Of all the hundreds of characters published by DC Comics, there are three which seem to have grabbed the public's imagination like no others; forming a 'Trinity' that the rest of the DC Universe, to some extent or another, seems to revolve around. Superman, the Man of Steel; Batman, the Dark Knight; and Wonder Woman, the Amazon Princess. Although she has never created the massive franchises which her male counterparts have spawned, she is nevertheless a popular and complex character. Also, along with Batman, Superman and (believe it or not) Green Arrow, she is one of the few super-heroic characters to have remained in continuous publication since her first appearance in 1941.
Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, a psychologist who was one of the pioneers in the field of lie detection. He found the lack of female superheroes a concern and set about creating a character who was strong, liberated and interesting, collaborating with his wife for the initial ideas. Wonder Woman was a representative of the mythological all-female Amazon tribe, who came to America and joined the army as Diana Prince, using her great powers to fight crime. The Amazon Princess soon caught on, both as a member of the Justice Society of America1 and in her own solo adventures. Pioneering for their time, Wonder Woman's early adventures can now read rather strangely, and are often noted for the recurrent use of bondage imagery, the most obvious example being her truth-inducing lasso.
After decades of continuous publication (and a very popular television series), the character of Wonder Woman was reinvented in 1987 by George Perez, who emphasised the mythological aspects of the character and cast her as an ambassador from the Amazons and the Greek gods, sent to 'man's world' in order to teach about peace. He created an interesting dichotomy in her character, as she was at once a great warrior and a great advocate of peace; this is a theme which subsequent writers have often drawn upon.
The Amazon Princess
At once a simple and complex character, the concept of Wonder Woman is as strong as those of the other members of the 'DC trinity', but she has never achieved the same popularity as a character. As a result, the details of her character have been tweaked more extensively than theirs over the 60-plus years of her adventures.
Unchanged over the years is her identity as Amazon princess Diana, daughter of Hippolyta/Hippolyte who has been sent to Earth as an ambassador of peace. Sometimes she takes the identity of Diana Prince in US military intelligence (surely an act of espionage?), and sometimes she remains fully herself, not seeing any need to hide behind a secret identity. The Amazon tribe themselves are an all-female society, created by the Greek goddesses from the souls of women who died before their time, with Diana created from the soul of an unborn child. They are the last significant worshippers of the Greek pantheon on Earth and their home is an island paradise, variously known as Paradise Island or Themyscira.
The details of Wonder Woman's abilities are open to interpretation as well. Does she fly, or does she glide on wind currents? And if she does fly, then why does she have an invisible plane2? Is she merely strong, or does her power approach Superman levels? Just how enhanced are her senses of sight and hearing? In many ways, it doesn't matter. She is stronger, faster and generally better than the average human. Her very presence, let alone the powers of her lasso, is a catalyst for the truth. She dominates any gathering with her beauty, her wit and her wisdom. She is a powerful, perfect woman.
Gods and Monsters
In over six decades of stories, Wonder Woman has certainly had time to amass an army of foes to rival Batman's rogues gallery or the menagerie faced by Spider-Man, but many of her villains somehow fail to catch on. Although many of them return to battle her again and again, none of them have the same instant-recognition factor as the Joker, Lex Luthor, Doctor Octopus or Magneto. However, they are an interesting bunch.
As she has roots in Greek mythology, it makes sense that Wonder Woman would face many malefactors with a similar basis. From gorgons and sphinxes, through Morgaine Le Fay to the gods themselves, there is never a shortage of terrifying beasts for her to face. Med(o)usa proved to be a significant foe in 2004 in a battle that temporarily blinded the Amazonian princess and Ares, the god of war, has been a constant troublemaker. Most intriguing of the recurring characters of myth is probably Circe, the enchantress encountered by Odysseus and his crew. Still relatively likely to turn men into pigs (though this sadly didn't take in the case of Plastic Man) or other beasts, Circe controls immense magical power and is utterly ruthless. In an interesting twist on her character during the 1990s, she became a mother, and has been shown to be extremely protective of her child. This young girl, Lyta, has the potential to become more powerful than her mother, as her father is the aforementioned war god, Ares.
Truly great villainesses are hard to come by, but Wonder Woman has more than her fair share of female opponents. Tragic characters such as Silver Swan, technological menaces such as Doctor Cyber and corporate connivers such as Veronica Cale come and go, but one constant has been the Cheetah. Wonder Woman has faced four foes by this name over the years, although one is male and another has been deemed not to exist3.
The first was Priscilla Rich, a vain and wealthy woman who was possessed by an evil cat-persona when she became jealous of Wonder Woman. She fought the Amazon Princess during the war years, and was recently killed off in the comics by one of her successors in the role.
Next came Debbi Domaine (niece of Priscilla Rich), an eco-warrior who was transformed into the Cheetah by the nefarious Kobra, a villain who opposed most of DC Comics' heroes during his 30-year criminal career. Debbi only appeared in a handful of comics between 1980 and 1985 before being written out of continuity, never to be referred to again.
When Wonder Woman was given a brush-up in 1987, largely in order to tie her more closely to her mythological roots, the Cheetah was also reinvented. Enter Barbara Minerva, an archaeologist who gave herself over to Urzkartaga, a South American god who granted great power in return for blood sacrifices. Probably the most persistent of Wonder Woman's modern-day foes, the current Cheetah actually has a cat-like body (with the ferocity to match), unlike her predecessors who merely wore cat-suits.
Sebastian Ballesteros4 briefly usurped the Cheetah identity in the first few years of the 21st Century. The director of a shady scientific corporation, he was eventually dispatched by Barbara Minerva, reasserting her claim to be Wonder Woman's greatest foe.
Conventional is perhaps misleading, as Wonder Woman's rogues gallery has been home to some very bizarre characters over the years. Egg Fu was a giant egg with Communist sympathies. Doctor Psycho is a deeply deranged dwarf who can do very unpleasant things to people's minds. Giganta is a woman with the body of a gorilla, or was until she swapped this body for that of a strongwoman hundreds of feet tall. Most normal is probably Angle Man, a sharp-dressing thief who wields a triangular weapon capable of doing whatever a story's writer decides it is capable of doing.
As her nature as an Amazon is central to her origin and personality, it is only natural that the rest of the tribe would be important allies. Chief among them is her mother Hippolyte (sometimes spelled Hippolyta), the Queen of the tribe. For reasons that are too complicated to explain, Hippolyte briefly filled in as Wonder Woman, including an extended period time-travelling during World War Two, thus both following and preceding her daughter in the role, before dying to save people from the world-destroying Imperiex.
The Amazons are skilled warriors, craftswomen, hunters and healers, and some of them have the gift of oracular pronouncement. But all of them have (for now) been removed from Wonder Woman's life, with the comic book island of Themyscira having moved to another dimension under the protection of the goddess Athena (who incidentally usurped Zeus as ruler of Olympus).
Donna Troy, Wonder Girl
Stories of Wonder Girl were originally intended as nothing more than tales of 'Wonder Woman when she was a girl', but the character accidentally took on an independent existence when she was written in as a founding member of sidekick group the Teen Titans. Renamed Donna Troy, over the next few decades she managed to acquire probably the most confusing back-story of all comic characters. Is she Wonder Woman's sister? A magical clone? A human orphan? A mythological Titan? Eventually, writers gave up trying to reconcile all these aspects of her history. Apparently they're now all true and she remembers them all (just don't even begin to think about it or your head will explode). One thing is for certain - the other characters in the DC Comics Universe hold Donna in great regard. She is pure of heart, an inspired leader and a faithful friend to those she loves.
Wonder Woman's most important human ally is Steve Trevor, an army man who was her chief romantic interest during the Golden and Silver ages of comics, though he is now married to Etta Candy, Wonder Woman's overweight friend who is also a high-ranking military officer. Steve was always dashing, reckless and romantic and had a tendency to get captured, much as Lois Lane did. In more recent years, Wonder Woman has had other romantic interests such as police officer Mike Schorr and Trevor Barnes, who worked for the United Nations and died a heroic death after he and Wonder Woman realised how deeply their feelings for one another ran.
The comic's supporting cast was extended after the 1987 relaunch. First to appear were Julia and Vanessa Kapatelis, a mother and daughter who helped Wonder Woman acclimatise to American culture. When Wonder Woman moved from Boston to Gateway City, she acquired a new helper in the form of museum curator Helena Sandsmark. And until recently, the character was the Amazonian ambassador to the rest of the world, and her embassy was home to an assortment of people. Plus one minotaur, Ferdinand, who was the embassy's chef.
Cassie Sandsmark, Wonder Girl
The current Wonder Girl is the daughter of curator Helena Sandsmark and - well, it would be a shame to spoil it, but her father is certainly well-connected to say the least. A feisty young girl, she impressed Zeus so much that he granted her powers similar to her friend Wonder Woman, and she has gone on to be another well-respected heroine, close friend of Robin and lover of Superboy.
Wonder Woman in Other Media
Wonder Woman has had a less stellar career on film than the other members of the DC 'Trinity', but it has not been without its moments. Following a spoof pilot in the late 1960s and a TV movie in 1974, a TV series ran for three seasons from 1976 to 1979, starring Lynda Carter as the Amazon Princess and featuring Lyle Waggoner and Beatrice Colen as her military friends Steve Trevor and Etta Candy. The series was initially set during World War Two and later moved to modern times (becoming The New Adventures... It is fondly remembered, not least for Lynda Carter herself.
Wonder Woman also appeared in animated form in Super Friends during the 1970s (plus its various less-than-stellar revivals) and Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (2001-2006). The character is slated to make her movie debut in 2007.
She may not quite have the massive draw of Superman or Batman, but Wonder Woman clearly has great staying power, whether because she could be seen as a good female role model, or because men are drawn to this perfect woman. An Amazon princess with a costume reminiscent of the American flag, a crusader for peace who is also the ultimate warrior, she is a character of contrasts, and thus likely to be a character that lasts.