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“You are Een the House of Sanjak!”: Terry and the Pirates, the First Lesbian Character in U.S. Comics, and the Roots of Wonder Woman

By Michelle Ann Abate

When Milton Caniff’s newspaper strip Terry and the Pirates made its debut on October 22nd, 1934, comics in the United States were forever changed. The basic premise and general plot of Terry and the Pirates was simple. The eponymous teenaged character, American Terry Lee, arrives in China with his adult best friend, Pat Ryan, on a quest to locate a missing gold mine. After completing this task, the duo goes on to have a series of adventures throughout Asia. With these features, Caniff’s comic had all of the ingredients necessary for success: a compelling location, appealing characters, and exciting escapades that unfolded in rapid succession. Not surprisingly, Terry and the Pirates was an immediate hit with readers. As David Langbart has written, “the strip became one of the most widely read in U.S. history.”. At the height of its popularity during the Second World War, the series was followed “by 31 million people each week, more than any comic book in history'” (Singh). The success of Terry and the Pirates also caused it to morph into other cultural forms. During the late 1930s and mid-1940s, for example, the comic inspired a television series as well as a radio program (Grams).

Caniff’s creation went beyond simply being a major event in the history of commercial comics in the United States; it had an equally profound impact on the medium itself as an art form. As Dean Mullaney has said about Terry and the Pirates: “Everything we now take for granted, artistically, in action and superhero comic book storytelling can be traced back to Caniff because he invented a style of storytelling that is still with us today” (qtd in Singh). In features ranging from his innovative use of the color black to his cinematic style of storytelling, Caniff raised Terry and the Pirates and, by extension, the medium of comics itself, “to an unexpected level of sophistication” (Becker 200). For this reason, Caniff is commonly referred to as “The Rembrandt of the Comic Strip” (Canwell “Setting” 11). His influence can be seen in the work of some of the most lauded subsequent cartoonists, including Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, and Frank Miller (Singh; Romberger). Given these accolades, “Many comic strip historians regard Terry and the Pirates as one of the best newspaper comic strips ever written” (Grams).

All this said, Terry and the Pirates is known for another, though less often discussed, milestone event in American comics history: it featured the first character who was a lesbian. Named Sanjak, she debuted in Terry and the Pirates on February 12th, 1939 disguised as “Madame Sud,” the owner a local hotel where April Kane, one of the title character’s longtime love interests, is staying. Far from making a brief cameo, Sanjak and her evil machinations play a central role in Terry and the Pirates for the next two months. During this time, she reveals herself to be a formidable foe: she kidnaps April, steals a plane filled with gold, and escapes to her hideout on a remote island. Caniff’s heroes finally track her down, but she manages to evade capture, slipping away into the night. Sanjak would return to Terry and the Pirates four years later, in August 1943, with a new sinister scheme: this time, she is serving as a spy for the Axis forces. Her character appears intermittently in the strip until January 1944, when Terry shoots down her plane and she presumably dies. By this point, though, Sanjak has demonstrated that she is anything but a minor character whose presence in Caniff’s strip is forgettable; on the contrary, she is a significant figure who plays a prominent role in several extended sequences of Terry and the Pirates.

This essay gives much needed critical attention to Sanjak. In spite of her groundbreaking appearance and historical importance, she has never been the focus of a sustained scholarly discussion. Over the years, Sanjak has been mentioned in a few articles and web posts devoted to the history of queer characters in comics, but only briefly and in passing.1 The pages that follow break the scholarly silence surrounding Sanjak, moving her out of the background of Terry and the Pirates and into the spotlight. During this process, I examine how she both evokes and constructs queer female sexuality during the early twentieth century. Additionally, and just as importantly, I place Sanjak in conversation with emerging trends in American print, visual, and popular culture regarding the representation of lesbians and lesbianism.

Furthermore, Sanjak from Terry and the Pirates is significant for another, and previously overlooked, reason: as a possible source of inspiration for Wonder Woman. Although Caniff’s character is an unrepentant villain and the one created by William Moulton Marston in 1941 is a celebrated heroine, a variety of uncanny similarities exist between them. These elements encompass not simply their physical traits and behavioral tendencies but also their personal beliefs and psychological qualities. Accordingly, the second half of this essay explores this possible additional legacy involving Caniff’s queer criminal mastermind. Placing Sanjak and Wonder Woman in dialogue with each other brings together two of the most iconoclastic female characters from the Golden Age of American comics. In addition, it offers further evidence of the cultural impact and historical significance of Milton Caniff’s work. Terry and the Pirates has long been seen as a source of inspiration for a variety of well-known cartoonists and their beloved creations, but its reach may have also extended to Marston and Wonder Woman. Finally, the suggestive echoes between Sanjak and Wonder Woman add another component to the already complex and multifaceted origins of Marston’s Amazonian princess. Sanjak can be seen as the inspiration or, at least, influence for a variety of Wonder Woman’s most famous traits, including her magic lasso and her skills as an aviatrix.

In the Terry and the Pirates strip that appeared on March 16th, 1939, hostage April Kane asks where she is being held and also the identity of her captor. Caniff’s villainess is happy to comply. “You are een the house of Sanjak!,” she gleefully announces (Caniff, Volume 3, 64). This essay offers a long-overdue invitation to enter, examine, and explore the house of Sanjak. Moreover, it demonstrates how doing so reveals that this residence may have played host to an unexpected houseguest: an Amazonian visitor from Paradise Island.

“But Soon M’Moiselle Weell Know Plen-tee!”: Creating Lesbian Visibility through Queer Female Villainy in Sanjak

While many comics historians attribute the success of Terry and the Pirates to the appeal of its two central male characters—Terry Lee and Pat Ryan—the strip was also beloved for its female figures. As Mike Madrid has discussed, Caniff’s comic gave rise to one of the most well-known villainesses of all time: the Dragon Lady. Making her debut in 1934, she “was a notorious pirate queen with a horde of fierce cutthroats at her beck and call” (Madrid 13). The Dragon Lady was such an infamous figure, in fact, that she “set the standard for female villainy” in comics for decades to come (Madrid 13).

That said, the Dragon Lady was not the only memorable female character in Terry and the Pirates. The strip was also populated by a bevy of other equally evil villainesses along with honorable heroines. From the con artist Burma and capricious Normandie Drake to the Southern belle April Kane and stalwart philanthropist Raven Sherman, the strip contained a wide variety of female characters. For this reason, Terry and the Pirates has often been identified as an important early site for the representation of women in American comics. Maurice Horn’s groundbreaking book on this subject, in fact, dedicates multiple pages to Caniff’s strip (99 – 101). During a time when many comics in the United States entirely omitted women or relegated them to passive roles as damsels in distress, Terry and the Pirates included an array of memorable female figures. Be they heroines or villainesses, they were complex, interesting, and—most importantly—agentic.

When comics historians discuss the presence of women in Terry and the Pirates, Sanjak needs to be included in these assessments. Although she did not appear in Caniff’s strip for as long as figures like April, Burma, or Normadie, her impact was culturally, artistically, and politically significant. Sanjak’s presence pushed the boundaries regarding possible character types, narrative themes, and socio-political topics for comics in the United States. Three decades before the Stonewall rebellion and the birth of the gay and lesbian liberation movement, she portrayed a sexual subculture that rarely appeared in mainstream media. As a result, Milton Caniff did more than simply broaden the scope of comics in the United States, he also broadened the reach of its burgeoning LGBTQ community.

That said, the past purpose, present place, and future legacy of Sanjak cannot be reduced to the laudatory breaking of repressive boundaries. Although Sanjak was an entirely new type of character to appear in American comic strips, she drew on a variety of negative social stereotypes as well as disparaging medico-scientific opinions about lesbians. From beliefs that homosexuality is the product of sexual inversion and public perceptions that queer women are sexual predators to psychological assessments that lesbians are really men trapped in women’s bodies and cinematic portrayals of nonheteronormative female characters as evil, Sanjak served as a powerful point of collection for the era’s assumptions that women who loved women were physically freakish, psychologically ill, and morally psychopathic. Sanjak has often been framed as a progressive step forward in the fight for LGBTQ rights, with critics arguing that her mere existence signaled a move toward greater acceptance of nonheteronormative individuals and identities. However, Sanjak can more accurately be seen as a regressive throwback. Caniff’s character is not a queer pioneer; she is manifestation of some of the most entrenched and pernicious forms of homophobia. The landmark appearance of Sanjak in Terry and the Pirates made lesbians more visible, but this visibility served to reinforce their villainy in many ways.


Caniff wastes no time either identifying Sanjak as a lesbian or announcing her as a villain. After all, when this groundbreaking new character makes her appearance in Terry and the Pirates, she is wearing a deceitful disguise in order to carry out her evil plan. The very first panel in which Sanjak appears, in fact, she is standing behind April and glaring at the young woman in what can be read as a sinister manner (Caniff, Volume 3, 50). [See Figure 1.] Caniff’s next panel reverses the arrangement of figures. [See Figure 2.] April now occupies the background of the image while Sanjak appears in the foreground. This shift in composition reveals that Sanjak has removed her former outfit. Moreover, accentuating the fact that her previous attire was an artificial costume, it is all in one piece: Sanjak holds the red blouse by the shoulders and the apron and skirt are still attached to it. Furthermore, the garments are not limp—as one would expect given that they are no longer on a person’s body. Instead, they remain stiff, as if starched. Later, April inspects the outfit and reveals the reason: “This dress is built on a frame” (Caniff, Volume 3, 51).

Figure 1
Figure 2

The third panel of the strip shows Sanjak removing the final feature of her disguise: a curly red wig. [See Figure 3.] The character has retreated to the background of the drawing once again, arguably so that Caniff’s can provide a fuller view of her new appearance. As readers see, Sanjak has gone from being the very feminine Madame Sud—wearing a ruffled shirt and matronly white apron—to being attired in an exceedingly mannish way: she now dons a man’s blazer with a button-down white shirt and striped necktie. A drab-colored skirt, which extends below her knees to mid-calf, forms the bottom half of her outfit. The final panel of Caniff’s comic from February 12th, 1939 presents Sanjak without any vestiges of her former disguise. Readers see that not only does the character have closely cropped black hair, but she also has a monocle, which she is polishing with a handkerchief. [See Figure 4.]

Figure 3
Figure 4

Sanjak’s appearance places her in dialogue with some of the most well-known personal, physical, and especially sartorial codes for lesbians and lesbianism during the early twentieth century. Caniff’s character echoes common social conceptions concerning the “mannish lesbian” as well as medico-scientific descriptions of the “female invert” during the 1920s and 1930s. First, and perhaps most obviously, Sanjak resembles a comics version of famous lesbian writer, Radclyffe Hall. [See Figure 5.] Hall was the author of the 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, which, as Neil Miller noted in Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present (1995), “became the most influential lesbian novel of the century and the subject of the most sensational literary trial since that of Oscar Wilde” (183).2 The novel “was heavily influenced by the [fin-de-siecle writings of] sexologists Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis,” who argued that homosexuality was an innate condition that arose from what they called “sexual inversion” (Miller 185 – 6). Phrased in a different way, lesbians were actually men trapped in women’s bodies, and conversely, male homosexuals were really women trapped in men’s bodies. Although such viewpoints were intended to be progressive and were exceedingly tolerant of gay men and lesbians for their era, they concretized views of homosexuals as suffering from both physical and psychological dysphoria.3

Figure 5: Radclyffe Hall

Sanjak reflects these sentiments. From her closely cropped hair to her men’s jacket, shirt, and necktie, she encapsulates prevailing views about the “mannish lesbian.” Even Sanjak’s possession of the seemingly eclectic accessory of a monocle is in keeping with these codes. As figures like Marjorie Garber, Terry Castle, and Laura Doan have documented, this distinctive accouterment was used to signify lesbianism during the opening decades of the twentieth century (Garber 155; Castle 198; Doan 108 – 110). “Wearing a monocle as a woman in those days,” as a recent discussion of the phenomenon explained, “was a little bit like flying the gay flag” (“Le Monocle”). By the 1930s, monocles had become such a common symbol within the queer female community in Europe and the United States that a lesbian club in Paris adopted it for its name. Located in the Montmarte section of the city, Le Monocle was “one of the earliest and most famous lesbian nightclubs” (“Le Monocle”).

The connections between Sanjak and the burgeoning lesbian subculture in Europe and the United States are accentuated by the character’s nationality. As readers discover the first time that Sanjak speaks, she has a heavy French accent. When April muses “I’d much rather share th’ danger than not know anything!—wouldn’t you, Madame Sud?,” Sanjak offers the following reply: “But soon M’moiselle weell know plen-tee!” (Caniff, Volume 3, 50; underlining and bold in original). Such linguistic traits are recurring feature of Sanjak’s character. From her first appearance in Terry and the Pirates in February 1939 through her death in January 1944, Sanjak speaks with a thick French accent that is rendered in almost cartoonish exaggeration in many of Caniff’s speech bubbles. In utterances that are representative of her speech patterns throughout Terry and the Pirates, she says things like “That pile of clotheeng an’ the weeg ees all that remain of Madame!” (Caniff ,Volume 3, 51).

This seemingly unrelated trait furthers Sanjak’s connection to lesbianism. As Sheri Benstock famously documented, France in general and Paris in particular was the locus of queer female culture in the years directly following the First World War. Centered around a group of American and British expatriates including Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney, Hilda Doolittle, Djuna Barnes, and, of course, Radclyffe Hall, “these women were able to create a more public sense of lesbian relationships than had been seen before” (Miller 161). Residing largely on the Left Bank, they lived openly both as queer women and as bohemian artists (Benstock 3 – 34). Sanjak’s heavy French accent places her in dialogue with this phenomenon. At the very least, it connects her with this established lesbian community and burgeoning queer female subculture.

Because conceptions of homosexuality during the early twentieth century traced the origins of same-sex desire to sexual inversion, lesbians were always depicted as mannish. Moreover, given that these figures were thought to be really men trapped in women’s bodies, nonheteronormative women had female love interests who were traditionally feminine. However, since traditionally feminine women did not, by definition, exhibit gender dysphoria, they were not thought to be, or depicted as, homosexual. Hence, in order for women who desired other women to woo their feminine love interests, they needed to resort to seduction. As a result, lesbians came to be seen as sexual predators who targeted not simply attractive feminine women, but ones who were innocent, young, and naïve. As Erica Rand has documented, print, visual, and popular depictions of same-sex female relationships during this era depicted “a wounded heterosexual being seduced by a lesbian predator” (125). Some of these young women were wounded from having their hearts broken by a man, while others were wounded from other life events, such as maternal rejection or family dysfunction. Regardless of the specific circumstance, early twentieth century conceptions about female homosexuals maintained that they had a penchant for targeting young women who were attractive, sexually inexperienced, and—perhaps most importantly—vulnerable in some way.

Once again, Milton Caniff’s Sanjak conforms to these beliefs. Almost immediately after removing her disguise, she begins making what can be seen as sexual advances toward April. Sanjak repeatedly calls the young, beautiful, and innocent Southern belle “Cherie,” a French term of endearment that means “darling” or “dear” (“chéri”). Sanjak first uses this term in the strip that appeared on February 15th, 1939 (Caniff, Volume 3, 51), and she repeats it twice—in the first and third panels—of the one that ran the following day (Caniff, Volume 3, 52). This specific word, along with other endearments, recur throughout the time that Sanjak keeps April as her hostage. For example, after stealing the plane filled with the warlord’s gold, Sanjak announces: “Now I take the plane—the gold—an’ the charmeeng A-preel—an’ beed you all bonsoir” (Caniff, Volume 3, 55). Later, after the duo arrives at Sanjak’s island home, she calls the young woman “Ba-bee!” (Caniff, Volume 3, 64).

Sanjak’s seemingly sexual interest in April involves far more than mere linguistic overtures. It also extends to the way that she interacts with her. Although April is Sanjak’s hostage, the villainess treats the young woman in a manner that is far more tender and chivalrous than tough and menacing. This feature is first evident in the sequence where Sanjak disrupts the confrontation between the Chinese warlords and Terry and Pat over the plane filled with gold. Sanjak is wielding a gun and she is also using April as a human shield. However, she is not holding the young woman in a way that readers might expect given these circumstances. For example, Sanjak does not have her hands aggressively around the hostage’s neck, nor is she forcefully controlling the young woman’s body by tightly gripping her torso. Instead, Sanjak has her arm draped lightly over April’s shoulder and is gingerly escorting the young girl across the landing field like one would a child (Caniff, Volme 3, 55). [See Figure 6.]

Figure 6

When the pair arrives at Sanjak’s island hideout, such features recur. The villainess continues to treat April in a way that suggests she is courting her as a lover, in addition to keeping her as a captive. First, Sanjak helps April step down from the plane in a manner that can be viewed as chivalrous: she stands at the bottom of the steps, takes April’s left hand, and supports her right elbow (Caniff, Volume 3, 59). [See Figure 7.] Then, when they approach the entrance to her abode, she acts as if she is welcoming the young girl to what will be their shared home. As she leads April up the stairs to the entrance, she says to her “Then A-preel weell see the palace Sanjak has purchased weeth the wealth of many stupeed people! Come, Cherie!” (Caniff, Volume 3, 63).

Figure 7

Once the duo is inside, suggestions of domestic cohabitation only increase. When a frightened April bursts into tears, Sanjak responds in a manner that is once again out of character for a supposedly heinous villain: she comforts her. “See! The Cherie weeps so beauteefully!,” Sanjak says tenderly, “That weell be an asset een what ees to come! . Ah, Sanjak has found the so rare jewel, endeed!” (Caniff, Volume 3, 64; underlining in original). The following morning, Sanjak greets April at her bedside. “Mon petite has had the so good sleep, no?,” she asks as the girl sits up in bed (Caniff, Volume 3, 64). Adding to the sexually suggestive nature of this scene, Sanjak is wrapped in a robe and she is smoking a cigarette. [See Figure 8.] These exchanges set the tone for the bulk of their remaining interactions. In the comic that ran on Sunday April 2nd, 1939, for example, Sanjak serenades April on the piano. ” A-preel, you do not pay attention!,” she scolds as the young woman stands with her arms crossed tightly in front of her body and back to the villainess, “Sanjak weeshes you to know the great museec!” (Caniff, Volume 3, 71). Once again, Sanjak’s attire contributes to the erotic nature of this scene: she is wearing a dressing gown and an ascot. Meanwhile, April is attired in a red dress that is spotted with black hearts. [See Figure 9.]

Figure 8
Figure 9

Lest all of these physical, behavioral, and sartorial features are not sufficient to convey Sanjak’s lesbianism, her name also serves as a clue. In an interview with cartoonist Arn Saba in 1978, Caniff explained: “in those days the word ‘lesbian’ simply wouldn’t have been understood by half your audience, and the other half would have resented it. [I avoided using the word altogether, because] there was a sneaky way around it. The character’s name was Sanjak, and. Sanjak is the island next to Lesbos, from which comes ‘lesbian’ ” (qtd in Canwell “Setting” 9).4

Popular perceptions about lesbians during the opening decades of the twentieth century did not emanate solely from writings of figures like Radclyffe Hall. As Vito Russo, Harry M. Benshoff, and Sean Griffin have discussed, Hollywood films were also an important site of representation. In a scene that would become a classic in American cinema history, for instance, “Marlene Dietrich’s leading character in Morocco (1930) performs onstage in a man’s tuxedo, then flirts and even kisses a female audience member” (Benshoff and Griffin 27). Three years later, in the film Queen Christina (1933), “Greta Garbo’s title character. is shown preferring men’s garb and giving an affectionate kiss to another woman” (Benshoff and Griffin 27).

The advent of the Hays Production Code in 1933 and its prohibition of any onscreen depictions of “sexual perversion”—which included homosexuality—caused cinematic portrayals of lesbianism to become both subtler and more sinister. In order to avoid the censure of the Hays Office, nonheteronormative characters in Hollywood films needed to be portrayed “through implication rather than outright statement” (Benshoff and Griffin 31). Additionally, unlike the celebrated same-sex eroticism of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo just a few years before, female characters who were coded as queer now embodied the hated antagonist, not the beloved protagonist. The film Dracula’s Daughter (1936), which was the much-anticipated sequel to the 1931 classic starring Bela Lugosi, forms a powerful case in point. Not only does the female offspring of the infamous vampire follow in her father’s bloodsucking footsteps, but she is presented as a lesbian who targets beautiful young women. As Vito Russo has discussed in The Celluloid Closet, the trope of evil lesbian villain would remain a fixture in mainstream American cinema throughout the remainder of the twentieth century—and, I would add, into the new millennium. In examples ranging from Miss Danvers in Alfred Hitchock’s Rebecca (1940), Evelyn Harper in Caged (1950), and June Buckridge in The Killing of Sister George (1968) to Miriam Balylock in The Hunger (1983), Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct (1992), and Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal (2006), when nonheteronormative women appeared on screen, they were not depicted compassionately as thinking, feeling, and caring human beings. On the contrary, they were presented harshly as cruel, evil, and heartless monsters.

Milton Caniff’s Sanjak mirrors this trend as well. Echoing the trope of the evil lesbian character in Hollywood film, her nonheteronormative identity can be regarded as another feature that announces her villainy. In the Terry and the Pirates strip that appeared on February 14th, 1939, for example, Sanjak begins to reveal the full extent of her cold and calculating nature. Far from masquerading as Madame Sud in an impulsive or even opportunistic act, Sanjak discloses that this ruse was months in the making. As the plotline to Terry and the Pirates unfolds over the coming weeks, Sanjak further unveils her deviousness. After successfully hijacking the airplane, she is not satisfied merely to elude capture and travel to her island hideout. Instead, she goes out of her way to try to cause Pat and Terry’s plane to crash while they pursue her. “Ha! The pursuer’s motor meesses,” she says gleefully in the strip that appeared on March 7th, 1939 (Caniff, Volume 3, 60).

In spite of these efforts, Caniff’s heroes ultimately do catch up with Sanjak, rescue April, and re-take possession of the stolen airplane. During this process, Sanjak is thrown down an escape shaft. She survives the fall and could simply flee into the night. But, revealing her maniacal nature once again, she delays her escape to set into motion one final horrific act: blowing up the island. In the comic that appeared on Sunday, April 9th, 1939, Sanjak announces her sinister plan to Caniff’s readers: “Ha! They theenk Sanjak ees defeated! They do not know that thees island ees mined weeth dynamite for jus’ such times as thees” (Caniff, Volume 3, 74).

Four years later, on August 28th, 1943, Sanjak returned to Terry and the Pirates.

During this repeat appearance, Caniff’s villainess was even more sinister than before. With the Second World War raging in Europe, Sanjak has disguised herself as a male officer in the French Air Force named Captain Midi and she is serving as a spy for the Axis forces (Caniff, Volume 5, 139). Over the next six months, Sanjak appears intermittently in Terry and the Pirates, discussing aviation strategy with Terry and the other pilots and, of course, flirting with the various women on the base (Caniff, Volume 5, 140 – 148, 162, 170 – 173, 186 – 205).

Eventually, Sanjak’s treachery is uncovered. In the comic that ran on Sunday, January 16th, 1944, Sanjak hits her head, is knocked unconscious, and is taken to the hospital where her disguise is unmasked (Caniff, Volume 5, 199). Sanjak escapes from the hospital, steals Terry’s plane, and flies off (Caniff, Volume 5, 200 – 201). The strip that appeared on January 30th, 1944 details Terry’s dogfight with her (Caniff, Volume 5, 205). Terry eventually shoots down her plane and she presumably perishes. Regardless of her fate, Sanjak is not seen again in Caniff’s comic strip. The lesbian villainess has been rightly and justifiably eliminated. Indeed, for many of Caniff’s readers, Sanjak’s fate was not only expected, but pleasing. This character behaved in ways that were evil, and a key indicator of this villainy was her sexuality.

“Suffering Sappho!”: The Unseen Sisterhood between Sanjak and Wonder Woman

Admittedly, William Moulton Marston—the creator of Wonder Woman—never mentioned reading or even knowing about Terry and the Pirates. None of his professional writings, personal correspondence, or public interviews reveals his conversance with Caniff’s strip. Nonetheless, it seems not simply possible but probable that he was familiar with it. Beginning in fall 1940, Marston worked as a consultant for All-American Publications, which was one of the largest publishers of comic books in the United States. Marston was hired for this position after being interviewed for an article that appeared in Family Circle magazine in October 1940. The piece, titled “Don’t Laugh at the Comics,” was just one of the many printed during this time that wondered whether comics, given their frequent depictions of violence, plotlines involving criminal behavior, and portrayal of sexuality, had a harmful influence on juvenile readers. As Jill Lepore has said about the underlying premise for the article: “Who better to explain to American mothers whether comics are dangerous for children” than a Harvard-trained psychologist (184). Marston commences the interview by informing the reporter that he is not only familiar with comics, he is an expert in them. “He told me that he had been doing research in this field for more than a year—and that he had read almost every comics magazine published during that time!,” the journalist relays on the first page of the article (qtd in Daniels 21; emphasis in original). This achievement is no small feat given that “There were more than one-hundred comic-book magazines on the nation’s newsstands, reaching forty to fifty million readers every month” (Lepore 185).

For the next several pages, Marston offers a detailed defense of comics, asserting that not only are they not harmful to children in any way, they are actually helpful to them, aiding in their psychological development. The Family Circle article ends in the following picture-perfect way: “Convinced by the professor’s every argument,” the journalist “leaves his house and, on her way to the train, picks up the latest copy of Superman” (Lepore 185). Maxwell Charles Gaines, the owner of All-American Publications, saw the Family Circle article, was impressed with Marston’s persuasive defense of the industry, and contacted Marston to work as a consulting psychologist (Lepore 185). A little over a year later, in December 1941, Wonder Woman made her debut in All-Star Comics, which was one of the titles released by All-American Publications. The images for the comic were drawn by veteran newspaper cartoonist, Harry George Peter. Meanwhile, the writing in Wonder Woman was credited to “Charles Moulton,” a pseudonym that was comprised from the middle names of William Moulton Marston and Maxwell Charles Gaines. Especially when viewed in tandem, these details suggest that Marston was likely conversant with Caniff’s work. Given the massive popularity of Terry and the Pirates along with Marston’s professional involvement in the comics industry, it does seem possible that he was familiar with the strip. Indeed, as Don Markstein has noted, by the early 1940s, the success of Terry and the Pirates had “turned Caniff into one of America’s few celebrity cartoonists.”

Even if Marston was not familiar with Terry and the Pirates, he was conversant with many facets of the early twentieth century lesbian culture from which Sanjak arose. As Jill Lepore has documented, the creator of Wonder Woman, engaged in a polyamorous relationship with his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, and two other women: Olive Byrne Richard and Marjorie Wilkes Huntley. The arrangement began in the 1920s and continued for the rest of their adult lives. Not only was the future creator of Wonder Woman involved sexually with the women—he had children with both Holloway and Richard5—but the women were also involved with each other. In 1963, before her death, “Holloway finally told the truth in a conversation recorded in a letter” (Lepore 318). As she said about the amorous arrangement that existed in the household: “The affair went on until [Marston’s] death, with love making for all” (qtd in Lepore 318). Furthermore, Holloway and Richard “lived together for another four decades” (Berlatsky Wonder 9) after Marston’s death. Lepore documents how the household’s awareness of the antipathy towards nonnormative sexual relationships caused them to keep their domestic arrangement a secret (Lepore 183 – 201). Marston’s participation in this unconventional romantic situation, which involved both polyamory and sapphism, demonstrates his awareness not simply of same-sex female eroticism but early queer female culture. Indeed, Holloway was an alumna of the women’s college Mount Holyoke, a lifelong lover of Sappho’s poetry, and ardent advocate for women’s rights (Lepore 13 – 23). Jill Lepore, in her New York Times bestselling book, reveals how all of these formerly unknown biographical details about Marston’s private life can be traced through his most well-known professional accomplishment: the legendary superheroine.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or merely accidentally, a number of suggestive echoes exist between Marston’s famous figure and Milton Caniff’s Sanjak. These features not only encompass physical, behavioral, and psychological characteristics of Wonder Woman, but they also denote some of her most signature traits and hallmark qualities. These elements range from the superheroine’s skill as an aviatrix, her possession of an alter ego, and her reliance on disguises to her association (both overtly or covertly) with lesbianism, her strong feminist sensibility that has strong roots in separatism, and her possession of a signature object that compels individuals to submit to her will. Taken collectively, the way in which Marston’s creation reflects and even recalls Caniff’s character seems too numerous to be merely coincidental. On the contrary, Wonder Woman possesses a strong kinship with or—perhaps more accurately given the personalities of these two characters—shared sisterhood with Sanjak. Whether the areas of overlap between these two figures arose from a direct homage or cultural zeitgeist, they are too numerous, too uncanny, and too compelling to be ignored.


Of the many areas of overlap between Sanjak and Wonder Woman, perhaps the most obvious is also the most basic feature of their identities: their use of alter egos carried out via disguises. As discussed above, in both of the instances when Sanjak appeared in Terry and the Pirates, it was under an assumed identity: first as Madame Sud, and then as Captain Midi. To facilitate these deceptions, Sanjak not only dons specific clothing, but changes her physical appearance in a variety of other ways: wearing a red wig, removing her monocle, etc. Of course, Wonder Woman also has a secret identity that is inextricably connected with a sartorial disguise. To prevent either Steve Trevor or the public at large from knowing that she is a superheroine, Wonder Woman “disguised herself as Diana Prince. [and] worked for U.S. military intelligence” (Lepore xi). Akin to Sanjak, this alter ego is predicated on altering her physical appearance. When Wonder Woman appears in the world as Diana Prince, she changes into a U.S. military uniform, she pulls back her hair, and puts on a pair of bookish glasses.

In another strong link to Sanjak, Wonder Woman possesses an array or traits that connect her with lesbianism. Marston’s character, for example, “was an Amazon from an island of women who had lived apart from men since the time of ancient Greece” (Lepore ix). In case these details are not sufficient to recall the island of Lesbos, one of Wonder Woman’s signature expressions is “Suffering Sappho!” The associations do not end there, however. “Much of the action in Wonder Woman comics takes place at ‘Holliday College,'” which is a women’s institution that is modeled after Holyoke, where Marston’s wife had been a student (26). As Lillian Faderman has discussed, women’s colleges had a long history of being associated with lesbianism (86). Indeed, when Wonder Woman visits Holliday College, the environment is highly homoerotic: the students frolic together and one of their beloved instructors (of anthropology, of course) is even named “Professor Homos” (Lepore 1). Moreover, the sorority at Holliday College embeds another symbol that had a long history of being associated with lesbianism: the Greek society is named none other than Beeta Lamda [sic] (Marston Wonder 61).

The lesbian overtones to Wonder Woman did not go unnoticed by critics. Child psychologist Fredric Wertham, who launched an infamous crusade against comics in the years following the Second World War, accused titles like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman of containing “sexual ‘perversion,’ including homosexuality” (Lepore 266). For instance, Wertham noted how Batman and Robin live together, saying of this domestic arrangement “it’s like a wish dream of two homosexual” (190). Meanwhile, Wertham believed that Marston’s comic was even worse. In his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, he declared: “The Lesbian counterpart of Batman may be found in the stories of Wonder Woman” (192). To illustrate, Wertham pointed to the fact that Wonder Woman’s primary emotional connections are with other women and that the students at Holliday College are all “gay party girls” (Wertham 193).

One of the other features that caused Wertham to view Wonder Woman as a lesbian is another that connects her to Sanjak: her strong feminist sensibility that has its roots in separatism. From the very first Terry and the Pirates strip in which Sanjak appears, she expresses a strong belief in her own intellectual superiority and, conversely, in the inferiority of men. “I have outsmart all thees stupeed men!,” she boasts in the closing panel of the comic that appeared on February 15th, 1939 (Caniff, Volume 3, 51). Sanjak would repeat such sentiments numerous times over the coming months. For example, in the opening panel of the strip that appeared on the following day, Sanjak assures April that she has no reason to be frightened of her. “I have put thees fooleesh men at each othairs throats,” she informs her young captive, adding “you weell share the fortune their turmoil weell breeng” (Caniff, Volume 3, 52). Later, after stealing the airplane filled with gold and being chased by Terry and Pat to her island hideout, such remarks appear again. In a handwritten note that she leaves behind to let Terry and Pat know that she remains one step ahead of them in their pursuit of her, Sanjak brags: “It was rather a good idea—but men are so easily fooled” (Caniff, Volume 3, 63). Finally, at numerous points throughout the story arc, Caniff’s villainess gleefully declares: “But I, Sanjak, am the clevairest woman alive!”—or a close variation on this statement (Caniff, Volume 3, 52).

Wonder Woman, of course, is also an ardent believer in women’s power, strength, and abilities. As Marston himself would openly state about his creation: “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world” (qtd in Daniels 22). In what has become a well-known passage, Marston’s new character was introduced to readers in All-Star Comics from December 1941 via the following list of impressive attributes: “As lovely as Aphrodite—as wise as Athena—with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules” (Marston Wonder 11). These accolades were far from hyperbolic. As Tim Hanley rightly noted about the series: “Her comics didn’t just suggest equality of the sexes; they flat-out demonstrate that every woman had innate power and that Wonder Woman was superior to her male counterparts” (xi). Not only did the “brilliant and inventive Amazons [have] knowledge that far surpassed what was available in the world of men” (Hanley 21), but Marston also “believed that every woman could be a metaphorical Wonder Woman and that women would soon take over the world” (Hanley 43). There was no villain too strong, no plot too expertly conceived, and no circumstance too daunting to stop Wonder Woman. Whether battling Nazis or invaders from another planet, she was always victorious. In so doing, she demonstrated that girls and women were not simply competent and capable but indomitable and unstoppable.

That said, Wonder Woman’s particular brand of feminism had its roots in separatism. After all, Marston’s character hailed “from an island of women who had lived apart from men since the time of ancient Greece” (Lepore xi). When Steve Trevor’s plane crashes in the utopian nation, he is the first male to set foot in the region for centuries. “A man!,” Princess Diana cries when she finds him, “A man on Paradise Island!” (Marston Wonder 11). While Wonder Woman does not personally possess—let alone publically express—beliefs in the inferiority of men akin to Caniff’s Sanjak, both her physical origins and her feminist ideology originate in separatism

The connections between Wonder Woman and Sanjak extend beyond simply their shared socio-political stances as well as implicit or explicit sexualities. The two characters are also united by another and more eclectic trait: their possession of a signature object that allows them to compel other people to obey their commands. Roughly a week after Sanjak made her debut in Terry and the Pirates, Caniff revealed that his new villainess has an unusual talent: she is able to use her monocle to hypnotize people. As she instructs April in the comic that appeared on February 17th, 1939, “Now watch the light as eet strikes the monocle!” (Caniff, Volume 3, 52). The frightened young woman stares into the object, and Sanjak tells her: “You sleep, ba-bee. Your brain answairs only to Sanjak’s brain! You cease to theenk! . You weell not know anyone except Sanjak! Sleep. Sleep. Sleep” (Caniff, Volume 3, 52). [See Figure 10.] In the final panel, the process is complete. To confirm that April is fully hypnotized and, thus, fully under her control, Sanjak asks her captive “Who ees your mastair?” to which the young girl gives the robotic reply: “S-SAN-JAK!” (Caniff, Volume 3, 52; bold in original). To emphasize the powerful trance into which April has been placed, the young girl’s eyes are depicted as two hollow sockets. [See Figure 11.] At numerous points throughout this story arc in Terry and the Pirates as well as the second one in which Sanjak appears beginning in August 1943, Caniff’s villainess uses her monocle to hypnotize various individuals and compel them to obey her wishes. Given not merely the frequency but the effectiveness of this tactic, Sanjak’s monocle forms a key component both to her physical attire and to her evil machinations.

Figure 10
Figure 11

Wonder Woman, of course, does not wear a monocle, but she does carry an object that functions in a remarkably similar manner: her golden lasso. The 1970s television show starring Lynda Carter popularized the notion that Wonder Woman’s magic lasso merely caused those caught in its hold to do one thing: “force [them] to tell the truth” (Berlatsky Wonder 7). But, this was not the object’s sole function in the original comics. Instead, in a detail that echoes Sanjak’s monocle, the lasso initially “compel[led] anyone bound in it to obey Wonder Woman” (Daniels 23).6 The magic lasso is not the only item that Marston’s superheroine uses to get others to follow her commands. Wonder Woman also has at her disposal an item that she calls the “Venus girdle.” One of the first as well as most famous uses of these “mind-control girdles” (Berlatsky Wonder 16) appeared in the Wonder Woman story from the April 1942 issue of Sensation Comics. Les Daniels provides the follow plot summary: “After launching an assault on Princess Diana’s ancestral home, [Nazi operative] Paula von Gunther was sentenced by Queen Hippolyte to an indeterminate stay at a newly constructed Amazon penal colony nearby” (36). Upon her arrival, Wonder Woman places von Gunther in “a magical ‘Venus girdle’ that induced docility” (Daniels 36). In remarks that resonate with Sanjak once again, von Gunther along with the island’s other “prisoners were indoctrinated in ‘submission to loving authority’ until they reformed” (qtd in Daniels 36).

Sanjak’s frequent use of her hypnotizing monocle and Wonder Woman’s repeated reliance on her magic lasso give rise to another link between these characters: their shared interest in psychological dominance and interpersonal submission. As Jill Lepore has written, “The strength of women was one theme of Wonder Woman. The bondage of women was another” (233). During the course of the series, “Wonder Woman is chained, bound, gagged, lassoed, tied, fettered, and manacled. She’s locked in an electric cage. She winched into a straitjacket, from head to toe” (Lepore 233). Moreover, these features did not go unnoticed by the comics’ original readership. “[I]n March 1942,” for example, “the National Organization for Decent Literature put Sensation Comics on its blacklist of ‘Publications Disapproved for Youth,'” largely because of its repeated depiction of women in bondage (Lepore 202). Although Sanjak never ties April up with ropes or binds her down with chains, she is obsessed with power in general and dominance/submission in particular. “Sanjak heepnotize the dark eyes to see while the brain sleeps!,” the villainess announces in a sentiment that recurs, “Then A-preel weell be the slave of the mind of Sanjak!” (Caniff, Volume 3, 52; bold in original).

Forming a final, but far from insignificant, area of overlap between Sanjak and Wonder Woman, both characters are skilled pilots whose exceptional aviation abilities play an important role in the plot. In the Terry and the Pirates strip that ran on Sunday, February 26th, 1939, for example, Sanjak brags about her aviation skills: “I am the expairt pilot—I fly thees sheep from here” (Caniff, Volume 3, 56). Such comments are not an exaggeration. The sequence featuring Sanjak in spring 1939 includes a thrilling aviation sequence. The villainess takes off in the hijacked plane and climbs to an altitude high above the cloudline. Terry and Pat pursue her, and the next two Sunday strips showcase the exciting air chase in full color. At multiple points, Caniff’s comic calls attention to Sanjak’s skill as an aviatrix. “Now they see what the really smart pilot can do!,” the villainess declares in the concluding panel of the comic from February 26th, 1939 (Caniff, Volume 3, 56). The following Sunday, Sanjak puts these words into action when she safely crash-lands her plane on a narrow jungle stream. The maneuver is so dangerous that Terry and Pat do not attempt it themselves. Moreover, they assume that Sanjak and her passenger have perished in the crash (Caniff, Volume 3, 59). As the villainess helps April exit from the aircraft, she brags: “You see how skeelled ees Sanjak?” (Caniff, Volume 3, 59).

Of course, Wonder Woman is also strongly associated with aviation: she is known not only for her skill as a pilot but also for her plane, which—as even those who possess only a passing familiarity with the comic likely know—is invisible. Both this aircraft and Wonder Woman’s skill flying it play a key role in the series. First, Wonder Woman uses the invisible plane to bring Steve Trevor back to the United States after he crashes his fighter jet on Paradise Island (Marston Wonder 22). Then, in numerous subsequent stories, her strong aviation skills factor prominently in the plot: allowing her to rescue heroes, capture villains, and rush to the aid of anyone in need anywhere around the globe (Daniels 9 – 10, 25, 30, 45, 71, 77 – 78). As a text box that appeared in the June 1942 issue relayed: “Like a ray of sunlight, Wonder Woman’s invisible plane darts over the ocean at 2000 miles an hour!” (Marston Wonder 93).


It is no secret that Wonder Woman was created in direct response to other comics. In numerous articles and interviews, Marston openly discussed how Wonder Woman was intended as a female counterpart to some of the most commercially successful and culturally influential male protagonists in the medium. For example, in his 1943 essay, “Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics,” he explained that his goal with Wonder Woman was “to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman” (43). As statements such as this one revealed, while Wonder Woman was an original comics creation, she was also deeply indebted to existing titles, individual characters, and industry trends. To this list of possible comics influences on Wonder Woman, a new figure needs to be added: Sanjak. Given both the sheer number and the powerful extent of the various physical, behavioral, and personal similarities that exist between these two characters, Marston seems to have drawn on—whether consciously or unconsciously—elements from Terry and the Pirates. Wonder Woman has long been seen as having her origins in famous male superheroes from the era’s comic books. But, she may also have had roots in an infamous female villainess from one of the period’s most popular newspaper strips.

Not Groundbreaking Characters, but Entrenched Caricatures: Racial, Gender, and Sexual Stereotyping in Terry and the Pirates and Wonder Woman

The suggestive echoes that exist between Sanjak and Wonder Woman raise a series of complex questions about the function of gender, race, and sexuality in the work of Milton Caniff, William Moulton Marston, and Golden Age American comics as a whole. More specifically, they underscore the way in which these two seemingly progressive and groundbreaking characters have strong roots in historically entrenched and culturally demeaning racial, gender, and sexual caricatures. Furthermore, the comics in which Sanjak and Wonder Woman appear routinely include elements of misogyny, racism, and xenophobia. Such features call into question the longstanding laudatory views about these characters, strips, and cartoonists.

Although Sanjak embodies the first queer female character in U.S. comics, she never rises above a negative stereotype. On the contrary, Sanjak affirms every disparaging fact that Americans in the 1930s had been told, and likely thought to be true, about female homosexuals, from beliefs that they are morally degenerate to ones that they are sexually predatory. In a detail that offers further evidence for this assessment, in spite of the numerous and often even direct ways that Terry and the Pirates calls attention to Sanjak’s queer nature, neither Caniff nor the syndicate who distributed his comic strip received any objections to her. During a time when organizations such as Legion of Decency were launching very public crusades against both print and visual materials for featuring “amoral” content—including and even especially the “perversion” of homosexuality—Terry and the Pirates escaped notice (Benshoff and Griffin 29). As the cartoonist revealed in 1986, “I never had one complaint about it” (qtd in Canwell “Setting” 10). Undoubtedly, one of the factors accounting for this phenomenon was that Sanjak was a despicable character who readers strongly disliked. In this way, her lesbianism—if and when it was detected by Caniff’s audience—was not seen as palatable in any way. Rather, her queerness offered additional evidence that she was a contemptible figure and, thus, one who would ultimately face rightful punishment. The fact that Sanjak’s hypnotizing powers emanate from one of the symbols of her lesbianism—her monocle—further serves to link queerness with villainy.

Caniff’s reliance on damaging cultural stereotypes is not isolated to his construction of Sanjak. Such elements also permeate a bevy of other male and female, major and minor, heroic and villainous characters. In the second strip of Terry and the Pirates, published on October 23rd, 1934, for example, Caniff’s central protagonists meet a figure who will become a trusted friend, much-needed interpreter, and important ally throughout their adventures in China: a Chinese man they will call “Connie.” Caniff’s depiction of this important secondary figure traffics in demeaning caricatures of Asians: Connie has large buck teeth, small slanted eyes, and big protruding ears (Caniff, Volume 1, 116). [See Figure 12.] Moreover, he speaks with a heavy accent. “You like fine young fellah who talk English an’ Melican velly good – ? ,” Connie says to Terry during their first interaction (Caniff, Volume 1, 116).

Figure 12

Caniff’s depiction of Connie typifies his portrayal of the Asian characters who populate Terry and the Pirates. Sometimes, the cartoonist does not simply tacitly invoke racist representations of Asians; he does so openly. For example, in the Sunday strip that appeared on December 30th, 1934, a group of Chinese pirates attempt to steal the luggage belonging to Caniff’s two heroes while they are passengers on a ship. “I’ll fix this!,” Terry announces to the reader in a speech bubble. He walks over to the pirate who has donned Pat’s varsity sweater, which has a large capital letter “A” emblazoned on the front, and says to him in a tone that mimics while it mocks his heavy accent: “Hey, Chinee! – Let me fixum up sweater velly pletty!” (Caniff, Volume 1, 27). The Chinese man agrees, and the next two panels show Terry first borrowing a sewing kit from an Asian man—”I takee sewing kit! – Fixum up sweater for your palsie walsie!,” he tells him—and then diligently working on the garment (Caniff, Volume 1, 27). The final panel of the strip reveals Terry’s handiwork. The Asian man puts the newly modified sweater back on. Readers see that Caniff’s protagonist has sewn two additional letters on the varsity sweater so that it now spells out the racial slur for the Japanese at the time “SAP” (Caniff, Volume 1, 27). [See Figure 13.] Even worse, the character is unaware that Terry is insulting him. “Most velly swell,” he tells Terry appreciatively with a big, buck-tooth grin. “Some time do you big flavor!” (Caniff, Volume 1, 27; underlining in original). Moreover, the character wears this sweater in at least two subsequent Sunday comics: on January 20th, 1935 and February 6th, 1935 (Caniff, Volume 1, 28, 30). These elements did not dissipate either as Terry and the Pirates or Caniff’s career progressed. During the Second World War, for example, the cartoonist created informational materials such as “How to Spot a Jap” (1942) [See Figure 14.] As Caniff explains in the text that accompanies his drawing of the differences between the feet of a soldier from Japan and one from China, a Japanese militant can be identified by physical traits such as their “lemon-yellow skin” and “slanted eyes” along with the fact that they “can’t pronounce our liquid ‘L’ ” and their speech “hisses on any ‘S’ sound.”

Figure 13
Figure 14

Instances of racism, xenophobia, and homophobia are not the only prejudicial elements to appear in Terry and the Pirates; so, too, does sexism. Although Caniff’s strip has been praised for its inclusion of a diverse array of female characters, the comic is replete with misogyny. In the strip that appeared on September 27th, 1939, for example, Pat asserts: “a woman can’t be really satisfied with absolute power! It’s her destiny to be conquered!” (Caniff, Volume 3, 147; underlining in original). These threads of racism, sexism, and xenophobia in Terry and the Pirates all came together in a character who was simultaneously one of the most famous and most offensive in the strip: The Dragon Lady. As Mike Madrid has said of this figure, “She was introduced in 1934. and her name lives on as the stereotype of the cruel and calculating Asian female” (Vixens 12). The Dragon Lady’s physical appearance included features that were taken directly from racist caricatures of Chinese women: she had small slanted eyes, thin angular eyebrows, and straight blue-black hair. Although the Dragon Lady was a sex symbol, she was presented in misogynistic ways. “The real source of her villainy,” Madrid notes, “came from those qualities that supposedly make men great leaders—a thirst for power, relentless drive paired with a massive ego, and lack of emotions” (Vixens 12). Finally, and just as problematically, The Dragon Lady’s treachery also arose from racist beliefs that Asians were sneaky, shifty, and untrustworthy. In the words of Madrid once again: “The Dragon Lady would do whatever it took to achieve her goals, whether it was seduce an enemy, betray an ally, or kill a man” (Madrid Vixens 12). Given both her possession of these traits and her tremendous popularity, she “served as the role model for early comic books villainness” (Vixens 12). For generations, her name was synonymous with the cold, calculating, and racially-exotic femme fatale, even for individuals who had never read Caniff’s strip. The Dragon Lady can also be seen as a metonym for the strip’s problematic depiction of women, non-Western cultures, and non-white races.

The fact that characters like The Dragon Lady and Connie not only appeared in Terry and the Pirates but formed a recurring part of the series undercuts assertions that Caniff’s strip is “historically the first, and greatest, example of what we do” (qtd in Singh). The aesthetic innovation of the comic cannot be praised without also recognizing that this artistry was used, in many cases, to depict racist imagery. Likewise, the thrilling nature of the storytelling cannot be applauded without also acknowledging that many of these plotlines contained components that were xenophobic, sexist, and homophobic.

Wonder Woman is not immune from these same problems. Although Marston’s comic does not traffic in the same type of sexism, misogyny, or homophobia,[7] it is not free from other damaging stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes. In a recent article, for example, Noah Berlatsky discussed “an uncomfortable truth about the original Wonder Woman comics. William Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator, was consistently, and grossly, racist” (“Enduring”). As he went on to explain: “Marston consistently depicted sisterhood as a source of power, whether on Paradise Island or in a man’s world. Women in Marston’s comics excelled in sports, in science, and in politics. Whether they were beating men in ice hockey or riding off to space on giant kangaroos, they were, well, awesome” (Berlatsky, “Enduring”). The problem was that, in Marston’s view it was “white women [who] were awesome. Women of color were a somewhat different story. Marston and artist Harry Peter regularly presented Asian and black people via racist caricatures. They even used the occasional anti-Semitic depiction” (“Enduring”). Furthermore, the brand of white feminism that is being presented in Wonder Woman often goes beyond simply tolerating racism, but being predicated on it. In the words of Berlatsky: “For Marston, there’s an uncomfortable sense in which Wonder Woman’s whiteness was central to, rather than incidental to, her feminism. The powerful, transformative femininity of love leaders was tied to the moral power of white women in particular. For Marston, a black Amazon would not be possible” (“Enduring”). Phrased in a different and more direct way, “For Marston, Wonder Woman’s superpowers were linked to her whiteness; to be a wonder woman, of glowing virtue and love and femininity, was, for him, to be a wonder white woman” (Berlatsky, “Enduring”).

These features in both Terry and the Pirates and Wonder Woman seriously diminish their seemingly progressive natures. Neither comics historians nor the LGBTQ community can celebrate the milestone of Sanjak as the first lesbian character in comics without also condemning the racism, xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia that is embedded in her character as well as in Caniff’s strip as a whole. Likewise, they cannot laud Wonder Woman as a paragon of feminist power—past or present—without also acknowledging the way in which her feminism excludes non-white women, issues, and causes. Progressive efforts must be intersectional, or they are not progressive. It is not a victory in the fight for women’s rights when the feminism being espoused by a new heroine ignores her African-American, Latina, and Asian sisters. Likewise, it is not a milestone in the historical effort to increase visibility of the queer community when a lesbian character appears who traffics in regressive racial, ethnic, and sexual stereotypes. In each case, the victory that is being gained for one marginalized group comes at the expense of others. One fight for social justice does not win if another loses or, at least, is left behind. Because various forms of prejudice mutually support and even construct one another, so too must efforts to dismantle them.


In what has become an oft-repeated comment from Milton Caniff, he once asserted: “It’s interesting that somebody might decide suddenly that we [cartoonists] . have social significance or not. But we’re not in business for that purpose. We’re in business to sell newspapers” (“Milton Caniff”). Far from an isolated remark, Caniff would repeat this sentiment at other points in his life. In 1981, when an interviewer asked whether he ever considered the cultural, political, and historical importance of his work, the cartoonist responded: “I don’t kid myself. My main job is to sell papers” (qtd in Welsh-Huggins).

Milton Caniff may have believed that he was just “selling newspapers” with Terry and the Pirates, but we know better. The plots, characters, and events that creators like him and William Moulton Marston featured in their work helped to shape national attitudes, construct the cultural imagination, and influence public opinion. Both Sanjak and Wonder Woman hold important places within American popular culture. However, their legacy is not uncomplicated, nor is it untarnished. In the same way that Caniff was not just peddling newsprint, Sanjak and Wonder Woman—contrary to previous discussions about them—are not pure laudatory milestones. Acknowledging their shortcomings while also recognizing their achievements allows us to understand both the history of U.S comics and that of U.S. culture in a way that is not only more nuanced and noteworthy, but necessary.


[1] By my count, at the time of this writing, Sanjak is referenced in three discussions of this nature. The first appearance is in David Applegate’s essay “Coming Out in the Comic Strips,” which was published in Hogan’s Alley #1 in 1994. The next reference occurred fifteen years later, in 2009, in a short entry by Joe Palmer on the website Gay League. That said, the discussion draws heavily on Applegate’s previous work. Finally, and most recently, Sanjak is mentioned by Alan Kistler in his essay “A Little History: LGBT Representation in Mainstream American Comics, Part 1,” which was posted on The Mary Sue on May 15th, 2014. That said, his consideration of Sanjak encompasses only four sentences.

[2] It should be noted that a variety of critics see The Well of Loneliness as a novel about a character who is trans*, not lesbian. For more on this perspective, see Jay Prosser’s chapter “‘Some Primitive Thing Conceived in an Age of Transition’: The Transsexual Emerging from The Well,” in the collection Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on The Well of Loneliness (Eds. Laura Doan and Jay Prosser, New York: Columbia UP, 2001, pages 129 – 144).

[3] Of course, such views also served to reinforce heteronormativity. By arguing that lesbians were really men trapped in women’s bodies and that gay men were really women trapped in male bodies, they transformed expressions of same-sex eroticism into displaced forms of opposite-sex desire.

[4] I was not able to verify these comments. I was not to identify any islands around Lesbos as possessing the name “Sanjak.” This belief may have been part of a cultural conception, but it does not appear to be geographically accurate.

[5] Marston’s children form another possible point of contact with Terry and the Pirates. The future creator of Wonder Woman had a son and three daughters with his wife Holloway, and two sons with Richard. Akin to millions of other children during this era, Marston’s offspring were avid readers of comics. As Olive Byrne Richard once commented in her journal, “I know from observation in my own household that children read the so-called funnies morning, noon, and—unfortunately—night” (qtd in Lepore 180). Richard went on to relay, in fact, that “She counted eighty-four different comic books that the kids read and traded” (Lepore 180).

[6]  Furthermore, in at least one issue, Wonder Woman also engages in hypnotism that is separate from her use of the magic lasso. As Tim Hanley relays, the Amazonian princess and the Holiday Girls take on Gloria Bullfinch, “a store owner whose employees are being mistreated by her fiancée” (22). When their repeated attempts to point out and explain the abuse, injustice, and exploitation fail to persuade Gloria, they try an entirely different tactic: they hypnotize her so that she thinks she is a worker in her own store. As Hanley has documented, “Once she saw the appalling conditions, she snapped out of her hypnotic state, left her fiancée, improved the conditions, and doubled the workers’ wages, declaring ‘Wonder Woman made me work like you and now I understand!” (22).

[7] That said, a variety of critics over the years have argued that the elements of bondage, submission, and fetishism that permeate Marston’s original comic also complicate—if not compromise—its feminist message. Noah Berlatsky has given voice to this viewpoint: “The bondage aspects of Wonder Woman are embarrassing. They are embarrassing to a publisher who would like to think he is providing wholesome entertainment to children. They are embarrassing to feminists such as Steinem and Robbins who want to celebrate the comics message of empowerment” (Wonder 19).

Works Cited

Applegate, David. “Coming Out in the Comics.” Hogan’s Alley. Accessed 1 November 2016.

Becker, Stephen. Comic Art in America: A Social History of the Funnies, the Political Cartoons, Magazine Humor, Political Cartoons, and Animated Cartons. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959. Print.

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