DC 'Celebration' books tell histories of Superman and Lois Lane (and America)

Most people probably think that Superman, Lois Lane and Clark Kent put the “eternal” in the eternal love triangle.  But two books out this week demonstrate just how much Lois and Superman/Clark have changed over the decades.

The Adventures of Superman TV show of the 1950s and the film series that launched in 1978 with Superman: The Movie have probably combined to form a specific, rock-solid image of the Man of Steel in the minds of most Americans. And yet, those Supermen are just two among many, as Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years ($39.99) ably demonstrates.

And the beauty of this tome is that it doesn’t pretend otherwise. Celebration not only reprints almost 400 pages of important Superman stories from the last 7.5 decades, it breaks them down into the significant Super-eras for us, complete with explanatory introductions.

The book begins with “Champion of the Oppressed,” a chapter reprinting important stories from the Action Ace’s “Golden Age,” roughly 1938 to 1950. Few remember it now, but when Superman debuted he was, in fact, a Roosevelt-style New Dealer – a protector of the poor and oppressed, and a scourge of the callous, corrupt and monied interests that oppressed them. In his first two issues, he took on – among other things – crooked politicians, a wife-beater and a system that was about to execute an innocent man.

All of that is reprinted here, along with the famous two-pager in a 1940 Look magazine demonstrating how Superman would end World War II (by having Hitler and Stalin duke it out man to man), the first story where Lois Lane suspected Clark Kent of being Superman (1942) and the first, full origin story for the Man of Steel in comic books (1948).

The next chapter is titled “Strange Visitor,” and represents Superman’s Silver Age (roughly 1958-1970), where the mythos was expanded exponentially. Superman, like the servicemen who returned from WWII to create 1950s suburbia, found himself pater familias to a growing family (beginning with Super-Dog Krypto and Super-cousin Supergirl). He gained a widening circle of friends, foes and pets; a more fleshed-out history for Krypton; a retreat called the Fortress of Solitude; and many other elements we now think of as standard fare for Super-stories. Not all of those are included here, but we do see Superman’s first team-up with Batman (1952), first battle with Brainiac (1958) and first romance (with Atlantean mermaid Lori Lemaris, 1959).

The next three chapters are less seminal, as the Silver Age established most of the toys in the Super-sandbox. So the sections “Higher, Further” (1970-86), “The Man of Steel” (1986-2011) and “The Man of Tomorrow” (2011-present) reflect some of the best stories using those toys, by some of the best artists and writers to work on the character. They also reflect the times, with Superman suffering some of the self-doubt of Vietnam-era America (1972), temporarily dying in the hype-fueled “Doomsday” tale in the go-go ‘90s (1993) and re-launching as an idealistic Millennial blogger (2011).

These are all great stories, with my only complaint that some of them may have been reprinted too many times already. But that’s because they’re good – and they belong in this book.

A companion title, Lois Lane: A Celebration of 75 Years ($39.99) doesn’t suffer that problem, since far fewer Lois-centric stories have been reprinted over the decades. But as this volume demonstrates, she may actually be the more important – or at least more interesting – character, from a sociological sense.

The first chapter, “Girl Reporter,” reminds us that she was the only cast member to debut in the same 1938 issue as Superman, and gives us a tough-as-nails “newshen,” one who actually slips Clark Kent knock-out drops in order to steal his scoop (“The Man Who Sold Superman,” 1938)! I had always assumed the model for this version of Lois was the Rosalind Russell character in His Girl Friday, but the introduction points the finger at fast-talking newspaperwoman Torchy Blane from 1930s B movies. Regardless, she was a career gal to be reckoned with.

Unlike other tough chicks of her generation, like Rosie the Riveter, Lois wasn’t immediately sent back to the kitchen after World War II. But her character was softened substantially. And then came the Silver Age, and a 180-degree flip for the character.

As the chapter “Superman’s Girl Friend” demonstrates, Lois in the late 1950s and ‘60s transformed into a catty, conniving, flighty and ultimately embarrassing character, constantly scheming to uncover Superman’s secret identity  and/or trick him into marriage. While these silly stories were popular at the time – as were the ones in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, where the cub reporter was also played for laughs – they paint a strange picture of the woman supposedly worthy of Superman’s love.

Oddly, this section includes one of the most famous – or infamous – of Lois Lane stories, one that attempted social relevance and a stronger social conscience for the Daily Planet’s ace reporter. In “I Am Curious (Black),” Lois uses Super-technology to turn herself African-American to research the race divide. Often criticized for its clumsiness and superficiality, this 1970 story nevertheless deserves credit for attempting to tackle a serious issue in the pages of what were still called “funnybooks” – and gave us a Lois Lane that was a lot easier to admire.

And that pointed to the future. After a decade of better stories, followed by a 1986 revamp, the Lois Lane who coincided with TV’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventure of Superman was once again a sharp newshawk, and one with the insight and self-esteem to pass up the glamorous Superman to date Clark Kent. That eventually led to The Big Reveal (1991) and marriage (1996). What followed until the 2011 revamp (where Superman and Lois Lane aren’t dating – yet) was my favorite Lois: A clever, resourceful and able reporter who doubled as a help-meet for the World’s Greatest Hero. Here was a loyal mate determined to protect Superman’s secret, rather than reveal it, and one of the most competent women ever portrayed in comics.

Lastly, Celebration includes a chapter reprinting popular stories that never “happened “ – that is to say, stories that occurred outside the status quo of the monthly books. Sometimes nutty, sometimes poignant, these “Imaginary Stories” follow turning points where characters made different choices than the ones they made in the “real” stories. And they’re a hoot.

But they also show several different flavors of Lois Lane, which in itself is interesting. Why has the female character in the Super-mythos been the one to go through such wrenching changes? Does it reflect some ambivalence about the role of women in our society? Is it some warped reflection of the Madonna/whore complex? These stories are about flying men and mad scientists, sure, but the social subtext is complicated enough that it would fill a library with dissertations.

But don’t worry about that. Just enjoy the flying men and mad scientists, the mild-mannered reporters and sharp-tongued newhens, as they have paraded through Superman comics for 75 years. It’s the story of Superman and Lois Lane, to be sure, but in some respects it’s the story of America in the 20th century.

Contact Captain Comics at capncomics@aol.com.

 

ART

1. The dust jacket to Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years shows a modern version of the Man of Steel bursting out of chains by DC co-publisher Jim Lee, while ...
2. The actual book cover shows a 1940s version of the same scene by Superman co-creator Joe Shuster. (Both copyright DC Comics)
3. The dust jacket to Lois Lane: A Celebration of 75 Years shows the modern Lois, Superman and Krypto in flight by Gary Frank. Copyright DC Comics
4. The book cover shows a 1940s version of Lois and Superman in flight by Joe Shuster. Copyright DC Comics

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These two books caught me completely by surprise when they shipped a few weeks ago. I must have seen them in Previews, but I didn’t pre-order them for whatever reason (I qualify for a bigger discount when I pre-order things), so I didn’t feel compelled to buy them the day they shipped. I do have a lot of the stories you mentioned, but these sound like pretty comprehensive collections. What do you think? Can you recommend on or both of these to me personally?

Captain Comics said:

I had always assumed the model for this version of Lois was the Rosalind Russell character in His Girl Friday, but the introduction points the finger at fast-talking newspaperwoman Torchy Blane from 1930s B movies.

As a side note, His Girl Friday was a 1940 movie, which was after Lois debuted.

His Girl Friday, the movie, was adapted from the stage play The Front Page, with the main character Hildy Johnson being transformed into a woman. In 1974 it was remade as The Front Page with Jack Lemmon in the (now male again) Hildy Johnson role. I think the romantic angle with Cary Grant's editor went unused with Walter Matthau's. ;-)

I was familiar with the history of The Front Page and all its permutations, Richard, but I didn't realize His Girl Friday came along as late as 1940. I guess I'm going to have to find and watch a Torcy Blane movie one of these days.

And Jeff, I don't think I can recommend these books for you. You probably have read all these stories (I had). I do think they are great books for non-comics fans, because most of them probably don't realize how much the characters have changed over the decades.

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