Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lois Lane, My Love

cross-posted at Dagblog

Joanne Siegel has passed away. She was the model for the first sketches of Lois Lane and the wife of Superman's co-creator, Jerry Siegel. That gives her the best claim to being Lois Lane that any real person has ever had. In her later years, she was a fierce advocate for her husband's intellectual property claims. I've thought a lot about the Superman creators over the years, and part of me is tempted only to blog about intellectual property. But the truth is that Lois Lane has probably shaped the course of my adult life more than any other fictional character has, without me thinking about it.

All the years I spent reading comic books, before I was old enough to think critically or to act on the messages I was being given, I was picking up a bunch of basic lessons about how adults were supposed to live and what they were supposed to want. You were supposed to live in a big city. You were supposed to have a job. (Even if you could fly and squeeze diamonds out of coal, you were supposed to have a job. It wasn't about the money.) And when you fell in love, you were supposed to fall in love with a poised, confident, and whip-smart brunette, someone who was at least as good at her job as you were and at least as smart as you were: a woman like Lois Lane.

I have Lois and her creators to thank for an adulthood full of smart, interesting women. Women with careers and style, women who appreciate good prose and smart remarks, women who are nearly impossible to intimidate. Some only gave me a bout of spring heartsickness or an autumn of giddy smiles, some became my partners for as long as we could make our partnerships work, and one has redefined my notions of happiness, but they've all been bright and self-possessed and ambitious, and my life has been incalculably richer for it. I grew up presuming that if a straight man were able to do nearly anything he wanted and could pursue anyone he liked, he would choose a woman who was undeniably his equal. With more experience behind me, I still feel this is true. I would like to thank Clark Kent for the tip.

I'm not going to pretend that Superman comics were feminist documents, or that Superman is a good role model when it comes to romance. Everyone knows you shouldn't lie to your beloved, let alone systematically deceive her about who you are; you'd have to be from another planet to think otherwise. And it takes neurosis beyond the scope of mortal man to start a love triangle where you are your own rival, let alone to keep that phantom rivalry going for more than half a century. By the time I discovered Superman, Lois, and Clark's triangular mishegas, the comics had toned down most of the overt snickering at Lois for not figuring out that she was being lied to on a daily basis. In the 1950s, Superman would collude with the readers by literally winking to them out of the panel frame, sharing a joke on silly Lois who couldn't figure out the secret that every schoolboy with a spare dime already knew, and who was moreover a girl. But when I started reading, thirty-six years back, the wink had stopped being part of the monthly formula. And while Lois surely needed rescuing on steady schedule, even as a schoolboy I knew that this was about genre and not gender. Lois had to get herself in regular jams to keep the plot machinery from jamming, and I knew that. But the premise, after all, was that Superman was not like other men, so I naturally chalked up the rescuing to the super part, not the man part. Being rescued by that guy was nothing to be ashamed about; it could happen to anyone.

And it mattered, although I could not have articulated this, that Lois really did get herself in those jams, that it was her fearless sense of enterprise that got her in trouble. In fact, she's much more adventurous than Superman is; she takes more risks. Inevitably, one of her daring gambles would lead to a bad break and she would need to be bailed out by her bulletproof admirer. Lois didn't need rescuing twice a month because she was too stereotypically girly. She needed rescuing because she was too brave.

Lois Lane worked for me precisely because I encountered her in the middle of an extremely male fantasy, a fantasy where she was placed at the core. And in many ways she set a better example than characters like Wonder Woman, who represent a male fantasy about powerful women; you won't catch Lois wearing a pair of slave bracelets. An adolescent fantasy about the strongest woman in the world ends up with her dressed like some kind of harem girl. But with Superman, it's a fantasy of unchallengeable male power. And the lesson was that a strong, confident man wants a strong, confident woman. Made sense to me.

After all, it was always Lois who made the Superman concept work. She was Siegel and Shuster's great stroke of genius: Superman is absolutely invincible in adventure-plot terms, but love lays him low every time. The relationship with Lois, not the nonsense with gangsters and mad scientists and goofy-looking monsters, is the problem to be overcome. Lois, not Kryptonite, is his weak spot. What's great about this is that the adventure-story plot, where any suspense is artificial, becomes openly unsuspenseful, and the characters' relationship, which is potentially interesting, remains complicated and unresolved. Superman always saves the day (as you expected) and he never fixes his personal life (or didn't, until 58 years into the game). Of course, it was part of the formula that Clark and Lois never resolved their issues, but leaving them unresolved again and again focuses the narrative suspense toward what is real and human. Radioactive green rocks from outer space are not a real problem, not for us and not really, when it comes down to it, for Superman either. Love, on the other hand, will kick your ass all the way back to Krypton.

Lois was Superman's key difficulty from the very first episode: she's at the core of his character and the heart of the entire story concept. Before there was Kryptonite, there was Lois. Before there was Lex Luthor, there was Lois. When and if Superman is ever allowed to enter the public domain, Lois will go with him, because she was with him in his very first appearance. And he needs her. Without her, he has no story. Nothing can hurt him. Nothing can keep him from doing whatever he pleases. There's no suspense of any kind. (Put another way, Superman is an enormously boring character, but Clark Kent is fascinating.)

Jerry Siegel's central insight was that superhero comics, which he and Joe Shuster were inventing, are all about girl trouble. All of Superman's superhero descendants are about girl trouble, too, both the reader's and their own. (Bruce Wayne has been in his basement putting on a clinic on How Not to Date Successfully since May, 1939.) When you see a superhero whose relationship troubles aren't actually featured in the plot, the stench of Girl Trouble hangs over the whole enterprise. For Superman, the founder of the species, it's right out there in front. Did I mention I used to read a lot of these things?

Of course, if you buy a Superman comic today, you'll find Clark and Lois happily married and domesticated. That happened in 1996, about two years after Lois, Clark, and Clark's special pajamas would have gone into the public domain but for copyright-extension laws. And that provides an object lesson in what our current perpetual-copyright regime does to very old properties.

Under the terms of the bad deal that Siegel and Shuster made in the 1930s, DC Comics and later its corporate parents gained complete rights to the character for a measly $130. (Later, when Siegel and Shuster complained that DC was creating spin-off characters like Superboy without giving them a cut, they were fired from their jobs writing and drawing the character they'd created.) In 1938, that $130 bought DC exclusive rights for a maximum of 56 years, but since then Congress has extended the terms of copyright repeatedly. This is notionally for the benefit of creators, and more directly creators' heirs (extending the term from fifty years after the creator's death to seventy-five years after the creator's death can really only be about the heirs, and about the publishing company). To some extent this is true, and after one of the later extensions Joanne Siegel and the rest of Jerry's heirs did actually get half of the Superman copyright back. But of course, they get nowhere close to half of the revenue from that copyright. Creators and their families do get thrown the occasional bone, because they're the big media companies' official excuse for extending copyright again and again; you've got to at least hand out a few bucks to maintain the pretense. But the real profits of the extension go to companies like, say, Time Warner. It's nice that Siegel's family finally saw a piece of the money, but it's only a piece.

Meanwhile, Superman and Lois remain in the exclusive custody of DC comics, 73 years after they were invented. That means DC Comics gets to define the characters and shape their portrayal. Some fans of perpetual copyright actually cheer for this exclusivity on the grounds that the corporate owner looks after the characters and guards the core of the tradition. But in fact, DC Comics (a subsidiary of Time Warner) drastically reinvented Lois and Superman and removed the core of their storyline. Characters who were defined by not getting together are now blandly married. (Actual married life is not blander, simpler, or less interesting than single life is, but married life in Action Comics is just one long snore.) And with that half-smart re-thinking, the only legitimately interesting thing about Superman vanishes. (It's a bit like deciding that Romeo and Juliet's families should get along better. If one company still had a monopoly on Romeo and Juliet and decided that, it would just be a story about two good-looking kids and a bedroom window.)

This is what happens when fictional characters outlive their original creators but are kept from the free market. The official custodians are now too far from the moment of creation to have any intuitive sense of how and why the characters originally worked, but rival creators who might have a better or smarter grasp of the characters are barred from competing. Over time the writers and editors at DC forgot that Lois was supposed to be the humanizing weakness and started to wonder why their perfect superhuman leading man had this puzzling and "uncharacteristic" weakness. How could the Greatest Superhero of All Time be such a loser in his personal life? It made no sense! They had to make the character more consistent!

It wasn't enough that Clark Kent was immune to bullets, gravity, and abdominal fat. No, he had to have a perfect love life, too. And so he became perfectly boring. Now I have to root for Luthor.

If you're one of the fifty thousand people or so who reads a Superman comic this month (what remains from the old audience of millions), you'll find that the focus is on just how perfect Superman's conduct and values are, and on how much all of the minor DC Comics characters admire him. (What's interesting about the world-famous character is sacrificed in order to make him a more effective backstop to valuable DC properties like Beast Boy and Air Wave.) And there's now a heavy emphasis on Superman's "Midwestern values." You see, he's such a good person because he was raised in Kansas. And if being from the Great Plains States isn't an interesting character hook, I don't know what else could be.

The indomitable Lois Lane of my own childhood won't be infiltrating youngsters' boyhood fantasies, alas. Her publishers gave up on selling to kids long ago, or selling to anyone but a small core of hobbyists. (When I wanted to read a Superman comic, I got thirty-five cents and a posse of friends together and walked to the variety store. These days, Superman is sold in specialty shops, like kayaking gear.) And even so, she's no longer quite the same fearless adventurer who stealthily rearranged my expectations of what adulthood and adult relationships would be like. But the deed is done; I long ago graduated to real women, smart and confident professionals like the famous Miss Lane, and discovered that a few of them actually wanted to spend their time with the nerd in the glasses, and liked me even if I couldn't fly.

Thanks, Jerry. Thanks, Joe. And rest in peace, Joan.

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