Over the past couple of weeks, I have been reading the excitingly strange pages of the newly published first volume of reprints of that strange blast from the past, the adventures of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane. And before those of you less devoted to ephemera than I raise a hand, yes there really was a comic with that title, running continuously from 1958 to 1974, which is pretty respectable as these things go.
Now, as you may have gathered from the picture, this was not one of your serious, weighty comics that pose deep questions about this and that. Rather it was lightweight, indeed, positively silly, and it may safely be said that its only real redeeming feature is that it did inspire some elements of Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman. Now, there’s nothing wrong with silly; the Tales from Bizarro World are always silly and frequently hilarious. The problem is that there’s something else in Lois Lane, a sour quality to the stories and the way they are told, which marks them out and raises questions. And so, I shall pose, and then try to answer, those questions, without further ado.
Who read it?
Lois Lane was created as a way of cashing in on the popularity of Superman and his penumbra of characters. DC had been doing very well with the relentlessly brainless Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen for some while, and they, very naturally, thought it would be a nice idea to try to attract female readers with a similar title aimed squarely at them. Hence Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane was born. As the book was relentlessly feminine in approach, dealing with such weighty issues as weight-gain, finding a date for the sorority dance, jealousy of other women, etc, while rigorously excluding all forms of weightier fare, with Superman taking the role of a wise and chiding parent rather than a hero, I think it is safe to say that its audience probably was largely female. And as it managed to last for sixteen years, that audience must have been reasonable large.
My point, which will become important later, is that this is not a comic written about women for men. This is no prototype of the erotic comics of the ’60s and ’70s. Though Lois is depicted as being reasonably attractive, she is always well covered, and the art is simply miles away from that of the pin-up or man’s magazine (contrast the cover above with the 1960 Bill Ward ‘adult’ cover shown here). Moreover, her relationship with Superman, and everyone else, is chaste in the extreme; it is fair to say that the characters behave like children, with the motivations of children, rather than anything ‘adult’. This is the kind of regrettable relationship and romance fodder that Jack Kirby created, and which was (and is) overwhelmingly read by women. As such, its success means that women wanted to read it.
What did they read?
So, turning to the content, we find something rather strange. One might have expected that a comic about Lois Lane which was aimed at an audience of women might, well, be sympathetic to its central character, and portray her in a positive light. Remember at this point that we are decades away from such anti-heroines as Harley Quinn, whom we adore in spite of, almost because of, their negative qualities. In a more optimistic time, characters were good or bad, and clearly demarcated as such.
What we find is rather different. With very few exceptions, Lois is presented as being silly, dishonest, dumb, heedless, hapless and obsessed with nailing Superman (while constantly expressing contempt for Clark Kent). Moreover Superman’s attitude to her is that of a rather impatient father towards a badly-behaved daughter. Whenever she gets into one of her scrapes, he doesn’t try to understand why she might have got there; he just extracts her, usually in such a way as to make it impossible for her to do whatever it was again, and generally humiliating her in order to ‘teach her a lesson’.
Thus in one episode, Lois obtains some special garments from Krypton that give the wearer superpowers, and she proceeds to charge off to do good. Unfortunately, she’s a bit slapdash, so Superman has to follow her round as a kind of clean-up squad. Now, he could have chosen to explain this to her, and school her in what it means to be a superhero, thus giving her the chance either to gain in experience, or else to give up of her own will. Instead he plots to destroy the efficacy of the garments. Lois can’t be educated into how to grow up; she must have the toy taken away from her and remain a child.
In another episode, Lois is so unhappy at the continuing failure of her campaign to get Superman to propose to her that she undergoes hypnosis to have memories of her love of him expunged from her mind. When he learns of this, how do you think Superman reacts? Why, he celebrates. He bounces around his apartment crying ‘yippee!’ and being generally pleased as Punch that he no longer has to put up with her romantic attentions. Lois is seen as a burden on Superman rather than as a potential lover, let along an equal.
What it seems to boil down to is this. What we see is nothing surprising. The negative take on Lois, and Superman’s dismissive attitude to her, are typical of 1950s views of women. Given that the comics were written by men, this is no surprise. What is a surprise, however, is that women chose to buy and read this stuff in sufficient numbers to keep it going for sixteen years. Why would women want to read a comic that told them, repeatedly, that they were children, while men were the adults?
My answer to this seeming paradox is interesting, if depressing, as it shows very clearly how discrimination against one group can, in fact, be self-imposed, and the group themselves may connive (unconsciously) in its enforcement.
So, say I were an ordinary ’50s girl or woman (there are always exceptions, so this is an averaged out view). My world would be pretty circumscribed. If I wanted to work, the options were extremely limited, and society, particularly in the US, told me repeatedly that my prime purpose was to marry some man and then devote myself to looking after him and his children. Society enforced very strongly the roles of women as children and men as adults. So, obviously I need some source of escapism to prevent me from going mad.
This can take two forms. The traditional form is that of the forbidden fruit fantasy sold by the romance comics: dreams of erotic pleasure in a environment where there was definitely no kitchen and absolutely no carpets needing cleaning. However, there is an insidious form. Look at Lois Lane. She is Superman’s consort. That, in a society where status comes from one’s man, places her pretty much at the top of the pyramid; given that Superman is basically a god (see Superheroes in Myth for more on this) then she is a near goddess. But now, being as I am, a harried ’50s housewife, I read the adventures of this near goddess and discover that all the stuff that upsets me happens to her too. She is pushed around by men who don’t take her seriously. Her lover refuses to commit to her and treats her like an impediment. What a relief. For if Lois, who is far higher than me, has to put up with all that provocation, how can I hope not to?
In other words, a group that is discriminated against (in this case, women) can actually find comfort in tales of discrimination against powerful individual women, because it shows them that it’s not just them, there is no magic bullet that they have failed to notice, there are no exceptions. And so they become accepting of their lot and cease to struggle, but continue to require this kind of negative escapism to remind them that the struggle would be futile. And so the discriminated group becomes self-policing, and actually reinforces its own inferior status.
So that’s why it took until the wider acceptance of feminism in the early ’70s for this curious comic to fail. Pressure had to come from outside.