For Your Consideration: DC’s Wonder Woman: The Twelve Labors

Wonder Woman: The Twelve Labors

Wonder Woman: The Twelve Labors


by Robert Greenberger

Wonder Woman was creatively interesting to read in the very early 1970s, under first Mike Sekowsky and then Denny O’Neil, the de-powered Amazon Princess had some real world adventures and attempts were made to make her a role model. Unfortunately, Gloria Steinem had launched Ms. Magazine and editorialized that DC’s premier heroine needed her powers back. With issue #204 in 1973, the old logo was back and so was the tiara, invisible plane, Paradise Island, and more. Under writer/editor Robert Kanigher, it was a feminized return to the kind of wacky storytelling he exercised for over a decade not all that long before.

Kanigher’s return to the editorial desk proved short-lived and he returned to freelance writing and after publisher Carmine Infantino examined the sales, he decided the series needed fresh blood and quickly. He handed the title to Julie Schwartz, by then known as DC’s Mr. Fix-It. Much as he was uninterested in Batman in 1964 and Superman in 1971, “I never particularly cared for Wonder Woman, so I came up with the gimmick of having the Justice League spy on her, so to speak, to see how she handled her activity, and whether she was worthy of being readmitted,” he said in Wonder Woman: The Complete History by Les Daniel and Chip Kidd. “It gave me the opportunity to do a series of issues in which I would have a guest star featured, and it did well in the sales department.”

Mirroring Hercules’ twelve labors, the story arc depicted Wonder Woman’s efforts and for the first time that cycle is being collected as Wonder Woman: The Twelve Labors. The volume is a wonderful time capsule of the mélange of writers and artists working for DC’s heroes in the mid-1970s with some nice match-ups and some scratch-your-head assignments.

Schwartz needed to bone up on the character and her world, research performed for him by letter hack turned staffer Martin Pasko. He told Gail Simone some time back, “It was…odd. I first joined DC in an Editorial-support position, part of a new paid internship program devised by then-VP Sol Harrison. Julie Schwartz had just inherited WW from Bob Kanigher, who’d apparently gone round the bend for the second and final time.

“Julie knew nothing about Wonder Woman — that would have meant actually having to listen to Kanigher talking to himself all those decades they shared an office, instead of just keeping Bob’s records. So my first job when Sol assigned me to Julie was to read every WW story published up to that time and give Julie a report.

“Julie’s associate editor, the ever-anal-retentive Nelson Bridwell, was charged with the same task, as I recall. But Nelson did it with a straight face, waxing rhapsodic about such things as eluding Nazi anti-aircraft fire with an invisible plane that didn’t confer invisibility on its pilot, so that she would, in real life, appear to be zipping across the sky in a squatting position.

“I, unlike Nelson, ambled back into Julie’s office and was, like, ‘Julie, you won’t believe how sick this sh** is!’ Truly, that peek inside the fevered brain of Dr. William Moulton Marston was astonishing — a three-week immersion in a four-color Psychopathia Sexualis.”

Armed with the information, Schwartz asked his JLA writer Len Wein to kick off the new storyline before turning the writing over to Cary Bates and Elliot S! Maggin who write several issues each. Recently, Maggin recounted to me, “The best thing that happened as a result of my writing a few Wonder Woman stories was a letter I got from a reader who identified herself as a lesbian and insisted that she was sure my story was written by a woman, that certainly no one named Elliot S! Maggin really existed, and that Elliot was obviously just a beard for some real writer who otherwise couldn’t get in the door in the comics business in the early 70s because she was a woman. I’ve always said that my politics are basically those of a 14-year-old black girl, but that letter really tickled me.”

Then, recalls Pasko, “about a year after they’d started the book, Julie had another one of his almost Hourly! Creative! Disagreements! with Elliot and, remembering all that research and assisting I’d done, he asked me, in a fit of pique, if I wanted to write WW. I said ‘yes’ without hesitation.

“Look, there was no grand design there, OK? No party planning. Instead, we were shipping books on time, y’know? As you can see, I have no illusions about anything. I always thought the Hercules’ trials bit was just the first thing Len and Julie could think of five minutes before they had to give a cover concept to Bob Oksner. Besides, it gave ‘em a way to vamp for a year and a half.

“The ‘official’ reason for the trials gimmick was that all those guest stars would supposedly attract new readers. I mean, because of all those skillful pairings of artists with the heroes with whom they were most closely associated. Those perfect-pitch matches of tone and style. Yeah, that’s it. Curt Swan and Elongated Man. Batman and Jose Delbo.”

Caustic comments aside, once Pasko took over, he stabilized the writing allowing the cast to grow and he ran with the book, whose sales stabilized and then rose, so he was on hand when the television series debuted, increasing interest in the character. The thing to remember is that this was the first time Wonder Woman was fully integrated into the DC Universe, as familiar heroes, villains and creators came for a visit. There was a charm to the stories since she was exercising powers she had gone without using for some time and had to retrain herself. As with all of Schwartz’s editorial work, there was an emphasis on plotting, making her think through the problems before tossing her lasso.

For many, this was an introduction to the character and these fondly recalled tales are most certainly worth a look.

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  1. Martin Pasko Says:

    I’ll just say this about my caustic comments. They were all jokes. Unfortunately, all the punchlines have been edited out, so now they just seem like mean-spirited… well, caustic comments. My dear old friend (and beloved collaborator) Mr. G. and I will no doubt have a spirited yet collegial conversation about this over lunch. Be sure to read next week’s column, which I’ll be writing while they’re dredging Bob’s body out of the river. Meanwhile, writing WW was a great assignment, though not tackled by me entirely without tongue in cheek. And if you pick up the trade paperback, you’ll see that all of us — Len, Cary, Elliot, I, and even those curiously-assigned artists — were having a lot of fun doing it. Thanks for the ear. — MP

  2. Clutch Says:

    I was a wee tot when these stories came out, but I’ve always been intrigued by the covers and even more so now that I know the back story. Glad I preordered my copy.

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