Book Review: A Golden Thread by Philip Sandifer

It should come as no surprise to long-time readers that I have been heavily influenced by Dr. Sandifer’s work; it would only be a slight overstatement to say that My Little Po-Mo is an outright ripoff of his TARDIS Eruditorum. So it should equally come as no surprise that I was quite excited by the prospect of a book by him at the intersection of two of my favorite topics, DC Comics and feminism. But A Golden Thread is not a feminist study of Wonder Woman per se; rather, much as TARDIS Eruditorum uses Doctor Who as a window through which to view British utopianism throughout its run, A Golden Thread uses Wonder Woman as a window onto the history of feminism in the U.S.

This is not, however, Themyscira Eruditorum; rather than in-depth analyses of individual Wonder Woman issues or story arcs, it takes a high-level look at different eras of the comic, studying how these eras respond to the issues of previous eras in ways that reflect or reject the feminist currents of the time. Of particular note are the early chapters on Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, which identify, and then explicitly avoid, the usual approach of identifying him as the sexually deviant inventor of the lie detector, as if that explains all that need be explained about Wonder Woman. Instead, the book explores his professional writings and other projects, building a case that Wonder Woman was simply the most successful of multiple attempts to express Marston’s peculiar brand of utopian, gender-essentialist feminism and his vision of a matriarchal society defined by willing, loving submission rather than coercive, forceful domination.

That this vision failed, while the comic based on it succeeded, is key to the book’s premise regarding feminism, that social progress is a matter of “making new mistakes.” For example, the chapter on the “I Ching” era of Wonder Woman, in which she was depowered, becomes a chronicle of the mistakes of second-wave feminism in general and Gloria Steinem in particular. The book never quite reaches for the claim, but the suggestion that the I Ching era was foreshadowing the third wave is an easy one for the reader to fill in.

Therein lies one of the major differences between this book and Dr. Sandifer’s other work: restraint. It is a double-edged sword; on the one hand, there is nothing in this book remotely as gloriously outré as the Blakean take on “The Three Doctors” in the third volume of TARDIS Eruditorum, let alone the Qabbalistic Tarot “Logopolis” Choose Your Own Adventure in the upcoming fourth volume. On the other, it is more accessible by far than TARDIS Eruditorum or especially The Last War in Albion, his ongoing study of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.

Which is not to say that the usual Sandifer flavor is absent! His distaste for organized fandom shows up strongly here, as he blames the emergence of such (probably deservedly) for the post-World War II decline of the comic. He also, as usual, does not shy away from mounting strong defenses of indefensible positions, in this case trying to argue that the animated Wonder Woman movie is inferior to the David Kelly-produced television pilot. His criticisms of the former are accurate and cutting—it is a far from perfect film—but he defends the latter against a strawman, ignoring the strongest criticism of the pilot, that it depicts Wonder Woman as a remorseless and unhesitating killer.

Nonetheless, the book stands as an excellent microhistory of Wonder Woman, accessible even to a reader who knows little of her comics (such as myself—I know her mostly through the DCAU, her appearances in crossovers, and the Gail Simone run), highly informative, and engaging. It is worth the price for the fresh take on Marston alone, but the rest of the book has much to offer as well.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: A Golden Thread by Philip Sandifer

  1. After reading about Starfire's treatment in the New 52, I haven't even had the stomach to read up on how DC is treating Wonder Woman in the reboots.

    I have no trouble guessing why DC's ripoff of The Avengers is solely a Batman-meets-Superman showcase and not a full Justice League movie… that would mean introducing girl superheroes, and WB/DC loathes its female characters with a passion.

    Oh, and meanwhile

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  2. I haven't read any of the New 52–like you, after I heard how Starfire was treated, I steered clear.

    According to Sandifer the New 52 Wonder Woman comic itself is actually pretty good, though? He put it, rather than Gail Simone's run, on his list of 5 must-read Wonder Woman comics.

    And it's not just female characters! If there's one thing they've made very clear it's that they have zero interest in any character that's not a straight white cis man.

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  3. “Especially Last War in Albion”

    Is it that challenging? I thought I was being fairly easy to follow there…

    (And thank you for the kind review. Would you consider tossing a review on Amazon as well?)

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  4. It might be just me, but I find Last War in Albion borderline incomprehensible, to the point I've given up trying to follow it. Sorry.

    And no problem, I'll take care of it later this afternoon.

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  5. Surprised to hear you say that, Froborr. I for one think it's displayed a remarkable degree of restraint for a history of the British comics industry envisioned as a magical war. Of course, we are still in the early stages of the War… who knows what rough beast slouches towards Northampton to be born.

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  6. Hm. I'm really interested in that, mostly out of concern, as that's very definitely not what I'm going for. I've consciously tried to keep it stylistically straightforward. I know there's a lot of scope in the material itself, but I've been aiming for readability in the entries. So if I'm losing someone like you, I'm quite concerned that I'm doing it wrong.

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  7. Well, one thing I have not tried is going back and reading an entire chapter at a time. It's quite possible that my difficulty is not that the text itself is difficult, just that I'm having trouble with posts that start mid-thought.

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  8. Interesting. I mean, there's a conscious difficulty to it, but equally, the idea, in my mind, is that it's not really beginning mid-thought. It's beginning with a reminder of what the previous thought was, and then demonstrating the drift and transition to another thought. I try to structure the individual essays so that the centerpiece is a transition. If I have an essay that's entirely confined to one topic, I usually feel grumpy about it. (Annoyingly, that describes tomorrow's.)

    I should probably write up a brief essay about it at some point. “How to Read The Last War in Albion.”

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  9. I work for a comic retailer, so I know more about the New 52 than I ever wanted to. Wonder Woman was, for a while, one of maybe four decent titles in it, but it's declined in quality even as the other decent titles were cancelled and replaced with additional poorly-concepted, poorly-written, poorly-paced variations on Batman, Superman, and the Green Lantern. Also, Starfire was pretty much just the tip of the iceberg where DC's attitudes towards women are concerned.

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