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Review: Jodi Picoult's Wonder Woman: Love and Murder

The Times of London, January 2008

WHEN I WAS GROWING UP in Elmhurst, New York, it was a special day when I had enough coins for an Annabelle’s Rocky Road bar and a Wonder Woman comic book.

In real life, I was a shy, short-sighted Korean immigrant girl wearing cousin Grace’s hand-me-down sweaters and corduroys. But in the privacy of a rusty fire-escape of a Queens apartment building, I was an Amazon warrior princess clad in a sassy American flag uniform, forearms ringed with bulletproof cuffs forged from bits of Zeus’s Aegis shield, and I defended my new country with superhuman reflexes and the Lasso of Truth, made from Aunt Antiope’s Golden Girdle of Gaea.

Wonder Woman: Love and Murder, written by the bestselling novelist Jodi Picoult and drawn by the talented artists Drew Johnson, Terry Dodson, and Paco Diaz, is a hardback collection of five magazines. Picoult, the second woman to script the six-decade old series (the first was Mindy Newell) gives Wonder Woman and her alter-ego Diana Prince an identity crisis worthy of an immigrant’s.

Picoult makes the case for the displaced alien: Wonder Woman, daughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, is, after all, Princess Diana, an emissary from Paradise Island (Themyscira) - her first language being native Themysciran (she also has Ancient and Modern Greek).

In the here and now, Diana Prince must conceal her Amazonian identity while wearing a poorly tailored trouser suit and lacking the cash for a tank of gas. Our heroine is friendless in her new world.

After snapping off Maxwell Lord’s head to save Superman in the previous series, Wonder Woman is remorseful over the murder, and has taken a year off superhero work. As Diana Prince, she works as special agent for the Department of Metahuman Affairs with her partner, the blond, soul-patched Nemesis. In Love and Murder, Wonder Woman battles the tricksy Circe, manages her reincarnated mother Hippolyta who stages an Amazon attack on the US capital, and protects the immature and libidinous Nemesis.

In these inevitable crises, our heroine must choose among many conflicting identities - loyal Amazon princess, civil servant, good daughter to a virtuous, controlling mother - and defender of the flawed but lovable human race.

In the trials of this ancient, gifted female, we witness her modern existential tears, self-doubts and moral dilemmas. Her worthy rival, the villain Circe, analyses her enemy astutely: “She’s so eager to be perfect that she’s forgotten the simplest truth... something perfect is bound to get... broken.”

In her introduction, Picoult asks pointedly: “How could I put my fingerprint on Wonder Woman?” By furnishing a 21st-century emotional characterisation for a 20th-century creation, Picoult reveals the novelist’s dextrous hand.

Wonder Woman’s creator, Dr William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-educated psychologist, might have appreciated this new self-awareness of an ambivalent superhero. Marston invented the first functional polygraph machine (forerunner of the Lasso of Truth) and maintained a polyamorous household with his wife Elizabeth and lover Olive, who each bore him two children.

An eccentric intellectual who believed in the moral superiority of women, Marston wagered that comics could serve as “psychological propaganda”. In 1943, he wrote in The American Scholar that “the picture-story fantasy cuts loose the hampering debris of art and artifice and touches the tender spots of universal human desires and aspirations, hidden customarily beneath long accumulated protective coverings of indirection and disguise. Comics speak, without qualm or sophistication, to the innermost ears of the wishful self”.

The Wonder Woman historian Les Daniels shares the “open secret” that her readers have been overwhelmingly male - “estimates run as high as 90 per cent”. Marston sought to change patriarchy through the populist medium of the comic book by getting to the boys before they became men.

Picoult, who engages with timely and critical issues in her popular novels, is a worthy legatee of his subversive and high-minded ideals. Love and Murder delivers a Wonder Woman who doesn’t just make man wonder over her strength, she wonders about herself.

Beyond Marston’s intended audience, Wonder Woman reached girls all over the world and socialised them. Diane Middlebrook, the biographer of the poets Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Ovid, who died in December, aged 68, regarded Wonder Woman as her first hero: “I used to have this fantasy that I was actually a goddess. Wonder Woman came about as close as they got. I used to buy those thick Wonder Woman comic books.”

In his unflagging devotion to Wonder Woman, Nemesis argues: “You stop believing in heroes, the hero inside you dies.” From the girl who would be biographer to boys and girls around the globe, the imprint continues to live - sustaining our inner heroes.

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