Comic Archetypes: The Golden Age Hypnotic Heroine

His­to­ry: Look­ing over the diverse cast of hyp­not­ic char­ac­ters in the Gold­en Age of Comics (which is the peri­od from the start of comics pub­li­ca­tion through the end of WW II) one is even­tu­al­ly struck by the ram­pant sex­ism and male dom­i­na­tion involved. There were a num­ber of vil­lains whose pri­ma­ry motif was some form of hyp­no­sis in the Gold­en Age, but almost every one was male, from the shady sideshow hyp­no­tists and crafty con artists to the mys­te­ri­ous mys­tics and malev­o­lent magi­cians to the sin­is­ter sci­en­tists and dement­ed doc­tors. Which should be no sur­prise, as there were very few female vil­lains at all dur­ing that time. Also, the great major­i­ty of these char­ac­ters were “one-shot” char­ac­ters who only appeared in a sin­gle issue: for re-occur­ring char­ac­ters like Lex Luthor, hyp­not­ic con­trol of the hero was a ploy they might use on rare occa­sions but nev­er spe­cial­ized in. Strange­ly enough, or, rather, more like­ly anoth­er sign of the times, is that such hyp­not­ic con­trol was rarely used against or by women. 

There were a few excep­tions, of course, such as the reoc­cur­ring Jus­tice Soci­ety vil­lain­ess Har­le­quin, who used a pair of hyp­not­ic glass­es as part of her cir­cus clown motif, but she was a much more sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter and even­tu­al­ly reformed, and the one-shot vil­lain­ess Lady Ser­pent, who used her hyp­not­ic gaze to mes­mer­ize a female jail guard into let­ting her escape, yet her foe, the Black Ter­ror, fore­warned about her pow­ers, was able to resist her. (Curi­ous­ly, Cat­woman would use use the same trick to escape prison in a much lat­er com­ic, hyp­no­tiz­ing a female guard with a cat’s‑eye-jeweled lock­et.) It almost seems as though the comics writ­ers just did­n’t want to or weren’t allowed to have a female char­ac­ter, hero or vil­lain, who could con­trol the male char­ac­ters: it was accept­able for Luthor to put Super­man under his hyp­not­ic con­trol, but no woman could. Giv­en the sex­ism of the cul­ture at the time, that seems a like­ly explanation. 

But there was one excep­tion to all of this sex­ism, the most famous hero­ine of this era and pos­si­bly any era. And that was Won­der Woman. 

Descrip­tion: A true ground-break­er, Won­der Woman was one of the great Patri­ot­ic Super­heroes of the Sec­ond World War. She was the cre­ation of Dr. William Moul­ton Marston, who was quite the excep­tion him­self. Marston was a firm believ­er and prac­ti­tion­er of bondage and sub­mis­sion, polyamory and female supe­ri­or­i­ty, all of which reflect­ed in his writ­ing of the Won­der Woman com­ic. His inten­tion was to cre­ate a char­ac­ter who defeat­ed their ene­mies though love, and it was his wife Eliz­a­beth who sug­gest­ed that the char­ac­ter be a woman. The name “Won­der Woman” was giv­en by the comic’s edi­tor, Shel­don May­er: Marston want­ed to name her “Supre­ma”.

Marston equipped Won­der Woman with super-human abil­i­ties includ­ing divine strength, beau­ty and grace, and a mag­ic las­so which would com­pel any­one caught in its coil to hyp­not­i­cal­ly obey her. This las­so was not orig­i­nal­ly part of Won­der Woman’s equip­ment: in the orig­i­nal series of sto­ries it was a lat­er gift from her moth­er, Queen Hip­poly­ta, but when her ori­gin sto­ry was re-told in her own title six months lat­er, it was giv­en to her at the start. But her excep­tion­al­ism was still bound by the times; Won­der Woman rarely used her mag­ic las­so against men to its fullest extent, that was usu­al­ly reserved for women. In fact, there were sev­er­al instances where that pow­er was used against her, by both men and women, but as she was the hero­ine, that nev­er last­ed. And the bondage ele­ment went even fur­ther: if Won­der Woman’s hands were bound by any man, she would lose her Ama­zon abil­i­ties for how­ev­er long she remained bound. 

Won­der Woman had sev­er­al female oppo­nents, but even so, her two pri­ma­ry hyp­not­ic oppo­nents, one woman, Hyp­no­ta, and one man, Dr Psy­cho, both dis­guised them­selves in male forms. Hyp­no­ta, the self-described “Magi­cian of the Blue Ray” and mem­ber of “Vil­lainy, Incor­po­rat­ed”, dis­guised her­self as a man using a fake mus­tache and goa­tee. Dr Psy­cho, the req­ui­site male hyp­not­ic vil­lain, was a misog­y­nist who hyp­no­tized a sub­servient female spir­it medi­um to evoke and manip­u­late ecto­plasm at his com­mand, includ­ing dis­guis­ing his dwarfish body with a hand­some ecto­plas­mic shell. And, on at least one occa­sion, her most fre­quent oppo­nent, Nazi spy Baroness von Gun­ther, tried using hyp­no­sis to enslave her per­son­al ser­vants, and used the same tech­nique on Won­der Woman herself. 

Won­der Woman bat­tled many forces, nat­ur­al and super­nat­ur­al, includ­ing emis­saries of the God of War, Ares, Nazi spies and sabo­teurs, war prof­i­teers, alien invaders and many oth­er men­aces. She was one of the few super­heroes who sur­vived the end of the war and the only one in con­tin­u­ous pub­li­ca­tion to the present day, demon­strat­ing her pop­u­lar­i­ty. In short, Won­der Woman was a true Gold­en Age hero­ine. But even so, her ideals of female supe­ri­or­i­ty were lim­it­ed by the cul­ture and era she in which she was cre­at­ed. As the only female mem­ber of the Jus­tice Soci­ety, for exam­ple, she was nat­u­ral­ly the secretary. 

It would take anoth­er era and anoth­er char­ac­ter to tran­scend those limitations. 

Ref­er­ences:

  • Won­der Wom­an’s page at DC Comics 
  • Won­der Wom­an’s ori­gin sto­ry at DC Comics 
  • Car­ol Strick­land’s Won­der Woman fan site
  • Ama­zon Archives fan site

Legal: “Won­der Woman” and all relat­ed char­ac­ters, titles, logos and images are ™ and © 1941–2011 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

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