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Friday, March 18, 2016 

Tim Hanley's awkward takes on the history of Lois Lane

Tim Hanley, a comics historian who's written mostly about Wonder Woman, recently wrote a book about the history of Superman's paramour, but didn't get things across very well in his interviews about it. For Newsarama, he told about the discoveries he made in the letter pages for books like Superman's Girl Friend, Lois Lane:
Nrama: What was the strangest or most intriguing thing you came across in your research? Though I knew a number of those 1960s Lois stories from reprints and such, and how horrifying Superman was in many of them, I did not know about the letter-column demands for Lois to get a super-spanking...

Hanley: The kids writing in to demand Lois get a super-spanking to teach her a lesson for bothering Superman was certainly strange. The first letter seemed like an amusing oddity, and then other kids piled on and the debate raged in Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane's letter column for a full year before the editor had enough.

Another letter column really intrigued me as well: When Lois got into women's lib in the early 1970s, her book featured a new column written by a mysterious figure named “Alexander the Great,” who trashed feminism and anyone who wrote in to say nice things about Lois. The juxtaposition made no sense at all, and I spent a lot of time getting to the bottom of how and why that column existed.
Well one thing's for sure: even from the start, the notion anybody would blame a fictional character and fully exempt the writers from any guilt they had to shoulder for poor writing is disturbing. And these were children who were writing these monstrosities! I want to get to more on that soon, but for now, I'm going to focus on at least two more parts of this interview. For example:
Nrama: The book really examines the appeal and contradiction of Lois Lane – on the one hand, she's a proactive, socially-aware career woman who willingly puts herself in danger to bring about justice, but she's also frequently portrayed as victimized, marriage-crazed, and used to reinforce a number of stereotypes about “traditional” male-female relationship roles. What do you feel is the root of Lois' appeal, even at times when the character is depicted as a childish or destructively impulsive?

Hanley: I think that the root of Lois's appeal dates back to her first appearance, when she slapped a guy for getting fresh with her, got kidnapped, interrogated Superman after he rescued her, and then pitched the whole story to her editor right after Superman told her not to do so. That fearlessness, defiance, and drive has been the core of the character from the get-go, and has never been fully squashed, even in her more cringeworthy moments.

For example, when the bulk of her own series in the late 1950s was Superman teaching her lessons for being too impetuous, he was doing so because Lois was going to great lengths to get front-page scoops. She's an unstoppable force, and no matter how heavily the romance element was pushed or harsh stereotypes were portrayed, Lois always had her eye on the front page. Her best qualities get buried sometimes, but they never fully go away.
I think both interviewer and author are still obscuring the writers who cooked up all these weird stories, and whether they think they did a good or bad job with them. And from what I can tell here, it sounds more like the writers were setting Lois up to look like all she cared about was fame, rather than Clark's own belief in truth, justice and the American way. Was that a good way to characterize her? While there's always been plenty of characters with moral flaws, it could just as easily be the writers were making her look more like a pure idiot, given the slapstick direction some of these stories took. Even if Lois was written as an anti-heroine, that doesn't mean the stories were executed in good taste. Yet Hanley makes little effort to explore that.
Nrama: You note toward the end how Lois has been marginalized a bit in the “New 52” and looks like she won't have a much of a role in the upcoming Superman films. What do you feel is the greatest strength of the character, and the thing that most creators in different media don't always recognize? If she were to take a larger profile in current Superman stories, what would you want her role to be?

Hanley: Creators often forget that Lois is a superhero too. She doesn't have powers or a cape, but she's always saving people, running towards trouble, and taking down villains in a variety of ways. Lois should be an active part of every story she's in, not cheering from the sidelines or looking on with concern. She's at her best when she's right in the thick of everything.

Ideally, rather than a bigger role in current Superman stories, Lois should get her own series with her own adventures. It's been more than forty years since Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane ended; she's overdue for another comic series. But in the Superman books, it would be nice to see her involved and working with Superman, a key part of the team rather than an occasional pop in.
Curious that he doesn't signal any disappointment in all involved in the marginalization of Lois for this pretentious new direction, like editor Matt Idelson, who borrowed a page from Joe Quesada after they erased the Super-marriage. At this point, it's not just the creators who're guilty, but the editors and publishers far more. Certainly, it could be creative to give Lois and others like her stories where they take the spotlight more than the superheroes they co-star with. But he's still overlooking much of the trouble caused by Dan DiDio for many years, and not willing to focus on hard issues.

Then, when he gave an interview to Sequential Tart 2 days later, he brought up the case of the disturbing aforementioned letters again:
ST: The chapter about corporeal punishment was well-written, yet difficult as a Lois fan to read! It seems very different than the BDSM feminism of William Moulton Marston's Wonder Woman stories. Were you surprised by the element of corporeal punishment in Lois Lane stories?

TH: I was very surprised! I always like reading the letter columns of comics, and was amused when a 1960 issue of Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane had a letter from a kid who demanded that Lois get a spanking to teach her a lesson for bothering Superman. I thought it was odd when there was a similar letter a couple of months later from another child, and then downright bizarre when more letters demanding punishment for Lois kept coming for over a year. Lois's depiction was such that kids saw Lois as an impetuous child that needed to be corrected, even though she was a grown woman. With Marston and Wonder Woman, the bondage in the comics had a simultaneously fetishistic and feminist meaning; Marston was into bondage, but it was also a metaphor for the cruel oppression of patriarchal society and, of course, Wonder Woman always escaped, demonstrating the superiority of women. With Lois, these kids just wanted retribution. Spankings were how they got punished, so they demanded the same for Lois.
Oh for crying out loud. I don't think he handled this well at all, if only because he failed to stress whether he was surprised that they failed to recognize that this was just an imaginary character and if they couldn't tell a badly written story when they saw one. But this does serve as early example of humans who can't tell the difference between fiction and reality, and look where we're at today, with children now replaced by adults who have similar problems and no idea why they're reading what they probably don't even like. I'm sure some of those children from the late 50s-early 60s are still around today, and it's a fascinating question whether they realize how jaw-droppingly stupid they were being at the time, and the poor example they set for future generations. Superhero comics aren't above criticism for story merit, and their failure to recognize that is disgusting. Did they actually want Lois depicted as a childish dimwit? One can only guess what would be the reaction if Superman were portrayed so impetuously. So when the main hero's depicted badly, they seemingly recognize who's at fault, but when it's the co-star, they cannot? This just shows how poor education could've been back in the 50s, and may not have changed since.

What's particularly disturbing about the letters he alluded to is that they risked condoning aggravated assault, to say nothing of taking out their personal issues on an easy target who never hurt anybody in real life. What if it turns out those aren't even the worst of the letters they might've got? What if there were some calling for punches to the head, known in some quarters as "hitting a woman"? In sane societies, that's considered morally offensive. Man, the children who wrote those stupid dribbles have no idea what kind of ammunition they were giving to anybody who may think comic readers are all a bad lot. Should the editors have run those in print? Good question, but if I were an editor then, I'd want to contact their parents to complain. No joke.

He also wrote about how Superman's ladyfriend was depicted over the past decades in The Atlantic, and alluded to a story written by pretentious Greg Rucka:
Lois Lane was nearly killed in Adventures of Superman #631.

This was hardly out of the ordinary for Lois. For seven decades, she’d survived all manner of death traps as gangsters, supervillains, and even alien invaders tried to do away with her. Lois was a perpetual damsel in distress, and for vast swaths of her history she existed only to be captured and to then call out for Superman, who would swoop in to save her from certain doom.

But this 2004 issue of Adventures of Superman was different.

This time, Superman was too late. Lois was in the sights of a sniper, and Superman arrived only after she’d been shot through the chest. The circumstances were also unusual. Lois wasn’t lured into an obvious trap, nabbed while recklessly snooping around for a story that would land on the front page of the Daily Planet, or ensnared by one of the other innumerable ploys that comic-book writers used to put her in peril. In this story, Lois was the hero.

As part of an ongoing story, Lois was embedded with American troops overseas. America was at war with the fictional country of Umec, and Lois was covering the conflict for the Daily Planet. An explosion and sniper fire rocked her unit, and after the initial attack waned, Lois noticed that one of the soldiers was still alive and needed assistance. Ignoring the warnings of a fellow reporter sheltered with her in a safe zone, Lois ran to the soldier and dragged him to safety, but got shot in the process.
It'd be interesting to know just what the exact political angle was like in this tale. Rucka's more or less a leftist, and he's indicated that a few times in the past. It would be no surprise if this were built on any of the same, and bore an anti-war stance.

In the end, I'm honestly let down by Hanley's failure to be more objective on the past and present. Even in modern times, Lois has undergone terrible misuse as a character by the modern DC staff, yet like several other authors, he doesn't show the courage to get into that, presumably all because he doesn't want DiDio and company to shun him. But Hanley's under no obligation to please people with such poor respect for rationale, and by tiptoeing around challenging subjects, he's only demonstrating why comicdom's become such a failure. The publishers kept indulging the awkward visions of younger readers in some ways, and made no attempt to defend their better interests of the creations they were in charge of. And nobody has the guts to call them out on those flaws? Then they shouldn't be surprised why they're doing so badly today.

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For most of their history, comic books were cheap, disposable entertainment for kids. The writers just churned out what they hoped would be enjoyable stories, with little regard for continuity, consistency, or characterization. Thus, Lois was sometimes portrayed as a competent adult, sometimes as brave and heroic, and sometimes like a bratty child. It depended on what was needed for each story.

And I don't blame the kids who wanted to see her get spanked. That was how they got punished when they misbehaved. And, when Lois was depicted acting like a spoiled brat, they naturally thought that she should be treated accordingly.

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