Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Re-Evaluating Lois Lane

For years now, comics have been quite notorious for handling female characters in very limited ways.   

They’re most often used as an object of romantic desire or frustration, a fan-boy’s big-boobed, big butted pin-up girl dream, a damsel in distress, sidekick, or a female heroic reflection/copy of the main character created more for marketing and copyright protection than for characterization. Comic women have also been used as torture and murder victims to sufficiently motivate the male protagonist on his mission of righteousness.

But more and more, we’re starting to see female characters that are, in many cases, even richer than their male counterparts. For every ridiculous Marvel Divas series, we can at least look to Batwoman and Manhunter over at DC, Ms. Marvel over at Marvel Comics and pretty much every damn female character Gail Simone and Greg Rucka have ever written.

Fan lightning rod Gail Simone’s current run on Wonder Woman is galvanizing new discussion and support of Wonder Woman among readers and fans. 

But what of that other grand dame of the comic world, the original girl reporter, Lois Lane?

A few years, I was working on comic book character entries for a project that hasn’t materialized. I tried to sum up Lois Lane for comic book insiders and out alike thusly:

Created by: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
First Appearance: Action Comics #1, DC Comics, 1938.
Notable Appearances: 137 issues of her own DC Comics title from 1958 to 1974.
Alias/Nicknames: Snoop, Superman’s Girlfriend, Mrs. Clark Kent.
Powers: Lois’ main power was a highly developed nose for news, a tendency to get into dangerous situations only Superman could get her out of, and a complete inability to recognize the man she loved whenever he donned bifocals.  The modern version was trained as a girl in hand-to-hand combat, firearms and knife fighting by her soldier father and is a notoriously bad speller.
Comments:  Inspired by the snappy, hard-working, girl reporter archetype prevalent in thoroughly modern movies of the thirties and visually based on the future Mrs. Jerry Siegel, Lois Lane was created to be a perfect foil for Superman. Lois was Siegel and Shuster’s revenge on all the glamorous girls who had ignored them in High School.  Despite being smart and independent, Lois couldn’t see that everything she ever wanted in a man was typing away at the desk next to her in the form of nebbish rival reporter, Clark Kent.  Over the course of the forties and fifties, Lois’ role was reduced to plotting elaborate schemes to prove Clark Kent and Superman were one and the same, and fantasizing about married life as Mrs. Superman. In the 70’s, new attitudes toward women helped Lois develop as an individual in her own right and she finally married her Man of Steel in 1996.  The feisty character has finally matured into a fully developed character devoted to, and independent from, her super husband. 
It’s a solid enough overview but there’s so much more to the character that I had to leave out. Lois’ character was created over almost eighty years ago but the initial, essential ingredients of her character have remained relatively consistent.  A tough, nonsense reporter with a highly developed sense of justice and intense competitive drive.

Sure, she was wish fulfillment for the male creators and their male readers … every shy, awkward male in existence wanted to believe someone as dynamic and beautiful as Lois would love them if she could see the superman they really were on the inside. I lucked into that very situation with my own wife so it can be done boys!

But Seigel and Shuster were also smart enough to make Lois a force all on her own, much like the fast-talking, driven female character they saw on the silver screen of the thirties. I suspect in those years she resonated with her female readership as well.

Over the years as Superman went from anti-authoritarian shit-disturber to defender of the status quo, Lois also became a sort of Lucille Ball of the comics. Trying to uncover Superman's identity and force him to overcome his true weakness -- emotional commitment. 

The stories always placed blame for Lois' embarrassing comeuppances on her inquisitiveness and often, on her "femaleness" itself! But the truth of the matter was, like so many intelligent, independent women before her, Lois Lane's Kryptonian boyfriend was a dick.

Blackmailing dick.
Cruel prankster dick.
Married, cheating dick.
Or just your everyday, gaslighting, anything 
to humiliate my loved ones kind of dick. 
Why the Popemobile? Couldn't you just put her 
on a pedestal like the rest of us, Superdick?
(Images coutesy of www.superdickery.com)

Some of the best discussions on what makes iconic, female characters work has been happening these last few weeks over at Kelly Thompson's new She Has No Head! column at Comicbookresources.com.  Her post, Giving Lois a Second Look, For the First Time and the ensuing comments are one of the best discussions regarding the quintessential lady journalist I've ever read.

Thompson starts by admitting she think much of Lois until she read Mindy Newell’s pre-Crisis Lois Lane miniseries When It Rains, God Is CryingNewell attempted to portray a strong, skilled reporter who is so affected by the story she’s working on (missing children) that she begins to push away her friends and colleagues. 

This series portrayed a Lois who had seen a lot but seems to have been caught at a particularly vulnerable point emotionally. Lois’ sense that she’s discovering a horrifying problem problem too late to make a real difference makes her work all the harder to break the story and find some resolution to a problem she ultimately can never solve. With gorgeous Grey Morrow art (and sadly, lackluster coloring), this is a comic tale with intensely personal stakes.

The timing of Newell’s mini-series was unfortunate. It came right before John Byrne’s famous reboot of the entire Superman franchise when all Man of Steel decisions had to pass through him.  But it still stands as a testament to what a writer can do when they take the essential elements of a character and make a real effort to reflect them realistically. You don't have to like this Lois. But you can definitely admire and recognize her.

But the real fun begins, as always, in the comments section below the post. This party turned into a lively, passionate discussion of Lois Lane, both pro and con.

Even more impressive, people also managed to be relatively respectful and articulate even when things took on a personal, somewhat defensive tinge.  I love when restraint, insight and a real exchange of ideas rule the day. When things devolve into mudslinging I click away pretty quickly.

Some posters revealed they too have never liked Lois nor believed Superman would find her attractive but a posting from Blackjak countered that idea.

“…it comes down, yet again, to needing to have a good writer attached to the book that she’s in. A writer who knows how to portray her well and write scenes that actually involve her as a character rather than as a supporting actor with the same amount (or less) “screentime” as Perry White or Jimmy Olsen…”

Poster Rene agreed, insisting, “Lois is so iconic that it’s too easy for her to become uninteresting, more of a symbol than a person.”  For Rene, Clark Kent, small town boy, can’t help but be attracted to “cosmopolitan, cynical, passionate, worldy”  Lois because “she challenges him”. He adds, “Either from Kansas or Krypton, Superman springs from the world of the past; Lois Lane is a woman for today.”

Thompson agreed with Rene and adds her own level to his theory....

Lois is also incredibly human...so she would not only represent the modern, cosmopolitan, progressive life he is seeking when he leaves Smallville, but she is also human and helps him tie himself to his humanity...”

Micheal P then lamented, The thing with Lois is, there as many different versions of her as there are of Superman… As a result, she can be all over the map, while also remaining frustratingly similar and flawed in a number of versions (again, just like Superman).”

One interesting conceit of Newell’s Lois was discussed at length. The intriguing and perfectly logical idea that Lois knows Clark is Superman and plays along, even when it costs her personally and causes unneeded frustration.

This makes compete sense to me.  Lois is a sharpie and I too find it hard to believe she’s got such huge blinders on regarding Clark and Superman. The idea that she’s laying along adds an intriguing level to the proceedings. And at the time of Newell’s mini-series, Clark and Lois were broken and he was seeing old flame Lana Lang, his co-anchor on the news. The fact that Lois can barely tolerate his nudge and winking approach to his secret ID adds emotional fuel to the fire.

On the other hand, driven people sometimes see only what they want to see, right?  Poster Omar KArindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!  reminded everyone that Jerry Siegel did plan on Lois uncovering Superman’s identity early on (in the infamous K-Metal From Krypton story that would have first introduced Kryptonite if DC Comics had published it. The idea eventually made its debut on the popular Superman radio show.)

Poster Dean (and one of the most passionate Superman boosters involved in the discussion) points to the first season of the Superman television show as an example of how effective that approach can be.

“Watch "Night of Terror" from the first season of ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN sometime. It is pretty apparent in that story Lois knows exactly who Clark really is. Apparently, that was a convention from the radio show… “

“…The double identity business became a simple metaphor under Weisinger for Lois' desire for commitment from her boyfriend and Superman's reluctance to give it. Lois saw past the glasses, but Clark lied to her anyway. Her belief was that if only she could catch him, then he would change and marry her. I don't know about you, but I know actual human beings that think an awful lot like that.”
Points like this led to numerous deviations from the main topic, like whether Clark’s glasses had become an insulting comic idea or were still a valid part of the Superman mythos.  

As a sometime cartoonist myself, I suspect originally it was to create a clear visual distinction between Superman and Clark. Superman had tights, a cape and a spit curl. Clark had a suit, tie and glasses.  It was a common trope in films, comic strips and stage comedies of the time to have someone mousy (male or female) remove their glasses and revealing a somehow more attractive version of themselves.

So many of these simple questions start out with simple answers but when a character is published for over eighty years, even simple questions grow more complicated with each passing year.

Other fun tangents included:

-The reasons the Atom can divorce Jean Loring while Superman can’t divorce Lois.

- Superman, a super-evolved being from a super-evolved planet, is stuck on Earth with less evolved people and therefore has few appropriate potential life-mates. 

-The idea that in serialized entertainment like Superman comics married couples are only interesting when there is conflict in the marriage. I agree with that statement but Zor-El of Argo suggest that the only conflicts on such soap operas are affairs and that “happily married couples are boring to those of us watching from the outside.”  I disagree with that idea along with the next poster ChrisM.

“The examples Zor-El cites (televised soap operas) may indeed go dip mainly in that limited well, but the truth is even a successful marriage is dynamic and fluid. As different life issues and challenges arise the couple must adapt anew and sometimes that pulls them a little apart and other times they band together.  Chris suggests professional competition and examples awkward relations with in-laws as two possible romantic obstacles.”

I think it would be more accurate to suggest that most writers aren’t interested in portraying that sort of relationship, preferring instead to continually use the soap opera tropes Zor El cites. It’s just too much work to explore real characters when you can ramp up the drama instantly with betrayal.

-Superman digs Lois because she’s a better reporter. Poster Dean scored again, explaining:

“However, (as Mark Waid once pointed out in a podcast with Marv Wolfman) none of that really translates to your chosen profession. Typing really fast does not help your prose. Being able to lift a tank does not help you convince a source to go on record.”

It is just in this one context, there is someone better than you are: Lois Lane.  As mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, you reach up for the first time in your life and she rejects you.  To me, it is an inversion of the Luthor story. Luthor sees someone above him and feels hate. Superman sees someone above him and feels love.”
I’ve gone on enough. Suffice it to say, I was delighted to find myself re-evaluating my thoughts regarding Lois Lane numerous times as I read through this article and the forum.  Check it out for yourself at Giving Lois Lane a Second Look, For The First Time.

I’ll let poster ChrisM have the last word on the topic. Though Chris professes to never have especially liked Lois Lane, he nonetheless sums up the entire conversation nicely:

“I'm agnostic as to whether it was a good idea to marry her and Clark. But that's all water under the bridge; she exists; they're married; and any reasonably talented creative writer *should* be able to tell interesting stories about her in that context. I've seen it happen, so excuses to the contrary are unconvincing.”

Here, here!  Long live Lois Lane!

(And thank you, Kelly)

Next up, Kelly can't stay away from the icons.  A quick peek at Wonder Woman!

Beavers Up! 


  1. Another good posting on Lois Lane:


  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.