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New Superman book shows how character has changed

by ANDREW A. SMITH Scripps Howard News Service on November 24, 2013 1:59 AM

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, but it also 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 Vietnam-era America felt (1972), temporarily dying in the hype-fueled “Doomsday” tale in the go-go ’90s (1993) and relaunching as an idealistic Millennial blogger (2011).

These are all great stories; my only complaint is 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, they paint a strange picture of the woman supposedly worthy of Superman’s love.

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.

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 newshens, 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 Andrew A. Smith of The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com or on his web site, http://captaincomics.ning.com.

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