So earlier this year I started a project I’ve wanted to do for a while: rereading the Silver Age, month-by-month. Or more accurately, that limited part of the Silver Age I actually have in original or reprint. I started with Barry Allen’s debut as the Flash in 1956’s Showcase #4 —And now I’m up to mid-1959. Superhero books are starting to come out again (the early 1950s, that was a dead zone in comics) and I have more stuff in reprints, including Wonder Woman‘s Silver Age run. About two weeks ago, I read the earliest Silver Age WW I have, Wonder Woman #98, “The Million-Dollar Penny.” It’s a minor landmark, arguably the first Earth-One Wonder Woman story, and the first Robert Kanigher wrote with Ross Andru and Mike Esposito as penciler/inker instead of Wonder Woman’s original artist, H.G. Peters. It’s enough of a departure from William Marston’s Golden Age work I thought it worth looking at the changes in detail.
Marston’s WW origin shows the Amazons created by Aphrodite as a symbol of women’s independence and a force for pacifism. Kanigher ducks all that feminism and pacifism stuff and simply establishes the Amazons as general fighters against tyranny and oppression in the ancient world, much as Marvel’s Golem isn’t specifically a defender of the Jews. Wonder Woman is shown being one of them back then, which would make her centuries old. I doubt Kanigher had that worked out as he later showed her as Wonder Girl helping the Amazons find Paradise Island, and still later implied she was young enough in the present her missing father was still alive. (an odd retcon I covered for Screen Rant).
The story proper kicks off when Aphrodite tells Hippolyta to send one Amazon into Man’s World to fight injustice, rather than battle WW II. That’s because it’s not presented as a flashback but as something happening at the time it came out; Kanigher’s effectively retconning WW’s history and rebooting her.
Unlike Marston, Hippolyta’s issue isn’t that she doesn’t want her daughter leaving Paradise Island, it’s that when the Amazons compete for the privilege, she’s terrified she’ll choose Diana out of favoritism. Diana’s solution is to have every Amazon wear a mask of her face, so Hippolyta won’t know who to pick. This plays into one of Kanigher’s favorite motifs in the years to come, pitting Wonder Woman against a double, as in the cover image. Needless to say she wins, and almost immediately has to save Steve Trevor, parachuting out of a plane over Paradise Island; if he sets foot on the island, the Amazons will lose their power. Not to worry: Diana saves him without letting him touch down and returns him to the U.S. There she faces her first test: Aphrodite has ordered her to turn one U.S. cent into a million dollars within 24 hours, with the return on the money going to help a children’s charity.
This is another trope Kanigher liked to use, of Wonder Woman being set some impossible challenge. He used it as far back as “The Five Tasks of Thomas Tighe” in #38. The result is a somewhat rambling story in which Wonder Woman tries several ways to earn the money, but gets distracted by an eagle stealing the penny, and by an enemy submarine from some unidentified nation. At the last minute she finds a solution: there’s a bridge that needs building, with a million for the contractor who does it. So she takes the penny and by stretching it out with her super-strength, makes a massive amount of copper she then makes into the bridge. Which makes absolute zero sense, even by the physics of superhero comics, but that’s characteristic of Kanigher’s Silver Age superhero writing too (one reason he worked better on a book with a goofier tone, such as DC’s Metal Men).
It’s more of a departure from Marston than I realized when I read it in Showcase Presents Wonder Woman the first time. And very much a harbinger of what was to come.
#SFWApro. Top image by Carmine Infantino, bottom by Andru/Esposito. All rights to images remain with current holder.