American Wonder

To close out what might be called the holy trinity of modern American super-heroes, we come to American Wonder.

An ancient depiction of the Amazons
An ancient depiction of the Amazons

Since the times of the ancient Greeks there have been stories of the Amazons: a race of mysterious warrior women who lived apart from the rest of civilization. For most of that great span of time these stories were thought to be just that: stories. Only the the 20th century did the SS Special Projects Division, which eventually became known as Hydra, begin to explore the truth behind such legends to see if something useful could be extracted. The main force behind Hydra, Heinrich von Helsingard, explored dozens of false leads over the course of the 1930’s, before finally stumbling across something of true value. The ancient Amazons’ spectacular success on the battlefield was due not only to their warrior training, but also to a gift from the gods (what we would now call Martians). This gift came in the form of a device, that would transform an ordinary human into a super-(wo)man – bringing the Amazons to the very peak of human capability, and sometimes beyond. After years of searching, Helsingard stumbled across one such device, and brought it in for study. Initial tests were not promising. The subjects tested invariably experienced horrific side effects. Some side effects were physical, in the form of cancers, disfiguration, or simply being ripped apart by their newly powerful muscles. Others were mental, including a disturbing propensity for paranoia, schizophrenia, and even complete catatonia among the test subjects. Helsingard was undeterred – after all, there were always more test subjects and there was so much to learn. One lesson learned was that individuals of great mental discipline could more effectively weather not only the mental effects, but the physical as well. With this knowledge in mind, Helsingard ultimately chose to test the device upon himself. The test was the most successful to date, in that while it left Helsingard horrifically disfigured, with his face resembling a skinless blood red skull, his mind was largely intact, and he gained the impressive abilities the device offered.

Heinrich von Helsingard after his encounter with the device: 1944
Heinrich von Helsingard after his encounter with the device: 1944

As was common for test subjects, Helsingard was virtually comatose for several days after the initial test. During this period, his chief scientist, one Dr. Erskine, decided to act. While Helsingard was unfazed by the brutality of Hydra’s experiments, Erskine was horrified at what he had taken part in. Realizing that he could not allow Hydra to successfully build it’s army of super-soldiers, he stole the device and fled. With the help of famed archaeologist and explorer Henry ‘Indiana’ Challenger, Erskine made his way to America. With him he took the one essential idea that would change everything about how the device was used. The Amazons were a race of warrior women after all, so why not test the device on a woman? Helsingard, in his single-minded quest for self-glorification, had overlooked or ignored the idea of using women as his perfect soldiers, and Erskine, neither wanting to help the project if he was right nor add innocent women to the victims of the device if he was wrong, had kept quiet once in Germany. Now in America, he revealed all he knew and set to work creating a super-soldier for the United States.

Now finally the woman who would become American Wonder enters the story. Diana Rogers was from a long line of American patriots who had willingly put their lives on the line for their country. As a female only child, she was desperate to carry on the tradition, but given her era, was unable to join the military as anything other than a nurse. Fortunately for her ambitions, her frequent demands to get closer to the front lines had drawn her superiors’ notice, and when a list of female test subjects for the Amazon device was drawn up, her name came to the front immediately.

Diana Rogers at her first interview with Doctor Erskine: 1942
Diana Rogers at her first interview with Doctor Erskine: 1942

After a series of interviews with Dr. Erskine, ensuring the Diana was of sufficient moral caliber to both survive the process and use the power it granted wisely, she was allowed to use the device. Though the process was strenuous, she survived, and gained all of the super-human abilities advertised. Unfortunately, the German saboteur monitoring the American super-soldier program took this as his cue to act. His orders were to glean as much information on the American program as possible, prepare to help steal the device back for its rightful owners, and if the Americans seemed about to succeed in creating a super-soldier, to destroy the device and as much else as he could, before returning with his notes to Germany. Unfortunately for the saboteur he was unable to get everything into place before the day of the test. While his bomb succeeded in destroying the device and most of the project notes, as well as killing Dr. Erskine and his assistants, Diana survived the blast and hunted him down before he could make it out of the country. He destroyed his own notes on the project to prevent them from falling into American hands, but was apprehended before he could take the cyanide capsule he had been issued (either that or he chickened out, history is unclear).

A better preserved part of the super-soldier program facility: 1942
A better preserved part of the super-soldier program facility: 1942

Now both Germany and the United States were back to square one. The device was gone, nearly all the research on it was gone, and there was little hope in putting anything together in time to be useful. Each side had a single superhuman, who was urgently needed on the front lines. American Wonder burst into prominence. She gained her code name, rather than the initial Captain Rogers, when British personnel contrasted her with the various German wonder weapons being deployed against them, saying that they had at least one American Wonder on their side as well. She was armed with the one other Amazon relic the United States (again thanks to Henry Challenger) had managed to track down: a nigh indestructible shield, which had a number of interesting and unique properties, but was nonetheless painted with the stars and stripes and put into service.

American Wonder reporting for duty: 1942
American Wonder reporting for duty: 1942

Of course no account of American Wonder’s exploits is complete without mentioning her friend, side-kick, and some say lover, Steven ‘Bucky’ Barnes. Barnes was a friend of Diana’s from their shared childhood in Brooklyn, and was always encouraging of her tomboyish eccentricity. He had joined the Army Air Force in the late 1930’s, and was already an accomplished fighter pilot when the war began. Once Diana began the America Wonder and accompanied Diana through thick and thin, both to assist her and to report on her abilities and accomplishments to what was left of the American super-soldier program.

Steve Barnes on an undercover assignment: 1943
Steve Barnes on an undercover assignment: 1943

Through WWII American Wonder clashed with Helsingard, increasingly known as the Red Skull by allies and enemies alike, many times, along with a host of other German super-weapons. She befriended Super-Spider, Iron-Bat, and many of the other great heroes of the day. By 1945 though, the war was drawing to a close. Diana and Steve had begun to think of what they would do after the war was over, but Hydra had one more trick up its sleeve. Frustrated by the American co-option of his greatest accomplishment, the Red Skull had obsessively searched for more information about the Amazons for years. Now he had finally found it.

The island of Themyscira had been hidden from the world of men for thousands of years. The Amazons had finally tired of war, and one last gift from their benefactors allowed them to withdraw permanently to a paradisaical island of their own. The island existed in a pocket dimension, mostly separate from the universe at large. They had control over the connection to our universe, able to draw closer to facilitate contact, or pull away to isolate themselves. They wiled away the centuries in their private utopia, reproducing without having to involve men using still more ancient technological gifts. Now however, the Red Skull had found a way to break into this impenetrable fortress.

Using a few minor Amazon artifacts they had hoarded, Hydra scientists were able to built a device that could call forth Themyscira into our world, whether the locals wanted it to be or not. Helsingard envisioned breaking into the island to loot it’s treasures, and using them to turn the tide against the Allies. While the Americans thought it unlikely that even the wonders that could be found on the island could turn the tide of the war at such a late date, they could certainly lengthen the conflict, and kill a whole lot of G.I.’s in the process. American Wonder and Bucky were dispatched on an emergency mission to stop Hydra’s assault on Themyscira. They arrived almost too late. As Bucky’s small plane drew towards the coordinates they’d been given, they saw that the island was there, existing in our universe for the first time in centuries. A whole fleet of German ships that had been waiting outside the radius of the dimensional transference was steaming towards the island, and a small advance team had already landed, and were calibrating the second stage of their device, attached the the Amazonian control system, which would lock Themsyscira permanently into our universe. With barely time for a word American Wonder bailed out of the plane to attack the advance team, while Bucky wheeled around to delay the approaching ships.

American Wonder rapidly dispatched the advance team, before turning to see the Bucky shot down by the approaching German ships, which then proceeded to level their weapons at the island. If they couldn’t have it, no one would. Grieving and unable to see any other option, American Wonder smashed the control system, severing the link between dimensions and escaping from the approaching ships, but stranding her far from home. As far as the outside world knew, both American Wonder and Steve Barnes had died heroically. The war, and life, went on.

On Themyscira, Diana tentatively made contact with the locals. They retained the warrior traditions of their ancestors (who they were not as removed from as one would expect, the Amazons being a long-lived people), but they had been at peace for so long that guards were no longer posted at even their most sensitive areas, allowing them to be briefly overwhelmed by the sudden violence of Hydra’s attack. They recognized what Diana had done for them, and in gratitude their queen, Hippolyta VII, formally adopted her into the royal family. Diana was as impressed by the Amazons as they were by her. Having wished to take an equal role as a woman for her whole life she had often wondered about the ancient matriarchal society to which she owed her powers. Now she was among them. Over the ensuing years Diana taught the Amazons about the outside world, and they taught her about their feminine warrior philosophy. The Amazons also worked to repair the damage that had been done to the dimensional controls, realizing that the men’s world would eventually develop the technology to resume contact, and that it was better to do so on their own terms.

By 1962 they had succeeded, and Themyscira could once again join the rest of the world, if it so chose. Diana lobbied for a resumption of contact, claiming that the United States had surely won the war and ushered in a more peaceful era, where no one would mean the Amazons any harm. Hippolyta was more suspicious, but knew something needed to be done. Ultimately, she appointed Diana as Themyscira’s ambassador to the outside world. She would venture out, armed with her shield and some additional Amazon goodies (an unbreakable lasso that could catch not only the body, but the mind of those wrapped in its cords, and a stealth plane so she could come and go from the island undetected). In 1963 Diana went forth and landed her plane on the nearest airstrip.

The world reacted in shock and delight to find that this WWII hero, thought dead, had returned. Diana quickly made contact with the American government and informed them of Themyscira’s peaceful intentions, though for all their pleading she would not reveal how to return to the island. For now Diana would be the only contact between the two worlds where she had made her home. She soon returned to super-heroics, fighting criminals and monsters, with a particular focus on those that would threaten women. However, unlike some heroes she had an additional calling. American Wonder was already an icon of the burgeoning feminist movement, and her return as a representative of a utopian all-female culture only reinforced that role. She took it upon herself to not just defend the world, but to turn it into a sufficiently peaceful and egalitarian place that she would be proud to show to her adopted family.

Poster attracting tourists to Themsyscira: 1994
Poster attracting tourists to Themsyscira: 1994
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