An essay I wrote about Doctor Psycho’s first appearance in Wonder Woman #5 (1943), written by William Moulton Marston, with art by H. G. Peter.
Dr. Psycho is one of Wonder Woman’s all-time creepiest supervillains. His epically misogynistic mission was originally to “change the independent status of modern American women back to the days of the sultans and slave markets, clanking chains and abject captivity.” Stopping him is totally a job for Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman’s adversaries are usually victims of some sort of psychological imbalance that stems from unhealthy cultural practices and/or gender dynamics. They also tend to be distorted reflections of Wonder Woman herself. In the case of Dr. Psycho, a man with a brilliant mind and a hideous figure is broken by a world that debases intelligence and worships beauty.
Before Dr. Psycho became a supervillain, he was a brilliant university student, but a terribly unattractive one — a knock-kneed “pocket Napoleon” with a funny looking face on an oversized head sitting atop a diminutive awkward body. No matter his intellectual accomplishments, his appearance remained the focus of his peers and their constant ridicule. He was engaged to a beautiful woman named Marva. She admired his intelligence, but insisted that “lovemaking doesn’t become [him].” Ouch!
After catching Marva in the embrace of a dashing athlete named Ben Bradley, Psycho prepares to call off their engagement, believing she would be happier with a handsome husband. (He’s probably right, given Marva’s thoughts on Psycho and lovemaking.) Before he can make his personal sacrifice, however, he finds himself framed by Ben for radium theft with Marva’s unsuspecting help.
While Psycho is locked up Ben and Marva marry, sending him over the edge. The betrayal is more than his psyche can bear. His self-esteem annihilated and his faith in humanity destroyed, he swears revenge not just on Ben and Marva, but on all women everywhere. Waging a war on women, Dr. Psycho’s insanity makes him receptive to the influence of the Duke of Deception (an emissary of Mars, the god of war), who bestows Psycho with occult knowledge that leads him to terrible power.
Once freed from prison Psycho murders Ben, who accuses Marva of masterminding the plot to frame him. Bent on revenge, Psycho subjects Marva to what he himself calls a fate worse than death — marriage to him. Using a hypnotic power to compel to marry him against her will, he binds and hypnotizes her her day after day, making her a human guinea pig for occult experiments involving her body and her spirit.
For prepubescent readers this is horrific enough, but adult readers no doubt recognize the adult activities and expectations associated with marriage and may wonder what Psycho’s “occult experiments” might entail. We’re talking about some super-creepy serial rape here (which by the way, though utterly deplorable, was completely legal when this story was written and remained so for decades afterward.)
Footnote: In fact, as recently as 2015, Michael Cohen, a lawyer for the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, whose previous wife had accused him of raping her, explicitly stated that rape within marriage is not legally possible. “You cannot rape your spouse,” he said. “There’s very clear case law.” Besides being unconscionably vile, he was also factually wrong. In 1984, New York joined 17 other states in acknowledging that women’s bodies are not property by striking down the so-called marital rape exemption. The judge’s decision declared that “a married woman has the same right to control her own body as does an unmarried woman.” Marital rape didn’t become illegal in all fifty states until 1993.
Through experimentation on his enslaved wife Dr. Psycho masters the art of extracting ectoplasm from her dispirited body, which he uses to alter his own appearance and to create solid ectoplasmic ghost forms. First he takes the shape of Mussolini, then the famous (but deceased) boxer, John L. Sullivan. These external manifestations reveal Psycho’s inner desire — to be a powerful man who dominates others, whether though fascist authoritarian rule or sheer brute strength.
We see Marva blindfolded and bound to a chair, powerless to resist her husband as he performs his experiments on her, reducing her to a lab rat. Marva is bound to him in marriage, unable to stand on her own, completely under his control, forced to reflect him as he wishes to be seen — powerful like Mussolini and strong like Sullivan. Marva is kept at home and treated like an animal, forbidden from participating in the world — no friends, no job, no relationships besides her husband, whose influence is all-powerful.
Dr. Psycho, with Marva in tow, begins holding public seances where he summons ghosts before live audiences, and becomes a nationwide sensation with millions of people accepting the phantoms’ words as gospel. It is at one such performance, while conjuring George Washington, that the wicked imp comes to the attention of a certain Amazon princess.
The act begins with Marva seated on-stage, blindfolded and confined inside a glass cabinet. Psycho asks for volunteers from the audience to bind Marva to her chair. Always up for a good girl-roping, Wonder Woman seizes the opportunity to tie up the medium. When Marva complains that her bonds are too tight, Wonder Woman retorts that her ropes are actually too loose, that an Amazon could easily escape. Marston is telling the reader that Marva doesn’t have much fight in her.
With Marva bound and caged before a watchful crowd, Psycho creates a phantasmic George Washington, who lectures on the folly of women’s participation in the war effort. Psycho-Washington predicts the explosion of a munitions plant the following day and blames it on the carelessness of the women who work there.
It’s a striking image — a veritable American deity denouncing women’s war efforts with Wonder Woman standing behind him in the background, her mouth agape, horrified at his sexist propaganda. She is new to this country, the voice of its future, and this resurrected American hero spouts old ideas better left in the past. Who will the audience trust?
Even the Amazon’s blond boyfriend gets on board with Psycho-Washington’s rant. “Sounds genuine to me!” he says. (I like to imagine that she gives him an earful about that remark off-panel.)
The scenario takes on another dimension when we consider that the ultimate power behind this charade is Mars, the god of war himself, whose primary fear is that women’s power will not only win World War II, but if allowed to flourish will end all war and with it his hold on mankind. This depiction of a nation’s own mythology used to hock lies to the masses and undermine feminine power while propagating violence is an echo of centuries past and a shadow of decades to come. It is seemingly a timeless tale. This is the story of the Amazons of Ancient Greece, the witches of the Inquisition, McCarthyist attacks on feminism during the Cold War, and current efforts to deny women birth control through perversion of the United States Constitution in the name of the religious freedom of their oppressors.
After Psycho-Washington’s prophecy comes to pass (through his own machinations, of course) he gains the ear of military intelligence and invites Diana’s bosses, Colonel Darnell and Steve Trevor, to a private seance in Psycho’s laboratory. Since it’s her book Wonder Woman comes with them.
Again we see Marva as Wonder Woman ties her to a chair. She begs Psycho to free her, but he tells her, “No woman can be trusted with freedom!” Disconcertingly no one, including Wonder Woman, moves to free Marva when she asks.
Psycho-Washington appears once more, foretelling that three women will be responsible for the disappearance of top secret documents the following day. After this second prophecy comes to pass (and three innocent women are framed by Dr. Psycho), a suspicious Steve Trevor returns to Psycho’s lab to question him.
Psycho responds by spouting a lot of protoplasmic palaver at him. And as he delivers his masturbatory monologue a ball of white ectoplasmic goo collects on Steve’s chest, which literally takes his breath away. As if to underscore the seminal moment, in the background we see various downward pointed tubes, dripping and squirting their fluids into receptive flasks.
Later, Wonder Woman arrives to rescue Steve and discovers him trapped in a golden cage. When she attempts to set him free she finds herself paralyzed by an electrical current coursing through the metal bars. Steve’s form dissolves, revealing Psycho underneath. “I materialize a body and wear it like a cloak — Trevor’s — Darnell’s — a Major General’s!”
Psycho is describing his own sociopathic chameleon-like behavior. He exhibits whatever visage and traits service his goals, with no moral center of his own. He is the charming-but-ruthless psychopath who has plagued too many trusting women of the real world and risen the highest levels of political office. As long as he looks good in public, he can get away with untold horrors behind closed doors.
With Wonder Woman now his prisoner, he hooks her up to machine that separates her spirit from her body, a sensation she describes as “like falling”, then chains her colorless spirit to the wall with “bands of psycho-electric magnetism” (because comic books) which are as strong as Psycho’s willpower while her lifeless-but-colorful body remains trapped in the cage. Wonder Woman tries to call for help, but can’t send a mental radio message without her body. She is truly helpless.
And we’re back into rape territory. Wonder Woman is in the same thrall as Marva. She has been rendered completely immobile, subject to Psycho’s will and unable to control her own body. The Harvard Psychiatry Review describes a common response to sexual assault as tonic immobility, an experience characterized by dissociation, hopelessness, and paralysis — exactly what is evoked through this image of Wonder Woman’s grey spirit body chained helplessly to a wall, while the possibility of restored life and freedom lies with reunification with her colorful physical form which she observes at a distance.
Steve Trevor, still held captive elsewhere, manages to get a message to Etta Candy and the Holliday Girls via Wonder Woman’s Mental Radio device. The fearless sorority sisters arrive at Psycho’s lab where they encounter the doctor posing as an exotic gentleman who elicits their man-hunting instincts. The girls’ flirtations weaken Psycho’s will and with it Wonder Woman’s bonds. Unlike Marva, Wonder Woman has continued to fight against her bonds so she is prepared to break them when the opportunity arises.
The image of her escape is positively joyous! She doesn’t just bend the bars of her cage. She delights in twisting and breaking them. “You never know how good your body feels until you’ve been out of it for a while!” Not just pretty words, but a glimmer of hope for women like Marva, readers who feel trapped and powerless to act. To build on the hopeful message, when assaulted by electrical blasts Wonder Woman discovers that she can barely feel them. She has become immune to the power that had been used to confine her. Through her capture, bondage, and escape, she has descended only to rise stronger and more capable than before,
After rescuing Steve, Wonder Woman finds a deeply entranced Marva and wakes her gently. Her consciousness restored, the poor woman is terrified that Psycho will torture her, that her newly gained freedom will be met with punishment. Wonder Woman, holding Marva in her lap like a child, explains that the only power Psycho has over her is the power she gives him. With the source of Psycho’s ectoplasmic power unplugged, the imp’s disguise dissolves and he is captured by Steve and the Holliday Girls.
In the story’s final panel (one of my favorites), Marva says to Wonder Woman, “Submitting to a cruel husband’s domination has ruined my life! But what can a weak girl do?” — a familiar sentiment in patriarchal society. The Amazon’s answer is both pragmatic and poignant, and quintessential Wonder Woman: “Get strong! Earn your own living — Join the WAACs or WAVES and fight for your country! Remember the better you can fight the less you’ll have to!” (Emphasis is mine.) For Wonder Woman, rescue is only the beginning of a woman’s journey to claim her own inner power and thus freedom from man’s domination.