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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