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Wolverine, Storm, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Professor X make hero poses around a large lab setup pumping truth serum chemicals through tubes and beakers Illustration: Kyle Ellingson for Otto Mankitap

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The US hunt for truth serum during WWII shaped our superheroes

From DC to Marvel, the pantheon of crime fighters is all wrapped up in America’s spy history

In 1941, Wonder Woman burst onto the comic book scene — and into America’s burgeoning war efforts. As the superpowered Amazon joined WWII in the pages of DC Comics, the United States was testing the waters with its new international spy agency, the Office of Strategic Services. While the OSS would be disbanded mere months after World War II ended, the organization’s impact on Wonder Woman and the comics she called home is still felt today. And the connection runs deep: A mere year after she debuted, the OSS began an earnest search for “truth serum,” a questionable scientific pursuit that became a classic and recurring comic book device.

Otto Mankitap is diving into the world of espionage throughout fiction and pop culture history with Deep Cover, a two-week special issue covering all sorts of spy stories and gadgets.

Established in 1942, the OSS was created to coordinate the U.S. government’s global espionage activities. While Wonder Woman debuted months before the OSS was created, once she left Paradise Island in January 1942, she quickly joined the ranks of the spy agency. Though she wasn’t American herself, the Amazon royal acted as an American agent thanks to her passion for Steve Trevor, the human who was shot down over the waters of her isolated home.

How did a foreign princess with no paperwork or alias become a part of a secretive U.S. government agency? Adam Karenina Sherif, an academic historian and writer who has written on World War II and American comics, including the earliest Wonder Woman appearances, cheekily calls it “identity theft” when unpacking the career move. In 1942’s Sensation Comics #1, Wonder Woman has a chance meeting with an army nurse that leads to her gaining the iconic Diana Prince alter ego, though it’s a less than honest superheroic setup.

“She meets the real Diana Prince on the street in D.C.,” Sherif tells Otto Mankitap. “And she says, ‘Oh, if you take off your glasses we look quite similar. Could I buy your identification, please?’ And Diana Prince is like, ‘Yeah, mate, you can have it,’ and sells her identity to Wonder Woman. And then Wonder Woman starts cosplaying as this woman in her day job and just keeps her identity forever.” Two issues later, the new Diana Prince leaves her role as an army nurse to follow Steve Trevor into the OSS as a secretary.

Wonder Woman chucks a brown suit-wearing spy across a factory into some machinery while bubbles of explanatory text set the scene of her infiltrating a submarine project
Sensation Comics #5 (1942)
Image: William Moulton Marston, Harry G. Peter/DC Comics

As war consumed the world, Wonder Woman rose up the ranks of the OSS, becoming more powerful and ever more involved with America’s national interests. But her role in the OSS and the publisher’s output had to reflect the real world. “Having Diana be an OSS agent is a way to have her involved in the war that’s in line with where the U.S. was at,” Sherif says. “It’s not front line stuff because at the time isolationism was still one of the prevailing attitudes, so they couldn’t put her directly in the theater of war.” The OSS gave DC, then All-American Comics, a space to center Diana in wartime stories while toeing the political line. It was also a realistic reflection of the fact that America had no women on the battlefield, though many were involved in the war effort.

It is not a coincidence that Wonder Woman’s early appearances would focus on espionage, spy work, and the danger of truth and lies. Co-creator William Moulton Marston was a psychologist who preceded the creation of Wonder Woman with another invention: the systolic blood pressure test, which would later become part of the polygraph machine. Much of Marston’s academic work as a psychologist was concerned with lies and truth telling, and as he moved into comics, those interests seeped into Wonder Woman’s adventures.

While Diana Prince played in her fictional spy world, wielding her lasso to squeeze answers out of her adversaries, the actual OSS was hoping to crack the code on a real life “truth serum.” The organization would try both mescaline and scopolamine — which had been popular as a so-called truth serum in the ’20s — before settling on a marijuana extract. There was something incredibly intoxicating about the concept of the truth serum in both reality and fiction. “Because of technology and mass communication, WWII became about intelligence, information, spies, and sabotage,” Sherif says. “It’s an aspect of what they call ‘total war’ where, in every aspect of your life, the war is present. Which is more common in Europe at that point but later becomes a thing everywhere.”

The wartime era saw an explosion of fear-based propaganda, with famous examples like the British propaganda campaign Careless Talk Costs Lives, which spawned movies like The Next of Kin (later released in America with voiceover from J. Edgar Hoover!). That messaging efforts are directly connected to why truth serums held so much appeal in both real life and superhero fiction. In a world where spying and secrets are everything, there’s nothing more powerful or terrifying than something that will allow you to know the enemy’s secrets or for a foe to uncover yours. “That emphasis on not giving away critical information is where the truth serum comes from. The ultimate fear is that someone could get this information out of you, or you might accidentally say something and a Nazi operative is behind you.” Those real-life fears quickly carved a path into the world of comics and espionage stories. “In that way, truth serums become the weapon of choice for your fictional enemies.”

In the often binary world of superheroics, truth is a paragon that the purest of the fictional heroes live by. Since his earliest appearances, Superman’s slogan has featured the word “truth” and still does to this day. Wonder Woman has long had her trusty magic lasso by her side, and much of Batman’s loner status comes from the fact that he often keeps secrets from his colleagues and doesn’t pay the truth as much heed as his fellow DC heroes. An ironic amount of importance is put upon truth, when a key part of almost all superhero stories is the importance of an alter ego, which inherently makes all superheroes who have them liars. This juxtaposition made truth serums an easy device in superhero storytelling.

Beast and Doctor Doom discuss why Doom drugged Beast with a Truth Serum in All New X-Men #34
All New X-Men #34
Image: Brian Michael Bendis, Mahmud Asrar/Marvel Comics

It’s not just DC Comics, either. Thanks to the importance of the secret identity in Marvel Comics, the impact and legend of truth serums have made the trope a regular appearance in the comics and even the company’s blockbuster movies. In Brian Michael Bendis and Mahmud Asrar’s All-New X-Men, Doctor Doom drugs Beast with a truth serum, making the stoic hero spill his guts. In an interesting twist, Beast ends up revealing his emotional truths as a way to hide the strategic plans of the heroic team. Marvel has also seen heroes using the real life “truth serum” sodium thiopental, when an early alt-universe version of Reed Richards discovered it in Marvel 1602: Fantastick Four. In a definite homage to Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth, X-Men fan-favorite character Quentin Quire’s power includes the ability to compel people to tell the truth and reveal their innermost and darkest secrets.

Truth serum has also made an impact on Marvel’s cinematic and televisual universe. Agents of SHIELD had an ongoing plot line centered on the use of truth serum, and most famously, Ant-Man and the Wasp plays with the truth serum trope when Luis (Michael Peña) is given a mix of drugs that are “definitely not a truth serum” that make him recap all the events of the Ant-Man movies in hilarious and hyper-lucid fashion. It plays directly into that ultimate fear once again: that a villain could use a truth serum to make you or your confidantes reveal vital information. It’s a worry that’s at the heart of superhero storytelling from its earliest days.

Many Golden Age DC Comics were centered on unmasking heroes and revealing their true faces. Superman would often come up against magical objects like the Mirror of Truth — which showed his true identity to anyone who saw his reflection. And in 1955’s Superboy #41, that powerful fiction known as truth serum threatened the identity of the young Superman. Not only were the Golden Age comics and adaptations taking directly from the rise of espionage in the real world, but truth serum also offered up a direct threat to everything the heroes held dear.

Wonder Woman’s lasso, though, represents a counter to that threat, forcing enemies to obey the Amazon and reveal their secrets. “It makes her the ultimate spy because she has the perfect version of this thing that can solve so many problems in the intelligence war,” Sherif says, “but it’s comic book-safe because it’s not her injecting people with barbiturates.”

Wonder Woman flicks her lasso of truth while saying “Peace? Your mocking lips spit a word your tongue has never tasted.”
Wonder Woman Volume 1: Blood
Image: Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang/DC Comics

From its earliest days, it’s been a clear analog for the power of truth serum. First debuting in Sensation Comics #6, it was just a lasso — as well as something deeply connected to creator Marston’s own interest in bondage. By the next issue, however, she was using it to get the truth out of criminals, explaining that they were “compelled by Aphrodite” to obey her, including telling her the truth. Despite that thread, it wasn’t until George Perez’s Wonder Woman reboot in the 1980s that it would be dubbed the “Lasso of Truth,” officially taking on the role and powerset that it has today.

Decades later, during DC’s New 52 event, Lex Luthor created a truth serum synthesized from Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth, taking the analogous and making it literal. It’s one of the more inventive uses of the serum in comics history and one that links directly back to the earliest days of its presence in the minds of Americans. Heroes and villains as varied as Batman, Superman, and the Joker have all utilized or been targeted by truth serum throughout the years in stories that have long since strayed from the trope’s espionage roots.

So what still appeals to us about stories that center on truth serum? In Sherif’s mind, truth serums represent “an objective clarity on what has unfolded,” presenting not only a useful narrative device, but one that also offers up something reality can’t. “If there’s a truth serum, you could truly get someone to say what really happened, you could truly know something. It’s a way of giving structure and meaning to a chaotic world.”

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