On The Ms. Anniversary

By | Tuesday, June 12, 2012 4 comments
Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the feminist Ms. magazine, created by Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Steinem since recalled that, "I realized as a journalist that there really was nothing for women to read that was controlled by women, and this caused me along with a number of other women to start Ms. magazine." It famously featured Wonder Woman on the cover of its first regular issue and the Wonder Woman cover theme has been revisited a few times since then.

The cover image is well-known, in part, because it was the magazine's inaugural issue, but it also happened to harbor a call to return the character her superheroic status, after having been de-powered for a few years. Writer Denny O'Neil has since apologized profusely and repeatedly for not fully understanding what the character meant to so many women. Steinem and Ms. effectively brought Wonder Woman some broad media attention, and essentially got her powers reinstated and put Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman's costume on television.

I was trying to do some research on this after I learned of the impending magazine anniversary, but I haven't actually been able to read the contents of that iconic magazine. I kept finding references to it but, oddly, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of page scans or torrents or anything. I found one poor scan of the first page of Joanne Edgar's "Wonder Woman Revisited" article, but I gather the real meat of the piece is after that. I also understand Ms. republished several pages of Wonder Woman's origin story, but I don't know which version or how well it was reprinted either. I'm sure I could track down an actual copy of the magazine given time, but I only had the anniversary pointed out to me on Facebook last night.

For a long time, Wonder Woman was in perpetual publication for legal reasons. Kurt Busiek noted in 2005:
... as I understand it, the terms were that DC had to publish at least four issues with "Wonder Woman" as the banner lead feature or rights would revert [to the Marston Estate]. That's why DC did the LEGEND OF WONDER WOMAN mini-series that I wrote and Trina Robbins drew — the Perez revamp was in development, but coming along slowly, and they had to publish something to fulfil the contract terms.

They specifically didn't want something that would be attention-getting, because they didn't want to undercut the revamp. So they wanted something gentle and nostalgic, and we had fun doing it.

In the intervening years, though, I'm given to understand that at some point DC bought the character outright, and thus those contract terms are no longer in force.
This was backed up by Wonder Woman über-fan Andy Mangles, who also confirmed (as much as he's able to) that the stipulations of the original contract and subsequent purchase include a non-disclosure clause, meaning that no one who's actually seen the paperwork is legally allowed to talk about it.

What that means is: William Moulton Marston, by generating a very specific, very deliberate contract with DC, singled-handedly kept Wonder Woman in publication and in the public consciousness in some form for at least 45 years. (From her debut in in 1942 until the 1987 Perez book Busiek noted.)

Marston's personal life tends to color history's view of him (which is why, I suspect, there isn't a printed biography of the man available -- somebody please get on that!) but it was basically Marston and his lawyer that kept Wonder Woman around long enough to become the icon she is. Odds are that, without the continual publication stipulation, Wonder Woman would've vanished from the newsstands in the 1950s, perhaps only seeing a modest revival as an Earth-2 inhabitant alongside Jay Garrick and Alan Scott. She might not have had the de-powering stories to contend with, but she would've faced a much bigger enemy: obscurity. And if that were the case, who would've graced the cover of Ms. #1? Rosie the Riveter?

Marston is remembered for creating a great character in Wonder Woman, but perhaps equally significant is that he created the means by which this great character would get continued exposure long enough to become ingrained in the public consciousness. Marston didn't actually create an icon, but he set Wonder Woman up to ensure that she would become one.
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Richard said...

I read that issue when it came out, and ended up reading everything else in the issue and staying a reader of Ms. for almost a decade.

I'm almost certain the issue reprinted the entire nine page debut origin story by Marston and Peters from All-Star Comics #8, rather than any later version, but I can't seem to confirm that memory anyplace.

P.S.: I enjoyed a lot of the Sekowsky-era WW and think some of them were better than people realize -- I recall feeling aggrieved at seeing the Ms. article badmouthing comics that I liked! -- but you're spot on about the character's history and her role in history.

Matt K said...

I would say that the point you're making is an interesting and valid one, but let's remember that DC was not actually obligated by anyone to produce Wonder Woman comics. Unless I'm missing something, I would assume that letting the rights revert to Marston's estate was an entirely valid option which they could have exercised at any time.

Obviously they did not do so and, as a for-profit company, this suggests that they must have either been getting some positive return on the arrangement or, at the very least, been convinced that they would do so within some time horizon that is meaningful for the typical American for-profit company (which is basically "next quarter" these days, though it may have been a bit longer in decades past).

By all means, credit Marston for a novel idea which worked out well, but it wouldn't have done so without some type or other of popular support expressed through the market, whatever it was. (The story I've always heard was that DC keeps or at least kept publishing Wonder Woman comics at a loss so that they could sell licensed products, presumably clothes, lunch boxes, whatever.) So, credit Wonder Woman fans too, even if many of them have never been comic fans.

@Richard - I'm mostly surprised Ms. doesn't have a full copy on their website. They have other full issues, so why not the first?

@Matt - Granted, DC had no obligation to print Wonder Woman per se, but I think they understood what the character meant at some level. Recall they had already seen HUGE successes with Superman and Batman, and across town Captains Marvel and America had proved popular too. Several big characters were showing up in multiple media (Tarzan, Shadow, Flash Gordon, etc.). I think DC knew they had something on their hands that had legs (if you'll excuse the pun) and saw enough success even through leaner years to warrant holding onto the character.

So even though they didn't HAVE to publish Wonder Woman and could've let the rights revert, I think they recognized her long-term value and, as long as her comic remained financially viable (even if that only meant breaking even) it was worth holding onto the rights.

My point, though, was that if DC had simply bought the character outright back in the 40s, they would likely have ceased publication in the 50s, WW would've dropped out of the public eye entirely, and she'd be dragged back out only as a relatively minor character alongside Doll Man and Johnny Thunder far removed from the iconic status she currently enjoys.

Matt K said...

I guess my point was just that I have a hard time reconciling your counterfactual scenario with the actual history you describe. DC had a series which broke even (presumably after they paid some sort of licensing maintenance fee?), and featured a character which they saw great potential in... but if they had owned said character outright without needing to pay anyone for her use, they would have canceled said series anyway, then probably brought her back later but permanently reduced to obscure, minor-character status as a result of the gap in publishing.

I guess that's possible, and obviously I can't really prove it couldn't have happened that way, but I have a hard time seeing it as at all likely.