Saturday, September 6, 2008

Episode #33: Happy Birthday, Lois Lane!

Lois Lane's birthday is traditionally recognized as August 17, according to the web site She is the only supporting character who appeared with Superman's in Action Comics #1. So she shares Superman's 70th anniversary, but we won't guess on a lady's age.

In episode #5, for Valentine's Day, we looked at Lois Lane's history. For this episode we will spotlight a specific issue of Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane, #106. The title of this story was I Am Curious (Black). It's cover date was November 1970 and first appeared on newsstands on Septemver 24, 1970. This story was one of the most unusual, if not infamous Lois Lane stories ever published. The cover showed Lois in some type of machine, and in the next cover panel her skin tone has been changed so she appears to be an African American. Murphy Anderson created the art for this cover. Robert Kanigher wrote this story, which was pencilled by Werner Roth and inked by Vince Colleta.

The main Lois Lane story was 14 pages long. After her story was a feature, Wonder Women of History: Martha G. Kimball, two pages long and possibly done by Irwin Hansen. The back-up story, Rose & Thorn, was eight pages long. At the back of the issue was the feature Women of Distinction (no credits). It featured Harriet Maxweel Converse, Blanche Schort, Susanna Salter and Hannah Adams.

The Lois Lane story was reprinted in the trade paperback Superman In The Seventies (November 2000).

During the late '60's and early '70's, the buzzword at DC Comics was relevancy. DC editors were trying to combat the progress Marvel had made eroding DC's perennial lead in the comic book industry. They were trying to combat Marvel's connection with its growing audiance, dealing with issues of the day. Having been in the industry for twenty years already by then, it may have been hard for DC to relate to the maturing generation about the age of their children. But that didn't keep DC editors from trying. The most famous example of "relevancy" in DC Comics were the stories published in Green Lantern / Green Arrow, beginning with issue #76 (April 1970 cover date). The story, No Evil Shall Escape My Sight, also dealt with race relations. It was written by Denny O'Neil and drawn by Neal Adams. Among the other topics this creative dou explored in their short but memorial run was drug abuse through Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy. These were groundbreaking stories at the time for DC. Done well, they are timeless stories. Others that were not as good made the stories dated. I Am Curious (Black) can be said to fall in the latter category.

In this era, Lois Lane's personality was updated to reflect a more liberated and of the times woman, or as close as forty and fifty year old men could come. In the DVD Look, Up In The Sky! The Amazing Story Of Superman, DC comic book writer Gail Simone said the late '60's and early '70's Lois Lane could seem harsh and unsympathetic. Maybe that was what 50 year old editors at DC thought a liberated woman was. In fact, at various times the relationship between Lois and Superman was cooled.

The story portrayed Lois planning to do a feature on Metropolis' "Little Africa", a typical DC name for the Harlem of Metropolis. She is received with suspicion by the residents, much to Lois' surprise. For a world wise reporter, Lois seems naive to race relations fo the time. Discouraged, she convinces Superman to take her to the Fortress of Solitude. There Superman uses a kryptonian device that he sets to change her skin color darker. Flown back to Little Africa by Superman, Lois fits in better, but is treated differently, when a taxi driver she is well acquainted with refuses to pick her up. She runs into an African American man who she saw speaking to a small crowd when she was white. He was a lot friendlier this second time. Before they can become better acquainted he spots some youths he recognizes and sees they are up to trouble. He follows them to some gangsters who shoot him. Superman takes him to the hospital, where it happens that Lois is the only person with his blood type. She donates her blood, and at the end, when he wants to see the person who donated to him, Lois' appearance has returned to normal. He still recognizes her as the same woman, much to his surprise. The captionless page ends with Lois and the man shaking hands.
The editor at this time was E. Nelson Bridwell, who was famous at DC's offices at the time for his encyclopedic knowledge of comic book trivia, especially Superman. Mark Waid could be said to be his successor. Robert Kanigher wrote the story, which was drawn by Werner Roth and inked by Vince Colleta.
Although a lot of the dialogue is clunky and heavy, the story did not seem as exploitative as I expected. People of color may feel differently, and I welcome your comments. I look forward to seeing this story through a different perspective.
Believe it or not, there was actually a man who did the same thing as Lois in this story, about a decade before this story was published. John Howard Griffin, in his book Black Like Me, published in 1961, documents his experiences as a black man in 1959. This book is still in print, so look for it at your local library or bookstore, or online vendor.
Under medical supervision, Griffin took higher than normal doses of Oxsoralen to darken his skin. It is a medication given to dark skinned people who have a condition that destroys the pigment producing cells in their skin. He had blood tests done to monitor the appearance of dangerous side effects, including but not limited to liver damage. Despite some stories to the contrary, he apparently did not suffer any permament damage, although he did have unreleated health issues throughout most of his adult life. The only temporary effects he suffered were nausea and exhaustion. He also exposed his body to UV light to tan his skin. To cpmplete his transformation Griffin shaved his head.
He spent six weeks during 1959 traveling through the southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, posing as an itenerant black man in order to experience first hand the racism prevalent at the time. Griffin's book Black Like Me also documents the different treatment he received when he returned to some of the same places when his skin returned to its cuacasian skin tone. He noted how even people who treated him humanely as a black man acted differently toward him as a white man.
He spent many years writing and working on race relations, and was recognized by the Catholic church for his efforts.
This was another case where "art" imitates life. In this case, while the Lois Lane story is an off the wall issue to read, Griffin's Black Like Me is a must read for all of us. I have not read it myself, but I plan to pick it up soon. I will keep you posted on my thoughts after I read it.

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Thank you for listening to Superman Fan Podcast, and as always, thanks to Jery Siegel and Joe Shuster.

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