Okay, listen up, everybody, because we’ve got a lot to do today, and we don’t have time for side chatter.
We’ve reached the Metropolis section of Superman: The Movie, so that means we’ve got a live Lois Lane on our hands, and for the rest of this week, we’re going to drill down into who this captivating and terrifying woman is, how she works, and what we’re going to do about her.
Back in the first post, we looked at June 1938’s Action Comics #1, which introduced the fantastic action hero Superman, and his spineless, unbearable coward of a secret identity, Clark Kent. We also met the only two supporting characters that the comic had for the first several years — editor George Taylor, and the girl covering the Daily Planet’s lovelorn beat, Miss Lois Lane.
Taylor didn’t really have a lot to say for himself, and as far as I recall, he hardly ever got up from behind his desk, so he was more of a framing device than an active character in the story — somebody to give Clark an assignment in the first couple panels, and congratulate him on turning in a good story at the end. The only real supporting character that Clark interacted with was Lois, and right from the start, she hated him worse than poison.
They didn’t have Kryptonite back then, to weaken Superman, and make him suffer. They didn’t need it. They had Lois Lane.
It’s a bold move, introducing a whole new variety of hero that the world has never seen before, and giving him a sidekick who can’t stand to be in the same room with him for more than ten seconds.
“I absolutely loathe you!” she said, in Action Comics #9. “You contemptible weakling! — Don’t you dare even to talk to me any more!”
So it’s a good thing they could fill up panels with Superman running along telephone wires and smacking people in the face with their own property, because it’s going to be tough keeping a conversation going under these conditions.
It was kind of like if Charles Schulz started Peanuts with only Charlie Brown and Lucy, and half the time, Lucy would just glare at Charlie Brown in icy silence. You’re not going to make a beloved Christmas special that way; you’d be lucky to get to Thanksgiving without breaking out into some kind of true-crime tragedy.
The problem is that this is not scaleable. By January 1939, there’s both a monthly comic book story and an ongoing daily newspaper strip, and not long after, they’re going to start a quarterly comic that’s just Superman stories. Having a sum total of two characters who can’t interact with each other puts a limit on the kinds of stories that you can tell, and that’s going to become increasingly restrictive over time.
For the first couple of years, the Clark/Lois stories basically went like this: Clark approaches Lois with some kind of conversation starter, Lois tells him to go take a single bound, Lois goes out by herself to investigate a news story, Lois gets in trouble, Superman rescues Lois, Clark files the story first, Lois vows revenge. The main variant was that sometimes at the beginning of the story, Lois pretends that she wants to hang out with Clark, but she’s actually using him to get someplace that she wants to go, and then she ghosts him and goes off on her own.
So if they think they’re going to generate multiple stories a month in every available storytelling medium for the next 80+ years with that premise, then they’re kidding themselves; it’s just not going to happen. One way or another, they’re going to have to figure out what else they can do with Lois Lane.
This problem hit hardest on the radio show, which premiered in February 1940 with fifteen-minute episodes, three days a week. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were writing the comic books and the comic strips, but the radio show was written by other people, and had its own narrative necessities.
That’s the medium where soap operas got started — on the radio, fifteen minutes a day — and it’s easy to see how soaps would naturally emerge from that format. Daily radio serials had a small cast of actors, and if a particular actor appeared on the show that day, then their character would probably stick around for the whole episode; you wouldn’t bother to pay an actor to come into the studio just to say a line or two. And once you’ve got them there, you have to give them something to do, so the characters would talk and talk and talk, to fill up fifteen minutes of airtime.
If you’ve got a small cast of characters who all live near each other — they have to, because otherwise how are they going to talk to each other all day — then you need to give them stuff to talk about, so they all have interpersonal problems and conflicts and concerns. The audience probably isn’t tuning in every single day, so you really only need something to happen once in a while, and then the characters can spend the next several days clustering together in little discussion groups to talk about what happened, and how everyone feels about it. And there you have it: a soap opera.
Now, in the comics, you can have as many characters as you know how to draw, so it’s okay for Clark and Lois to have little furious bite-size conversations that only last a panel or two, because then one of them can go off and have a dangerous adventure with somebody else, leaving the other behind. But on the radio, if you’re going to pay an actress to come in and say lines, then you’re going to want her to participate in the entire fifteen minutes.
In fact, the very idea of a radio show character saying “You contemptible weakling! — Don’t you dare even to talk to me any more!” is utterly unthinkable. The concept “don’t talk to me any more” is utterly foreign to a radio character; their entire existence is based on everyone continuing to talk, from now until the sponsorship message.
So as soon as the radio show started, the first thing they did was create a new editor that Clark could actually talk to — Perry White, the crusading newspaper editor and grouchy comedy chatterbox, who said more words in his first episode than George Taylor ever said in his entire three years in the comic book. And then they had to deal with Lois.
It took them three tries to get a working Lois on the show; the first one was played by Rollie Bester, and she showed up in episode 7 at the end of February 1940, in a storyline called “The Atomic Beam Machine”. Bester’s Lois was a tough dame, kind of film-noir sarcastic.
Here’s her introduction:
Lois: Call in your office, Mr. White.
Perry: Oh, thanks, Lois. Oh, by the way, Kent — I don’t think you know Miss Lane. Lois, this is Clark Kent.
Clark and Lois: How do you do?
Perry: Wait here until I come back, Kent, I won’t be a minute. (He exits.)
Lois: The boy wonder, huh?
Clark: Why, Miss Lane, what do you mean?
Lois: They tell me you talked yourself into a job, went out west, and came back with the biggest story of the month, all in less than a week.
Clark: Well, I — I guess I was pretty lucky.
Lois: Huh! I’ll say you were lucky! Now you’re the white-haired boy, eh?
Clark: I’m afraid I don’t quite understand…
Lois: Got the old man hypnotized. He thinks you’re Horace Greeley.
Clark: Ha — I’m afraid I don’t…
Lois: Oh, don’t act so dumb. All this nonsense about a time bomb in the cellar! What’s the big idea?
Clark: Miss Lane, I only wish I knew.
Lois: You mean to tell me you didn’t make it up, out of your head?
Clark: I certainly did not!
Lois: I don’t believe it.
Now, in the comics, they would have jumped away from this conversation after two panels, to go see what somebody else is up to, but they’ve paid Rollie to appear in this episode, so she’s going to stick around for another minute and a half.
Clark: Listen! Don’t you hear something?
Lois: I hear the presses in the basement.
Clark: No, no — outside! Come to the window.
(He opens the window.)
Clark: Now — don’t you hear anything?
Lois: What do you think you hear?
Clark: A plane! There’s a plane out there, flying low!
Lois: Well, I’ll be — now, look, Mister Kent, this is a big town! You’ll find quite a few planes flying around here, all day and all night. If it bothers you, you’d better go back to the farm.
Clark: No, no, really, I mean it —
Lois: Yes, really, I mean it, too. Tell the old man about your big discovery; here he comes now.
Perry: Well? Well? Anything new?
Lois: Yeah, your star reporter heard a plane.
So she’s fun, right away — a complete personality. She’s very different from the ice queen of the comic, with an actual sense of humor. This kind of relationship won’t be feasible over the long term either, but at least there’s more going on here than we see in the comics of the time.
A few weeks later, Rollie Bester was replaced by Helen Choate, and her Lois wasn’t any friendlier to Clark. Here’s a scene from late March 1940, when she’s rescued from a steam laundry in “The Prison Riot”:
Lois: No! Please! Please!
Superman: There she is — fainted, too. Got to get her out of here, and turn off that steam, quick! And when she comes around, she’ll just see Clark Kent, and so will all the rest.
Lois: (coming around) Oh… the tunnel… down that tunnel…
Guard: Miss Lane, are you all right?
Lois: Yeah… I’m all right.
Guard: Well, I reckon you can thank your friend, Clark Kent, for that.
Lois: Kent? (disgusted:) I didn’t see you. How’d you get here?
Clark: Well, gee, Miss Lane, never mind that now. The point is, I did get here, and just in time!
Lois: Was it you that got me out? I thought I saw a tremendous figure in a red cape.
Clark: Well, gosh, I’d sure hate to disappoint you, Miss Lane. I guess you figured I was Superman!
Lois: Oh, no. Don’t worry, Clark Kent. Why did you stop to look after me? If you’d been on your job, you’d have gone after those convicts, down the tunnel! (with dripping contempt:) Oh, no. You’ll never be confused with Superman.
This second Lois is closer to the one in the comics — bitter and disdainful, without the benefit of being funny. This is from the next episode, “The Mystery of Dyerville”:
Perry: Hello there, Lois! Come in, close the door.
Lois: Did you want to see both of us, Mr. White?
Perry: I certainly did. You made out so well on that prison break, that I’m going to send you and Kent out again.
Clark: Oh, gee, that’s great, Mr. White!
Lois: I’m sure Mr. Kent could cover it much better alone.
Perry: Well, you’re going along, Lois, so sit down and listen. Have either of you heard of what’s going on in Dyerville?
Lois: I haven’t heard a thing about anything.
Clark: I have, chief!
Lois: Oh, the human encyclopedia, he knows about everything!
(They talk about the mystery going on…)
Lois: And that’s where you’re sending me and Kent, Mr. White?
Perry: (sarcastic) If you’re sure you don’t mind, Lois.
Lois: Well, I’d feel safer with a more adequate escort.
Clark: Well, gosh, Miss Lane, I — I’ll do the best I can to keep you out of trouble.
Lois: Thank you, Mr. Kent, I’m usually able to do that much for myself.
They can’t keep that up for much longer; it’s dreadful. Lois doesn’t have any reason for being vicious here, she’s just a generalized area-denial weapon that makes things more tense and unpleasant. Again, if they could cut away quickly to something else, then they might be able to keep it up, but conversations that go on this way for a minute at a time aren’t that much fun to listen to.
So it’s a relief in June when the third Lois comes along — Joan Alexander, who instantly brightens things up. Here’s her intro in June 1940, in “Horace Morton’s Weather Machine”:
Clark: Hello, Miss Lane!
Lois: Oh, hello, Mr. Kent!
Clark: Say, you’re looking great! Well, what’s new?
Lois: Ask me later, after I’ve seen the old man.
Clark: White? Well, that’s where I’m headed myself, he just called me.
Lois: He just called me too! Say, what’s the big idea?
Clark: Ha! Haven’t you heard? Conference of Leaders of American Journalism! Well, here we go…
They go in and talk to Perry, and everyone’s in a great mood — each taking their turn to have a little wisecrack. Perry wants to talk about Lois’ uncle Horace Morton, who has a secret weather-predicting system that appears to be the most accurate ever recorded.
Lois: I know what you’re leading up to, Mr. White. You want me to go out and get an interview from Uncle Horace on how he does it, but it just isn’t any use.
Perry: Just the same, young lady, that’s where you’re going! You, and Kent!
Lois: Aw, please, Mr. White; I haven’t seen him for years! I doubt if he even knows I exist!
And that’s it, no backtalk about not wanting to go on assignment with Clark; the two of them are perfectly happy taking a long car trip, and investigating the mystery together. They talk like companions in an adventure story — asking each other questions, pointing out mysterious details, chewing over the evidence. You can’t do all of that, if the two leads despise each other and can’t have a civil conversation.
Here’s a scene from the next episode, after they’ve seen Horace make a strange weather prediction, and are left alone to talk it over:
Lois: Mr. Kent, what do you make of it?
Clark: I’m darned if I know. But I’ll tell you this — something awfully funny’s going on around here.
Lois: What do you mean?
Clark: I don’t know. But all that machinery, and the electricity!
Lois: Oh, that’s for the weather forecast. He said so, himself!
Clark: Oh, bunk. Don’t you believe it. I’ve been in weather bureaus before, and I never saw anything like that! They use barometers, and wind speed indicators, and charts, and stuff like that!
Lois: Well, he made a forecast. If he didn’t use the machinery, how did he do it?
Clark: Eh, that’s what gets me. As far as I can see, he didn’t do a thing, he just grabbed it out of the air! And of course, you realize he was laughing at us, all the time.
Lois: Yeah, he certainly was having a whole lot of fun.
Clark: If you ask me, he didn’t make a forecast at all. He just said so, to throw us off.
Lois: He’s a weird person, Mr. Kent.
So you can see how this relationship is a lot more story-productive than the previous versions of Lois. The two of them are standing around and discussing the thing that they just saw, like good little soap opera characters, avoiding the sarcastic tension of a couple months earlier that would just get in the way of the story.
Unfortunately, to get here, they have to dumb Lois down — she’s the sidekick now, asking questions and making incorrect guesses, so that Clark can explain the plot to her. That diminishes her character to some extent, smoothing away the rough edges that originally defined her, and making her a more generic adventure-story talk-to. Still, this is a Lois Lane that can keep on doing radio stories with Clark for another eleven years; if she’d stayed as aloof and unfriendly as the second version, she would have been written out, and replaced with Jimmy Olsen, a younger and more naturally subservient sidekick.
This Lois-taming process only took four months on the radio, from February to June 1940, but it took a lot longer in the comics. This is a panel from June 1940’s Superman #5, and they’re still making a big deal about what a coward Clark is, and how little Lois respects him.
There are some ice-thawing moments, like this panel from Action Comics #26 in July 1940, where Lois is concerned about Clark’s safety — and she’s calling him Clark instead of Mr. Kent, which the radio Lois won’t be able to bring herself to do until November.
But then it’s back to the coward material in September, when she expects him to have a brawl with a guy at a construction site.
They finally figure out the benefits of a more friendly Lois by Action Comics #31, in December 1940. In this story, Clark gives Lois a lift to Brentville, a quiet vacation town where it turns out some bank robbers are filling the streets with anaesthetic gas to steal money that they use to build a deadly subatomic death-ray gun.
So you can see the story-productive benefits of a more placid Lois. The writer wants to get Clark and Lois to a specific location together to have an adventure, and the easiest way to do it is to back off the coward stuff, and just make them friends.
In fact, that technique works so well that they do it again three months later in Action Comics #34, using exactly the same panel design. By early 1941, the comic book has caught up to what the radio show figured out last June.
Strangely, the comic strip hangs on to Angry Lois for way longer than the others; in this example from October 1940, Lois is apparently furious with Clark just for coming up and speaking to her.
In November, he helps her to get her job back after she’s been fired for cause, a good deed that gets Lois all the way to “I’m afraid I’ve misjudged Clark. He’s — he’s okay!!”
But months later, in April 1941, she’s saying, “Odd, Clark — half the time I can’t make up my mind whether you’re a swell fellow or a heel…”
It takes another seven months for the comic strip to finally catch up to the idea that Lois and Clark can peacefully coexist in the same newspaper, which finally happens in November 1941.
So that is the journey of the early Lois Lane, who finds it in her heart to make peace with her co-star three times over, across three mediums. Oh, except for the comic strip in April 1942, when she tells him that if he scoops her again, she’ll bash his brains in. The end.
A critique of Superman’s
relationship with Lois…
1.38: Unattainable You
For folks keeping track at home, the illustrations today came from these stories:
- Header slap: Daily comic strip, “The Unknown Strikes” (June 1940)
- Wait, Lois: Action Comics #1, “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed!” (June 1938)
- I despise you & You contemptible weakling: Action Comics #9, “Wanted: Superman” (Feb 1939)
- New York-bound train: New York World’s Fair Comics #1, “Superman at the World’s Fair” (April 1939)
- Not poison ivy: Daily comic strip, “Superman and the Runaway” (June 1939)
- Wet blanket: Action Comics #22, “Europe at War, Part 1” (March 1940)
- You did this, you clumsy: Daily comic strip, “The Big Boss” (April 1940)
- Ruthless racketeer: Superman #5, “The Slot Machine Racket” (Summer 1940)
- I just remembered: Action Comics #26, “Professor Cobalt’s Clinic” (July 1940)
- Sock that bully: Superman #6, “The Construction Scam” (Sept/Oct 1940)
- Drive me to Brentville: Action Comics #31, “In the Grip of Morpheus” (Dec 1940)
- The Laurey girl: Action Comics #34, “The Beautiful Young Heiress” (March 1941)
- Not interested: Daily comic strip, “Pawns of the Master” (Oct 1940)
- That’s swell: Daily comic strip, “Pawns of the Master” (Nov 1940)
- Swell fellow or a heel: Daily comic strip, “The Scientists of Sudden Death” (April 1941)
- The greatest difficulty: Daily comic strip, “Superman’s Hollywood Debut” (Nov 1941)
- Bash your brains in: Daily comic strip, “Lair of the Leer” (April 1942)
- You needn’t hurry back: Action Comics #28, “The Strongarm Assaults” (Sept 1940)
A critique of Superman’s
relationship with Lois…
1.38: Unattainable You
— Danny Horn