Superman 1.38: Unattainable You

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 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.

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.

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.

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.[1] 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.[2]

“Women!” exclaims Clark Kent bewilderedly in September-October 1945. “No man can figure them out… not even a Superman!”[3] Clark repeats this sentiment in March-April 1948. “Whew!” he muses. “Whoever understands a woman is a better man than Superman!”[4]

Almost from the moment of their first encounter, Lois Lane is in love with Superman. In the words of Superman #61, “Everyone knows that the one love of Lois Lane’s life is… Superman!”[5]

In an effort to lure Superman into matrimony, Lois has tried virtually every ploy imaginable, from dyeing her hair to alter her appearance,[6] to feigning interest in other men,[7] to contriving elaborate scenarios calculated to enable her to impress Superman with her skills as a wife and homemaker.[8]

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,[9] 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.[10]

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[11] and heartbroken when she actually marries one of them.[12] World’s Finest Comics #36 describes Lois Lane as “the one person for whom [Superman] cares most”.[13]

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.

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,[14] 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.[15] 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.

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”.[16] 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.[17]

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 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.

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.[18]

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]”[19] and to “sabotage Clark Kent in Lois’ estimation.”[20] Invariably, this behavior arouses the disdain and contempt of the very woman Kent claims he is trying to attract.

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!”[21] 

Tomorrow:
What made Margot Kidder
the perfect Lois Lane?
1.39: Chasing Lois


Footnotes:

  1. Action Comics #20, “Superman and the Screen Siren”  (Jan 1940)
  2. Superman #23, “Fashions in Crime!”  (July/Aug 1943)
  3. Superman #36, “Clark Kent, Star Reporter!”  (Sept/Oct 1945)
  4. Superman #45, “Lois Lane, Superwoman!”  (March/Apr 1948)
  5. Superman #61, “The Courtship of the Three Lois Lanes!”  (Nov/Dec 1949)
  6. Superman #61, “The Courtship of the Three Lois Lanes!”  (Nov/Dec 1949)
  7. Superman #55, “The Richest Man in the World!”  (Nov/Dec 1948)
  8. Action Comics #149, “The Courtship on Krypton!”  (Oct 1950), and others
  9. Action Comics #5, “Superman and the Dam”  (Oct 1938), and others
  10. Superman #5, “Campaign Against the Planet”  (Summer 1940), and others
  11. Action Comics #61, “The Man They Wouldn’t Believe!”  (June 1943)
  12. Superman #136, “The Man Who Married Lois Lane!”  (Apr 1960)
  13. World’s Finest Comics #36, “Lois Lane, Sleeping Beauty”  (Sept/Oct 1948)
  14. Action Comics #130, “Superman and the Mermaid!”  (March 1949), and many others
  15. Superman #120, “The Day That Superman Married”  (March 1958), and many others
  16. World’s Finest Comics #64, “The Death of Lois Lane”  (May/June 1953)
  17. Superman #66, “The Babe of Steel!”  (Sept/Oct 1950)
  18. Superman #58, “Lois Lane Loves Clark Kent!”  (May/June 1949), and Action Comics #176, “Muscles for Money”  (Jan 1953)
  19. Superman #12, “The Grotak Bund”  (Sept/Oct 1941)
  20. Superman #17, “Muscles for Sale!”  (Jul/Aug 1942)
  21. Action Comics #317, “Superman’s Rainbow Face!”  (Oct 1964)

Tomorrow:
What made Margot Kidder
the perfect Lois Lane?
1.39: Chasing Lois

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn
(but mostly quoting Michael L. Fleisher today)

14 thoughts on “Superman 1.38: Unattainable You

  1. I find Freudianism laughable, but in the middle decades of the twentieth century Freud may well have been the single most influential figure in the intellectual life of the USA. So it’s quite plausible that many of the people writing Superman stories were thinking explicitly in these terms, and virtually certain that they were all familiar with them.

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  2. I remember some books which certainly gave me an overview of comic history in the 1970’s. I did find an early Batman encyclopedia – it may have been the Volume 2 you mention. It was there that I learned that technically Aunt Harriet Cooper was Dick Grayson’s aunt (not sure if she was his mother’s or father’s sister?).
    I also learned that Bruce Wayne had an Aunt Agatha, who visited Wayne Manor and almost discovered the Bat Cave!
    Anyhow, some other books were “Superman From the 1930’s to the 1970’s” and “Batman From the 1930’s-1970’s.” These books not only reprinted lots of selected comics, which were over the different origin stories and ages (Golden, Silver, reboots, etc.) but also had some exposition text too. Great stuff!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Let’s not forget that Lois also pursues Superman, the ultimate Impossible Dream, as an excuse NOT to get married.

    From her earliest appearances, Lois is a career girl–not just a typist or clerk, but a hard driving reporter who lives for news, scoops, and seeing her name on the front page. This isn’t unprecedented in life or media–see HIs Girl Friday for a good example in film–but this portrayal came up directly with the years of World War II, when many women worked the “home front,” and then later when the GIs came home and the government worked very deliberately to sell a happy home archetype with Father working a paying job and Mother tending the house and kids.

    The writers have Lois pining for marriage, but if that’s what she wanted, she could just get married. Lois hardly lacked for suitors or opportunities to become a housewife and mother if that’s what her goal really was. But the problem is the opposite–she HAS what she wants. She loves being a reporter. She loves chasing down criminals and crimes and coming within a cat’s whisker of getting herself killed, all for the job. But popular culture absolutely could not show a single, contented career woman who didn’t want or need heterosexual marriage–she might be having *gasp!* sex outside the bounds of wedlock or even *double gasp* be a…lesbian!

    So having Lois pine away for Superman suits the story in all sorts of ways. She can be a thorn in Kent’s side, an unattainable love object for Superman, and reassure herself and the readership that she’s totally a normal woman who just happens to have impossibly high standards. After all, once you love Superman you can never go back to regular life.

    So Lois crashes through her days, scoring stories, being scooped by Clark, and occasionally getting herself rescued and romanced by the guy who loves her enough to stay away.

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    1. There’s also the question of how much you want the readers to think about Superman’s Kryptonian biology. Approximately 100% of the teenagers who have lived in America since 1938 have at one point or other made jokes about the dangers Lois would face in the course of a sexual encounter with Superman.

      And of course Marvel actually went there, releasing a series in 2006-7 (“Reign”) set in a future in which Spiderman had married Mary Jane, who then died of cancer contracted from exposure to his radioactive bodily fluids. Watchmen had done the same thing in the 80s, with Dr Manhattan’s radioactive body killing everyone who was close to him, though comics fans would have to wait until “Reign” for a major company to go into clinical detail about why you shouldn’t have sex with one of their superheroes.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Ah yes, I remember that now. Still, it opened the door to “Reign”- once one of the two major companies had explicitly raised the question of what would happen if a human had intimate physical contact with a superhero, it was just a matter of time before all the old dirty jokes found their way into the canon.

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  4. In the 1960s DC published a series of stories depicting the adventures of a descendant of Superman who lived in the 25th Century. All of the 20th Century characters (Perry, Jimmy, etc.) had analogues but the Lois analogue loved Clark and considered Superman a boor.

    Of course all of these stories were originally aimed at young boys and to an extent reflect a child’s skewed idea of how adults behave.

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  5. A Freudian analysis of the Superman-Lois relationship is certainly something I never expected to read. I don’t buy it at all.
    To Straker’s point, what would a young male reader make of Lois? In the early years, they’d probably wonder what her problem was and what Superman saw in a woman who slapped Clark in the face. Very young boys wouldn’t appreciate the romance at all and I certainly hope adolescents wouldn’t consider that was a realistic relationship! Did they think Lois would attract little girls to the comic? Because as a little girl I was more interested in a female superhero than a female sidekick of a male superhero. The modern version of Lois and Clark in a realistic grown-up relationship is more appealing but did boys read Superman because they were invested in the will they-won’t they story of Superman and Lois?

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    1. If you go with the homosexual panic angle, Lois is there as a buffer to prove that Superman isn’t gay. Many of the superhero comics, due to the fact that said superheroes tended to be confirmed bachelors who had young male wards and ran around in skintight unitards, regularly had to fend off accusations that they were encouraging “deviant lifestyles.” (Never mind the unending horrific violence and vigilantism; that was red-blooded man stuff.)

      Just about every superhero had to have a romantic connection with some adult woman, no matter how distant or impossible, in order to “pass”.

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  6. One of the things I’m finding slightly depressing about this blog is the way it lays bare how horrifying early phases of the franchise (and, to the extent they reflect the broader culture of the times, America) were.

    To illustrate (and prove I’m not exaggerating), let me go back to the following clipping from 1.28: https://superheroeseveryday.files.wordpress.com/2021/10/128-fortress-lois-lane-room-superman-152.jpg?w=604&h=251. What is the behavior being modeled here for the intended audience of young men in this depiction of Superman’s Sekret Polar Tree Fort of Creepiness, aka Exhibits A – ZZ attached to Plaintiff Lane’s Application for a Temporary Restraining Order? ‘Cause it sure appears to be “the appropriate way to respond to the tingly feelings you get looking at the unattainable girl in Algebra I is to create a creepy secret stalker-level shrine to her including candid pics and questionably sourced locks of her hair.” If you cropped Superman out of that, whited out the dialog, and showed that image to a random person in 2021, I doubt very many would guess “Superman’s Fortress of Solitude” rather than something like “Lex Luthor’s creepy shrine to Lois maybe?”

    Coming back to today’s posting: Lois is an assertive, independent young woman focused on her career rather than finding a man to marry and serve, So obviously Superman-as-Superman treats her like garbage. He (to use the current “pickup artist” term) negs her relentlessly — “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….Lois Lane is in love with Superman, and therefore extremely jealous of his attentions to other women,[33] 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.[34]”

    Liked by 3 people

  7. From a narrative standpoint, the Clark/ Lois/ Superman triangle is perfect. There’s no way to resolve it without blowing up the secret identity, which means blowing up everything.

    We’ve seen several examples of what happens when you do put star-crossed lovers together (“Cheers” and “Moonlighting” spring to mind). It’s not pretty.

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  8. I got the Great Superman Book either for my birthday or Christmas 1978 or 1979. I read that thing exhaustively, but I do remember being disturbed by that section on Superman’s sunconscious resentments. The comics (particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, when Lois got her own comic, and so the number of Lois romance/marriage trap stories increased) do frequently portray immature behavior–these were written to appeal to kids. So often Lois appears like a pain-in-the-neck little sister that Supes has to teach a lesson. Or Lois’s rivalry with Lana is played like Betty vs Veronica. Or wacky Lois comes off as I Love Lucy-inspired plots. And then occasionally there are the stories that imagine a future–like the imaginary story where Superman Red married Lois and Superman Blue married Lana–that are like kids playing house.

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  9. I think that Freudian analysis would have a lot of weight if it weren’t for the obvious plot-related reasons why Lois and Clark/Superman can’t get together. Of course, this discussion is overlooking the fact that they frequently *have* gotten together, after Lois learning Clark’s secret, over decades of the story’s retelling.

    If one were going to perform any psychoanalysis, a more appropriate target would be Jerry Siegel, since he explicitly stated that Clark’s bad luck with women was based on his own real life experience. The surprisingly venomous statements from Lois towards Clark in the early comics/strips could definitely be seen as voiced self-loathing on Siegel’s part. That being said, he got married in 1939, so his self-esteem hopefully wasn’t too low by that point.

    It seems to me that Lois’ vituperation of Clark was mainly intended as a comical form of tension, a message that “no good deeds go unpunished”. Superman could do all sorts of super-deeds and still get no respect as his alter ego. Does Clark ever really show any grief over this bad treatment in the early stories? It seems to me that he shows little regard for his own alter ego, considering how much stuttering and cowardice he chooses to display. To my reading, Clark Kent was a disposable identity that he cared little about in the early days of the Superman story.

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