The Cliffs of Insanity: Lois Lane and Comic Culture

superman-cover-no-1
Action Comics #1, not only the first appearance of Superman but also the first appearance of Lois Lane.

Welcome to this week’s installment of my adventures climbing the cliffs of insanity.

For today’s column, I intended to focus solely this week on Lois Lane: A Celebration of 75 Years, which is due out on November 26. Unfortunately, recent events and discussions regarding sexual harassment of female creators, as outlined by Ms. Marvel writer G. Willow Wilson, and how prevalent it is, as detailed by Rachel Edidan, former editor at Dark Horse comics, sent me pondering whether we’d come very far at all in the 75 years of Lois’s existence.

Lois Lane, Superman, Clark KentLois is somewhat of a bellweather for the comic industry’s attitudes toward women. When there was a great movement to more independent women, Lois was smart, strong, funny, tough, and worthy of admiration. When there was a backlash after World War II, she morphed into something less admirable. Later, she regained some of her original intelligence and focus on journalism. But recently, not so much.

As society moves forward, the comic industry seems to be going backward.

I cannot help thinking the stories I hear constantly about numerous, well-known comic pros basically running their own version of “casting couches” at conventions, about those employed by the big two companies who create a hostile environment for female characters and creators, and about the ever-present dismissive attitude by a very vocal group of male comic fans who are hostile to women even reading superhero comics, has something to do with Lois Lane’s devaluation of the last few years.

Lois was created at a time when women were starting to have careers. In every telling of Superman’s origin, Lois is there, not necessarily as a love interest, but always as a tough, professional woman who’s better at her job than Clark Kent.

I first encountered Lois watching reruns of the George Reeves Superman television show. Superman was cool and all—and no one rocked a fedora better than Reeves’ Clark Kent—but it was Lois I loved. Because she had a job, and she was good at it, and people respected those skills. Sure, it would be nice to be a superhero but even as a young child, I knew that wasn’t possible.

But I could be Lois Lane. (And I did grow up to be a professional journalist.)

Yet Lois’s history is loaded with stories that are somewhat cringe-worthy.

Obviously, there’s the damsel in distress thing. Then there was the whole period in the 1950s-1960s where all she was concerned about was either getting Superman to fall in love with her or exposing his secret identity.

I was hoping this 75th celebration book would include all the great stories about Lois Lane, and it does have some terrific tales. But it also includes far too many of those cringe-worthy/semi-crazy stories, such as Lois becomes fat or Lois forces Superman to marry her when they’re both toddlers, and even the odd, dated story of “I Am Curious (Black)” from 1970s where she becomes black for a day to see how it feels and relate to the experience. This story, published in 1970, is obviously well-intended and was meant to be a positive statement about the civil rights struggle but… well, just no.

Instead of a celebration, the book is a tracing of the history of the attitudes of Western society about women.

First, Lois is smart-assed and competent, and impresses Superman right away. See the car Superman is lifting on the cover of Action #1? That’s on Lois’s behalf. A gangster had gotten fresh with her during a dance, Lois slapped him, and the gangster later came back to kidnap her and teach her a lesson. Superman comes to the rescue but only because Lois is someone who stands up for herself.

Other stories in the volume include some classic “Lois Lane, Girl Reporter” tales in which Lois is usually assigned a dumb story but then uncovers something bigger and better and gets out of a jam herself.

Then Lois went backwards, mirroring what happened in society after World War II, as women stepped or were pushed out of the workplace and back to the kitchen. Instead of the intrepid Lois of the “Girl Reporter” stories, we’re stuck with ridiculous, cloying, or plain mean Lois.

I’m not sure why DC felt the need to include so many of these stories in a celebration. I would have devoted more time and pages to her appearances on television and in movies instead, especially contrasting the Superman show version of Lois with her comic counterparts during the same time period.

But onto the good stuff.

We see Lois evolve, and Superman’s origin retold a couple of times. And each time, it’s Lois who gives Superman his name, and it’s fun to see that play out in stories over different decades. The marriage of Earth-2 Lois and Superman is in here, as well as Phil Jimenez’s terrific Wonder Woman #170 where Lois follows Wonder Woman around for a day.

I loved the inclusion of Greg Rucka’s story of Lois as war correspondent in Adventures of Superman #631, and the special “Girl Frenzy” issue—remember when DC liked spotlighting female characters?—issue where Lois takes on some scientists genetically altering polar bears. Great sense of humor from Barbara Kesel’s script, and great art from Amanda Conner.

Greg Rucka, Lois Lane, Clark Kent
A panel from Adventures of Superman #631 written by Greg Rucka, with pencils by Matthew Clark and Renato Guedes.

I wish Grant Morrison’s Lois Lane as Superwoman issue from All-Star Superman could have been swapped out for a Superman: Birthright story from Mark Waid, as Morrison’s tale shows Lois doing very little with her temporary powers but watching Superman and a god fight over her. And something fun from the all-ages Superman Family Adventures could also have been included.

I closed the book thinking that while I enjoyed the stories, only three approach being definitive Lois tales: Kesel/Conner’s solo tale; Rucka’s war correspondent Lois; and one from way back in 1944: “Lois Lane, Girl Reporter, The Bakery Counterfeiters.”

And that makes me sad because there must be some more out there. The companion volume, Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years is full of such gems and reminded me of why I love Superman.

But Lois’s book reminded me of my frustrations as a female comic reader.

Amy Adams’s Lois Lane was one the best part of Man of Steel, at least until the romance became too forced, and DC has promised a Lois Lane one-shot coming in February. So maybe things will change.

In the meantime, this book will have to do.

Disclaimer: GeekMom received this book for review purposes.

 

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Writer, Mom, Geek and Superhero. though usually not all four on the same day. Author of the award-winning Phoenix Institute Superhero series and the steampunk novel, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract.