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Investigating Lois Lane
The Turbulent History of the Daily Planet's Ace Reporter
By Tim Hanley
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Tim Hanley
All rights reserved.
The Ambitious Sob Sister
Action Comics #1 hit newsstands in June 1938 and changed the entire course of the comic book industry. The book was an instant hit; the cover featured a man wearing a cape and lifting a car, while inside was the debut story of a character who would go down in history as a tireless crusader for truth and justice. This hero was fearless and brave, quick to stand up to evildoers when no one else would, and unflappable in the face of danger. Her name was Lois Lane.
Lois was a reporter at the Daily Star, a "sob sister" relegated to the lovelorn column but keen to find a big scoop and make it to the front page.*Her editor, George Taylor, and her associate, Clark Kent, were more hindrance than help, but Lois persevered. She fought for every assignment she got, even stealing tips when she had to, and over the years she endured kidnappings, fires, and explosions all in the pursuit of a good story. Action Comics and its spinoffs sold millions of copies each month, and Lois Lane was soon a household name.
Superman was there too, of course, receiving most of the attention, but it's easy to stand up to bad guys when you're bulletproof. Although Lois had none of the advantages of Superman or even Clark Kent, she was just as driven in pursuit of her goal. She was determined to be a star reporter, but it was a long road to the front page.
Creating a Legend
Before Action Comics debuted, the comic book industry was still finding its way. In the mid-1930s, several publishers began to reprint newspaper comic strips as comic books, on paper so poor and for a price so low that they were meant to be thrown out after they were read. The books were popular, and soon publishers began to commission original stories. Young creators jumped at the opportunity, hoping to strike gold with a new character that they could transition into a lucrative daily newspaper strip with one of the major syndicates. There were humor stories, detective yarns, and tales of adventure, but comic books didn't really take off until the dawn of superheroes.
National Comics found some success with Detective Comics in 1937,*and publisher Harry Donenfeld directed editor Vin Sullivan to launch another series the following year to be called Action Comics. Sullivan compiled a new cast of characters — boxer "Pep" Morgan; Scoop Scanlon, Five Star Reporter; Zatara, Master Magician — but he was missing a cover story. Max Gaines, the publisher at National's sister company All-American Publications, forwarded him an old pitch about a costumed hero named Superman, and Sullivan liked what he saw. He took a chance and put Superman on the cover, and everything changed from there. The book was a smash, and soon every publisher wanted its own superhero.
The creators of Superman were two young men from Cleveland named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They had been pitching several versions of the character for years before he first appeared in Action Comics #1. Siegel was an avid fan of pulp and science fiction novels and wrote his own stories from a young age, creating his own fanzine, Cosmic Stories, in 1929, when he was just fifteen years old. He met aspiring artist Joe Shuster in high school, and the two teamed up on a new self-published magazine they titled Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization. Siegel wrote prose stories and Shuster provided illustrations.
The earliest incarnation of the Man of Steel appeared in the magazine's third issue, in a 1933 story called "The Reign of the Super-Man." The titular character was a villain who resembled a prototypical Lex Luthor, and there was no Lois Lane involved. Siegel and Shuster soon reworked the character, dropping everything but the name and turning him into a hero. They switched from prose to comics and pitched the character to every publication they could think of, both as a newspaper strip and as a comic book.
The duo sold a few of their other stories to an early National venture, New Fun, in 1935, starring characters like the swashbuckling Henri Duval and the supernatural Doctor Occult. They also had a regular feature in Detective Comics with their adventuring hero Slam Bradley. All the while, Superman remained frustratingly unpublished.
Finally, Vin Sullivan offered them the cover story of Action Comics #1, and the duo churned out thirteen pages as quickly as possible. They sold the rights to Superman to National for $130 and a contract to continue making Superman stories, a decision they later came to regret. But in 1938, they were overjoyed to debut Superman after five years of reworking and rejection.
Superman was Kal-L, a baby sent from the doomed planet Krypton to Earth, where he was adopted by human parents.* He grew up to become Clark Kent, a reporter at a major metropolitan newspaper, originally known as the Daily Star. His Kryptonian physiology gave him superpowers, and Superman used those powers to fight evil and help those in need. In Action Comics #1, Superman convinced the governor to order a stay of execution for a wrongly convicted inmate on death row, confronted a man who was beating his wife, stopped a gang of kidnappers, and investigated a corrupt senator. As his alter ego Clark Kent, he also had a date with his coworker, the tenacious and ambitious reporter Lois Lane.
The earliest version of Lois had been added to the Superman story during the constant revisions prior to the property landing at National, at some point around 1935. Films starring female reporters were popular in this period, and Siegel and Shuster drew inspiration from this trend. Film scholar Deac Rossell writes that "the newspaper film genre was the only place where an actress could portray a role that stood on equal footing with men," and many great female characters came out of these movies. They also had a lot in common with Lois: Margaret Banks, played by Carole Lombard in 1929's Big News, was a sob sister, while Ellen Garfield, played by Bette Davis in 1935's Front Page Woman, worked for the Daily Star.
These hardworking, fast-talking women were determined to show that they belonged in the unwelcoming, male-dominated newspaper business. Ellen Garfield declared to her boyfriend, a rival reporter, "I'm going to prove I'm as good a reporter as any man." Timmy Blake, played by Joan Blondell in 1937's Back in Circulation, was described as a "scoop-hunting news hawk," while Torchy Blane, originally played by Glenda Farrell in a series of films beginning with 1937's Smart Blonde, was called "the lady bloodhound with a nose for news" and a "headline hunter, trouble hunter, man hunter."
Torchy Blane was a major influence on Lois Lane, cited specifically by Siegel in interviews years after Lois's creation. She was a determined reporter who never let anything or anyone stand in her way. In Smart Blonde, her police lieutenant fiancé told her, "No, you wait here. This rathole is no place for a woman." She immediately replied, "But I'm a newspaperman!" and followed him into the building despite his warnings. Torchy jumped onto moving trains to get interviews, talked her way onto murder scenes, and was always just ahead of her fiancé as they investigated the same crimes.
Lois's last name also had a Torchy Blane connection. Siegel was a fan of the actress Lola Lane, particularly the ring of her name, and Lola Lane went on to replace Glenda Farrell in 1938's Torchy Blane in Panama. The writer borrowed her surname and the alliteration for his own female reporter.*
For her first name, Siegel turned to his past. Lois Amster was Jerry Siegel's high school crush; he even published a romantic poem about her in the school newspaper in hopes of earning her affection. It didn't work, nor did he create much of a lasting impression with Amster. Decades later, when she was asked about inspiring Lois Lane, all Amster could remember about Siegel was that he stared at her a lot and occasionally wore his pajamas to school. But Siegel remembered her. A damsel in distress in one of his first comics, "Doctor Occult" in 1935's New Fun, was named Lois Amster, and the first name later became legendary in Action Comics #1.
During Lois Lane's first story, while reluctantly on a dinner date with Clark Kent, Lois was approached by a tough customer named Butch Mason who demanded a dance. Clark was too cowardly to stand up to Butch, so Lois announced that she was going to leave. Butch declared, "Yeah? You'll dance with me and like it!" So Lois slapped him and walked out of the restaurant. An irate Butch tried to get revenge by kidnapping Lois, but Superman stopped him. The Man of Steel returned Lois to the city and said to her, "I'd advise you not to print this little episode." Yet Lois was in her editor's office the very next morning insisting that she saw Superman.
Lois's first appearance showcased the ambition that would be the core of the character for the next seventy-five years. She was sick of reading sob stories and writing advice for the lovelorn, and the second she got wind of a big story she pounced, despite the warnings of a superhero she'd just seen dismantle a car and dispatch a gang of thugs. Lois wanted to be on the front page.
Siegel and Shuster gave Lois the potential to achieve her dream, putting her in a situation that was atypical for women in the workplace in 1938. Working women were still a rarity, making up less than a quarter of the workforce. Most of these women were in jobs that had little room for advancement, such as clerical and secretarial work. Lois may have started out in the lovelorn column, but she was writing for a major newspaper and had access to the editor to pitch other stories. From her very first appearance, Lois seized every chance to move up the ladder.
Action Comics #1 also eschewed a common limitation for women at the time by having Lois be entirely unattached. Most of the women in the newspaper films of the 1930s were married or in serious relationships with marriage just on the horizon. Lois's main inspiration, Torchy Blane, was engaged. Torchy wasn't just a "newspaperman"; she had one foot in the stereotypically feminine realm of marriage and domesticity. Engagement also implied a degree of control. As much as Torchy might outsmart and disobey her fiancé, once the wedding ring was on her finger she would be a married woman, and the understanding was that this meant things would be different.* Lois had no such attachments whatsoever.
Siegel and Shuster had a track record for creating capable female characters in Detective Comics before they got the Action Comics gig. Their Slam Bradley stories featured an array of women who could keep up with the adventurer and hold their own in a fight. Another feature, "Spy," starred Bart Regan and Sally Norris as secret agents who traveled the world stopping villainous plots. Originally, Bart was the spy and Sally was his tagalong girlfriend, but Sally earned her way into the spy program by helping Bart and proved that she was just as skilled a secret agent as he was. Sally was in no way a damsel in distress; she was an equally capable companion. Romance was a part of most of these stories, and occasionally Siegel and Shuster's female characters needed rescuing, but ultimately they were well-rounded, talented women. Lois Lane continued this trend, and in her first appearance she was the picture of brassy defiance of the status quo.
A Rock and a Hard Place
Having made Action Comics an immediate smash hit, Superman helmed the leadoff story for every issue after the series debuted. Action Comics was soon followed by an eponymous solo series that starred Superman in every story. Between the monthly Action Comics and Superman quickly shifting from quarterly to bimonthly, Superman was a regular presence on the newsstands.
In the first few years of Superman's meteoric career, Lois appeared in slightly fewer than half of his many stories. While the ambition that defined her first appearance remained, Lois's characterization was quickly limited. She wasn't there to be a well-rounded character, with her own skills to display and goals to be achieved; instead she became a plot device, chasing stories to end up in dangerous situations so that Superman could save her.
In the second issue of Action Comics, Lois was researching a story in a foreign country when she was framed for treason; Superman stopped her from being executed. In Action Comics #5, Superman swooped in and grabbed Lois from her car just as it was about to be destroyed by an onslaught of water from a demolished dam. This trend continued whenever Lois appeared: Superman deflected the bullets of scads of gunmen, foiled multiple kidnappings, and prevented the destruction of dirigibles, planes, and various other aircraft, all to rescue Lois.
Before long, Lois was little more than a damsel in distress, a role that defined one of the major conventions of the nascent superhero genre. It wasn't enough to just let a hero display his skills; a damsel in distress always reinforced the hero's greatness with grandiose pronouncements. When Clark or Lois got commended for a story they uncovered, Lois always immediately pointed out, "All the credit should go to Superman!" While witnessing one of Superman's feats, Lois exclaimed, "He was colossal!" In that same issue she compared Superman to Clark, saying "He's grand! He's glorious! He's terrific! — He's everything you're not! Brave, bold, handsome — superb!"
If Lois's declarations seemed especially effusive, it was because she'd fallen madly in love with Superman, and it only took three issues. In her second appearance, Lois remained focused on journalism, asking Superman, "What manner of being are you?" By her third appearance, the Man of Steel had won her over. After Superman saved Lois from the destroyed dam in Action Comics #5, all of her journalistic aims fell by the wayside. She exclaimed, "Oh, I could kiss you! As a matter of fact, I will!" And so, despite Superman's protests, she did. As Superman flew her back to town, Lois said, "The first time you carried me like this I was frightened — just as I was frightened of you. But now I love it — just as I love you!" As Superman flew off so Clark could call in the story, a smitten Lois pleaded, "Don't go! Stay with me ... always ..."
From then on, a lovestruck Lois was the norm whenever Superman was around. This wasn't a development of Lois's character so much as an extension of her primary purpose as a damsel in distress. It added extra relish to her pronouncements of his greatness, but more practically it also gave the writers another way to put Lois in dangerous situations, as she chased after her elusive love.* She was so keen to see Superman again that in one issue she stole Clark Kent's scoop to meet up with two men who claimed to be Superman's managers. They were con men and the meet quickly went sour, but the real Superman arrived to save Lois when the con men threw her out a window. As he left she desperately inquired, "But when will I see you again? I must see you! I must!" When Superman performed as a strong man at a local circus, Lois was there on opening night. A panel showed her face alight with excitement, her hands clasped together in glee as she gushed, "I'm going to see him again! — Superman, my dream-lover!" When she tried to meet Superman after the show, she was captured and held at gunpoint by a saboteur before the Man of Steel intervened.
Back at the newspaper, Lois remained ambitious but couldn't get any traction. Two years after Superman first appeared, the Daily Star was renamed the Daily Planet, and the editor of the paper changed from George Taylor to Perry White. Things remained the same for Lois, though; she was still the paper's sob sister, answering letters from the lonely hearts in the lovelorn column. Even after four years of finagling scoops and following leads with Clark, she still wasn't a full-fledged reporter, and her career goals were often treated like a joke. In Superman #18 in September 1942, Clark greeted Lois with the rather patronizing "Poor Lois! Still giving out advice to the lovelorn."
Excerpted from Investigating Lois Lane by Tim Hanley. Copyright © 2016 Tim Hanley. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1 The Ambitious Sob Sister 1
1a Joe Shuster's Lost Lois 19
2 Lois Lane on Screen, Part 1 25
12a A Real-Life L.L 45
3 Sharing the Spotlight 53
13a Corporal Punishment 65
4 Romantic Rivals 73
14a Cry for Help 87
5 Lois Lane's Brief Feminist Revolution 93
15a The Antifemimst Rebuttal 111
6 As the Daily Planet Turns 117
16a Women Writers 135
7 Lois Lane on Screen, Part 2: Movies 143
17a Parodies and Homages 157
8 A Whole New World 165
18a Lucy Lane, Riot Grrrl 181
9 Lois Lane on Screen, Part 3: Televison 187
19a Animation Representation 201
10 Watching from the Sidelines 209
110a The New 52 and Beyond 225
Source Notes 239