Is it the star-spangled panties?

Maybe. Let's just think about the star-spangled panties for a while.

There. Okay.

Something happens when you look at her now, reminding you of what she used to be. (And what you used to be.) It presses several buttons in the tangled subconscious: America, patriotism, but also ancient Greece, the gods, democratic ideals. Warrior women shaving their armpits and legs. Quiet women wearing librarian specs, who duck into closets and become something else. Human flight, leaping off a window ledge toward a brilliant fabulousness. Feminist boot-kicks to the stomach.

When it comes to deconstructing Wonder Woman, how much of the day can anyone (should anyone) spend thinking only about her power cleavage, or being helpless in the cinch of her kinky golden lasso? Where else to begin?

With a pencil.

First, he sketches her face, then neck, bare shoulders. He then moves down to the double-W's emblazoned across her thrust-out chest.

For reference, Phil Jimenez keeps handy a three-ring binder of pages clipped from women's lingerie catalogues and lady bodybuilder magazines. As the current illustrator and co-writer of DC Comics' monthly Wonder Woman comic book, Jimenez comes to the task understanding, as a gay man, that his heroine is ultimately about so much more than her ta-tas.

"Sometimes you can't relate to her," he says. "Wonder Woman has no problems and who can relate to that?"

She does have one problem, and in a way, it's also Jimenez's problem: Most of the world has forgotten about Wonder Woman. Sixty years ago, she stirred imaginations and helped vanquish Hitler. In a trade magazine called Wizard, on a list of the 100 top-selling comic books, Wonder Woman ranks 86th this month.

Still, we'd know her if we saw her. This is what happens to spent icons. They become easily recognizable Halloween costumes with no context, aging reference points to outdated ideas that may have once been a metaphor for something -- which was what, in her case? Feminism? Love? Sacrifice? Try this on for size: The man who invented Wonder Woman, a psychologist, wanted little boys to access the female archetype within themselves. (Suffering Sappho! It's Jung's beloved anima! Hmmm. If the panties fit . . .)

"She's a very difficult character to write, so people have tended to write around her instead," Jimenez says. "For a lot of people, she winds up being about the costume."

He loved Wonder Woman as a boy. (His mother, a working single parent, would tell him to sit here and color, wait for me. Be good.)

He loved Wonder Woman as a young man, leaving his Orange County, Calif., home after high school and setting out for New York in the early '90s to draw comic books professionally. He slept on a friend's couch for a year, after dropping out of art school when he couldn't pay the tuition.

Jimenez's first boyfriend, Neil Pozner, who was also his first editor at DC, taught him the value of story economy: Stories are simple. Stories unfold one panel at a time, leading to bigger panels, two-page spreads, building toward some unexpected bang.

Love stories can be that way, too. Pozner died of AIDS in 1994, a little more than a year after he and Jimenez started dating.

Jimenez, 30, has been working steadily for DC since then, and was assigned his dream job -- the care and feeding of Wonder Woman -- last fall. Coincidentally or otherwise, the more reverent of Wonder Woman's stewards and loyal fans tend to be gay men. Many women artists have steered clear of the assignment; straight men, agog, transformed her into "a Terminator babe," he says. "Which is so not like her."

The Lowdown Some things you may or may not need to know about WW:

* Her Amazon bracelets, which she uses to deflect bullets, are actually symbols of her all-female tribe's enslavement under Hercules. Sometimes, one of her enemies will cut them off her wrists, and Wonder Woman goes berserk. On the other hand, if you solder the bracelets together, she becomes weak.

* She used to have an alter ego, a secret identity: Diana Prince, nerdy Pentagon employee. They wrote that part out years ago.

* She hasn't had sex in 15 years.

* There is no more invisible airplane.

That pretty much catches you up.

Phil Jimenez wakes in the morning, has a diet soda, watches the all-female coffee klatch of Barbara Walters et al. on "The View," as a kind of addictive procrastination. Then he works, at the drafting table in his living room, in his tidy apartment in Manhattan's Upper West Side. Bound editions of his favorite comics line the bookshelves, next to a clunky Sharp photocopy machine. Old Wonder Woman toys and gewgaws line the windowsill; traffic bleats below.

Comic book artists tend to occupy themselves with background, much of which the reader never sees. They fantasize about the contents of superheroes' refrigerators, or their laundry routines. Jimenez is doing that exact kind of thinking about Wonder Woman's day, giving her life:

Should she wear a Chanel suit to a U.N. fundraiser?

If she moves to New York, should she get a penthouse on the East Side or West Side?

If you tell a joke, does Wonder Woman get it?

"Oh, she gets jokes," Jimenez says. "She actually loves humor, but you have to remember, she's not from here, so maybe she doesn't always appreciate the joke. . . . She's reading a book on gender theory right now. She thinks it's fascinating and kind of funny."

Wonder Woman fans tend to be adult, generally male, though the female segment is vocal. A large contingent are gay men, some lesbians; Jimenez, who chats with fans on a Web site, says he was most surprised at the number of black men who appear to have a Wonder Woman thing going on.

In his first story line late last year, Wonder Woman uses harsh language to defeat Ares, the god of war, after he tries to take over Batman's Gotham City: "These people need the voids in their lives filled with love and self-respect and hope," Wonder Woman shouts to Ares. "Voids you cannot fill, War God."

Ares goes away; there's no climactic battle scene.

Some fans complained.

"The picture-story fantasy cuts loose the hampering debris of art and artifice and touches the tender spots of universal human desires and aspirations. . . . Comics speak, without qualm of sophistication, to the innermost ears of the wishful self."

-- William Moulton Marston,

pop psychologist,

in the American Scholar, 1943

"You boys shouldn't get so excited -- it spoils your aim!"

-- Wonder Woman, to thugs,

in Sensation Comics No. 26, 1944

Secret Origins In 1941 William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-educated psychologist who was secretly writing comic books on the side, gave the world Wonder Woman. She was anything but accidental, and as long as she has been around, her fans have felt that no one ever got her quite right.

In "Wonder Woman: The Complete History" (Chronicle Books), historian Les Daniels paints a portrait of Marston as one of those deeply complex men who are in their own way genius, and perhaps just a bit nutty-professor. Marston seemed particularly drawn to three subjects:

Women. (Smart women, often in some sort of sexy bondage.)

Truth. (And scientific ways to catch people at lying.)

Stimuli. (Pictures, movies, color, stereo sound, infotainment. It's as if Marston heard the multimedia buzz machine decades before it existed.)

At Harvard, he pioneered research that led to the polygraph.

Marston's favorite test subjects were sorority sisters: He would attend their clandestine initiation parties, at which the young women would tie one another up and sometimes wrestle. Using the lie detector, Marston would carefully monitor the rise in their fellow sorority sisters' systolic excitement while they watched the hazing rites. The coeds would never admit that seeing other women in bondage turned them on, if just ever so slightly. (He found it necessary to repeat the sorority sister experiment -- dozens and dozens of times, it seems.)

An outspoken publicity hound, Marston was a bad fit in academic environs. He wound up consulting Hollywood producers in the early '30s. He tested moviegoers' response to colors (red, yellow, blue) and sound effects, tying it to a human need for subliminal stimuli. He adored the eroticism coded into horror flicks. He also wrote randy pulp novels about Greco-Roman mythology and history. Daniels excerpts what Marston had reimagined for Julius Caesar and the goddess Venus: "His soul was lost in beautiful, palpitating dreams of serving her glorious womanhood forever. . . . Those wonderful feet!"

Marston fathered two children with his wife, and also two children with his research assistant Olive Byrne, who lived with the couple. He became something of an ardent feminist, telling the New York Times in 1937 that America would become a matriarchy within 100 years, where "women would take over the rule of the country, politically and economically."

At some point, everything in Marston's world merges into the making of a modern goddess. This landed him in his own fantasy: Amazonia.

Under the pen name Charles Moulton, he dubbed his creation Paradise Island, and his Wonder Woman first appeared, curvily drawn by Harry Peter in All-Star Comics No. 8, a month before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

In that opening episode, the Amazon princess Diana rescues a downed Air Force pilot, Col. Steve Trevor, and is chosen by her tribe to return to man's world and fight evil.

As a '40s bombshell, Wonder Woman struggled not to swoon over Steve, brushing him aside, putting her mission first. After a typical rousing fight with negatively portrayed ethnic stereotypes, she would stand arms akimbo and preach justice to a cruel world, like an American flag with great gams.

After Marston died of cancer in 1947, the idealism began to weaken. She constantly fretted about her secret identity (a powerful McCarthyism vibe runs through these issues) and whether she should chuck it all and marry Steve. A standard scenario had Wonder Woman walking down the wedding aisle, only to be interrupted before vows by would-be world dominators.

Although endowed with superhuman strength (and that transparent airplane), Diana would rely mostly on love and common sense to settle disputes. She used her bracelets to deflect gunfire and her lie-detecting lasso to coerce confessions from thugs. The press nicknamed her "Wonder Woman" and before long she was battling Nazi baronesses, the vainglorious Cheetah and, eventually, gooey space aliens.

The premise still holds, though some would say Diana strayed even from the very beginning. Feminists wished for her to be less hung up on Steve, more concerned with fighting patriarchal evils. Lesbians have always longed for a more direct approach to some of Wonder Woman's obvious subtext. Scholars heaped dissertations and analytical essays upon her persona, and still do, as recently as this month's Reason magazine. ("Comics Tragedy: Is the Superhero Invulnerable?")

As for your basic classic-rock-listening, garage-apartment-dwelling, still-single male comic book fan? (Vicious stereotype? Oh, well.) So long as Wonder Woman keeps washing her ever-shrinking costume in hot water, she's fine by them. Her high-minded dialogue has often seemed empty or preachy. The fanboy world pretended to listen, staring at her breasts.

"Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. . . . The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman."

-- Marston, 1943

Identities Is it the twirl? We should consider the twirl.

Wonder Woman has not twirled for years.

But sometimes certain little boys find things on television and can't stop thinking about them.

Long before these certain little boys know or realize what being homosexual even is, they will often fixate on some strong or larger-than-life female idol, and she won't let go. The diva inside unfurls. It could be triggered by a movie goddess, a pop singer, a chick on a scooter escaping secret agents. It could be as unlikely as a Life magazine spread of Pat Nixon showing off the White House.

Or, in the specific case of Phil Jimenez, it was Lynda Carter as "Wonder Woman," on ABC in the mid-1970s, twirling around and around and exploding into such inexplicable gloriousness as to make one wish to leap off a jungle gym at recess.

Jimenez was about 5 years old for that.

There's something still boyish about him, with a trimmed goatee, wearing a grape-colored dress shirt open at the collar.

"The Lynda Carter Wonder Woman turn was kind of big for a lot of gay guys I know," he says. "Some people talk about it a lot, the transformation of her doing it, spinning around, going from this dowdy, secretive woman and suddenly she's this gorgeous superheroine. I practiced the spin when I was little. Probably because I was gay. I mean, I'm going to assume that it has something to do with all . . . all this."

All this. If only there were a surefire way to figure out the "all this" parts of anybody's life, whatever floats their boats -- the fetishes, the craven idolatry, the papers presented in all seriousness at seminars held in Holiday Inns.

Too bad about that debunking of Carl Jung, because it seems that Jung's anima/animus theory runs strong in things like Wonder Woman, which basically shows men a path to the anima, the woman in themselves. It's as if she's right in there, this cartoony Jungian archetype of a good and protective and heroic and beautiful mother. The official line on Wonder Woman's history was that she was created to be a superhero for girls, a worthy partner to the male characters. But for Marston, she was also an entry point to the anima in little boys.

"This is a drawing of Wonder Woman I did when I was 7, and gave to my mother," Jimenez says, picking up a framed picture that is propped against a wall. It's a colored-pencil drawing of Wonder Woman looking exactly as she did on "Super Friends," a Saturday morning cartoon series, with a kind of Marlo Thomas flip. "My mother recently found it and had it framed and gave it to me as a gift. What I'd like to do is take one of my current drawings of Wonder Woman and have them framed together, and give it back to her."

Canceled In the late '60s, with sales of the comic book waning, Steve was assassinated and Wonder Woman lost her superpowers. She learned kung-fu and ditched the star-spangled panties for mod miniskirts.

Gloria Steinem saved her that time, by putting Wonder Woman on the cover of the first issue of Ms., in 1972, spangles and all, reiterating Marston's original pro-feminist intent. Steinem recalled in a 1994 essay how a male editor at DC begged her to back off: " 'Okay,' he said, 'She's got all her Amazon powers back. . . . She even has a black Amazon sister named Nubia. Now will you leave me alone?' "

It is the 1976-79 television show -- Lynda Carter in the plexiglass airplane -- that so many people will forever equate with the character. But in a jumble of strong pop culture heroines -- bionic women, police women, "Charlie's Angels" -- Wonder Woman had outlived her usefulness to the collective unconscious. She stopped being the exception to the rule.

The TV show was canceled, and things got worse for the comic book. She married Steve, seemingly out of boredom. Longtime readers, including a teenage Phil Jimenez, drifted away. The men in charge of writing and drawing her (most of them were men) didn't seem to love her.

Having run for 329 consecutive issues, Wonder Woman was temporarily shelved in 1985.

The Doctor's Legacy Later this year, Jimenez hopes to deal with each of Wonder Woman's many guises in a multi-layered story line, a discreet 60th-anniversary nod to the heroine. The current version of the comic book was "rebooted" in 1986, obviating much of Wonder Woman's cheesier past exploits.

"She has transcended 40 years of bad scripts, after all," says DC publisher Jenette Kahn. "She's meant a tremendous amount, especially to women. She's the first feminist in popular fiction. She's had a lot of high-profile artists and writers working on her over the years, and she has defied many of their abilities. Sometimes she languishes."

DC, part of AOL Time Warner, is also duty-bound to Wonder Woman; she's an important trademark to the company's repertoire, and a perpetual agreement with Marston's estate stipulates that a Wonder Woman comic book must be regularly published in order to keep the rights to the character. ("That's certainly not how we think of it, as a legal obligation," Kahn says, declining to discuss Wonder Woman's contract. "I feel it's an honor.")

In Phil Jimenez, Kahn hopes, she has found the rare person who can not only write and draw a crucial character, but also take the icon elsewhere. "All of our characters eventually get into lulls," Kahn says. "When someone is able to reinvent them, I get excited all over again. I actually start to read it again."

In the afternoon, over a late lunch at a restaurant not far from his apartment, Jimenez stabs at a Caesar salad and wonders why Wonder Woman keeps falling for men who aren't available to her.

"For years, there has been this whole thing going on between her and Superman, this crush she supposedly has on him, their unrequited love. But he's married to Lois Lane. Steve Trevor married Etta Candy [Wonder Woman's friend, originally a Marston-style sorority girl]. Wonder Woman doesn't need a man, but she . . . needs a man. She needs to explore."

Jimenez has based a potential boyfriend on an amalgam of real-life friends of his friends, a U.N. staffer in particular. "A normal guy," he says. "A normal, available guy, who isn't intimidated by her."

Meanwhile . . . evil lurks.

Hollywood has again turned its greedy, villainous eyes toward the Amazing Amazon; Jimenez isn't exactly thrilled with early reports of a proposed Wonder Woman movie; he's very protective of his childhood dream girl. Early gossip had Mariah Carey playing Wonder Woman, then Sandra Bullock, then Catherine Zeta-Jones. What he hears of the project sounds campy to him, nowhere near the reverence required.

"I offered them my Wonder Woman bible," Jimenez says, referring to the sheer tonnage of contemplation and thinking and research he's done into this imaginary goddess, "and they said no. They didn't want it."

Anyway, none of this is his problem.

Instead, he is deeply involved in a new story line, penciling the rough storyboard. In this issue, Wonder Woman will let Lois Lane do a Daily Planet profile of her. Lois's motives here are suspect (she wants to find out if Wonder Woman has designs on her husband, Superman). In a "day in the life of Wonder Woman," Lois will follow the heroine to play basketball at youth shelters, then to Africa to hold infant refugees, then to a science lab to work on a cure for diabetes. After the long day, the two women go to a bar and shoot pool and Lois tries to pick Wonder Woman's brain.

This sounds like what William Moulton Marston, all those years ago, might have had in mind. It might assist the subconscious to see them tie one another up for some light bondage play. Marston was always finding a way to get Wonder Woman tied up, sometimes spanked.

That would have pressed the late professor's buttons, but these are comic books. They go everywhere indirectly, but they do not go there.

"For a lot of people, she winds up being about the costume," says Phil Jimenez, current illustrator of DC Comics' Wonder Woman.Phil Jimenez's modern heroine, top, and the 1941 original. "She has transcended 40 years of bad scripts," says DC publisher Jenette Kahn.Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, with Julie Haddock, in the '70s TV series.Women, truth and stimuli: Psychologist William Marston, who created Wonder Woman in 1941, demonstrating his lie detector on Dorothy Richey.