Over the past two years, my comic-reading habits have shifted to titles featuring female leads. I can’t get enough of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s Velvet, Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Lazarus, James Robinson and various artists’ Scarlet Witch, Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk’s Mockingbird, and my favorite female superhero of all time, the Black Widow, in two series: one by Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto, and the other by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee. As I recite this list, I hear the voices singing, “What about G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel? And then there’s the fan movement surrounding Carol Danvers, the new Captain Marvel, coming to movie screens everywhere, thank you very much?” Speaking of powerful women and recent film releases, let’s not forget Wonder Woman, as if we could. There’s abundant room for titles from women writers and artists, and slowly but steadily we’re nudging beyond girlfriends in refrigerators toward Bechdel’s ideal.
Tim Hanley reminds us about another female superhero, one often left off the roster, although she’s been on the scene almost from the beginning:
Action Comics #1 hit newsstands in June 1938 and changed the entire course of the comic book industry. The book was an instant hit; the cover featured a man wearing a cape and lifting a car, while inside was the debut story of a character who would go down in history as a tireless crusader for truth and justice. This hero was fearless and brave, quick to stand up to evildoers when no one else would, and unflappable in the face of danger. Her name was Lois Lane. (1)
Lois Lane a superhero? Yes, asserts Hanley in his Lois Lane: The Turbulent History of the Daily Planet’s Ace Reporter. Like Wonder Woman, the object of Hanley’s previous book, Lois Lane has gone through character alterations depending on different writers, shifting industry trends, and changing societal norms. The Lois Lane of my childhood — the Silver Age figure falling out of windows, trying to trick Superman into revealing his secret identity or into marriage — hardly fits the image described in the quoted passage above. In fact, I resented Lois Lane, a continual distraction from the real action. Superman tirelessly struggled to outwit Lex Luthor or to bring Brainiac to heal, but there was Lois, eternally thrusting herself into peril and wasting his and our time. Superman’s girlfriend: what a pain. I wasn’t the only boy holding this opinion. Hanley quotes Thomas Emory, a fan who in the letter column for Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #5 states, “If you ask me, Lois is a big headache for the MAN OF STEEL. Why doesn’t she simmer down?” (65)
Now well into middle age, I understand my misperception. Lois’s persona during the Silver Age greatly stepped away from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original “sob sister” hungry for a scoop. “She fought for every assignment she got, even stealing tips when she had to, and over the years endured kidnappings, fires, and explosions all in the pursuit of a good story.” (1) Years later, in episode after episode Superman treated Lois like an unruly child requiring discipline and a firm lesson. Fans even called for Superman to spank Lois! Since Superman had been emotionally abusing Lois for decades, opines Hanley, why not move on to physically abusing her as well? She had it coming, but what about the Man of Steel’s unsullied reputation? How to take it to Lois while keeping our hero innocent? The answer arrives in Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #14 (1960), when a Superman robot carries out the punishment, a plot mechanism that allows Superman to maintain his honor while Lois receives the treatment fans so thought she deserved. Would that I could say that this was the most disturbing insult that Lois has endured.
Hanley’s analysis fires up my shame. He illustrates Lois’s heroic possibilities across eras, such as her courage during The Death of Superman arc from 1992. He moves beyond comics into multimedia by discussing Margot Kidder’s portrayal of Lois in Superman: The Movie, and Noelle Niell’s defense of her television co-star George Reeves during the scandal surrounding his unfortunate death. With all this brought together into one historical timeline, I understand what I missed, and both the adult me and my inner child now embrace Lois as a superhero who flourishes and inspires due to courage, moral strength, perseverance, and compassion. Superpowers? Nice bonuses, of course, but not the essence of what defines a superhero.
I feared that Hanley might again commit the sin that dampened my enjoyment of his earlier book about Wonder Woman by overemphasizing a blow-by-blow history and not providing enough in-depth commentary. If, like me, you’re steeped in comic lore this might prove cumbersome, but relax. Hanley’s target audience is not comic lovers, but individuals interested in cultural icons. Honestly, I didn’t expect to take away as much as I have. I now appreciate Lois’s importance, her potential, and I respect how she encourages me and others to succeed, and I’m not the only one to have felt her power, since recently, author Gwenda Bond has started a series of Young Adult novels starring Lois. In each, a teenage Lois works for her high-school paper while facing off against wrongdoers. A youthful “SmallvilleGuy” remains a distantly romantic Internet correspondent who while helpful never swoops in to save the day. How annoying would that be? For his interference perhaps he might deserve a spanking? Both Hanley’s offering and Bond’s novels provide opportunities for all to enjoy a Lois closer to and more spectacular than Siegel and Shuster’s original blueprint. Bond’s third Lois Lane outing comes May 1, 2017, and then Tim Hanley will continue his explorations of female comic figures with Catwoman on July 1, 2017. I can’t wait for both.