Creative corner

    Doctor Cleveland's picture

    Lois Lane, My Love

    Joanne Siegel has passed away. She was the model for the first sketches of Lois Lane and the wife of Superman's co-creator, Jerry Siegel. That gives her the best claim to being Lois Lane that any real person has ever had. In her later years, she was a fierce advocate for her husband's intellectual property claims. I've thought a lot about the Superman creators over the years, and part of me is tempted only to blog about intellectual property. But the truth is that Lois Lane has probably shaped the course of my adult life more than any other fictional character has, without me thinking about it.

    All the years I spent reading comic books, before I was old enough to think critically or to act on the messages I was being given, I was picking up a bunch of basic lessons about how adults were supposed to live and what they were supposed to want. You were supposed to live in a big city. You were supposed to have a job. (Even if you could fly and squeeze diamonds out of coal, you were supposed to have a job. It wasn't about the money.) And when you fell in love, you were supposed to fall in love with a poised, confident, and whip-smart brunette, someone who was at least as good at her job as you were and at least as smart as you were: a woman like Lois Lane.

    I have Lois and her creators to thank for an adulthood full of smart, interesting women. Women with careers and style, women who appreciate good prose and smart remarks, women who are nearly impossible to intimidate. Some only gave me a bout of spring heartsickness or an autumn of giddy smiles, some became my partners for as long as we could make our partnerships work, and one has redefined my notions of happiness, but they've all been bright and self-possessed and ambitious, and my life has been incalculably richer for it. I grew up presuming that if a straight man were able to do nearly anything he wanted and could pursue anyone he liked, he would choose a woman who was undeniably his equal. With more experience behind me, I still feel this is true. I would like to thank Clark Kent for the tip.

    I'm not going to pretend that Superman comics were feminist documents, or that Superman is a good role model when it comes to romance. Everyone knows you shouldn't lie to your beloved, let alone systematically deceive her about who you are; you'd have to be from another planet to think otherwise. And it takes neurosis beyond the scope of mortal man to start a love triangle where you are your own rival, let alone to keep that phantom rivalry going for more than half a century. By the time I discovered Superman, Lois, and Clark's triangular mishegas, the comics had toned down most of the overt snickering at Lois for not figuring out that she was being lied to on a daily basis. In the 1950s, Superman would collude with the readers by literally winking to them out of the panel frame, sharing a joke on silly Lois who couldn't figure out the secret that every schoolboy with a spare dime already knew, and who was moreover a girl. But when I started reading, thirty-six years back, the wink had stopped being part of the monthly formula. And while Lois surely needed rescuing on steady schedule, even as a schoolboy I knew that this was about genre and not gender. Lois had to get herself in regular jams to keep the plot machinery from jamming, and I knew that. But the premise, after all, was that Superman was not like other men, so I naturally chalked up the rescuing to the super part, not the man part. Being rescued by that guy was nothing to be ashamed about; it could happen to anyone.

    And it mattered, although I could not have articulated this, that Lois really did get herself in those jams, that it was her fearless sense of enterprise that got her in trouble. In fact, she's much more adventurous than Superman is; she takes more risks. Inevitably, one of her daring gambles would lead to a bad break and she would need to be bailed out by her bulletproof admirer. Lois didn't need rescuing twice a month because she was too stereotypically girly. She needed rescuing because she was too brave.

    Lois Lane worked for me precisely because I encountered her in the middle of an extremely male fantasy, a fantasy where she was placed at the core. And in many ways she set a better example than characters like Wonder Woman, who represent a male fantasy about powerful women; you won't catch Lois wearing a pair of slave bracelets. An adolescent fantasy about the strongest woman in the world ends up with her dressed like some kind of harem girl. But with Superman, it's a fantasy of unchallengeable male power. And the lesson was that a strong, confident man wants a strong, confident woman. Made sense to me.

    After all, it was always Lois who made the Superman concept work. She was Siegel and Shuster's great stroke of genius: Superman is absolutely invincible in adventure-plot terms, but love lays him low every time. The relationship with Lois, not the nonsense with gangsters and mad scientists and goofy-looking monsters, is the problem to be overcome. Lois, not Kryptonite, is his weak spot. What's great about this is that the adventure-story plot, where any suspense is artificial, becomes openly unsuspenseful, and the characters' relationship, which is potentially interesting, remains complicated and unresolved. Superman always saves the day (as you expected) and he never fixes his personal life (or didn't, until 58 years into the game). Of course, it was part of the formula that Clark and Lois never resolved their issues, but leaving them unresolved again and again focuses the narrative suspense toward what is real and human. Radioactive green rocks from outer space are not a real problem, not for us and not really, when it comes down to it, for Superman either. Love, on the other hand, will kick your ass all the way back to Krypton.

    Lois was Superman's key difficulty from the very first episode: she's at the core of his character and the heart of the entire story concept. Before there was Kryptonite, there was Lois. Before there was Lex Luthor, there was Lois. When and if Superman is ever allowed to enter the public domain, Lois will go with him, because she was with him in his very first appearance. And he needs her. Without her, he has no story. Nothing can hurt him. Nothing can keep him from doing whatever he pleases. There's no suspense of any kind. (Put another way, Superman is an enormously boring character, but Clark Kent is fascinating.)

    Jerry Siegel's central insight was that superhero comics, which he and Joe Shuster were inventing, are all about girl trouble. All of Superman's superhero descendants are about girl trouble, too, both the reader's and their own. (Bruce Wayne has been in his basement putting on a clinic on How Not to Date Successfully since May, 1939.) When you see a superhero whose relationship troubles aren't actually featured in the plot, the stench of Girl Trouble hangs over the whole enterprise. For Superman, the founder of the species, it's right out there in front. Did I mention I used to read a lot of these things?

    Of course, if you buy a Superman comic today, you'll find Clark and Lois happily married and domesticated. That happened in 1996, about two years after Lois, Clark, and Clark's special pajamas would have gone into the public domain but for copyright-extension laws. And that provides an object lesson in what our current perpetual-copyright regime does to very old properties.

    Under the terms of the bad deal that Siegel and Shuster made in the 1930s, DC Comics and later its corporate parents gained complete rights to the character for a measly $130. (Later, when Siegel and Shuster complained that DC was creating spin-off characters like Superboy without giving them a cut, they were fired from their jobs writing and drawing the character they'd created.) In 1938, that $130 bought DC exclusive rights for a maximum of 56 years, but since then Congress has extended the terms of copyright repeatedly. This is notionally for the benefit of creators, and more directly creators' heirs (extending the term from fifty years after the creator's death to seventy-five years after the creator's death can really only be about the heirs, and about the publishing company). To some extent this is true, and after one of the later extensions Joanne Siegel and the rest of Jerry's heirs did actually get half of the Superman copyright back. But of course, they get nowhere close to half of the revenue from that copyright. Creators and their families do get thrown the occasional bone, because they're the big media companies' official excuse for extending copyright again and again; you've got to at least hand out a few bucks to maintain the pretense. But the real profits of the extension go to companies like, say, Time Warner. It's nice that Siegel's family finally saw a piece of the money, but it's only a piece.

    Meanwhile, Superman and Lois remain in the exclusive custody of DC comics, 73 years after they were invented. That means DC Comics gets to define the characters and shape their portrayal. Some fans of perpetual copyright actually cheer for this exclusivity on the grounds that the corporate owner looks after the characters and guards the core of the tradition. But in fact, DC Comics (a subsidiary of Time Warner) drastically reinvented Lois and Superman and removed the core of their storyline. Characters who were defined by not getting together are now blandly married. (Actual married life is not blander, simpler, or less interesting than single life is, but married life in Action Comics is just one long snore.) And with that half-smart re-thinking, the only legitimately interesting thing about Superman vanishes. (It's a bit like deciding that Romeo and Juliet's families should get along better. If one company still had a monopoly on Romeo and Juliet and decided that, it would just be a story about two good-looking kids and a bedroom window.)

    This is what happens when fictional characters outlive their original creators but are kept from the free market. The official custodians are now too far from the moment of creation to have any intuitive sense of how and why the characters originally worked, but rival creators who might have a better or smarter grasp of the characters are barred from competing. Over time the writers and editors at DC forgot that Lois was supposed to be the humanizing weakness and started to wonder why their perfect superhuman leading man had this puzzling and "uncharacteristic" weakness. How could the Greatest Superhero of All Time be such a loser in his personal life? It made no sense! They had to make the character more consistent!

    It wasn't enough that Clark Kent was immune to bullets, gravity, and abdominal fat. No, he had to have a perfect love life, too. And so he became perfectly boring. Now I have to root for Luthor.

    If you're one of the fifty thousand people or so who reads a Superman comic this month (what remains from the old audience of millions), you'll find that the focus is on just how perfect Superman's conduct and values are, and on how much all of the minor DC Comics characters admire him. (What's interesting about the world-famous character is sacrificed in order to make him a more effective backstop to valuable DC properties like Beast Boy and Air Wave.) And there's now a heavy emphasis on Superman's "Midwestern values." You see, he's such a good person because he was raised in Kansas. And if being from the Great Plains States isn't an interesting character hook, I don't know what else could be.

    The indomitable Lois Lane of my own childhood won't be infiltrating youngsters' boyhood fantasies, alas. Her publishers gave up on selling to kids long ago, or selling to anyone but a small core of hobbyists. (When I wanted to read a Superman comic, I got thirty-five cents and a posse of friends together and walked to the variety store. These days, Superman is sold in specialty shops, like kayaking gear.) And even so, she's no longer quite the same fearless adventurer who stealthily rearranged my expectations of what adulthood and adult relationships would be like. But the deed is done; I long ago graduated to real women, smart and confident professionals like the famous Miss Lane, and discovered that a few of them actually wanted to spend their time with the nerd in the glasses, and liked me even if I couldn't fly.

    Thanks, Jerry. Thanks, Joe. And rest in peace, Joan.

    Comments

    I always think of the second TV Lois Lane, Noel Neill, who has been a great friend of the Superman brand. Neill  was pretty, but as a boy watching the series, I found her testy and annoying.

    The old cartoon Lois, and Brenda Starr, were more like the persona you describe.

    I do recall reading a comic in which Batman and a one-armed Green Arrow were trying to defeat Clark, who had become a tool of an autocratic US.


    George Reeves.  What a flash from the past and a favorite tv show. I remember being very confused by the news that Superman had shot and killed himself, an impossibility for a nine-year old.  I accused my brother of lying when he told me and considered the next new episode to air as proof he was wrong.  

    Loss of innocence can occur in strange ways.


    I first heard from other kids that Reeves thought he was Superman and jumped out a window. My Mom told me he had been depressed and killed himself, which is still disputed.


    The fifties TV show was kind of a drag. I remember watching it whenever reruns came on, but feeling more like I should enjoy it than that I was having a lot of fun.

    The comic book was "The Dark Knight," one of the landmark comics that heralded the New Maturity that was going to change comic books for good, and totally make it worth it to move to the specialty shops instead of selling to kids through drugstore racks. (The title of the recent Batman movie, "The Dark Knight" totally comes from the comic book back in 1984 or 1985.)

    Somehow, the new excting new world of highbrow adult comics never quite happened; there are always a few smart exciting comics around, just as there always were, but there's never been the promised sea change. You will periodically see the newpaper stories about how Comics Are Not Just for Kids Anymore (!!!) which tend to talk about the same three or four comic books from twenty-five years ago. The typical comic has gone from pleasantly and energetically lowbrow to convultedly middlebrow. They used to be aimed at 9-year-old boys who might be picking up a comic for the first time. Now they're aimed at thirty- and forty-something fans who've been reading a stack of comics every Wednesday for the last twenty years.


    The nine-year-olds are reading Naruto.


    I'll take your word for it.


    Fun piece, doctor. I half-expected you to confess that reading Superman was what inspired you to adopt a secret identity. The cartoon character I most admire: zen master Bugs Bunny.


    Ha. Good point. And it actually turned out that today was kind of a secret identity day, with one persona finishing this blog and the Official Professional persona publishing something in a totally different place. And the twain? Not meeting.

    Also, for the record, I was always in the Batman as opposed to Superman camp, if the choice was put to me. But when it comes to romance, Batman is a strictly negative example.


    Two different blogs on comics.

    As a kid I was quite taken by the drawings. What an art form.

    And now every other movie seems to have a theme drawn from comic books.

    Then I found out that people like Lucas make up a script that looks like a comic book.

    Then I realized all film is made up of pictures with dialogue--dancing comic books.

    Good night Lois. Sweet dreams!


    Then I realized all film is made up of pictures...dancing comic books

    Just so happens this was even more literal than your comment implies, as  "flip books" had a very direct part in the development of cinema.


    E.L. Doctorow agrees.  He has the Jewish immigrant character in "Ragtime" invent the flip book which leads to him becoming a movie director:

     


    Wonderful post, Doc.  In my family of birth and observing my parents' friends and how they interacted, the women were always assertive, verbally and otherwise.  I didn't really think about it in this way at the time but in retrospect it seems as though they were expected to be.  As in, if you were a man why would you even think of being with some shrinking violet who would not take charge of situations and make whatever she took on work?  I guess I figured that was the way things generally were because it was pretty much all I experienced for a long time.  And that seemed more real to me than the TV shows I grew up watching which sent different messages.  (Remember "I Dream of Jeannie"?  That was my first girlfriend's dad's favorite show.  Subtle evocation of one type of male fantasy, that.) 

    My dad, to my private disgust, was sometimes dismissive of my mother when she would say something about the "wider world" that, frankly, often reflected ignorance, on account of her, like, doing most of the work as well as running his dental practice in lieu of reading the newspaper or watching the news.  She was too poor, and in any case had to help her mom run the family candy and cigar store after her dad was incapacitated with a stroke, to go to college. 

    I don't recall ever seeing male friends of my parents figuratively "roll their eyes" at, subtly dismiss, something their or others' wives said.  They might have been mindful of the presence of young'uns and reigned themselves in in front of us.  To the contrary, the men seemed not only comfortable with but downright appreciative of what might have been characterized by some, pejoratively, as "brassiness".

    Then there was my aunt, a longtime high school math teacher and later a school district budget director.  She was warm and caring beneath the surface reserve but just would not tolerate nonsense from other people.  She projected a kind of aura which said she was not someone you would even think about crossing--she was dignity, competence, strong common sense, and quiet strength personified.

    Her hub was a highly caring but also no-nonsense high school principal, raised in a small-town Jewish family, the 2nd of 3 kids, with my dad being the eldest.  A liberal Republican, back when there were many in the northeast and midwest, in his politics (in his Florida retirement he was appalled at what the Bush Administration was doing to the country, and has voted Dem for a long time now), he showed courage in marrying outside the faith when that was not widespread and in the face of some major pushback on that from his father in particular. 

    After the initial hazing process and their recognition that their views were not going to affect my uncle's decision, it didn't take his parents terribly long to love my aunt dearly.  She just didn't give them any reasons or excuses not to--she was much too helpful, kind, reasonable, respectful, intelligent.  What I observed in the interaction between her and my uncle was complete intellectual respect--in all realms--of a sort I did not see between my parents.  It made me want that some day, too. 

    This is the stuff, times a bunch, of which social revoluations are made.  My aunt and uncle were barrier-busters.  The rabbis, most of them, have been mortified for awhile now that half or more Jews in the US marry non-Jews.  I'd like to think that if Judaism offers something of value, and I believe it does, it will survive on that account.  I'm not sure it's quite that simple, though.  Another subject, for another day, perhaps.  

    All this was long before I saw any Katharine Hepburn movies.  Which in turn was well before I married, on the late side.  My wife has a lot of Hepburn-like qualities.  As, it appears to me, do many of the women at dag who wouldn't even think of taking crap from anyone.  Thank goodness.  When it comes to full opportunity to participate actively in public life, this society and this world needs all hands on deck, and then some.  Thanks for helping me see, Doc, that I owe a HT to Joanne Siegel, too.


    Latest Comments