In the second story collected in Wonder Woman #1, Diana and Steve go to the circus, which is having a fundraiser for the army’s benefit. The circus turns into the most racist comic I’ve ever read. Unlike other racism featured in Wonder Woman, yellowface drawings and blackface with jive dialog, the entire plot is racist and full of ethic stereotypes of Burmese, along with another Japanese spy.
Wonder Woman solves the mystery of who’s killing the circus’ elephants. In fact, she and Etta team up by wearing a baby elephant suit undercover to discover the culprits behind the poisoned animals. (They’re caught when the other elephants recognize the baby elephant is a suit worn by two people, and they’re tossed into the air and away.) The elephants are in the care of Burmese trainers, and that’s who’s killing them.
That’s right highly superstitious Burmese are killing the elephants because they believe the “foreign devils” are hurting their ancestors’ souls. While none of the white characters ever comment on this superstition, only express that killing elephants is bad in general, it’s pretty clear that the reader’s supposed to think the Burmese are crazy, stupid, and have a primitive religion for killing elephants. In fact, we’re shown Wonder Woman and Beeta Lambda Sorority (who always end up at these things) being prepared as a sacrifice to the elephant ancestors.
Here’s some dialog:
San Yan, a Burmese trainer, who’s actually a Japanese spy: “Captives, hear your doom! Your bodies shall be trampled on by a sacred elephant whose spirit you have kept in bondage! Then we shall free the remaining souls of our ancestors!”
Wonder Woman: “You mean kill more elephants?”
San Yan: “Yes — to free our ancestors’ spirits we must kill these elephants whom you hold captive, far from their native country! For this purpose we came from far Burma across the Pacific Ocean.” [Proceeds to randomly speak Japanese characters, which I’d bet good money on that they’re gibberish.]
Not only are the Burmese stupid for doing this, they’re also stupid because they’re being played by a Japanese spy. The spy’s stopping the army from raising money by killing the elephants. Marston’s a little quick to have the Burmese align themselves with the Japanese spy given that 300,000 Burmese fled when Japan invaded their country and Burma became a major front-line in the Southeast Asian Theater of WWII.
Adding to the awful, Steve teams up with mobsters in order to free Wonder Woman and Beeta Lambda Sorority. At first, Steve thinks the mobsters are killing the elephants when the mobsters try to rough up the Burmese for protection money. But apparently, the evil Burmese are something mobsters and the army can work together to take down.
Peter’s drawings make the Burmese proto-humanoid in appearance. They don’t look like fully developed modern humans, which plays right into Marston’s writing. The Japanese spy might as well be colored with a crayon labeled “yellow.”
The entire issue was so icky. What amazed me the most was that Marston wrote himself so many outs to turn the issue around. He could’ve made it the mobsters. He could’ve had the mobsters blackmailing the Burmese. Anything, anything than resorting to horrible racist stereotypes, vilifying the Burmese, and letting mobsters get away because they’re white.