Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
It’s Looooove Week! here at Robot 6, so initially I felt a little obligated to offer a rundown of various DC power-couples (no pun intended) through the years. You know, something about the eternal pairing of Hawkman and Hawkgirl; maybe the notion that the Earth-2 Black Canary was comics’ first “cougar” (oh, how I hate that term); or, you know, anything about Terry Long. Because in our own ways, don’t we all love Terry Long? (As I understand it, we kid because we love.)
However, today I’m not going to do that. I got up to 12 couples without any Legionnaires or Infinitors, and it was just a big mess. Today, then, let’s focus simply on the king and queen of DC’s superhero prom, the couple so nice they got married twice (on Earth-2, at least), Clark Kent and Lois Lane. Their relationship works today thanks to a change in Superman’s perspective instituted in the 1986 revamp – – a change which, unlike so many other aspects of that revamp, might never be overturned.
For most of the Silver Age, the Earth-1 Superman had been aware of his Kryptonian heritage pretty much since birth. This helped make mild-mannered, ineffectual “Clark Kent” rather artificial by comparison (remember, and who, disguised as Clark Kent…). To be sure, Clark was vital to Superman’s existence for any number of reasons, not the least of which was the memory of his foster parents; and the loss of Clark would have dealt a crippling blow to Superman. Still, “Clark” was not who Kal-El was.
Accordingly, for the most part it was Superman, not Clark, who wooed Earth-1’s Lois Lane. It didn’t get much farther than wooing, either. Lois never really learned Superman’s secret; and all things being equal, that’s probably for the best. While I have a great affection for the Earth-1 version of Clark Kent (or “Maggin Clark”), I must admit that he works best from Superman’s perspective. Maggin Clark has a distinct air of passive aggression, as if the disguise is the only thing keeping Superman from booting the boorish Steve Lombard out a window. Bill’s secret-identity rant from Kill Bill, Vol. 2 is about Clark-the-disguise:
Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.
Now, that’s not an accurate assessment of Superman’s feelings towards humanity, but we’re not looking at it from Superman’s perspective. I mean, I can see how Lois would be not just a little creeped out, but actually insulted that the guy she loved was hiding in plain sight right in front of her practically all the time. Maggin Clark’s real flaw is that there is no great payoff for revealing one’s true identity to the world. There are only more questions.
So, on the whole, there wasn’t a lot of upside for a Lois/Clark marriage using the regular Earth-1 setup. Ironically, according to the 1978 issue of Action Comics which marked Superman’s 40th anniversary, the Earth-2 Clark Kent married Lois Lane during a period in the early ‘50s when he had lost all his memories of having been Superman. This produced a Clark who was far from mild-mannered, and clearly not a “disguise”; and who in Superman’s “absence” had become a two-fisted crusading journalist, both investigating organized crime and busting it up with his bare hands. This Clark almost made Lois forget about Superman … until their honeymoon, when she saw him completely oblivious to being sprayed with bullets, and realized that all her suspicions had been confirmed. Her heart breaking, Lois tracked down the villain responsible for Clark’s memory loss, arranged for him to set things straight, and waited at home for Superman to end her happy marriage to Clark. Of course, that didn’t happen, and Kal-L and Lois were married at Superman’s mountain retreat (Action Comics #484, June 1978).
Again, I doubt that such a relationship would have been possible if Clark were the disguise. In “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” (arguably the final fate of the Earth-1 Superman), the marriage happened (as on Earth-2) after the dual identity had been eliminated. Likewise, on Earth-2 the marriage endured alongside the dual identity because it followed that period where “Clark” wasn’t a disguise.
Thus, in order for Clark to have a healthy long-term relationship with Lois, Clark must be the “real person.” This was exactly the shift in perspective hardwired into the 1986 revamp. In The Man Of Steel #1 (October 1986), Kal-El was technically born on Earth and only learned of his unusual origins (and not all of them) when he turned 18. To facilitate using his powers in public, he created the persona of “Superman,” a larger-than-life figure who would otherwise let Clark be Clark. Thus, over the next few years, Clark (not Superman) wooed Lois, and yadda yadda yadda, now they’re married.
Still, why do we care? Why does Superman need a girlfriend, let alone a wife?
Well, put simply, under the post-1986 rules, Lois has become “Clark” … or, more to the point, Lois has solidified Superman’s connection to humanity. This may seem counterintuitive considering that, for all practical purposes, Revamped Clark considers himself human. However, over the years we’ve seen Superman shrug off Clark’s humanity, like when he was possessed by the Kryptonian Eradicator, or when he took over the world. Besides, the more Superman gets in touch with his Kryptonian side, the more Clark’s humanity is tested. Granted, the tests may not be that hard when most of the Kryptonians are arrogant fascists; but I suspect one of the character arcs in World Of New Krypton will involve Superman potentially compromising his human ethics in order to bring progress to New Krypton.
But that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves. This post is about love …
… and make no mistake, it’s Clark’s love of Lois which cements his bond to humanity. As shown in MoS #1, Superman’s first public appearance involves saving Lois’ life, and for him it’s love at first sight. Clearly he’s committed to using his powers for good, even if he has to use them in secret, as he tries to do with the shuttle. However, Lois literally brings him out into the open, stopping him before he has a chance to fly away. The inevitable crowd catches up to them, an undisguised Clark realizes he needs some kind of buffer between himself and the public, and a dual identity is born.
Before the crowd, though, the “spark” which passes between them confirms for Clark that Lois is his destiny, true love, soulmate, etc. Like so many of us who imagine we have our lives all figured out, when that special someone comes along, Clark probably thinks she’s the last piece of his life’s puzzle. Instead, a bit of the old emo comes in: Lois creates the need for “Superman,” and Superman both complicates and facilitates Clark’s relationship with her. (By the way, I recently read the first Essential Thor, and was amazed at how much space it devoted to the extremely similar — and thoroughly unhip — Thor/Blake/Jane triangle.) In light of John Byrne’s cold, emotionless Krypton, Clark’s gobsmacked reaction also confirms for the reader that he’s free from any of his home planet’s societal influences.
Still, why Lois? Why not his old Smallville pal Lana Lang, who knows all about Clark’s powers? If Clark just wants someone to love, Lana’s not going anywhere.
Indeed, that’s the problem. Lana represents Smallville, which Clark must leave if he’s going to do the most good. By contrast, Lois represents Clark’s future, even if neither knows it right away.
See, in the old days, the disguise called “Clark Kent” actually was Kal-El’s emulation of humanity — not by way of mockery or self-degradation, but self-defense. Post-1986, “Superman” became the coping mechanism, because being human was all Clark knew. Before that, though, coming to grips with his powers and still-mysterious origins caused Clark to remove himself somewhat from humanity, operating in secret as he traveled the world. Therefore, Lois is an important part of Clark’s life on a personal level — but in a pretty significant way, she’s important too for her role in creating Superman. Whether Clark fell in love with Lois because she was helping him fulfill his destiny, or whether he fell for her regardless, is almost immaterial now. Clark already knows what it’s like to be human; but Lois inspires him to be a better human … and isn’t that essentially what our loved ones do for us?
In the past several years, the revamped origin from 1986 has been revised itself, in large and small ways. The upcoming Superman: Secret Origin miniseries promises to set the record straight. I expect it to establish that, as on Earth-1, Clark knew about his Kryptonian heritage pretty early on. However, I don’t think it will — or can — change Clark’s post-1986 human-centered perspective. That perspective has helped Clark better relate to Lois, and over the years has contributed to the overall health of their relationship. As long as Clark is the “real person,” I don’t expect that to change.
For Lois’ part, the 1986 revamp freed her from the burden of all those Silver Age stories which cast her as a superficial, love-crazed psychotic, endlessly made to look foolish by Superman (and Clark). Revamped Lois got to be more of her own person, and with the Superman titles’ interconnections, readers got to know her week by week. Four years into the revamp, Lois accepted Clark’s proposal in Superman vol. 2 #50 (December 1990), and Clark revealed his secret to her a few months later (in Action #662, February 1991). It took another six years for the two to tie the knot.
In hindsight none of this seems inappropriate to me, given the role Lois played in the revamped origin. Naturally Lois’ fate would be intertwined with both Clark’s and Superman’s, since their “shared spark” pretty much made “Superman” necessary. Even so, it’s fascinating to me that, for at least twenty years, Superman owed his existence to the spark of true love.