I first encountered the woman primarily identified as Superman’s girlfriend during the series of action-packed Fleischer cartoons produced in the early 1940’s. Though the Big Blue Boy Scout was obviously the main draw in those shorts – they feature volcanoes erupting, buildings falling, and robots wailing on the Man of Steel, and were first screened in movie theaters, though I caught them in reruns on the Disney Channel as a kid – still, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Lois. In her first appearance, she looms large over her editor’s desk, as he recommends that she allow Clark Kent to accompany her on a fact-finding mission involving a series of threatening letters sent to the Daily Planet. “But Chief,” Lois protests, “I’d like a chance to crack the story on my own.” As Perry White rubs his chin and considers her request, she simply jets out the door, with a zippy, “Thanks, Chief!” trailing behind her. Now you may ask, why would I worship someone who willingly hops in a plane and flies unprotected to a deserted rocky island, from which a mad scientist is using a particle beam death ray to destroy downtown Metropolis? Because Lois Lane doesn’t run away from trouble. She always, exclusively, inevitably hurtles toward it. No permission or male escort needed.
And let’s be clear. If anyone looks like a chump in that scene, it’s Clark Kent. Rather than running after his secret crush and suiting up as Lois’ second-in-command fly boy, or even quickly donning his tights and cape, Clark just shakes his head and remarks to Perry White, “But Chief, don’t you think that’s an awfully dangerous mission?” Gee, Clark, how’d you figure that one out? You’ve only got x-ray vision and super-hearing, and in case you forgot the opening narration to your own series, you’re more powerful than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. If you want to protect Lois, you have plenty of resources at your disposal. But no. You choose to sit in the newsroom and worry instead, only jumping to Lois’ aid once a nearby radio declares buildings are melting all around the city.
Pick up Action Comics number one, and the first thing you’ll see on the cover is a hulking Superman shattering a Studebaker against a boulder, while civilians scatter in terror. It’s an impressive debut for the character; Joe Shuster knew his way around an iconic image. But once you peek at the pages inside, you get a fuller sense of his life from script-writer Jerry Siegel. As Superman, he thwarts an evil plot to execute an innocent man on Death Row; then he turns around as Clark Kent, and promises to be a bulldog on a political corruption story for Perry White. As originally rendered, Clark is confident and cool in both identities; the audience is never meant to question which is the real man behind the cape, because both personalities fight for truth and the little guy. It’s only when he sidles up to Lois Lane’s desk that the scared simpleton version of Clark appears. “W-what do you say to a – er – date tonight, Lois?” he asks, a shaking hand shoved in his jacket pocket. Turns out the one person Superman fears is his potential girlfriend, and that revelation actively defines Clark for the audience. Turns out Lois Lane is his kryptonite.
The fact that Clark Kent and Lois Lane start out as rivals, then become partners (and in most continuities, a married couple) is due entirely to Lois’ take on their relationship. Clark may be cut in the classic mold of the pursuer, or the wallflower who was right under her nose all along, but Lois is the one who decides to be with him, and share his secret, rather than expose him – though she’s done just that to protect him in a recent storyline (while in the Silver Age, she tried to trick him into revealing his secret identity every issue). Still, oneupmanship and duplicity lie at the heart of their initial workplace rapport. In the cartoons, Lois steals Clark’s press pass, locks him out of cars, advises him to file a story by phone so she can sneak off to cover a new angle, and at one point, ensures he gets buried under rubble rather than nab the lead. She has to know, and she has to know first. So it only makes sense that she would take part in routinely pulling the wool over society’s eyes when it comes to her husband’s alter ego. Conflict of interest be damned; Lois Lane thrives in the thick of things! And anyway, she has bigger fish to fry, like making sure the gold bullion on the Billion Dollar Limited doesn’t get looted before she finds a way to stop the train from hurtling off a cliff.
Animation Stills: Fleischer Studios, and maybe one or two from Famous Productions?
Action Comics #1: Joe Shuster, art; Jerry Siegel, words.