I read a decent number of books and articles about comic books, as well as a decent number of books and articles about gay topics, but I read a much smaller number of books and articles where the two areas overlap. When they do I take note, and over the past year or so I've read three different things that referenced "Wonder Woman" #185, "THEM!"
Or, as I've seen it referred to: the one where Wonder Woman fights ssome lesbians, the one with the drag kings, and the one where someone was bound in a Wonder Woman comic who actually wasn't Wonder Woman.
Intrigued, I attempted to track a copy of the book, but an issue of "Wonder Woman" from December 1969 isn't always the easiest thing to come by, or the cheapest. Fortunately, DC Comics reprinted it fairly recently in Diana Prince: Wonder Woman Volume 2, a series of compilations chronicling the period when Wonder Woman gave up her powers to live as Diana Prince among the common people of Man's World. Like most common people in the early 1970's she dressed in white jumpsuits a lot, acquired a blind sensei and became proficient in martial arts, and opened a dress shop in "The Village", a neighborhood in a large city on the east coast that's never actually identified as Greenwich Village but clearly is.
For me, the high point of this period in Wonder Woman's life has always been the story in "Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" (also reprinted in this volume, but I've read it before) where the depowered Diana Prince falls in love with Superman, and Lois is forced to document their romance for the Daily Planet, sobbing behind her camera lens and dying inside. In typical Silver Age fashion, Lois decides that the best way to settle this is to challenge Wonder Woman to a fight for Superman's love.
Wonder Woman responds by straight up beating the hell out of Lois Lane:
until Lois can't even stand:
and then, since Lois lost, Superman is totally fine with leaving her crying in the dirt and flying away:
It cannot be stated enough times that the Silver Age Superman was kind of a dick.
Now that I've read "THEM!", though, I have to say that my favorite story from this period of "Wonder Woman" is still the one where she beats up Lois (it turned out not to be Wonder Woman, anyway, and was instead Kryptonian criminal and Phantom Zone escapee Ar-Ual in disguise; you may remember the Phantom Zone criminals from that time they used the telepathic metal alien bust of Superboy to try to murder his adoptive father), because "THEM!", while interesting, is also just not a very good comic.
Our story opens with Diana Prince returning to her dress shop from a trip home to Paradise Island and discovering a blonde teenaged runaway hiding in her dress shop, which was somewhat common in the 1970's:
The girl is so terrified of THEM! that it's practically all she can babble about, in bold red letters as Diana attempts to question her:
The art is a little unclear there, but is that girl crawling across the floor of the dress shop in terror? I picture her skittering away from Wonder Woman while babbling, but it does her no good, because Wonder Woman has been followed into her shop by THEM!:
Is there a ramp in that picture that I can't see? Because the doorframe of the dress shop is parallel to the top of the panel, but THEM! are angling away to the upper left, against the laws of physics as I understand THEM! In any case, let's take a closer look at our adversaries, since I've read so much about THEM!:
The one on the left is called Moose Mama, but it wasn't until I learned her name a page or two later that I realized that the character was female. She has no obvious female secondary sex characteristics, and in the full page picture it kind of looks like there's a bulge in her jeans. I totally read that as a male until they said her name, and many commentators say that she's supposed to be a butch lesbian. It's true that she could be, and the Comics Code would not have let them say so (no character in a code-approved comic was ever explicitly stated to be gay until Northstar did in "Alpha Flight" #106 in 1992), but I think the commentators are also making an unfair assumption that a masculine woman must be a lesbian. Given that this is Moose Mama's only appearance, ever, and she is such a secondary character that she doesn't even have any dialogue, we'll never know.
The one on the right, in the cowboy hat, is called Pinto, and she is probably a drag king, given her outfit. She could just be a cowgirl, but she's chosen a name that leans more toward the masculine side to go with her persona, so I'm going to say yeah, she's a drag king even though walking around dressed as a cowboy isn't really all that odd in a universe where a man dressed as a bat regularly fights a woman dressed as a cat and a man dressed as a clown. She's a woman impersonating a male, but that still doesn't make her a lesbian. Drag kings and drag queens are often gay, but not always. Like Moose Mama, Pinto is a secondary character, so we'll never really know.
We do know that Top Hat, the one in the middle and leader of THEM!, is apparently not 100% straight. Other commentators have pointed out that she's in drag king dress, too, and I'll agree. She's wearing a pretty masculine outfit, and the pink glasses, big rings, and fancy hat give the whole thing a kind of disco-pimp look. We know that she's probably not straight because Cathy, our teenaged runaway, is also her slave, and we know that because Top Hat has brought along Cathy's collar and would like for her to put it back on:
Top Hat, clearly, is also into some bondage and domination.
Wonder Woman is having none of this, and beats up the three of THEM! as handily as she dispatched Lois. She takes Cathy in, and then Top Hat and THEM! begin a campaign of terror where they throw a brick through the window, stand outside yelling all night, send gang members into the shop to slice up the merchandise, and have Mingo, one of their male gang members, knock groceries out of Diana's hands:
Mingo is suddenly terrified into buying Diana and Cathy new groceries by the appearance of a mysterious stranger:
and here's two of the reasons why this is a bad comic:
1) We never find out, ever, why Top Hat and THEM! are scared of Tony. There's a lot of sneering and retreating:
but never an explanation of why.
2) Wonder Woman, a superhero who handily beat up three gang members at once less than five pages ago, can't handle a guy knocking a grocery bag out of her hands without a man to step in and save her. Yay, feminism!
Since their annoying pranks aren't making Cathy come back, Top Hat and THEM! decide to ramp things up by burning down the dress shop:
at which point Tony steps in and saves the helpless Wonder Woman again, by having his mother invite THEM! (ooops, sorry) them to stay in his sister Angela's room:
In another plot flaw, the story makes a point of having Mrs. Petrucci explain with a sad faced that Angela is "away", but never says where she went or why. This would have been the perfect time to tie together the issues of Top Hat's mysterious fear of Tony and Tony's mysteriously missing sister by revealing that Top Hat IS Angela, but this doesn't happen. We find out much later (not even in this volume) that there's a whole other story with Angela and Tony that this was just foreshadowing for, but we never find out why Top Hat and THEM! were scared of Tony.
Anyway, after a good night's sleep in Angela's room, Diana wakes up to discover that Cathy is gone:
and also that Angela kept both a black pen and a thick red marker in her room next to her writing paper.
Diana goes out searching for Cathy and Mrs. Petrucci goes searching for Tony:
and then for a washcloth since her hair dye is melting down her face. Diana doesn't have to look very far, though, because Top Hat is parading her slave through The Village with an entourage of THEM!:
Again, if you didn't know Moose Mama was a woman, she'd blend right in with the rest of the henchmen. Diana confronts the entire gang, Top Hat starts monologuing like villains almost always tend to do, and Tony and his guys use that time to somehow silently overpower and disarm all of THEM! while Diana has Top Hat distracted:
because, again, Wonder Woman needs a man to save her in her own comic book.
She does manage to give Top Hat the "full Lois" herself:
slapping her hard enough to add some extra letters to the word:
and that's when the police reveal that in addition to being a kidnapper, rapist, human trafficker, gang leader, arsonist, vandal, drag king, and probable lesbian, Top Hat is also a robber:
She's carrying the loot inside her hat.
That, I think, is the biggest flaw in this story. Rather than waving her knife-tipped umbrella around through the story, Top Hat should have been pulling crap out of her hat. It's like the author was confused about how comics work. Kite Man uses a lot of kites (or did before he died), Stilt Man commits crimes on giant stilts, Catwoman always uses a cat motif, Sun Boy has solar powers, Invisible Girl turns invisible, Aquaman lives in water, Green Arrow shoots green arrows, and Top Hat... uses an umbrella.
Comic writing fail.
I guess I was mostly disappointed about this issue because I was expecting so much more. As a gay man, yes, I recognize that this issue is full of gay subtext that couldn't be explicitly stated on the page, and expresses a lot of it really well given the boundaries that the creative team was working under. From the perspective of a comic fan, though, this is a pretty bad issue, and it's no wonder that comic fans never again saw Top Hat or THEM!