Well, you know what they say: there are two sides to every story, and vice versa. The other day, I told you about the narrative pressures in the early days that encouraged the writers of the Superman comic books and radio show to change the characterization of Lois Lane, gradually making her more friendly towards Clark so that the two of them could get involved in a wider variety of stories.
But that change in Superman’s universe caused an equal and opposite reaction — creating a flip side, parallel version of Lois from the upside down, who gradually turned darker and meaner, until she became Superman’s first recurring supervillain. It’s time to break the silence about the year of evil Lois clones.
As you know, Lois premiered in June 1938’s Action Comics #1 as the Daily Planet’s sob sister: a strong-willed, attractive figure of fascination and desire, who captured the heart of mild-mannered Clark Kent and never let go. She was the only real supporting character in the comic, in the first couple years — there was also a Daily Planet editor named George Taylor, but he hardly ever got up from his desk. Lois was the one who walked the earth, driving plot points and causing chaos.
But even then, there were signs that things were not what they seemed. In issue #3 (August 1938), Superman crashes a party hosted by a corrupt millionaire who owns a coal mine — and one of the guests is a nameless woman who looks just like Lois. To prove that the mine is unsafe, Superman tricks the guests into bringing the party down to the mine, where he can demonstrate that the safety devices aren’t up to code by deliberately causing a cave-in and risking everyone’s lives.
I know that sounds like a weird thing for Superman to do, but at the beginning, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were still figuring out how Superman stories were supposed to work.
And so the wealthy descended into the underworld, all one percent of them, for a terrifying experience that they did not specifically deserve. This Lois lookalike went down with the rest of them, but we never saw her come up again. For all I know, she may still be down there — one of the Tethered, yearning to return to the surface world. That would actually explain quite a bit.
A month later, in issue #4 (September 1938), we find another woman who looks like Lois — Mary, the girlfriend of football player Tommy Burke, who jilts him for a tennis player, until Superman steals Burke’s identity and starts winning football games for him, at which point Mary jilts the tennis champion and goes back to Burke. Like I said, they really weren’t sure how to write Superman stories.
That’s the last we saw of the Lois lookalikes for a while, but things were changing in Action Comics, as they started to get a handle on what kinds of stories they could tell. I’m going to leave Lois out of this for just a minute, because you need to meet somebody else.
A year into the book, in issue #13 (June 1939), Siegel and Shuster created a character that would ultimately send the Superman story in an entirely new direction. That’s when they introduced the Ultra-Humanite, Superman’s first recurring supervillain, a balding mad scientist and crime lord who planned to dominate the world.
He looks familiar, but this isn’t Lex Luthor — he’s a different guy, who operates a crime ring from a deserted sawmill and sets up a protection racket for cab drivers. The scheme doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but forget about that for now.
For our purposes today, the important thing is that the Ultra-Humanite returns a month later, in issue #14 (July 1939), with a weird excuse for how he survived the obviously fatal plane crash at the end of the previous issue.
And that’s the moment when the Lois lookalikes return. Right now, it’s just a one-panel cameo with an unnamed office worker who reacts to the sight of Superman looking in at an upper story window — but she is a herald of strange events to follow.
Because the Ultra-Humanite returns again in #17 (October 1939), and suddenly there are even more women who look like Lois than ever before.
The story begins with a ship that mysteriously catches fire, during a raging storm. Superman has to swim out to the ship and save the passengers — which includes our first sighting of a Save My Baby lady.
Obviously, you know the trope of the Save My Baby lady — she’s the irresponsible mother who leaves her infant child alone to fend for themselves, in the middle of a blazing inferno. I don’t really have time to get into it right now, but we’ll see more of these reckless parents in the future.
For now, the important thing is that the shipboard Save My Baby lady looks like Lois Lane, and so does an unrelated telephone operator that we see later in the story.
Now, you can call it a coincidence if you like, but this is the Ultra-Humanite’s third appearance in the book, and as he grows in strength, the world is increasingly filled with these mysterious alternate Loises.
Now, so far, the Loises have been simple bystanders — but just a month later, in issue #18 (November 1939), we find a Lois who isn’t as innocent as she seems. The story begins with a Lois pleading for help on a treacherous mountain road in the middle of the night. She claims that her car went over the guardrail and plunged to a messy death on the rocks below, although why she wasn’t in it at the time I don’t quite know.
But it turns out this transparent lie is just a ruse, anyway; she’s a crook, who knocks out the driver with a vial of sleep-gas and steals his car, driving him to a nearby notorious roadhouse.
It turns out this Lois is named Trixie, and she’s part of another evil scheme. The unconscious guy is Senator Hastings, and Trixie’s gang fakes some compromising photos of him, in order to blackmail him.
This issue is the first time that we see a fake Lois appearing in the same story as the real Lois, and the transition couldn’t be more jarring. We see the above panel of Trixie and the gang at the bottom of page 2, and the next panel at the top of page 3 shows Clark and Lois leaving the Daily Planet offices.
Obviously, we don’t actually see Lois and her doppleganger in the same panel, because that would look silly. They don’t do that for another few months.
Issue #19 (December 1939) takes a step forward in the plot to fill the world with Lois clones, and at this point, I really have to wonder if Joe Shuster only knew how to draw one woman.
In this story, Clark visits the public library, where the librarian looks like Lois — and in the next panel, we see the nurse of an elderly library patron, and she also looks like Lois.
And guess what, a couple panels later, we find out that the elderly man in the wheelchair is actually — surprise! — the Ultra-Humanite!
This time, the villain is trying to spread a Purple Plague through Metropolis, sowing chaos and death, but Superman helps to develop a cure and then tracks down the demon in his lair. Ultra tries to use an electric death ray on the hero, but it explodes…
And the Ultra-Humanite dies once more, on panel this time. That should be the end of this Lois-cloning wave of terror, but no, it gets even crazier.
On to issue #20 (January 1940), which is the fourth issue in a row to feature a Lois lookalike. This time, she’s glamorous movie star Dolores Winters, who Clark meets on vacation, when he’s touring a Hollywood film studio.
Clark is a magnet for trouble, as we all know, even when he’s three thousand miles away from Metropolis. During the film shoot, a man up in the lighting rig pulls a gun and tries to shoot Dolores; luckily, Superman spots the guy just in time with his telescopic vision, and he pulls on a rope that knocks the assassin to the floor before he gets a chance to take a shot.
Dolores is grateful, and she agrees to his request for an interview next evening — but when he shows up at her mansion, he finds that she’s changed her mind, and doesn’t want to have anything to do with him.
Apparently, Dolores has changed her mind about a lot of things, because the next thing you know, she’s announced that she’s quitting the movie business.
And you’re not going to believe this. She throws a going-away party for all of her Hollywood friends on her yacht the next night, and once she’s got everybody on board, she pulls a gun on them and tells them they’re going to stay on the boat.
They think it’s a joke at first, so she shoots one of her guests and then pilots the boat out into the open ocean, beyond the reach of the authorities.
SHIPLOAD OF CELEBRITIES UNEXPECTEDLY VANISHES says the headline, and once that shipload is far enough away, Dolores broadcasts a message that startles the world.
“Attention, world!” she says. “Dolores Winters broadcasting from the Sea-Serpent! On board my vessel I hold captive some of the wealthiest people alive. And if their relatives wish to see them again, they’ll have to pay plenty!”
The public is shocked by this strange turn of events, but honestly, didn’t we always know that Hollywood actresses would destroy us, in the end? This is why we need to fix the Golden Globes, once and for all.
Superman finally catches up with the crime wave, and when he comes face-to-face with Dolores, he realizes the terrible truth.
“Those evil blazing eyes…” he gasps. “There’s only one person on this earth who could possess them! ULTRA!”
Yes, for real! This isn’t glamorous movie star Dolores Winters — it’s the Ultra-Humanite, who survived last issue’s death-ray explosion, and you’ll never guess how.
“You are indeed perceptive, Superman!” the faux-Dolores says. “You thought you had killed me in our last encounter, didn’t you? But look — as you can see, I’m very much alive!”
Superman objects that he saw the Ultra-Humanite die, but the mad movie star continues: “My assistants, finding my body, revived me via adrenalin. However, it was clear that my recovery could be only temporary.”
And then comes one of the all-time great moments in comic book history.
“And so,” the villain announces, “following my instructions, they kidnapped Dolores Winters yesterday, and placed my mighty brain in her young vital body!”
So that is a thing that actually happened in 1940. The brain of Superman’s first arch-enemy was transplanted into another body, and the choice they made, out of literally any possible person in the world, was glamorous movie star Dolores Winters.
I mean, to be fair, Dolores had clearly stolen this body from Lois Lane in the first place, so somebody else might as well move in. This is what happens, when you scatter Loises across the landscape.
There is no acknowledgement in the comic that switching genders is an unusual thing for a supervillain to do; they don’t discuss it at all. As far as Action Comics is concerned, the Ultra-Humanite coming out as transgender is just another day in Superman’s increasingly lunatic life.
Dolores evades capture, as supervillains so often do, and Clark wonders what’s next. “Did Ultra escape?” he thinks. “If so, will he continue his evil career?” Clark is still referring to her as “he”, because this was decades before the pronoun wars began. They hadn’t come up with the word “deadnaming” in 1940, and they wouldn’t have known what to do with it if they had it.
That gets corrected in the next issue — we’re at issue #21 (February 1940) now — after the captions have gone to some sensitivity training sessions.
“In a distant spot,” says the narrator, “Ultra, who had miraculously survived her last encounter with Superman, reads the article with interest.” It’s quite progressive, really, and a real step forward in comic book inclusion.
Once again, she’s got an over-complicated plan, which involves kidnapping a scientist who’s developing an atomic bomb using beakers and test tubes. She uses it to build a disintegrator ray, which she fires out of a plane at various buildings in Metropolis, in order to squeeze the city for a two million dollar ransom payment. At one point, in the middle of the story, she suddenly announces that she wants the crown jewels, although nobody ever asks her the crown jewels of what.
Her hideout is in a mysterious glass-domed city built inside an extinct volcano on the outskirts of Metropolis, and if you want me to explain that, then I’m afraid that I just can’t. It’s only been a year and a half, and already Action Comics has moved beyond the realm of human understanding.
This would all be very strange under any circumstances, but the thing that takes it over the edge is the fact that this is clearly Lois Lane. During this period, Superman has a grand total of two recurring co-stars — his love interest and his arch-enemy — and for some reason, nobody notices that they look exactly alike.
It all ends happily, of course. Superman breaks down some doors and beats up some dudes, and eventually the Ultra-Humanite throws herself out of a window and escapes into the crater of the volcano. Superman closes the story by throwing huge boulders into the volcano until it erupts, destroying the hidden city and finally bringing the Ultra-Humanite’s story to a dramatic end.
We have now had five issues in a row — #17 to #21 — featuring a variety of characters that look like Lois, including two criminals, so it would be utterly insane for them to introduce another character who looks like Lois, and put her in the same panel with the genuine article.
But that is exactly what they do in the very next issue, because it’s Golden Age Superman and they do not live by your rules.
This is issue #22 (March 1940), and Lois and Clark have booked passage on the S.S. Baronta, which is taking them across the Atlantic to the war-torn nation of Galonia. On the boat, they spot Lita Laverne, a “famous foreign actress”, who looks like guess who.
And once again, someone tries to take a shot at the Lois-looking actress, and Clark manages to distract the would-be assassin, who falls into the water and is never seen again. That gives Clark an opportunity to try to book an interview, which she declines. It’s possible that by this point Action Comics is being procedurally generated, using a fairly simple algorithm.
Things get a little confusing. There are several times in the first five pages when Clark appears with one of the lookalikes in one panel, and the other in the next panel, and you need to pay attention to keep track of which one you’re currently looking at, wondering all the while if one of them will turn out to be the Ultra-Humanite.
And here is the Replicant v Replicant showdown that we’ve all been waiting for, with Clark appearing in the same panel as both Loises, who are dressed almost identically. Over the next two pages, the only way that you can tell them apart is by paying attention to the color of their dresses; Lois is in the green outfit, and Lita in the brown.
Except for the panel where Lita’s dress is colored blue, causing a glitch in the Matrix that finally brings the whole enterprise tumbling to the ground.
That is the end of the amazing year of multiple Loises; this appears to be the moment when they realized that maybe Action Comics needs to start seeing other women.
It’s eight months later, in issue #30 (November 1940), when they finally learn how to draw somebody else. From this point on, there’s only one Lois Lane, and thank goodness, it’s the one we like best.
Although it’s possible that the Ultra-Humanite pulled one last caper, fooling Superman and everyone else in the world. Everybody agrees that Ultra-Dolores died in that erupting volcano, but we never saw her body, and she could have made her way back to Metropolis, disposed of Lois, and took her place in the chronicles.
I mean, that’s not likely, but if you recall from the other day, Lois’ attitude toward Clark did change quite a bit over the course of 1940. Has the Ultra-Humanite been playing the long game all these years, biding her time and waiting for her moment to strike?
How does Clark’s
human being costume work?
1.41: Levitate Me.
— Danny Horn