to her mother that nothing much happened that day... even though she comes home with a golden apple she'd gotten from a dragon, and a meteoroid star pin in her hair.
WW 130: NOT ONLY does this have another wonderful "What have you been doing, Wonder Tot?" tale, BUT it also contains a great fan-favorite Wonder Woman story in which Hippolyta gives some man-advice to Diana, we get a long flashback about Hippy's younger days when Hercules was courting her, and SUPERMAN makes an off-the-wall cameo.
WW 133: Who will win Queen for a Day while a fan visits Paradise? Let me spoil the ending: Wonder Tot! "That diaper demon really ran a race!" Wonder Girl exclaims before Wonder Tot falls asleep over her dinner. Aww. Don't miss Wonder Woman surfing in heels.
WW 138: Each member of the WF must find the best kite, leading to some lite adventures and a serious confrontation with Multiple Man.
WW 140: Morpheus (can we count this as his first appearance in the DCU?) grants dreams to the friends and members of the Wonder Family. There's a LOL sequence with Mr. Genie, and a frightening one with Diana. The ads for this issue scared the bejeebers out of me when I was a kid: WW crackling with lightning and destroying Paradise.
WW 144: "Mer-Boy vs Bird-Boy!" The first appearance of Bird-Boy, noteworthy not only because it's a solid Wonder Girl adventure, but because when it was reprinted during the Diana Prince era, editor Denny O'Neil had the figures of Wonder Woman and Wonder Tot redrawn wearing plain tunics so it could be passed off as an adventure of Diana when she was a girl. Too bad he didn't explain what a little kid was doing on Paradise...
WW 149: "The Last Day of the Amazons!" Okay, just one section of this really stands out: Hippolyta's yearning for her beloved, lost Prince Theno. Pass the Kleenex, please.
WW 147: "Bird-Girl -- Fish-Girl!" Wonder Girl finally passes her Amazon Test and Athena herself grants the wishes of Bird-Boy and Mer-Boy. WG discovers that she's a fish out of water and a bird out of the sky.
WW 153: "Wonder Girl's Stolen Face!" is particularly memorable because of the way WG's friends and family stand beside her even when she's lost hope in herself after the Duke of Deception disfigures her. This is one of the two issues where she "took over" the cover title.
Then the WF stories petered out. In WW #158, Robert Kanigher appeared on-panel and shoved pictures of the Wonder Family and their friends into a drawer, declaring the end of an old era and the beginning of the new.
He was bringing back the Golden Age. To kick such a momentous event off, he came up with a brand-new villain for WW: Egg Fu. (Later he admitted that this attempt to revive the old WW was a grievous mistake.) As he did so, Kanigher retired the Wonder Family, starring Wonder Girl, never again to return.
Five months earlier, the Teen Titans -- featuring Wonder Girl -- had debuted in Brave & Bold #60 to enough positive response that this same month they were given another tryout, this time in the much-publicized Showcase #29, which included a panel of WG with WW and Hippolyta.
Though we may STILL be unsure of her exact origin almost forty years later, we are indeed sure that Wonder Girl is a separate entity from Princess Diana of the Amazons, right?
For a closer look at the Wonder Family years, see my Wonder Family index.
All characters are DC Comics
This piece is © 2001 by Carol Strickland.
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