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Looking Back at Wonder Woman #185

Ohmygod! It's THEM!
Ohmygod! It’s THEM!

IT’S THEM! Sadistic lesbians menace Diana Prince?

It was 1969 when WONDER WOMAN #185 hit the spinner racks, shelves of drugstores and supermarkets around the country. The comic had undergone a radical revision the year before in an attempt to attract new readers. The Powers That Be decided to greatly downplay the character’s Amazonian heritage, strip her of her powers, and occasionally couple her with an Asian sidekick masquerading as her mentor. The man responsible for this new direction was Mike Sekowsky, though he received helped from Denny O’Neil.

This change was as far a departure from the character’s previous continuity and sensibility as were some of the changes that American culture was experiencing. Richard Nixon was in his first term as President and the United States was conducting a war in Vietnam. American society was in flux. On one hand, traditional family values were still bolstered by post World War II consumerism on one hand. On the other the massive changes in social structure and identity that resulted from the Civil Rights Movement and the hippie “threat”.

Power was going to the people and things like color film, Polaroid cameras, and color TV were becoming commonplace. Drive in movie theaters were favorite spots for many Americans, too with some drive-ins having two screens. The screen in front showed movies for adults, and kids were meant to watch cartoons and kiddie movies through the rear window. I dared to break this unwritten rule the night my family went to see BONNY AND CLYDE. Warren Beatty transfixed me and I was all of eleven, but that’s a story for another time.

People during this time also bought, yes bought music—there was no Napster and recording technology was not as mass produced and available as they are now. Your main choices back then were “45’s” or albums with popular music selections ranging from bubble gum acts like the Monkees or “hippie” music from the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Jimmi Hendrix, Donovan, and Iron Butterfly.

On June 27th gay icon and diva Judy Garland died of a pill overdose in her London home. In New York City’s Greenwich Village just a few days later on June 28 a number of Stonewall bar patrons publicly protested the police harassment and raids of their community.

Back to the “Emma Peel” version of Wonder Woman, and specifically issue #185 and its sensationally titled story “It’s Them!” The plot is thin, oh so incredibly thin. It opens with Diana returning to her New York City home on Blocker Street (a likely reference to Bleecker Street) from Paradise Island to discover a frightened young woman named Cathy. Cathy is hiding in Diana’s darkened, street-level clothing boutique from a group of villains ominously known as “THEM!” And if the exclamation mark didn’t provide enough melodramatic emphasis, “THEM!” is almost always done in thick, red letters.

THEM! is a gang that has been terrorizing the neighborhood for a while, but apparently, Diana’s been too busy dividing her attention between learning Kung Fu moves from I Ching and visiting Paradise Island to notice. What makes the story of interest is that “THEM!” appears by inference to be lesbians—and sadistic ones at that. The gang’s proclivities are inferred because the story was printed in 1969, a year when comic  publishers were still subjecting themselves to the guidelines established by the Comics Code Authority,(CCA). The CCA was an agency created in response to Frederic Wertham’s book, SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT and the Senate hearings of 1954, both of which leveled charges of inappropriate content for children being published in comics. Much like television and film media being subjected to the Hayes Code, it was simply impossible to include directreferences to LGBT characters or themes unless they were buried in subtext or coding. The CCA’s prohibition against depicting “sexual depravity” reamined in its guidelines for another 20 years until its 1989 revision.

wondwerwoman185-02The most obvious clues to the nature of “THEM!” are their clothing and appearance: they’re dressed as drag kings. Top Hat, the boss of the bunch, wears a costume that’s a cross between a circus ringleader and Victorian opera goer. It’s a gaudy green affair of a suit paired with a frilly yellow top and contrasted by a purple cape and top hat. Moose Mama is a big boned butch kind of gal who likes to wear biker’s clothing accented with gold costume jewelry. Pinto prefers dressing like a cowboy from the Old West. Well, maybe it’s the same Old West that the Rawhide Kid came from if you know what I mean.

When the gang bursts into Diana’s boutique, Top Hat tosses a dog collar on a chain at Cathy and commands “Put it on, slave!” and then threatens Diana who in turn quickly disposes of “THEM!” in a no-nonsense manner.

Diana is genuinely concerned for Cathy’s well being and takes her in. While soaking in a hot bath Cathy reveals she felt stifled at home and decided to run away from her straight-laced parents. After arriving in New York she naïvely accepted the gang’s offer of a room, only to discover they had stolen her money. At this point Cathy is forced to wear a dog collar and become their slave, complete with beatings and humiliation.

Diana’s acts of kindness are contrasted with the determination of THEM to recapture their slave. Their acts of intimidation start with tossing a rock with the requisite threatening note attached to it through a window and nightlong chanting outside Diana’s bedroom window. The next day, a male accomplice knocks groceries out of Diana’s arms, but he is cowed by a dark haired man who lives in the neighborhood.

Unfazed, Top Hat orders some previously unseen gang members to enter Diana’s store under the pretense of shopping and instead to slash clothing. Out on the street Diana confronts a dog collar wielding Top Hat. Again, the dark haired man appears and causes Top Hat and her gang to disperse.

With nine pages left, the plot really picks up. Later that night, Diana agrees to let Cathy stay, and then discovers an unmailed letter from Cathy apologizing to her parents, Diana decides to contact the “Missing Persons Bureau” and as fate (and the plot) would have it, at the same moment that Diana is speaking to whoever at the bureau, Molotov cocktails crash through the shop windows. Diana and Cathy escape to the street. Top Hat and her gang are gloating nearby while firemen try to extinguish the blaze. Tony Petrucci, the dark haired man, and his mother also witness the fire and offer to take in Diana and Cathy.

In the morning, Diana wakes to find a note from Cathy saying she’s returned to THEM and of course Diana starts to search for her. Meanwhile, a well intentioned Mrs. Petrucci informs her son of the events and he gets some of “the boys” together for a final showdown. Top Hat and gang with a resigned Cathy leading at the head suddenly appear on the street before Diana. Top Hat thrusts two dog collars at Diana, commanding her to put one on herself and the other on the young woman. Tony and his boys surprise Top Hat’s gang, disarming them swiftly and inexplicably without drawing Top Hat’s attention while she continues to threaten Diana. Armed with a repertoire of Kung Fu moves, courtesy of that nice I Ching, Diana delivers a quick and resounding defeat to Top Hat.

The police arrive to take custody of the gang, and moments later, Cathy and her parents are tearfully reunited, thanks to the information Diana gave the Missing Persons Bureau. Mrs. Petrucci, being the epitome of a good Italian mother, invites everyone up. Over coffee and biscotti, Diana seems to have forgotten her store has burnt down and proposes the idea to Cathy’s parents to let Cathy work in her store. With Cathy out of the clutches of those awful, frightening lesbians—er—criminals, and back with her Ward and June Cleaver parents the story ends on a happy note.

Were Top Hat, Pinto, and Moose Mama really lesbians? Reading the story now it certainly seems clear to me that they were. Even when I read it in the used comic bin at Boss Drugs in 1970 or 1971 I had a distinct impression there was something more to the story. Heaven knows that we in the LGBT community are self-trained to look for sub text. Could Sekowsky’s story have been a comment on the nascent Gay Rights Movement? In house ads for other DC comics have September sale dates. Considering printer deadlines and the time it takes to create a comic it’s possible that Sekowsky was compelled to comment on Stonewall though the timeframe would have been very tight. Or, he may have used as inspiration the elements of the gay underground culture that contested the illegality of gay bars in New York which ultimately resulted in the legalization of these spaces. It would be ironic, given the accusations of rampant lesbianism in Golden Age WONDER WOMAN comics made by Frederic Wertham. Or maybe it was really a twisted take on the Cinderella fairy tale with Top Hat, Pinto, and Moose Mama serving as the wicked stepmother step-sisters, and Diana as the fairy godmother?

Or not.

This story was reprinted in Diana Prince: Wonder Woman VOL 2 . Click the link to purchase a copy from Amazon and help support this site.

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