Investigating Lois Lane: The Turbulent History of the Daily Planet’s Ace Reporter

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Investigating Lois Lane by Tim HanleyInvestigating Lois Lane by Tim Hanley

There’s something irresistibly appealing about Lois Lane, DC Comics’ globe-trotting and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. In the hands of a good writer, she’s got grit and guts to spare, she’s smart enough to track down crime bosses or dissolve child-smuggling rings, and she’s tough enough to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of supervillains Lex Luthor and Braniac. In the hands of a bad writer — and there have been many — she’s a sex object, a romantic conquest, a pawn whose numerous meaningless deaths are nothing more than the catalyst for Superman’s emotional arcs. This is a character who, in the year 2011, was referred to as a “trophy wife” by a DC editor at San Diego Comic-Con. “Turbulent” isn’t a strong enough word for Lois Lane’s 77-year history, but it’s a good place to start.

Investigating Lois Lane’s ten chapters focus on one general area of her history at a time, and Tim Hanley has done an excellent job of determining what deserves close examination and what requires only a broad overview. Rather than pick apart each of her many appearances in comics, radio shows, animated shorts from the 1940s, television series, movies, a musical, and prose novels, Hanley keeps the book manageable and appealing by choosing to look at larger trends and the specific moments which define or buck those trends. By glossing over periods of history in which not much of interest or note happened, Hanley keeps his narrative moving smoothly, with occasional footnotes which are both useful and unobtrusive, and provide sly humor when it’s called for.

After each chapter is a sub-chapter allowing Hanley to explore related topics such as Siegel and Shuster’s work on other projects, fan letters which react to changes in storylines and character arcs, George Reeve’s well-known turn as Superman in Adventures of Superman and his mysterious death, parodies and homages of the Superman or Lois characters in various media like MAD Magazine or Saturday Night Live, Lois’ sister Lucy Lane’s stint with the Riot Grrrl movement, etc. Hanley also uses this space to examine historical events or notable persons that had an effect on either Lois Lane or the comics industry in general. Placing these digressions within the main chapters would have bogged down the flow of information or, even worse, brought it to a complete stop, so setting them aside was a wise choice.

Including a photo insert in the middle of Investigating Lois Lane was also a great idea, allowing readers to compare Joe Shuster’s initial sketches of Lois Lane against finished comics panels (or his infamous 1950s fetish art), Fleischer Studios’ animation style from the 1940s against Bruce Timm’s work for DC’s animated television shows in the 1990s, various on-screen casting decisions like Phyllis Coates and Margot Kidder, and changes in comics art styles throughout the decades. It’s fascinating to see the similarities and differences that have come and gone over time, as well as the elements of Lois that have always seemed to remain constant: her dark hair and expressive face. Hanley also provides charts and sales figures to back up his statistics, and readily admits whenever data may be “spotty,” which is key toward creating a sense that his claims can be trusted when he writes that the Lois-centric series Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane was “an achievement for female representation in comics.”

I appreciated that Hanley was able to maintain his focus on character development of both Lois Lane and Superman/Clark Kent in the hands of their writers rather making the mistake of treating them like real people. Additionally, I was extremely grateful that he didn’t shy away from some of the horribly tone-deaf ways in which those writers tried to address important social issues like civil rights or feminism. The prime example which sticks out most in my mind is 1970’s Issue #106 of Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane, in which Superman gives Lois the appearance of an African American woman for a day so that she can stroll through the “Little Africa” neighborhood of Metropolis without the prohibitive barrier of her “whiteness,” thereby exposing herself (and, by extension, the presumably white reader) to a way of life and social problems she couldn’t possibly imagine. Good intentions or no, this is an idea so monumentally stupid in hindsight that it’s a wonder DC Comics didn’t just close up shop in shame. It’s also a sobering reminder that a diverse range of opinions and backgrounds on a comic book’s writing or editing team has a better chance of accurately portraying the real-life struggles faced by its readers, and I can’t help but wonder what well-meaning moments from modern-day comics will be faced with similar astonishment in the future.

Hanley astutely makes the point that Lois is at her best when allowed to come out from Superman’s shadow; she’s intelligent and brave, going after news stories in the hopes of making the world a better place one byline at a time. But too often, she’s sidelined into domestic story arcs which completely eclipse her potential for adventure in favor of placing the spotlight on the Man of Steel. Superman is expected to be multi-faceted: he’s Clark Kent, friend and frequent breakfast companion of Jimmy Olsen, as well as a respected reporter; he can be a father figure or literally a father; he can travel all over the galaxy and into parallel universes, marrying several versions of Lois. Marriage to Superman takes Lois out of the workforce and sticks her at home, wearing a frilly apron and cooking endless pots of boeuf bourguignon. I share Hanley’s palpable frustration when Lois is, time and again, kneecapped into a strictly romantic role rather than allowed to be as interesting and well-rounded as her male companions. Sadly, this reductive treatment of female characters is nothing new in the world of comics, making it all the more remarkable when writers do treat female characters as more than props. (Not for nothing did comics writer Gail Simone coin the term “women in refrigerators.”)

There’s very little that I could find fault with, though I will say that the brief mentions of Lois Lane GIFs and Dana Delaney’s Twitter bio seemed more suitable to a blog post, where Hanley could provide links or screenshots of the subject in question. Focusing on Lois’s appearances on screen and in print media is a better tactic, since they’re far less ephemeral and won’t instantly date the book. Other than this minor quibble, I had no objections to the bulk of Investigating Lois Lane or Hanley’s treatment of the subject matter at hand.

Hanley concludes on an upbeat note, mentioning Lois’s continued popularity as a character even when, historically, writers and artists have not always given her the best treatment. He makes special mention of Gwenda Bond’s YA prose novels, Lois Lane: Fallout (2015) and its upcoming sequel (slated for release in May 2016), Lois Lane: Double Down, as examples of what a skilled writer can do with positive, character-driven entertainment. Hanley also makes the point that these changes aren’t just possible for Lois; admirable strides are being made for many other female characters at DC Comics and other publishing houses. Investigating Lois Lane needs that optimism in order to avoid being bogged down by the more frustrating elements of Lois Lane’s long history in media, and I’m pleased to say that Hanley does offer a well-balanced survey of that history. Highly recommended, especially for readers interested in media studies, women’s studies, or comics history.

Published March 1, 2016. In a universe full of superheroes, Lois Lane has fought for truth and justice for over 75 years on page and screen without a cape or tights. From her creation by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938 to her forthcoming appearance in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016, from helming her own comic book for twenty-six years to appearing in animated serials, live-action TV shows, and full-length movies, Lois Lane has been a paragon of journalistic integrity and the paramour of the world’s strongest superhero. But her history is one of constant tension. From her earliest days, Lois yearned to make the front page of the Daily Planet, but was held back by her damsel-in-distress role. When she finally became an ace reporter, asinine lessons and her tumultuous romance with Superman dominated her storylines for decades and relegated her journalism to the background. Through it all, Lois remained a fearless and ambitious character, and today she is a beloved icon and an inspiration to many. Though her history is often troubling, Lois’s journey, as revealed in Investigating Lois Lane, showcases her ability to always escape the gendered limitations of each era and of the superhero genre as a whole.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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4 comments

  1. This sounds great! Nice to see the smart and intrepid Ms. Lane getting some respect.

    • My feelings exactly! And I thought I was pretty well-versed in the character’s history, but I learned a lot, which also made me very happy.

  2. This sounds like something I would love. Definitely in the TBR list!

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