Good grief, it took me weeks to read that. The scripts are so childish and the art so crude that I could only ever manage bits at a time. Seriously, it looks like Neville Main's TV Comic stories, except that Neville Main's artwork might be better. You could spend hours debating that. Peter can't draw hips, for instance, with Wonder Woman's pelvis being clearly broken in some panels. On the upside, though, at least you can't accuse these comics of drawing their female characters as eye candy.
(Peter was actually a good artist, when off the comics treadmill.)
That said, though, it's the Golden Age. Both the scripts and artwork are simply what comics were like back then. Wonder Woman, as it happens, sold like hot cakes and is clearly one of the major creations of this era. These days, her early stories are interesting mostly for William Moulton Marston's love of bondage, spankings and submission, which was blatant enough to alarm DC at the time. (When not writing comics, Marston was also a psychologist and the inventor of the lie detector machine. He was, though, in a pseudo-bigamous relationship with his wife Elizabeth and their polyamorous life partner, Olive Byrne, and he was open about using bondage in comics to induce eroticism in his readers as part of what he called "sex love training".)
It's even built into Wonder Woman's character description. If she gets chained up by a man, she loses her powers. She also owns a magic lasso that, if you're bound by it, compels you to tell the truth.
Even by modern standards, he was clearly a feminist. That comes across clearly here, albeit in strange ways. (There's a villainess who enslaves other women and they love it. Sometimes she whips them.) He also created Etta Candy, who's Wonder Woman's fat friend and occasionally cool as hell. I'm in awe. (It also took me an embarrassingly long time to see the wordplay in her name.) You'd be impressed if a modern writer created Etta and lots of later, less enlightened writers just didn't know what to do with her.
On the other hand, though, the book's racist as hell. Most of it's understandable. This was World War Two. Show me an Allied comic book from that era where German and Japanese people weren't grotesque caricatures. (Absurdly, even their spies talk like this: "Vere is der message. Gif it to me qvick!") Black characters are also occasionally glimpsed, though, and ouch. My 2011 collection has this to say on the subject: "The comics reprinted in this volume were produced in a time when racism played a larger role in society and popular culture, both consciously and unconsciously."
Going through the book in order and not mentioning every single story...
THE SPIRIT OF WAR
Extremely weird. Wonder Woman goes to sleep on Etta Candy's couch so that her astral body can visit Mars and defeat Ares, the God of War. (Yes, these are explicitly the Greek/Roman gods.) "The prisoners sail for Mars on an interspace convict ship." Meanwhile, the Martians' idea of sport includes making slave girls kill each other. (Probably. These stories might look kiddified, but they'll quite often startle you with their offhand death toll of non-villains.) "The tournament of slaves begins. High platforms are erected ringed with fires. The prisoners, with their hands bound behind their backs, must force each other off the platforms."
Wonder Woman wins over the Martians and even gets her own slave girl. "I'll give you the girl - as your personal maid. Be sure to whip her every day!"
"Here is your whip, mistress! I haven't had my daily beating!"
Nonetheless, the story's feminist message is loud, with Wonder Woman opposing both the chauvinist Martians and their thinking. That's a lot more thoughtful than the wartime propaganda. "If America wins, war on Earth will end!"
THE EARL OF GREED
Mars sends the Earl of Greed to Earth, where he gets involved with Adolf Hitler. Wonder Woman is in the same room as Hitler and indeed most of the top Nazi leaders. She doesn't kill or capture them. Why not? I mean, obviously a 1942 comic book isn't going to do that, but it doesn't make sense. That's the problem of inserting superheroes into a real war.
(In these stories, Peter draws extreme but recognisable caricatures of quite a few Axis leaders. Goebbels, Goring, Himmler, Mussolini, Hirohito...)
THE COUNT OF CONQUEST
Another feminist parable, with Wonder Woman's foes including a ladykiller as well as a chauvinist who turns everything into an uncomprehending battle of the sexes. "You are a woman, tell me! Who are the best human tools to use in capturing a girl - the Nazis, Japs or Italians?"
"My strength is gone. It is Aphrodite's law! When an Amazon girl permits a man to chain her bracelets of submission together, she becomes weak as other women in a man-ruled world! Poor Steve - I've failed him!"
Mind you, temporarily de-powering superheroes tends to make their stories more interesting. That's equally true here.
THE RAILROAD PLOT
Wonder Woman's in love with a man, Steve Trevor. (He doesn't know about her secret identity. Why doesn't she just tell him.) Here, he appears to be chatting up another bird... so Wonder Woman turns into a scary stalker. This is funny and I thoroughly enjoyed the story, especially its punchline. 1942 idiom crashes and burns in the 21st century.
STEVE TREVOR: "My beautiful angel, will you ever forgive me? I only made love to Dolly in the line of duty."
WONDER WOMAN: "You always perform your duties so thoroughly, Steve! But I should have known your taste in women is better than that!"
MISSION TO PLANET EROS
Look at that title. Yes, that's a made-up title for this collection and the stories were originally untitled, but how the hell did Marston get that story idea past his editors? Yes, Wonder Woman does indeed visit the planet Eros (albeit again in telepathic astral form)... and the planet itself is mind-boggling.
CAPTION: "The palace of judgement is crowded with prisoners who seem surprisingly gay and happy."
PRISONER: "Ha! Ha! Back to prison - hooray! Are we lucky!"
Again, 1942 English hasn't aged well. The story's reason for gay people wanting incarceration, though, is that Eros's prisons are designed to give the inmates perfect happiness. At fifteen, all children are imprisoned. Beautiful prison guards teach girls the game of man-fishing. (Literally, with a fishing rod.) Before long, a responsibility-hating girl is found guilty of trying to evade her responsibilities as ruler and gets sentenced to freedom. She has to rule. She can't be bothered and starts a war. The female soldiers' rallying cry is, "For Eros and Steve Trevor!"
It's completely mental. Wow.
AMERICA'S GUARDIAN ANGEL
A slave girl drinks suicide rather than betray her mistress to Wonder Woman. Yikes. But Etta Candy saves the day!
WONDER WOMAN IS DEAD!
The baddies killed one of their slave girls just to set up an ineffectual trap. Again, yikes. Wonder Woman raids a police station, smashing through the window and breaking into their safe! That was a laugh.
THE STORY OF FIR BALSAM
Wonder Woman understands tree language. Fir Balsam is a talking pine tree. What?
A husband treats his wife unforgivably... and he's not the villain. He's just a jealous redneck idiot, although Wonder Woman helps him realise his mistake. She also tells a German soldier "don't poke me with that pencil" while he's got her tied up and bent over.
A SPY ON PARADISE ISLAND
Wonder Woman returns home to Lesbian Island (which isn't its name, but let's be honest here). She's going to play the Goddess Diana in the festival of the returning sun, which is what the Amazons celebrate instead of Christmas. Someone rates the quality of a spanking and the festival celebrations include being tied up ("there's a rope on the bed to tie me with according to custom!"). Women dressed as deer are hung up to be "skinned" in a panel that's downright kinky even from Harry G. Peter. They then get happily bound and served in a "pie", to be "eaten".
I'm not exaggerating. It really is like that. Also, Etta Candy is again awesome.
THE BARONESS VON GUNTHER TRILOGY
Paula von Gunther ("the most dangerous woman alive!") had been Wonder Woman's first recurring enemy, but here Marston does something genuinely cool with her. She gets yet another outing as a cold-blooded villainess, with mind control and slave girls who want chains and beatings with big whips. Kinky? Funny? Yes, yes, but...
She's only like this because the Nazis have taken her child hostage. Wonder Woman goes off on a child rescue mission and von Gunther turns good, but Wonder Woman's friends don't believe her. When she's the only person who knows about a bomber, she has to knock Steve Trevor unconscious to escape from his captivity and save Wonder Woman.
This is great. It's this collection's one genuinely good story. We'd had a fair few batshit crazy stories that made me laugh, but this is about a morally compromised character whose actions are unpredictable. I had no idea where the plot was going and I loved it.
Would I recommend this collection? Nope. It's hard work to read. There is, though, buried gold in here. It's very, very strange, not just in the kinkiness but in the mythology, the astral travel and the demented ideas that casually pop up. Tree language. The fluidity and interconnectedness of dreams, reality and interplanetary travel. Oh, and I love Etta Candy.