Clark Kent sits down at his new desk on the first day of his new job, and he looks across the tangle of typewriters at the woman that he loves, as of three minutes ago, and for all time.
We’re at the point in Superman: The Movie where the film starts building a new, updated version of the Clark/Lois/Superman love triangle, and we’re going to get into that soon, I promise. But first I want to look at what that relationship has been so far, to set the stage for later discussion about how things work in this 1978 romantic reboot.
Yesterday, I talked about the first few years of the Lois/Clark dynamic, and how they figured out that it wasn’t story-productive to have two lead characters who couldn’t carry on a conversation for more than a couple panels. Today, I want to broaden that view to look at how the Superman/Lois relationship progressed over the next few decades, and if you don’t mind, I’m going to outsource it.
You see, there’s this three-volume book series called The Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes, which was written by Michael L. Fleisher in the late 1970s. Each volume is an encyclopedic listing of every person, place or thing in the adventures of a DC Comics hero. Volume 1: Batman and Volume 2: Wonder Woman were published in 1976, and the third volume, based on Superman’s adventures, was published in 1978 as The Great Superman Book, as part of the extensive merchandise campaign leading up to the movie release.
These days, of course, the idea of a fan-written encyclopedic comic book reference work is commonplace, thanks to Wikipedia, DC Database, Superman Wiki and so on, but doing it in print in the 1970s was a bold and exciting move. Fleisher had access to the entire DC corporate library, and he spent seven years with an assistant, an enormous stack of comics and a zillion index cards, tabulating everything that had ever happened in the first three decades of DC superhero comics.
It’s fantastic. I have the reprint book that DC Comics published in 2007 as The Original Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes, Volume 3: Superman, and it’s more than 500 pages long and full of crazy. It includes detailed coverage of every issue of Action Comics, Superman and World’s Finest from 1938 to 1965, including a huge section on Superman’s costume, powers, secret identity, equipment, vulnerabilities and his relationship with Lois Lane.
The book is mostly just a factual, encyclopedic account of Superman comics as they are on the page — except for the section on Superman’s relationship with Lois, which suddenly busts out into a suprisingly pointed critique of both characters’ psychology and behavior.
Fleisher’s starting point is Freudian psychology, specifically the Oedipus complex, which I do not find convincing. But taking that angle leads him into a deep analysis of the comics, which he knew intimately, and he comes up with a meticulously well-referenced interpretation of this long-standing and complex relationship.
I think this section is extraordinary, and I want all of you to see it, so I’m going to post a big chunk of it here, and I hope you find it interesting too. Take it away, Mr. Fleisher…
The sudden violent loss of his mother while he was still an infant has left Superman with a deep reservoir of unconscious hostility toward women. Like many orphaned children, he saw the death of his mother as a personal desertion. He loved and needed his mother, and yet she left him. It was a shattering rejection, one that continues to exert its influence over his entire emotional life. Unconsciously, Superman hates his mother for having abandoned him, and hates himself for having been unworthy of her lasting love.
The mortal anger engendered by this unconsciously perceived rejection finds socially acceptable expression in Superman’s unrelenting war against villainy and injustice. Superman is a man of enormous aggressive instincts. He could have chosen to use this aggression destructively — in the pursuit of personal power and self-aggrandizement — or he could have turned his awesome power against himself. Instead, Superman chose to use his aggression heroically, to battle the forces of evil and oppression. In choosing to live his life as a hero, rather than as a murderer or power-mad dictator, Superman has resolved his inner conflict constructively, but only at the cost of being unable to deal openly with his vulnerability, of being unable to share intimacy with another human being.
The persona of Clark Kent is Superman’s unsuccessful attempt to resolve his need for intimacy and closeness. Only as Clark Kent is Superman truly human, even if Clark Kent’s brand of humanity is really little more than a caricature consisting mainly of foibles.
It is simplistic to view Superman as a masochist unconsciously seeking out punishment in his role as Clark Kent. Rather, Clark Kent represents Superman’s inner view of himself as inadequate and undesirable.
Because the inner Superman sees himself as Clark Kent rather than as the omnipotent hero idolized by the public, it is as Clark Kent that Superman yearns to be loved. That is why Superman pursues Lois Lane as Clark Kent and remains cool toward her as Superman. Superman desperately wants Lois Lane to fall in love with Clark Kent, because, unconsciously, he feels that Clark Kent is the real Superman.
Of course, the catch is that, despite his achievements as a journalist, Clark Kent is cowardly and undesirable. Inevitably, Lois rejects him in favor of the far more glamorous Superman. Since Superman created the Clark Kent persona, he must bear the responsibility, albeit on an unconscious level, for the qualities of personality that Clark Kent exhibits. Since Superman created the personality that Lois continually rejects, Superman also bears the responsibility for these rejections. Indeed, Superman courts the rejections, for this neurotic drama of courtship and inevitable rejection is, for Superman, a reenactment of his childhood rejection by his mother. At the same time, Superman has the “last laugh” on Lois, for he knows that Clark Kent is secretly Superman. By having the last laugh on Lois, Superman expresses his contempt for her, and, by extension, his contempt toward his mother for having rejected him.
As an infant in the throes of the Oedipal conflict, Superman wished his father dead so that he could possess his mother. And then the first part of the forbidden fantasy came true: the planet Krypton exploded into stardust, and his father perished along with virtually the entire population.
The actual fulfillment of his murderous infantile wish has left Superman with an abiding legacy of deep-seated guilt, with the unconscious conviction that his deepest yearnings are evil and awesomely destructive. The persona of Clark Kent is Superman’s way of denying his power, of protecting the universe against himself.
If, deep within his psyche, a man believes that his wishes are capable of destroying those he loves, he will, unconsciously, take steps to see to it that no one falls in love with him. By pursuing Lois Lane as Clark Kent — and not as Superman — Superman assures himself of being rejected while at the same time protecting Lois from the evil, destructive creature he knows he really is. Superman’s most persistent rationalization for his unwillingness to become emotionally involved with women is his fear that they will become the targets of gangland retribution. Because this fear is not entirely without its rational basis, it serves to validate Superman’s internal conviction that his love is destructive and thus to reinforce his neurotic determination not to allow himself to become vulnerable to a woman.
Superman’s world is a world from which women have been all but excluded, one in which meaningful relationships with them are all but impossible. To protect himself from the joys and pains of adult romantic involvement, Superman has erected a wall of rationalizations designed to make it impossible for him to experience emotional involvement.
For both Clark Kent and Superman, women are a source of anxiety, confusion, hostility, and bewilderment. “Females are a puzzle,” muses Clark in January 1940. In July-August 1943, when Kent is forced to attend a fashion show featuring lovely models in revealing evening gowns, he becomes noticeably embarrassed and ill at ease.
“Women!” exclaims Clark Kent bewilderedly in September-October 1945. “No man can figure them out… not even a Superman!” Clark repeats this sentiment in March-April 1948. “Whew!” he muses. “Whoever understands a woman is a better man than Superman!”
Almost from the moment of their first encounter, Lois Lane is in love with Superman. She refers to him as her “dream-lover,” “the only man I’ll ever love,” “my dream man,” “the world’s only ideal man,” “the handsomest man on Earth,” “the only man I could ever love,” “the good, gentle, gallant man I love,” “the man I love,” “the smartest, handsomest, strongest man in the universe,” and “the only man I ever loved.” In the words of Superman #61, “Everyone knows that the one love of Lois Lane’s life is… Superman!”
For decades, Lois’ foremost ambition has been to become the wife of Superman.
“Each morning as reporter Lois Lane of the Metropolis Daily Planet awakens,” notes Action Comics #149, “she recites the same greeting and the same wish to a picture on the wall!” “Good morning, Superman…” sighs Lois hopefully, “perhaps, someday, instead of just greeting your photograph, my dream will come true and I’ll really be married to you…”
Never has a woman pursued a man as relentlessly as Lois Lane has pursued Superman. In the words of Superman #76: “No female in the history of the world — from Helen of Troy or Cleopatra right up to the No. 1 glamour girl of the 20th century — ever pursued any man as determinedly as Lois Lane chases Superman! Every year is Leap Year as far as Lois’ pursuit of Superman is concerned!”
In an effort to lure Superman into matrimony, Lois has tried virtually every ploy imaginable, from dyeing her hair to alter her appearance, to feigning interest in other men, to contriving elaborate scenarios calculated to enable her to impress Superman with her skills as a wife and homemaker.
All Lois’ stratagems, however, have ended in failure. Although Superman does display a certain amount of sexual interest in Lois in the very early texts, he invariably frustrates her either by fleeing the scene as she attempts to express her love for him or by dampening her ardor with a show of apparent indifference. Moreover, Superman’s early alternating displays of sexual interest and disinterest are soon replaced by an attitude of friendly concern of the type a man might express for a girl much younger than himself or for the wife of a close friend.
Whatever his behavior toward Lois, however, the texts make it abundantly clear that Superman does love her. He is jealous of her occasional involvements with other men and heartbroken when she actually marries one of them. He has gone to great lengths to protect her from being maneuvered into marriages she does not want. World’s Finest Comics #36 describes Lois Lane as “the one person for whom [Superman] cares most”.
“Why couldn’t I have led a normal life and — (choke) married her!” pines Superman in May 1959, after Lois has apparently perished in an accidental explosion. “Yes — if things had been different, she’d have been my — wife!”
Yet because Superman refuses to respond to her in a normal, healthy fashion, Lois finds her love for Superman constantly frustrated. And so, like a girl at the beach who finds that the only way she can arouse the attention of the handsome lifeguard is by swimming out into deep water and pretending to be drowning, Lois recklessly plunges into danger as her only means of getting Superman to display an interest in her.
“The greatest joy in my life occurs whenever you enter into it!” exclaims Lois to Superman in March/April 1943. “Why don’t you do so more often?”
“I’ll take the matter under consideration!” replies Superman. “Now try and stay out of mischief — and don’t go around picking arguments with desperate characters…”
“Why not,” replies Lois, “— if it gives me a chance to encounter you!?”
Indeed, although Superman frequently complains at being forced to keep a constant eye on Lois, the evidence is overwhelming that he loves every minute of it, for rescuing her from danger enables Superman to be near Lois — and to express concern for her — without becoming involved with her in a committed relationship. “Twenty to one Lois is in a tough jam right now!” thinks Superman to himself in August 1940. “That gal’s a natural for getting herself involved in mischief — but that’s just what I like about her!”
Because Superman harbors a great deal of unconscious hostility toward women, he often expresses hostility toward Lois Lane through other means than outright rejection. Lois Lane is in love with Superman, and therefore extremely jealous of his attentions to other women, yet despite Lois’ jealousy Superman often devises elaborate ruses — for the ostensible purpose of apprehending criminals — in which he causes Lois anguish and heartache by pretending to have fallen in love with another woman. Since Superman, with all his mighty super-powers, could presumably devise other means for achieving his stated objectives, these ruses which so upset Lois can only be viewed as unconscious attempts to hurt her.
On other occasions, usually in the name of teaching Lois some sort of lesson in character, Superman works behind the scenes to maneuver her toward marriage to some horribly unattractive individual. Only at the last minute, after Lois has been forced to suffer the anguish of an impending marriage to a man she does not want, does Superman intervene to undo the complex situation and extricate Lois from her agonizing predicament.
Lois, for her part, seethes with unconscious resentment toward Superman for titillating and then rejecting her and for trifling with her feelings. She expresses this resentment in many ways. On one occasion, Lois fakes her own death in an explosion, telling herself that she is doing Superman a favor by ensuring that the underworld will no longer be able to use her as a hostage against him. Lois’ underlying motive, however, is clearly to lash out at Superman by making him feel anguished and guilt-ridden by her “death”. On another occasion, after Superman has been temporarily transformed into an infant with the mind of an adult, Lois deliberately tries to humiliate him in public in an effort to wreak what she herself candidly refers to as her “revenge on Superman” for his past treatment of her.
Even in the journalistic arena, Superman makes a fool of Lois and thereby expresses his contempt for her. Typically, the pattern of reportorial rivalry is as follows: (a) when the action begins, Clark Kent feigns cowardice, thereby arousing Lois’ scorn and disgust, so that he can slip away and change to Superman; (b) with Kent having fled the scene, Lois remains in the thick of the action, risking her life to get the big story, invariably committing some recklessly daring act which makes it necessary for Superman to come to her rescue; and (c) returning to the Daily Planet with her exclusive, first-hand view of the headline-making events, she finds, to her astonishment and chagrin, that Kent has somehow managed to beat her into print with the story. Lois usually tries to minimize Kent’s victory by attributing it to dumb luck or outside help from Superman. Kent, however, does not hesitate to rub salt in Lois’ wound. “When you get to be as good a reporter as I am, Lois,” he remarks in Winter 1943, “maybe you’ll develop a nose for news, too!”
In addition to their professional relationship, Clark Kent and Lois Lane share a personal relationship, for although he rejects Lois as Superman, he pursues her slavishly in his role as Clark Kent.
Consciously, Superman tells himself that he would like to win Lois in his Clark Kent identity so that he could feel confident she truly loved him for himself, and not for his fame and super-powers. But Lois is plainly bedazzled by Superman’s fame and powers. In March 1961, for example, when one of Superman’s Superman-robots, acting entirely on its own volition, impersonates Superman and, after feigning the loss of its super-powers, asks Lois to marry him, Lois becomes exultant at first, then hesitant. “At last!” she thinks to herself. “Superman is proposing marriage! This is what I’ve wanted to hear for years, and years… Wait! I… I mustn’t accept so quickly! Will I remain in love with a Superman who has no mighty powers? I… I don’t know!” Indeed, Lois asks for time to consider the proposal and ultimately turns “Superman” down.
In his contemplative moments, Clark realizes that Lois loves Superman not for his personal qualities, but for the aura of glamour that surrounds his super-heroic feats.
“I’m always afraid girls don’t love me for myself — are merely dazzled by my fame and super-powers,” he muses silently in November 1963. “I wonder how it would feel to be really loved for — myself??! I guess I’ll never know… It would be nice if there were such a girl! No such luck!”
Indeed, by selecting, as the foremost object of his affections, a woman dazzled by his fame and blind to his personal qualities, Superman serves to confirm his worst suspicions about women and to fuel his unconscious hatred of them. In point of fact, however, Superman’s real reasons for pursuing Lois as Clark have nothing to do with his conscious desire to find a mate who will love him for himself. This is amply demonstrated by at least two texts in which Lois, in a rare change of mind, pursues Clark with matrimony in mind, only to have him devise new excuses for rejecting her.
The real reasons why Superman pursues Lois Lane so assiduously as Clark Kent are inextricably bound up with his unconscious desire for rejection, for Lois’ repeated rejections of him serve to confirm his inner feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing; to “protect” Lois from what Superman unconsciously perceives as his evil, destructive desire for her; to insulate him against the agonies of mature emotional involvement; and to recreate the traumatic feelings of desertion and abandonment caused by his mother’s “rejection” of him at the time of Krypton’s destruction.
By making Clark as unattractive as possible, Superman ensures that Lois will always reject him. Over and above the need to appear timid in order to protect the secret of his dual identity, he literally searches for opportunities to “convince Lois [he’s] yellow clear thru [sic]” and to “sabotage Clark Kent in Lois’ estimation.” Invariably, this behavior arouses the disdain and contempt of the very woman Kent claims he is trying to attract.
Although the basic dynamic of the Kent-Lane relationship has remained unchanged since 1939, Lois’ feelings for Clark have, in the intervening years, mellowed considerably. By the early 1940s she has grown genuinely fond of him, and on a number of occasions, when it appears he has perished, she is genuinely grief-stricken. On one such occasion, she recalls him as having been a fine person, kind and generous, and on another, she describes him as “the grandest person I’ve ever known,” next to Superman.
Despite her romantic interest in Superman and her lack of interest in Clark, however, Lois is extremely possessive of Clark and spitefully jealous of any other woman who shows an interest in him.
In November-December 1950, for example, during a visit to the subsea realm of Atlantis, Lois becomes visibly jealous over Clark’s involvement with lovely Queen Paralea, and visibly relieved when the queen’s plans to marry him are abruptly cancelled.
Ever since the early 1940s, Lois has struggled to learn the secret of Superman’s identity. Indeed, Lois’ efforts to learn Superman’s secret, and Superman’s constant efforts to protect it, are yet another way in which hostility is expressed in the Superman-Lois relationship.
Superman’s secret identity is vital to the continuation of his super-heroic career, yet Lois seeks not only to unravel that secret, but to proclaim it to the world. Even if she were to agree to withhold the secret from publication to avoid damaging Superman’s career, the indications are that her unconscious desire to reveal the secret is so overpowering that she would be psychologically incapable of remaining silent.
By revealing Superman’s secret and thereby bringing an end to his career as a super-hero, Lois would be removing the sole obstacle to a permanent relationship between them, i.e., Superman’s need to remain unencumbered so that he can continue to battle injustice as Superman. But the removal of this obstacle would be at the cost of bringing an end to the heroic Superman side of his dual life. Ironically, Lois would be winning Superman only by “destroying” him. Her prize would not be the omnipotent Superman of her fantasies, but the inadequate Clark Kent whom she continually scorns. Seen in this light, Lois’ attempts to ferret out Superman’s secret represent a destructive attempt by Lois to lash out at Superman for rebuffing her by bringing an end to his super-heroic career.
All in all, Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane is an exercise in frustration for both parties. Its gratifications are neurotic and wholly unconscious. The relationship denies Lois Lane the married life she claims to seek, while denying Superman the joys of ordinary life that he claims to envy. “If I could be married some day,” muses Clark Kent poignantly in October 1964. “What a thrill it would be to fly my bride across the threshold into my Fortress of Solitude! Our own home… quiet evenings together… maybe a super-baby to increase our joy… but it’s all impossible!”
1.39: Chasing Lois.
- Action Comics #20, “Superman and the Screen Siren” (Jan 1940)
- Superman #23, “Fashions in Crime!” (July/Aug 1943)
- Superman #36, “Clark Kent, Star Reporter!” (Sept/Oct 1945)
- Superman #45, “Lois Lane, Superwoman!” (March/Apr 1948)
- Action Comics #7, “Superman Joins the Circus” (Dec 1938)
- Superman #14, “The Lightning Master” (Jan/Feb 1942)
- Action Comics #72, “Superman and the Super-Movers!” (May 1944)
- Superman #55, “Prankster’s Second Childhood” (Nov/Dec 1948)
- Superman #67, “The City Under the Sea!” (Nov/Dec 1950)
- Action Comics #254, “The Battle with Bizarro!” (July 1959)
- Superman #134, “The Super-Menace of Metropolis!” (Jan 1960)
- Superman #153, “The Town of Supermen!” (May 1962)
- Superman #176, “Superman’s Day of Truth!” (April 1965)
- Superman #177, “The Menace Called ‘It’!” (May 1965)
- Superman #61, “The Courtship of the Three Lois Lanes!” (Nov/Dec 1949)
- Superman #46, “High Man on a Flagpole!” (May/June 1947)
- Action Comics #149, “The Courtship on Krypton!” (Oct 1950)
- Superman #76, “Mrs. Superman!” (May/June 1952)
- Superman #61, “The Courtship of the Three Lois Lanes!” (Nov/Dec 1949)
- Superman #55, “The Richest Man in the World!” (Nov/Dec 1948)
- Action Comics #149, “The Courtship on Krypton!” (Oct 1950), and others
- Action Comics #5, “Superman and the Dam” (Oct 1938), and others
- Superman #5, “Campaign Against the Planet” (Summer 1940), and others
- Action Comics #129, “Lois Lane, Cavegirl!” (Feb 1949), and many others
- Action Comics #61, “The Man They Wouldn’t Believe!” (June 1943)
- Superman #136, “The Man Who Married Lois Lane!” (Apr 1960)
- Superman #51, “Mr. Mxyztplk Seeks a Wife!” (March/Apr 1948), and others
- World’s Finest Comics #36, “Lois Lane, Sleeping Beauty” (Sept/Oct 1948)
- Superman #129, “The Ghost of Lois Lane” (May 1959)
- Superman #21, “The Four Gangleaders” (March/Apr 1943)
- World’s Finest Comics #42, “The Alphabetical Animal Adventure!” (Sept/Oct 1949)
- Action Comics #27, “Brentwood Home for Wayward Youth” (Aug 1940)
- Action Comics #130, “Superman and the Mermaid!” (March 1949), and many others
- Superman #120, “The Day That Superman Married” (March 1958), and many others
- Superman #54, “Her Majesty Lois Lane!” (Sept/Oct 1948), and others
- World’s Finest Comics #64, “The Death of Lois Lane” (May/June 1953)
- Superman #66, “The Babe of Steel!” (Sept/Oct 1950)
- World’s Finest Comics #12, “The Man Who Stole a Reputation!” (Winter 1943)
- Action Comics #274, “The Reversed Super-Powers!” (March 1961)
- Superman #165, “The Sweetheart Superman Forgot!” (Nov 1963)
- Superman #58, “Lois Lane Loves Clark Kent!” (May/June 1949), and Action Comics #176, “Muscles for Money” (Jan 1953)
- Superman #12, “The Grotak Bund” (Sept/Oct 1941)
- Superman #17, “Muscles for Sale!” (Jul/Aug 1942)
- Superman #20, “Superman’s Secret Revealed!” (Jan/Feb 1943)
- Superman #24, “Suicide Voyage!” (Sept/Oct 1943)
- Action Comics #94, “Battle of the Redwoods!” (March 1946)
- Superman #67, “The City Under the Sea!” (Nov/Dec 1950)
- Superman #75, “The Man Who Stole Memories!” (March/Apr 1952)
- Superman #78, “The Girls in Superman’s Life!” (Sept/Oct 1952)
- Action Comics #198, “The Six Lives of Lois Lane!” (Nov 1954), and Superman #145, “The Secret Identity of Superman!” (May 1961)
- Action Comics #317, “Superman’s Rainbow Face!” (Oct 1964)
1.39: Chasing Lois.
— Danny Horn
(but mostly quoting Michael L. Fleisher today)