The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. is the largest museum complex of its kind in the world. Within its 19 museums, one can find everything from a mounted African elephant to Fonzie’s leather jacket.
The Smithsonian also houses an impressive collection of comic books, a uniquely American art form launched in the mid 1930s to immediate success. One of the most fascinating components of this four-color archive is its Wonder Woman collection, housed at the Smithsonian Libraries’ Dibner Library of the History and Science of Technology located in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Early Appearances and Cultural Significance
What makes this Wonder Woman collection so culturally important is the treasure trove of materials revealing the Amazon princess’s creation and early comic book appearances. According to Lilla Vekerdy, Head, Special Collections Department, the collection includes All Star Comics No. 8 (Dec. 1942-Jan. 1943), which introduced Wonder Woman to the world, and lengthy runs of Sensation Comics and Wonder Woman comics, including the first issues of each.
“What’s so nice about this serial run is that it was owned by William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman,” Vekerdy observes. A noted psychologist, Marston was involved in the development of the polygraph, which no doubt informed Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth. He penned her adventures under the pseudonym Charles Moulton.
An Origin Story Told in Letters
Of even greater historical significance are original letters to and from Marston, his editors, and artist Harry G. Peter regarding Wonder Woman’s appearance, costume and powers. The collection also contains a large selection of story scripts written primarily by Marston, with contributions by ghost writer/assistant Joye Murchison Kelly. “We don’t have any [three dimensional artifacts like] toys or pins, but we do have published documents, some clippings and photographs, and some original marked-up articles” about Wonder Woman, Vekerdy reports.
“Regarding historically significant artifacts, I think there are two things to mention,” adds Morgan Aronson, Library Technician, Smithsonian Libraries. “One is an original drawing of Wonder Woman’s costume. It shows a flowing skirt, and is very different from how she eventually appeared in the comics, so it’s wonderful to see how Marston’s creative team visualized Wonder Woman before she made it into print.”
A second significant artifact are accounts books kept by Murchison Kelly showing how much she received from Marston for every Wonder Woman script she wrote or typed up. “It basically shows how much she was paid for her involvement with Wonder Woman,” Aronson notes. “That’s entirely unique to this collection because it’s available no where else.” Also included in the Murchison Kelly collection is the psychology test she completed for Marston, which led to him inviting her to work as his assistant.
Wonder Woman Gets Personal
Murchison Kelly donated her Wonder Woman materials to the Smithsonian Libraries at the encouragement of journalist Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Knopf), who relied extensively on Murchison Kelly’s personal archive as well as other sources. “Murchison Kelly personally delivered all of the materials to the Smithsonian because she didn’t trust the mail,” Vekerdy says. “She typed up in detail her story with Wonder Woman, and we put that in her collection. We had a wonderful discussion with Joye about her story and involvement with Wonder Woman, and I’m really sorry I did not record that.”
The materials from Marston’s personal archives – seven volumes of comic books and three volumes of background materials – were donated to the Smithsonian by his widow, Elizabeth, in 1970. (This is assumed correct; there is a taped tear in the letter that makes the date difficult to read.) Elizabeth’s marriage to Marston was quite unusual in that the couple was involved in a very secret, decades-long polyamorous relationship with Olive Byrne, a former student of Marston’s.
Marston’s atypical marriage was shocking for the time, but indicative of his progressive thinking. He believed that women were superior to men in many ways, and that the world would be better off if women were in charge. This philosophy deeply influenced the Wonder Woman mythos – that of a strong, intelligent woman leading the charge against evil and tyranny. Marston also had a thing for bondage, which resulted in Wonder Woman being held in chains so frequently in her stories that Marston’s editor, Sheldon Mayer, had to tell him to tone it down.
The Wonder Woman Collection is Something for Everyone
To many, the Smithsonian Libraries’ Wonder Woman materials are nothing more than a collection of old comic books and letters, but to experts the character and her creation are historically, culturally and socially important. “I believe the collection to be significant because we see how Wonder Woman was received when she first appeared, and it was quite different from how she is received today,” says Aronson. “Today, she is lauded as an empowered woman who fights evil, and someone girls can look up to. But our archival materials contain letters, including from child psychologists, that basically shame Marston for what he was doing and blame comic books for a rise in juvenile delinquency. The psychological aspect really comes through in the archival material.”
Unlike most museums, where materials on display are never to be touched, the Smithsonian Libraries has an active scholarship program that encourages use of the material in research by scholars. But you don’t have to be an egghead to page through the collection’s bound volumes of comic books and archival material – it is available to everyone. “We have a diverse audience and it’s our mission to make this material accessible however we can,” Aronson says. “The Smithsonian Libraries is not just a repository – it’s a living, breathing collection.”
Wonder Woman remains as popular today as she did when she debuted in 1941, as evidenced by the tremendous success of the 2017 motion picture starring Gal Gadot. “Good versus evil never goes out of style, and continues to perpetuate in stories for generations,” observes Aronson. “I think the basic underpinning of the story is still so relevant to kids today – to help understand the world around them, and the type of character they ought to be. And Wonder Woman has really evolved over time. If you look at the original comic book and the movie today, while there is still heroic underpinnings throughout, she as a character has changed and evolved to continue to be relevant. I think that’s a really brilliant thing the creators who took on the mantle did after Marston died. They were able to allow her to change, which isn’t always possible.”
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