"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Comic Books, Film
Seventy-five years ago, on or about April 18, 1938, the company that would become DC Comics published the first issue (cover-dated June 1938) of a new anthology series. Today, Action Comics #1 is remembered mainly (and justifiably so) for introducing Superman.
Naturally, many of the elements and concepts from that first Superman story have changed over time. In Action #1, all we see of Krypton is its final fate. Pa Kent doesn’t have a first name, and Clark works for the Daily Star. There’s no Lex Luthor, no Jimmy Olsen, no Kryptonite, and no Superboy. Even Superman’s powers pale in comparison to what they would become.
However, two characters are already fleshed out pretty well, with motivations and dynamics instantly recognizable to today’s readers. One, of course, is Clark Kent, who creates the Superman identity to “turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind,” and who hides that strength behind a pair of glasses and a meek demeanor.
The other is Lois Lane.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster apparently created Lois from a mix of their own romantic longings. Les Daniels’ Superman: The Complete History (1998) cites Siegel’s crush on fellow student Lois Amster, who later “recalled only that Siegel ‘used to stare at me. He was a strange guy, and I never had any friendship or conversation with him’” (p. 19). While Shuster used a model named Joanne Carter for Lois’ appearance, per Daniels “[t]here seems little doubt that her spunk, enthusiasm, and determination had a real effect on the [character]’s personality.” Siegel, Shuster and Carter quickly became friends, and Siegel and Carter eventually married (p. 20).
Still, for decades “unattainability” defined the Clark/Lois/Superman relationship. That quality too is present, if only embryonically, in Action #1. Lois wants little to do with the cowardly Clark, but is drawn inexorably to the mysterious Superman who saves her from gangsters. Reinforcing the eternal triangle is Superman’s unwillingness to tell Lois the truth, ostensibly out of concern for her safety.*
Accordingly, Lois’ good name was not served (to say the least) by countless stories portraying her as various combinations of oblivious, conniving, foolish and/or possessive. At the other points of the triangle, Clark/Superman tended to come off as somewhere between pitying and condescending. (Naturally, Kate Beaton has satirized both nicely.) By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, though, these stories were gradually being replaced with more nuanced portrayals, as Lois and Clark/Superman started to act more like real people. Lois was involved with both Clark and Superman — how that worked out, I’m not sure — and the four-part “Who Took the Super Out of Superman?” arc** implied strongly that Lois and Clark slept together.
Finally, for Superman’s 40th anniversary in 1978, Lois and Clark got married. You might say “oh, it was just on Earth-Two,” but in practical Multiverse terms that meant it involved the original couple from Action #1. Fittingly, it took place in the pages of June 1978’s Action Comics #484.*** Set in the early 1950s, the somewhat-unfortunately titled “Superman Takes a Wife” tells the tale of a year without Superman, when an old Justice Society villain called the Wizard magically caused the Man of Steel to forget his heroic identity. Consequently, Clark’s crimefighting bent manifested rather forcefully in his reportage — and with no Superman around, Clark the two-fisted newsman was free to woo Lois without reservation.
However, Lois soon learned the secret — by watching Clark shrug off machine-gun fire without even realizing someone was shooting at him — and decided that for the good of humanity, she had to step aside. Tracking down the Wizard and playing on his vanity, she convinced him to reverse the spell. Later, packing her things, she told Superman “[a]dmit it — you never would have married me if it weren’t for the Wizard.”
“You’re probably right!” he replied, perhaps demonstrating a lack of super-tact. “On the other hand, if it weren’t for the Wizard — I never would have had the chance to realize how much I’ve always loved you!” A brief Kryptonian ceremony then dissolved the Earth-Two triangle for good.
Still, the notion persisted that Superman couldn’t commit to Lois without abandoning his responsibilities. This was probably portrayed most famously in Superman II, when Clark gave up his powers in order to be with Lois, and then took away her memories of his identity to spare her their burden. That reads like a “modernized” version of some ‘50s-style Imaginary Tale, when the best of intentions produced horrible consequences, solved only by a few feats of super-paternalism. Regardless, the Superman lore of the ‘70s and ‘80s was built on the traditional eternal triangle, and particularly on “Clark Kent” being a role that Superman played. If the truth ever came out, Lois would look foolish for falling in love with an act, and Superman would be worse off the longer the act lasted.
Even so, Lois held her own. Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane lasted from 1958 through 1974 (137 issues and two annuals), and Lois’ solo adventures continued in Superman Family through its final issue in 1982. Lois herself was a fixture at the Daily Planet, although when Clark moved over to WGBS-TV she contributed to his newscast as well. Her skill at Klurkor, a Kryptonian martial art, made her more independent of Superman. Her adventures weren’t all winners (like November 1970’s awkward “I Am Curious (Black!)” in Lois Lane #106), but collectively they showed a woman trying to be something more than simply a plot device.
When the 1986 revamp changed Superman’s history, it also altered his relationship with Lois profoundly. By making “Superman” a persona which Clark assumed, instead of the other way around, Lois and Clark’s eventual romance was more grounded. They began dating in earnest around 1990 (I want to say around the time of “Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite”) and Clark told Lois the secret in Action #662 (February 1992). Indeed, as Clark’s partner, Lois proved to be exceptionally good at helping keep his secret safe. They got married in 1996**** and stayed together for the next fifteen years, until the New-52 reboot. However, although she helped “raise” Kara Zor-El and Lor-Zod when they each came to Earth, marriage didn’t turn Lois domestic. Over the course of a quarter-century, the post-Crisis On Infinite Earths Lois Lane remained an important part of the Superman books, both as a hard-nosed reporter and a potential romantic lead (and sometimes not with Superman). In fact, Lois became a major DC-Earth player generally, particularly in a couple of Wonder Woman stories.
Lois soon came to represent Clark/Superman’s connection to the Earth, if not to humanity itself. A number of alternate-universe stories (including Kingdom Come and the current Injustice: Gods Among Us), as well as the nightmarish future of JLA’s “Rock of Ages,” use Lois’ death as a plot point to show dire effects on Superman. Conversely, the final scenes of the in-continuity far-future miniseries DC One Million have Lois revived by super-science and reunited with an immortal Superman who’s returned from millennia in exile; and an issue stranding Superman for an eternity with Wonder Woman (January 2000’s Action #761) did nothing to shake his devotion.
Although it makes Lois sound like all she does is help facilitate Superman’s characterization (a phrase which doesn’t quite do the idea justice), I think the role of “Superman’s anchor” — poor choice of words, I know — suits her well. Again, from the beginning Lois has personified Clark/Superman’s desire to fit in. To a certain extent, we measure our social success by the quality of friends we have, and the better Lois is as a person, the more plausible it is that Clark would at least want her respect. The danger is that Lois — even a hypercompetent Lois — becomes something of a merit badge for Superman, like an achievement he has to attain in order to satisfy a character goal. Therefore, the challenge is to present Lois and Clark’s relationship in as natural a fashion as possible, neither taking it for granted nor denying its importance.
And the relationship is important, because Siegel and Shuster considered it so. They projected onto Lois their own dreams, not of a super-woman who could match the Man of Tomorrow power for power, but of the ordinary relationships they themselves wanted. Today we consider Superman to be a paragon of human virtues, always doing the right thing regardless of the cost. If we turn that around slightly, it’s not hard to imagine that Superman considers Lois a shining example of humanity, and that’s why he loves her. Put another way, if conventional wisdom defines Superman at least in part by his relationships to regular people — including the Kents, the Planet staff and Lex Luthor — Lois must be one of the best “regular people” in his life.
So, as we pause to reflect on seventy-five years of Superman, we must also consider seventy-five years of Lois Lane. There have been as many Loises over the decades as there have been Supermen, whether on the radio, the big and small screens, on the stage, or in animation. There have been good Lois stories and bad ones. Nevertheless, throughout it all Lois remains an inspiration — not just to readers, but to the professionals who chronicle her adventures, and indeed to Superman himself. She is smart, tenacious, devoted, jaded (but not overly so), capable, and filled with righteous energy. When you love someone you want to do your best for her. I think it’s safe to say that after seventy-five years, a lot of us — human, Kryptonian, whatever — have come to love Lois Lane.
* [After years of deception, his own safety probably plays a role too, as seen in the MAD Magazine parody “Superduperman!” When that Lois learns the secret, she pushes him down and stalks off, sniping “… Big deal! Yer still a creep!”]
** [Superman #s 296-99, February-May 1976; written by Cary Bates and Elliott S! Maggin, pencilled by Curt Swan, and inked by Bob Oksner.]
*** [Written by Bates, penciled by Swan, inked by Joe Giella.]
**** [As Brian Cronin relates, the wedding would have been sooner if not for the Lois & Clark TV series.]