[Source: Press-Citizen, Zach Berg, zberg@press-citizen.com 9:21 p.m. CDT March 27, 2016]

Batman V Superman

Before her Wonder Woman class begins, University of Iowa professor Anna Barker throws her red, white, blue and gold Wonder Woman scarf around her neck.

The honors class, “Wonder Woman Unleashed: A Hero for Our Times,” is new this semester. Barker weaves the stories of ancient Greek and Roman mythology, historic female figures and ancient texts into the panels of the comic book world’s most popular and powerful woman.

“What fascinated me about Wonder Woman, she has been in print continuously since 1941. She is admired by multiple generations of women,” Barker said. “I’ve talked to 5-year-olds who wear Wonder Woman backpacks and absolutely think that they’re Wonder Woman. And I’ve talked to women in their 80s that grew up in the time that the Linda Carter television series was coming out in the 1970s and they self-identified with Wonder Woman as a great role model for women in the United States.”

Teaching comic books to college students is no new feat for Barker. A professor of Russian literature, Barker also has taught a class comparing Greek and Roman gods to modern superheroes for about eight years.

Barker compares Captain America’s shield to the Shield of Achilles. Some connections are more obvious: Thor is a Nordic god who just happens to also be in the Marvel comic book world.

Ancient connections

The connections between ancient gods and modern heroes were cemented in Barker’s mind after seeing many superhero movies with her children. Sitting in the theater as superheroes flew about the screen, Barker would think to herself “that story is just like the Perseus and Andromeda plot line.”

As she taught the original superhero class, she would always dedicate a part of the class to female superheroes. When she heard about the release of the latest Hollywood blockbuster “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” which has a cameo appearance from Wonder Woman, Baker knew it was time to make a class specifically for Wonder Woman.

“So I started doing a little bit of research and I realized the history of Wonder Woman as a character is so stunning, shocking and bizarre that it would be wonderful to teach a whole class on her,” Barker said.

The class, which meets Tuesdays and Thursdays, is structured in three parts. The first has students read plays about ancient, strong women. They include “Medea,” “Antigone” and “Lysistrata.”

The second part of the class focuses on reading about Amazons, an ancient race of fierce female warriors. Wonder Woman is an ancient Amazon warrior, according to comic book lore.

The third part of the class is where students get their hands on Wonder Woman comics. They read an introduction to Wonder Woman written by famed feminist Gloria Steinem, Jill Lepore’s 2014 book “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” and Wonder Woman comics.

“It’s so tempting and so delightful to dip into the ancient canon and bring that knowledge into today’s classroom and make it relevant and exciting as a comic book,” Barker said.

Students order the class-required comic books through Daydreams Comics, Iowa City’s longtime downtown comic book shop. Zach Power, owner and manager of Daydreams, said UI professors getting comic books from their store isn’t that common, but he has about three professors each semester who reach out to the store for class material.

In Daydreams, Wonder Woman comics fill a swath of the store’s shelves between the likes of Wolverine and the X-Men. Even in the store’s archives or sorts — boxes of older comics standing snugly together in separate plastic sleeves — Wonder Woman comics are well represented.

In Power’s mind, though, Wonder Woman is not being serviced well by her DC Comics owners. Despite being nearly as old as Superman — created in 1938 — and Batman — created in 1939 — Wonder Woman has yet to have her own movie.

“Wonder Woman is probably not as prolific as she could be or should be,” Power said.

Though her popularity ranks up there with Superman, Batman, Green Lantern and The Flash, Power says there is seemingly no concerted effort to put out new, bold Wonder Woman comics on the heels of actress Gal Gadot’s appearance as Wonder Woman in the new Batman and Superman movie.

Power said women have been reading comic books more frequently over the past three years thanks to an influx of more comics written with a woman’s perspective in mind and because more women are creating comic books.

Wonder Woman’s beginning

Barker is doing her best to bring attention to Wonder Woman by showing the character’s influence on culture and how culture also has influenced the character.

Wonder Woman’s creator William Moulton Marston and his wife, famed American psychologist Elizabeth Holloway Marston, lived with Olive Byrne, Barker said. Byrne was the niece of Margaret Sanger, the suffragette who helped establish modern-day Planned Parenthood.

“Wonder Woman comes out of the birth control movement,” Barker said. “The women who surrounded (Marston) were very committed suffragettes and very committed women in the birth control movement.”

Steinem has said herself that Wonder Woman was a major influence on her becoming a feminist activist.

The 20 students in Barker’s class have taken to Wonder Woman with great enthusiasm, Barker said, despite none of them owning Wonder Woman comics previously. While they could easily dissect Wonder Woman as a feminist work, Barker said her students commonly explore “the multiplicities of context” when it comes to Wonder Woman.

Even nonstudents in Iowa City have been taking note of Barker’s class. Barker said she has had more conversations about Wonder Woman in public over the past couple of months than any other subject she’s focused on in her academic career.

That’s evidence to Barker that Wonder Woman still has a grasp on popular culture, students and Iowa Citians, no matter what her age.

“There’s a bad joke in an episode of the Linda Carter Wonder Woman show where someone says she’s 2,527 years old,” Barker said. “One of the guys responds saying ‘She definitely doesn’t look a year older than 2,526.'”

Reach Zach Berg at 319-887-5412, zberg@press-citizen.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ZacharyBerg.