The Diana Prince Era
by Carol Strickland
Truly, Modly, Deeply:
It was the late Sixties. The world was changing in front of our faces on the TV news every night. DC Comics saw how outdated some of their concepts were and instituted exciting, major mid-course adjustments in many of their books:
The Teen Titans renounced their powers because they'd failed to save the life of a modern-day saint. The Metal Men became human. Superman lost his vulnerability to kryptonite, he became a TV reporter as Clark Kent, and his powers were cut by a third by the mysterious Sand Creature (in whose epic story I Ching played a substantial part while Diana Prince lurked in the background). Robin went to college and began a solo career. Supergirl finally graduated college and started a career far from her cousin. Jimmy Olsen became involved with Kirby's new Fourth World characters. Lois Lane got a new hairdo. (Ah well, you can't have everything.)
But to my mind, Wonder Woman's new direction was the most needed, the most outrageous and certainly the most memorable. She gave up her powers and her super identity. For a few years she operated as "ordinary" Diana Prince, obviously patterned after TV's Emma Peel. (Was it coincidence that, like John Steed, I Ching also wore a bowler hat and if he didn't carry a cane-like umbrella, he did carry a cane?)
In one lettercol editor/writer/penciller Mike Sekowsky declared, "The old Wonder Woman was dropped because the sales on the old WW were so bad that the book was going to be dropped. The new Wonder Woman was given a chance -- (a last chance for the book) and it worked!"
This was the series that showed us that Wonder Woman is the most versatile superhero on the stands. She'd just come from (finally!) a handful of standard superhero stories to land knee-deep in action-adventure Emma Peel/James Bond situations. She faced opponents from the realms of faerie, from the streets, from mythology, from everyday life, from sword-and-sorcery fantasy -- with a tad of gothic horror thrown into the mix. And she still kept a firm hold on the superheroic world. Has there EVER been another comics character to do the same?
The stories focused more on Diana as a woman and a personality than they ever had before within the boundaries of the Silver Age.
And oh, how the woman could dress! Sure, some of the outfits were Salvation Army castoffs, and some were traced right off a TV screen that was showing The Avengers, but some of the duds were rather nifty and downright cool with very sexy undertones. At one point DC apparently decided that Diana needed a uniform look for easy identification, so she started dressing all in white. Then she got a real costume for one story, but immediately went back to casual whites.
Diana's series had executed a 180 without sacrificing history. The Amazons went away, but they were close enough for Diana to reach. Her mother still played a part in her life but now she didn't overshadow it.
Mike Sekowsky infused his vision of Diana with power and style, dignity, strength, and humor. He showed Diana Prince to be a symbol of Modern Womanhood without preaching. He used example, the best form of education. Sure, he ran out of plots towards the end of the line, but for the while when his enthusiasm and imagination ran undimmed (and unthwarted by the Comics Code), it was heady stuff. He may not have been the world's best comics writer, but his stories and dialogue came from the gut.
DC actually respected the change, guesting Diana Prince in Supergirl stories (Adventure), Lois Lane, Superman, Brave and Bold, Justice League, World's Finest, and God help us, Jerry Lewis. Ah, remember when DC would promote someone besides just the Big Two?
Many comic fans deride the character of I Ching -- not because of the Oriental martial arts master stereotyping (which was only a half-hearted stereotype at the time), but because of his name. An acquaintance of mine came up with the theory that "Ching" was a nickname left from his time spent in some capacity as liaison with US military troops during whatever war you wanted to pick. She said his true name was Lu Shu-Shang, which meant something like "Teacher from the High Hill." Thus he could have a legitimate daughter named Lu Shan.
If Diana Prince could run around sometimes using the ridiculous moniker "Wonder Woman," then Lu Shu-Shang could certainly call himself "I Ching" if that's what he was comfortable with. In that age of hippies and change, we were used to people with strange names that they'd adopted out of nowhere. Such names made a personal statement, though many sound embarrassing today.
You had to be there.
This era brought so many new venues to Diana, most of them written, edited and pencilled by Mike Sekowsky. Dick Giordano did the inking on all issues except one, and he pencilled most of the final stories in the series (Don Heck drew two). At the beginning, DC newcomer Denny O'Neil wrote (or co-wrote) a couple stories, and he came back on board towards the end end when Sekowsky left.
Issues 179 through 182 told how the Amazons needed to retreat from this dimension to renew their magic. Also as part of an undercover operation, Steve Trevor had himself branded a traitor and gone missing. Diana deemed helping her love more important than remaining with her people, so she gave up her magical powers and the star-spangled outfit, becoming "plain" Diana Prince. She even resigned her commission and became a civilian. Needing a source of income, she bought a boutique with living quarters above it -- and immediately encountered a blind Asian man named I Ching, a martial arts master who taught her his advanced techniques because her Amazon Training would allow her the proper discipline.
The story evolved to reveal the threat of the mysterious Dr. Cyber, intent on taking over the world with a panache that would be the envy of any James Bond villain. Steve's mission had been to track her down, but during the course of the action he was wounded -- and then murdered by machine gun fire in front of Diana's eyes (issue 180). It was then up to Diana, Ching, and their new, possibly traitorous partner Tim Trench to stop Cyber and her organization.
Imagine: DC killing such an established character as Steve. "Steve Trevor was dull and boring and I didn't like him much so I disposed of him," said Sekowsky in a lettercol. Amen! The character who had been so unique during the Golden Age had turned into a real drag. This reader was embarrassed that Diana had feelings for him. But the guy certainly went out in style.
(He got better. He was brought back, killed off, and brought back again later in the Silver Age. In the final issue of the pre-Crisis WW, an amalgam of Steves married Diana.)
Issues 183-184 are my favorite of all WW stories ever told. If you have to narrow it down, 183's the shining star, recounting the war of Ares, Deimos, Phobus and Eris vs the Amazons. Sound like the story we just got through a few months ago in the regular comic? Not by a long shot.
This story ripped Diana down to her very core, revealing her courage and fears, her determination to stop Ares at any cost -- even if it meant killing her mother. But moreso, it showed that the entire Amazon nation was made up of women very much like her in spirit, courage and integrity. It was this story that made me fall in love with the concept of Wonder Woman, a fallable human who was just trying her best like the rest of us.
(Note for collectors: Both issues are reprinted with better colors in issue 198.)
During this era there was an homage to A Clockwork Orange, a plagiarized John Wayne movie, a guest appearance by Richard Nixon, an evil daughter for Ching, and a credited ripoff of The Prisoner of Zenda. Diana traveled through the US, Europe and the Far East, among numerous fantastical dimensions. The villainous Dr. Cyber returned again and again to threaten the world, and finally burned to a crisp in front of our eyes -- a fact Denny O'Neil forgot when he brought her back in a late-era story. It's interesting to note that WW now often showcased Asians, either as Ching's friends or citizens of the Far Eastern countries that Diana visited. When O'Neil/Delany came on board, the first black characters of the Silver Age showed up.
Though he was the energy behind Diana Prince for the vast majority of the run, Mike Sekowsky suddenly left the book. After a couple of reprint issues, O'Neil signed on as editor, giving us a rollicking adventure teaming Diana and Ching with Catwoman -- and Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (whose adventures DC was about to publish in a book of their own), co-written with Samuel Delany and pencils by Giordano. Lost civilizations and sword-and-sorcery and New York City -- sheer fun!
But then Delany wrote a "Special Women's Lib" issue that is so bad I have to consider it out of continuity. It contains the single worst panel in the history of Wonder Woman, in which, after she claims she's not a "joiner" (forgetting about being a member of the Amazon army, the US armed services, and the Justice League), Diana confesses, "In most cases, I don't even LIKE women...?" During the story she claims complete ignorance of the women's movement and has to be shown how to be a champion for her sex.
Thankfully after a change in direction like that, the era ended the next issue with Robert Kanigher scripting a sniper killing Ching, and Diana inflicted with amnesia during her battle to bring the sniper to justice. Newly returned Amazons rescued her, restored all memories but those of her Diana Prince years, and returned her powers and costume to her. That story (1) launched the brief but intriguing career of Nubia, Diana's twin sister, and (2) marked the beginning of the "Hippolyta is a hypocritical bitch" plot which boomeranged out of control during the Silver Age and unfortunately was resurrected during the present era. But that's something for another article...
So what have we learned from all this? How about: some movies or TV situations work BETTER when you substitute Diana Prince in the lead? Or maybe: sometimes abrupt change is good if it's done with imagination, verve and respect for the character and her audience?
Denny O'Neil has been interviewed a couple times that I've seen where he says that feminist Gloria Steinem berated DC for depowering Wonder Woman. Denny says that in hindsight, he agrees that it was a mistake. Well you know, Denny, sometimes Steinem has been wrong. It was no mistake to take a blah (though physically powerful) female character and make her shine, a unique and exciting star of her own universe. The crime occurred when she was made Wonder Woman again and immediately began to doubt her worth as a human being -- and then was delegated to a series of T&A stories.
Sekowsky gave us a Diana Prince who didn't just "make lemonade when life handed her lemons." In effect, she invented new taste combinations, she decorated a shop to sell her lemonade, made friends with her numerous customers, and started franchise operations around the world.
Many fans have pooh-poohed the fact that she owned a dress shop, as if being an honest businessperson were some kind of crime. I can just imagine the Amazon princess Wonder Woman passing by such boutiques, so flashy and front-line Sixties in their attitude, and being fascinated with them. She must have leapt at the small dream when the chance came to put one together herself. It gave her a chance to be her own boss, set her own goals and schedule; surely this was more logical than, say, taking a job as a reporter?
Look at her: she had just renounced her powers, her true love had been branded a traitor and had disappeared, she'd just given up her job and probably had given all her savings away to charity, not expecting ever to be in this situation, and what does she do? She calmly decides that she needs to open a retail shop with a residence above it. Quick, decisive and smart. She kept that small business open quite successfully for over a year, comic time, and it wasn't until O'Neil took over that sudden financial troubles developed.
Diana Prince stuck her head above the crowd and gave the world a good look around. She dove into this new world with gusto, embracing its fashions and its mysteries, delighting to become a part of the culture that until now she'd only read about or seen in the movies. She began her mortal life consumed with helping Steve in any way she could, and when dealt the crushing blow of his death, she rebounded with a quick romance -- understandable in her confused state. But after that she found her emotional balance. From then on, she enjoyed flirting and having so many men attracted to her. She played the field and never lost her heart quickly again... until O'Neil took over. (The quirky Johnny Double from Showcase became bland whitebread when imported into the book.) And Diana was truly a people person, as Wonder Woman should be.
She was absolutely unconventional, the embodiment of the empowered new woman of the late Twentieth Century. She didn't pose on some pedestal for people to worship her perfection. She ran with the humans. She WAS human. Whenever confronted with a problem, she gleefully stepped in, took it by the horns and played with it even as she conquered it.
Though she had no powers, Diana Prince was truly Wonder Woman.
Here are the issues I would put in a nice $20.00 TPB:
Wonder Woman 178 (the set-up as Lt. Diana Prince goes mod),
And of course the Creature from Quarrm epic from Superman, which guest-starred Ching (with Diana), deserves its very own tpb as it was one of the finest story arcs published in the Silver Age.
For more information about this era, read my Diana Prince index.
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This piece is © 2001 by Carol Strickland .
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