She Doesn’t Need Superman: Author Tim Hanley On ‘investigating Lois Lane’ [Interview]
Within the fictional worlds that Superman stories take place in, regardless of the medium, Lois Lane‘s job is always that of a reporter. Interestingly, the character’s role in the real world has also been that of a reporter, for what else has Lois Lane done for some 78 years now but witness the events of superhero comics (and television shows and movies) and help relate the stories of those events to the audiences reading and watching her, and Superman, and their friends and foes?
If Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster‘s Superman character is the Adam of the superhero genre, Lois Lane is its Eve, predating even Wonder Woman, the greatest and most constant of superheroines. Lois was there at the beginning, appearing in the very first Superman story, and she’s still here today, intrinsically linked to Superman, although their relationship is always in flux, depending on the year, the medium and the story.
It’s little wonder then that writer Tim Hanley, author of 2014’s Wonder Woman Unbound, chose Lois as the subject of his follow-up book, Investigating Lois Lane. Like Wonder Woman, Lois has been a constant presence in our pop culture since the Roosevelt administration, and has reflected, embodied and influenced comics, pop culture and, to some extent, culture in general.
Unlike Wonder Woman, however, Lois wasn’t designed to be a headliner, but simply a player in Superman’s adventures. Over the years, she’s evolved to become his rival, foil and competitor, his friend, partner and colleague, and his girlfriend, lover and wife. She’s been a damsel in distress, a sidekick, and yes, a hero in her own right.
In Investigating Lois Lane, Hanley traces the character from her inspirations, like Torchy Blane and the girl reporter characters of 1930s Hollywood, and Shuster’s model Joan Kovacs, to her appearances in just-ended DC Comics arcs and Amy Adams’ portrayal of her in the emerging DC cinematic universe.
We talked to Hanley about his book and its subject — and we didn’t have to dress up in an elaborate disguise, break into a secured facility, or put ourselves in mortal danger to get the scoop.
ComicsAlliance: Having just finished reading your book, I’m pretty sure I know the answer, but I’d certainly like to hear your version of it. Your previous book was on Wonder Woman; why follow it with one on Lois Lane, as opposed to another superhero, or a comics character who headlines her own book rather than serves as a supporting character in another hero’s narratives?
Tim Hanley: Lois Lane was there at the very beginning of the superhero genre and has been a constant presence since then, through all of the ups and downs and twists and turns that superhero comics have faced. She’s been in more comics than any other female character in the superhero game, rarely the star but always there. Lois offers a great perspective on the genre, and a unique one given that she’s a female character in what has often been a male-dominated and male-focused industry.
Also, she’s just a great character. When she first met Superman, he told her not to print anything about their meeting, yet she was in her editor’s office the next morning pitching the story. That kind of defiance and drive has defined the character ever since, despite massive shifts in tone over the ages. When I finished the Wonder Woman book, digging into Lois next was a no-brainer for me; she’s fantastic.
CA: Do you remember when and where you first “met” Lois Lane?
TH: The earliest I can remember Lois is Teri Hatcher’s version on Lois & Clark, but I’m pretty sure that I’d seen her in the comics before then. I don’t have a clear recollection of getting into comics so much as they were just always there, and I’ve been steeped in them since boefore I can remember. But the first specific Lois Lane memory I have is of Teri Hatcher.
CA: As you demonstrate, Lois Lane was a remarkably feminist character in her early Golden Age appearances, before her obsession with Superman and his secret identity set in. In terms of a female role model or feminist icon, how do you think she compares with the Golden Age Wonder Woman, who was similarly created by men, and had her story told primarily by men for a long time?
TH: The original Wonder Woman was intentionally feminist; William Moulton Marson created the character to be an exemplar of female superiority and a harbinger of the coming matriarchal revolution. His bondage fetish complicated things, but Golden Age Wonder Woman comics were nonetheless blatantly feminist in their own bizarre way.
Lois was unintentionally feminist. The focus of the stories was Superman, and Lois’ function was to chase down stories and take on bad guys so she could get in trouble and Superman could save her. However, in doing so, Lois came off as brave and fearless and became known as this tough, iconic character.
Plus she was always hanging out with that “weak-kneed pantywaist” Clak Kent, and came off looking pretty good in comparison to his hesitant, cowardly ways. Wonder Woman and Lois embodied two very different approaches to female characters, but both became icons nonetheless.
CA: One irony of Lois Lane’s history is that the comic in which she is perhaps treated the worst by Superman (and her writers, and her editors), the Silver Age Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane comics, also marked a high-point in the character’s popularity with comics readers. She had her own series for years and years, but she’s since been lucky to get a one-shot per decade. Was that book’s longevity simply the result of the comics market of the day, or is there some correlation between its characterization of Lois and its popularity?
TH: I think it had a lot to do with the comics market. Jimmy Olsen had his own hit series in the Silver Age too, but the key to the success of both books was the “Superman’s Girl Friend” and the “Superman’s Pal” that preceded their names in the title.
The Adventures of Superman TV show, in its original run and then syndication, kept Superman very popular throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Both Lois and Jimmy’s books, along with Superman and Action Comics, were top sellers during this period. Also, if you look at the readership of Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane using letter columns, the audience was more comparable to the other Super-books than, say, Wonder Woman. Whereas Wonder Woman clearly had its own strong, majority female readership, girls reading Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane appeared to be in the minority, with numbers in the same ballpark as the Super-books. Superman was the series’ biggest draw, even though Lois was the star.
CA: Speaking of the Superman’s Girl Friend comics, you write that they can be difficult for modern readers, but you also hesitate to outright dismiss them. What do you think the value of those comics might be to a modern reader, aside from the obvious zaniness, or the quality of the art or as a window into that particular era?
TH: The art is a huge draw; I mean, it’s Kurt Schaffenberger! He’s amazing. But apart from all that, it’s fascinating to see Lois continue to be her relentless self despite Superman’s perpetual attempts to rein her in. He tried to teach her lessons to keep her from being an impetuous reporter or to dissuade her from trying to marry him, and these patronizing lessons can be unpleasant to read, especially since they often ended with Lois in tears.
But they never stuck! Lois was back at it the next month, with a new scheme to land a story and/or Superman. She was unstoppable, and when reading the stories now it’s fun to cheer on Lois knowing that Superman, despite his best efforts, was never able to change her ways.
CA: One of the most unexpected aspects of your book were the various arguments you uncovered in the letters pages of Superman’s Girl Friend comics, a major one of which seemed to revolve around whether or not Superman should spank Lois to punish her. DC has reprinted many of those comics, but sans letter columns. Just out of curiosity, did you find anything particularly surprising or interesting in those letters, aside form what you included in the book?
TH: I wish DC, and other pubslishers, reprinted letter columns, especially the old ones. They’re such a great insight into the fandom of each book and era.
I included most of the best letter column bits in the book, but one thing I didn’t mention was that in the early years of the series, a lot of the kids were huge Noel Neill fans, because of the Adventures of Superman show [in which she played Lois]. They wrote in often to ask for more information about her, prompting the editors to run a full page bio of Neill in an early issue of 1959. Such letters kept pouring in, though, leading DC to rerun the bio in the annual a few years later, and in the main series again in 1966. The book’s editor, Mort Weisinger, was quite responsive to what kids wanted to see in the comics.
CA: It occurred to me that, because writers like Louise Simonson are so few and far between in the history of Superman comics, the women who have had perhaps the most influence on our perception of Lois have been the women who played her on TV and in film. Aside from aesthetics, like Lois getting a Teri Hatcher haircut, did you notice elements of particular actress’ potrayal of the character that then showed up in the comics?
TH: Some creators definitely borrowed from Lois’ on-screen depictions. When John Byrne relaunched the Super-books in 1986, his Lois embodied a lot of the brash directness of Margot Kidder’s Lois. She was more demonstrable tough than she’d been in the comics previously. Many writers have also made reference to Lois not being a great speller, a trait first shown with Kidder’s Lois.
Once Lois & Clark debuted a few years later, writers began to show Lois’ softer side a bit more, reflecting Teri Hatcher’s take on the character. And since Superman: The Animated Series, I’m sure that almost everyone who writes Lois does so with Dana Delany’s voice in their heads.
CA: While not a superhero herself, it’s safe to say Lois has appeared in more films and more TV shows than probably any superhero other than Superman. Do you think that the character is particularly well-served in one medium — comics, prose, radio, TV, film — over all the other types of media?
TH: In terms of consistently solid depictions, I think television might be Lois’ best medium. The comics have always been up and down with their treatment of Lois, and the movies had Margot Kidder but then limited her role in the third Superman film, and the less said about Superman IV the better. Ditto Kate Bosworth and Superman Returns, though Amy Adams has been fun despite the mess that is Man of Steel.
But with television, you get the toughness of Phyllis Coates and the endearingness of Noel Neill in the 1950s. More recently, Teri Hatcher and Erica Durance’s strong portrayals made them the best part of their respective shows. Unlike comics, the shows couldn’t sideline Lois without the actors getting irked, so she was a regular presence, and the long form storytelling allowed the shows to dig into different aspects of Lois and make her a more well rounded character.
CA: I believe your book was completed before DC announced an expiration date of sorts for The New 52 with the upcoming “Rebirth” initiative. Do you have any further thoughts on DC’s use of the character during the past five-years? I was quite struck by the fact that the publisher un-married Lois and Clark, but didn’t restore any sort of Lois/Clark/Superman love triangle, which was so often the argument made for not having them marry.
TH: Yeah, the “Rebirth” announcement came after the book was put to bed. I was lucky to be able to fit in as much detail about the recent “Truth” arc as I did; I was updating that bit down to the wire of our printing deadline.
The five years of the New 52 were rough for Lois, for sure. I’m with you in being surprised that we didn’t see the return of the classic love triangle, and also found it odd that Wonder Woman basically took over Lois’ role. It seemed that DC didn’t know what to do with Lois if she wasn’t Clark/Superman’s love interest, besides being little more than a background character. I mean, Lana Lang’s had more to do than Lois!
Greg Pak‘s done some fun stuff with her in Action Comics (he also wrote a couple of good Lois moments in Batman/Superman; her team up with Batman was great). But in the main Super-books, Lois was largely forgotten apart from that weird arc in which she merged with Brainiac, and “Truth,” where she was cast in an antagonistic role. It’s not been a great few years for Lois fans.
CA: You discuss how Lois was in many ways ill-served by her marriage to Superman in the comics. Now that we’ve seen them married and not married in the modern era, do you have a particular preference for their relationship status? Not just as a fan, but as someone who has recently ingested pretty much all Superman stories in all media? Do the two characters work best in a particular kind of relationship over another?
TH: I think they work best when they’re partners on every level, and that usually involves a relationship close enough that Lois knows Clark is Superman. If she’s not in the loop, we tend to get a lot of secret identity hijinks that make Lois look dumb.
When they got married, though, Lois often got slotted into the combative wife role, and her presence at the Daily Planet dropped considerably. But there’s a spot in the middle that seems to work nicely that we saw when they were engaged in the comics, and also in Superman II, Lois & Clark, Smallville… where Lois is in on the secret but their romantic relationship doesn’t dominate their interactions. Plus, they’re a fun couple when they’re written well, and are a great team when they’re able to make the most of each other’s talents.
CA: Do you have any particular hopes for the character in whatever comes after “Rebirth” or, perhaps, any advice to give DC regarding future use of the character…?
TH: Give Lois her own book! She’s long overdue. Some sort of Gotham Central style series with Lois at the center of it would be amazing, especially with all that’s going on in journalism today. She doesn’t need Superman to be interesting; she’s a great character on her own.
Now, I’m assuming that “Rebirth” is going to bring back the classic Lois/Clark/Superman love triangle, seeing as it’s focused on returning to iconic elements of the characters, so if they go that route I’m hoping that everyone involved treats Lois as more than just Superman’s girlfriend. The romance can be a lot of fun when it’s done well, but it shouldn’t be her only role in the Super-books. She should be more than just a character who exists to further Superman’s story.
CA: Near the end of the book, you call Superman Lois’ greatest enemy, and the history of the characters as you present it certainly makes a good argument for that. Lois can almost never be the star when Superman’s around, but because she was created as a player in Superman’s comics, it’s impossible — or at least very difficult — to have Lois Lane stories without Superman. In all your thinking on the characters, have you found a way to resolve this paradoxical nature of Lois?
TH: It’s all about how it’s written. Superman doesn’t have to be bad for Lois, it’s just that looking back at her history, Superman was often at the root of the problems during her more troubling eras, and always taking the spotlight even in her best eras.
That’s not Superman’s fault, of course; he’s not real. But because writers and editors tend to treat Lois as merely an adjunct to Superman rather than her own, full character, her connection to him has rarely gone well. And the way to fix this is to not do that. Recognize that Lois is an icon in her own right, her own unique character, and write her as such.
CA: Aside from Wonder Woman and Lois Lane, are there any other female comics characters you think are long-lived and multi-faceted enough to warrant a book-length examination?
TH: I’ll answer very vaguely, lest I tip my hand! But yes, there are a few characters I’m eager to examine in future books. For example, it would be fun to look at the superhero genre, and especially its treatment of women, from the perspective of a villain. There are also some sidekicks that have been around for a while that have had their own adventures that I think would make fascinating subjects.
I’m also interested in how mantles are passed from character to character and how they evolve and change over time, so there are a couple of instances of groups of characters that would be fun to write about. You’ll have to infer from there!