Monday, July 25, 2016

Summer Reading: The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Most of my reading of Wonder Woman in comic books has been limited to the her appearances with either the Justice League or Society titles and the John Byrne run of issues (#101-136) from the mid-1990's. Given that DC Comics recently went through a narrative soft-reboot of their comic book universe, Rebirth, I purhcased the first three issues of Wonder Woman as a means of further broaden the number of cape comics on my monthly pull list.

While I have a stronger background in the hero and her medium than the average New York Times Bestseller's list reader,  I am in no way an expert. Historically, unlike Marvel Comics, DC Comics has not perpetuated the fantasy that every character can be linked back to a single creator (for Marvel, Stan Lee), and DC's lack of a mythic bullpen of recognizable artists and writers can result in a distancing between fanboy, character, and creator. Though not one of it's purposes, The Secret Life of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore helps to fill in a necessary gap: what was the personal and historic context in which an individual created the first popular female superhero?

Lepore does dynamic things in presenting and developing her subject, resulting in a novel that is equal parts biography, history text and comic book analysis. There are oodles of excellent reviews of the novel (including Dwight Garner's "Her Past Unchained" from the New York Times and "The Freaky, Fabulous, Feminist 'Secret History' Of Wonder Woman" by NPR's Etelka Lehoczky) that eloquently capture some excellent observations regarding the book's strengths and weaknesses. In most cases, reviewers, like I, recommend The Secret Life of Wonder Woman as a worthy summer read.

Even when reading for entertainment purposes, it can be difficult not to occasionally put on my "teacher's hat" while reading. Not surprisingly, this was also the case The Secret Life of Wonder Woman. Reflecting on this analytical angle, in addition to a couple of observations, I've clumsily identified potentially relevant New York State Common Core Learning Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy for future exploration:
  • The research on display is both deep and incredibly accessible, even to those with (I suspect) little interest in comics books or women's history. Interestingly, one anecdote Lepore shares (that is also echoed in a Wonder Woman story--Lepore gives multiple examples of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston's art reflecting his life) illustrates this point. One of the many lessons Wonder Woman imparts upon men, and boys, is the untapped potential for finding excitement in the study of history... especially women's history (224). The Secret Life of Wonder Woman is a fine example of making history interesting. In its entirety, The Secret Life of Wonder Woman is an excellent illustration of standard 1 of the Reading Standards for Informational text (RI) at Grade 11 in Key Ideas and Details: "Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text." Reading about and researching topics of greater interest beyond the standard issues-based subjects, might be nice, and this text provides an example of how it can be done in a manner that is engaging.
  • The author objectively presents the lifestyle choices (among them two "wives" and an interest in bondage) made by Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston, avoiding the cheap way out by appealing to unnecessary lascivious language. While book reviews for her book seem to emphasize this facet of the story, Lepore highlights these freakier angles on Marston's story in the context of the larger Wonder Woman "origin." The author uses these facts to highlight the reasoning behind some of the creative choices Marston made in developing the character. Lepore's precise use of word choice that is not exploitative woudl be an interesting way to consider standard 4, also in Reading Standards for Informational text (RI) at Grade 11, but in Craft and Structure: #4. "Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used ... specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts."
  • The manner in which Marston's effectively developed and utilized Wonder Woman as his literary voice is explored. It is clear that more than most, writer Marston (and the experiences of he and his family) was Wonder Woman, and that the creator/author had intended to use his character as a vehicle to promote a specific social agenda. A Harvard trained psychologist, and longtime experimenter in social behavior, every aspect of Wonder Woman was crafted through the lens of promoting a specific responses from the reader. When Marston was not the one responsible for writing Wonder Woman her "power" was weakened. There are multiple examples given of how the values and qualities Marston worked to imbue Wonder Woman with are minimized in the hands of other writers. For example, as a member of Justice Society, Wonder Woman is relegated to the role of secretary, not even taken on missions, rather than the social justice warrior Marston envisioned. On multiple levels, this invutes a consideration of writer's craft, or in the language of CCLS RI #6. "Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness, or beauty of the text."
As either an entertaining (and informative) summer read or possible class independent read for high schoolers, The Secret Life of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore is a winner.

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