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How did Lois Lane get so many enemies – and so many friends?

In 'Investigating Lois Lane,' Canadian comics historian Tim Hanley history considers how Superman’s gal pal became an icon of her own.

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    Author Tim Hanley says that as he was writing 'Investigating Lois Lane' he got 'a lot of interest from women in newspapers who said, "We love Lois."'
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Not everyone’s a fan of Lois Lane, an intrepid investigative reporter who’s about as mild-mannered as a six-column headline.

Consider her enemies list. It includes all those villains she’s vanquished over the past eight decades. And romantic rival Lana Lang, who once battled her for the attention of a certain superhero. Plus the hordes of 1950s comics readers who considered her a distracting nuisance.

Fortunately for her, Lois Lane has powerful allies, including women journalists who find inspiration in her gutsy spirit in a (super)man’s world. “She became a role model for women in journalism who picked up on her drive. She wants to be on the front page, she wants to crack the big stories that will make a difference,” says Canadian comics historian Tim Hanley, author of the new book Investigating Lois Lane: The Turbulent History of the Daily Planet’s Ace Reporter.

In fact, Hanley says, “as I was writing the book, I got a lot of interest from women in newspapers who said, ‘We love Lois.’”

In an interview with the Monitor, Hanley talks about the remarkable evolution of Lois Lane, her highest and lowest moments, and the showcase she’s long overdue.

Q: What inspired you to want to study Lois Lane?

I wrote a book about Wonder Woman and thought of Lois Lane as a kind of Wonder Woman on the street without her superpowers.

They’re very much alike, both relentless, brave, heroic characters. However, Wonder Woman was more feminist initially. Her creator believed women would take over the world. Wonder Woman’s story is about how that was lost and then re-created in a different feminist way in the 1970s.

In contrast, Lois reflects women in comics as the whole.

She starts at the bottom rung at the Daily Planet, writing the lovelorn column. It takes her a few years to get a front-page scoop since she’s up against Clark Kent, who has the benefit of superpowers: She tries to get back to the Daily Planet as fast as she can, but Clark Kent is already there and has the story. It’s not until the mid ’40s that she leaves the lovelorn column behind her.

Q: During her many decades, when was Lois Lane ahead of the times?

In the beginning, the relentless ambition of Lois – her striving – wasn’t something you saw elsewhere in popular media of the late 1930s. She became a role model for women in journalism who picked up on her drive.

Q: Weren’t there already female reporters in the movies around that time?

Yes, but they had one foot out the door. They were about to get married, and that would end their career.

Lois wasn’t going anywhere. She’d be in journalism at the paper for the long haul. That interesting twist allowed Lois to endure and escape the limits usually imposed on these female journalist characters in films and other genres.

Q: What does she think of mild-mannered Clark Kent in the early days?

She doesn’t care for Clark Kent. He’s cowardly and reticent and just not the kind of guy Lois is interested in. She likes Superman.

But she’s constantly paired with Clark Kent, and she comes off looking really good in comparison. If there a dangerous story to cover, she will rush in and take control.

Q: How about the reverse: When was Lois Lane most behind the times instead of ahead of them?

In the late 1970s and the 1980s, when you started to see a rise in women in TV news, she’s in a 1950-style rivalry with Lana Lang and fighting over Superman. They’re post-women’s lib at that time, but she’s still trapped in these antiquated stories.

Q: On the other hand, comic books did try to touch on hot cultural topics during the 1960s and 1970s. How did they fare with Lois?

DC Comics tried to be relevant with their characters, but the problem was that there were a bunch of white guys trying to be hip and relevant. It doesn’t work because the people behind it don’t have the perspective to make it land.

For example, she wants to write about the African-American community in Metropolis, so she uses a Superman machine to make her black for a day. That’s awkward and problematic in any number of ways.

Q: How is Lois Lane different from other female characters in comic books?

She escapes the trap of many female comic book characters, including superheroes, who are known for their beauty and physical shape and have skimpy outfits.

While she’s pretty, she wears normal clothes. She’s in love with Superman, but there’s not a lot of romantic or sexual attraction directed at her. She gets to be her own character without the male gaze thing that can come with a lot of superhero characters.

Q: Lois Lane has been a character in comic books, TV, radio, comic strips, movies, and even video games. Who’s your favorite Lois Lane?

I like Phyllis Coates from the first season of the “Adventures of Superman” television show.

It was a weirdly dark show. There were a lot of mobsters and murderers, and Lois in the midst of this was absolutely fearless. Anytime a fight scene broke out, she was in the middle of it. If Clark Kent or Superman tried to warn her off, she wouldn’t go away. She brought this great energy to Lois that I really enjoy.

Q: While Lois Lane starred in an extremely popular comic book in the 1960s – “Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane” – some readers actually cooled to her a decade earlier. What happened then?

By the 1950s, the Superman comic books had turned her into a pest. It created a situation where the audience saw her as an antagonist, and you get a lot of vitriol against Lois among the kids who read the comic. There was even a year-long campaign for Superman to give her a super-spanking.

When Lana Lang was introduced you see a big divide between Team Lois and Team Lana, even though they’re basically the same character. I was surprised by the degree to which the audience had turned against her.

Q: How did readers turn around and start liking her again?

They grew up.

The Superman audience in the late 1950s was mostly under 10. By late ’60s and early ’70s, the readers are usually in their teens. They don’t get mad at the characters. Instead, they get mad at the creators.

Q: Comic books have become more gritty over the past three decades. How has that affected Lois Lane?

There’s a new, more modern Lois who’s a bit tougher, and in the 2000s, we started to see that grim, dark angle start to take over. There are alternative universe stories in which Lois dies to create emotional motivation for Superman.

In this decade, she’s not around much. DC Comics relaunched their books in 2011, and Superman dated Wonder Woman instead of Lois Lane. Her appearances have been few and far between in this universe. But when she does show up, she’s out chasing stories and being her awesome self.

Q: What should Lois Lane do next?

I’d like to see her get her own comic book series again.

She’s such a great character on her own. She’s overdue for a showcase that makes her the star of the story, where she’s not in the shadow of Superman. 

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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