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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, October 18, 2014

BOOLA, BOOLA, BOULEVERSEMENT PT. 1

In QUICK SUPERMAN DEFENSE I took issue with Noah Berlatsky's justifications for considering the Superman character to be an insufficient representation of goodness. Berlatsky's justifications for this verdict were posted on October 8 on the aforementioned thread:


He treats Lois like crap, pretty much. He’s a bully; he occasionally engages in extra-judicial killing




I'll deal in more detail with the second charge later. At the end of "Defense," though, I cited some reasons as to why I thought Berlatsky's reading of the Superman-Lois relationship, as articulated by their creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was erroneous.

I don't have at my disposal all of the Siegel-and-Shuster stories of Superman's Golden Age period. So I admit that the survey I'm presenting here will be incomplete, as it's based only on the stories reprinted in DC's Archive editions of the first eight issues of the SUPERMAN title. As many comics-fans will know, these issues are mixtures of new material and reprints of material from the title's predecessor ACTION COMICS. But though this is an incomplete survey, I think it's indicative of the mindsets of the character's creators in the earliest period.  It's possible that the stories in which Superman "treats Lois like crap" dominate later issues in the Siegel-and-Shuster, but it's just as possible-- if not more so-- that Berlatsky is remembering stories he didn't like from later periods of the feature. Most of the modern scorn toward the Superman-Lois relationship has been founded in fannish dislike of Lois' frequent humiliations during the Silver Age, when editor Mort Weisinger wielded almost incontrovertible power over the Superman titles.  I naturally invite Mr. Berlatsky to offer more detailed proofs of his position, but he won't find much in the issues I'm surveying.

Again, as many comics-fans already know, Siegel and Shuster's earliest surviving Superman continuity was originally designed as a comic-strip proposal, which then had to be cut and pasted when the feature was sold as a first-time comic book. ACTION #1 does not reprint the entire continuity of this first sample, but SUPERMAN #1 does. Most fans also know that in her first appearance, Lois Lane accepts a date with stodgy Clark Kent with an attitude of "it's against my better judgment, but..."



This sequence-- which did make the cut in ACTION #1-- presents Lois as no kind of shrinking-violet.  She has a high opinion of herself: she's giving Clark a "break" by accepting a date with him. On the dance-floor she doesn't specify why she avoids Clark, until after an altercation with a pushy mobster.




An interesting line of speculation occurred to me as I re-read this sequence. There's no question that Lois unquestioningly accepts the morality of violence: that she thinks once the goon has intruded on their date, Clark ought to "be a man" and at least attempt to fight the goon. But does she expect this behavior in part because Clark, despite his demeanor, is obviously a big strapping fellow, almost the same size as the goon?  It's a speculation for which I admit there's no evidence either way, given that Jerry Siegel doesn't investigate his characters' motivations in any depth. But the sequence does show that long before Lois meets her ideal Superman, she already has her ideal of masculinity formed as to what men should or should not do-- and obviously, it isn't OK with her if her date asks her to dance with an obnoxious bully.

In that same issue Lois has her first encounter with Superman, who saves her from the mobster and her buddies, who abduct her, possibly-- though a juvenile comic would not say so-- with the intention of raping her. In the second part of the story, Superman saves Lois from a firing-squad.

Several ensuing stories don't include Lois at all. It's possible that these stories represent an early stage of Siegel's plans for the character, in which he would simply bounce about solving people's problems, with no ancillary cast. In SUPERMAN #2, Lois pops up in "Superman Champions Universal Peace." Her only function in the story is to comment on his recent scoop, telling him that he only got the scoop through "pure accidental luck."

In SUPERMAN #3 Clark Kent, investigating an orphanage that mistreats its charges, takes a little precipitate action in his continuing pursuit of Lois. He suggests that the editor send Lois along with him, and much to her chagrin, she's obliged to keep company with the despised wuss. However, they bond a little as they work together to throw off some rival reporters dogging their trail. Lois displays her first evidence of rash action as she sneaks into the orphanage on an intuition that the administrator isn't kosher, and she does find the villain beating a child with a belt.

The same issue reprints the story from ACTION #5 that I mentioned earlier. Lois' editor refuses to let her report on a dam failure because "this is no job for a girl." He wants Kent, so before Clark finds out about the assignment, Lois sends him on a wild-goose chase, so that the editor is forced to give Lois the job. The editor fires Clark for being unavailable, but as Superman the hero saves Lois from the peril of the breaking dam. For the first time the relationship turns amorous as Lois rewards Superman's efforts on her behalf. Clark gets his job back because he gets the story on the dam before she does, but Lois isn't shown being one-upped in the story; instead, she scorns Clark as a "spineless worm" in comparison with the new "he-man" in her life.



Lois is once more the manipulator in the next story, where she accepts a date with Clark because she thinks it's going to lead her into contact with Superman.  Once Clark escorts Lois to her destination, she takes an action that goes further than her usual hijinks: she slips a sleeping-pill into Clark's drink, so that he'll fall asleep and she can take his place at a rendezvous. Naturally, the drug doesn't affect Superman, who once again intervenes to save Lois' ass.

 The last story shows Lois in an even worse light. She steers Clark into taking her on a date to a toughs' hangout, where she hopes to make contact with a source for a new story. In order to make contact with a gangster, she winks at him while dancing with Clark, so that the gangster shunts Clark aside and dances with Lois. The girl reporter swipes a document from the mobster and then tries to leave, this time using her contempt for Clark's cowardice as a means of disengaging from their date. The result of this foolhardiness is that the gangster and his pals take both Lois and Clark prisoner, though of course Superman intervenes to save Lois while protecting his own identity. Clark also scoops Lois again, and this time she's explicitly shown being flummoxed by his getting ahead of her.

Whereas SUPERMAN #3 is rife with a whole lotta Lois, her appearances in issue #4 are nugatory for my purposes.  In SUPERMAN #5 Clark sees a little boy in danger and, since he has no time to change to Superman, he must save the kid in Lois' full sight. Her words to him are revealing vis-a-vis my earlier theory about her response to Clark: "I've always hoped you'd be like this-- brave, daring-- not frightened of your own shadow!" This strongly suggests that in author Siegel's mind, Lois has contemplated Clark as a possible suitor, but any physical appeal he might have for her is mitigated by his lack of bravado. Lois then proceeds to get them both in trouble again, which Superman has to sort out. In this issue and the subsequent one, most of Lois' other appearances involve the same dichotomy-- Lois admires Superman's courage and despises Clark's cowardice-- until we get to the last story in issue #6. In this untitled story, Superman arrives on the scene of a collapsing stadium, and must choose between saving Lois or a group of children from being crushed by falling debris. Lois, who courageously tells the hero to save the children first, is injured when he does so. However, her injuries vanish like magic when Superman gives her a blood-transfusion. Gerard Jones, among others, believes that Jerry Siegel was floating a narrative that might have made it possible for Lois to become a superwoman, since it concludes with the recovered reporter saying, "I feel stronger than I've ever felt." But if the idea was proposed, clearly the editors, preferring a status quo, rejected it.

This sampling suggests that, contrary to Berlatsky's unsupported verdict, Lois is actually the one treating Clark Kent like crap. Granted, given his pose he doesn't have the right to expect her to give him the time of day, but her rejections are laced with unnecessary contempt and sarcasm. And while I believe Siegel wanted readers to think that Lois' femininity did not keep her from being a good reporter, he also wants them to see that she's also going too far when she drugs Clark or maneuvers him into a possible fight-- though these shenanigans may be justifiable if I'm right that Siegel also meant their relationship to be a combative one.

I imagine that none of these findings, though, will impress the sort of bloody comic book elitist who can only see things ideologically. To do this, said elitist must perform the gymnastic feat that the French call the *bouleversement*-- which I'll discuss further in Part 2.




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