06 February 2012

Superman’s On-Again, Off-Again Relationship

Thinking about serial characters led me to consider Superman’s relationship to Lois Lane, and his relationship to his unresolvable foundational conflict.

For more than fifty years, starting with Action Comics, #1, Lois was in a love triangle with Superman’s two identities: mild-mannered, often doofy reporter Clark Kent and world-saver Superman. Clark loved her, she loved Superman, Superman didn’t want to reveal his other identity, and the whole situation seemed unresolvable.

Not only did that tension fuel many stories in Action Comics and Superman, but it was the drive behind Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane (reported monthly sales in 1960: 458,000).

Occasionally DC editors would let their writers explore resolutions, but only in “imaginary” stories. After the company developed the concept of Earth 2, it showed an aging Superman marrying an aging Lois—but in that secondary universe only.

Alan Moore’s saga-ending “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” resolved the triangle by showing Lois married to a friendly fellow named neither Clark nor Superman—but, curiously, he had the same chin as both.

That love triangle was also part of the Superman radio show of the 1940s, the television show of the 1950s, and the first Christopher Reeve movies. And it was right at the core of the early 1990s television show Lois and Clark.

To give viewers something new after a couple of seasons, the producers of that TV decided to have their title characters marry. DC Comics scrambled to follow. The magazines showed Lois realizing that Clark and Superman are one and the same and eventually marrying the big lug (with a one-year delay while he was dead).

I wasn’t keeping up with superhero comics at the time. I heard that Superman had died, and knew he would come back to life. But when I resumed reading the comics a few years ago, I was shocked to find that the Clark-Lois-Superman triangle was no more. What had seemed like an unresolvable foundational conflict had been resolved—yet the story was still going on.

But not on TV. The ratings for Lois and Clark plummeted in its fourth season, coincident with the change in the title characters’ relationship. Even heavily hyped wedding episodes didn’t help. I suspect that version of the mythos was so tied to the three-way relationship as an unresolvable foundational conflict that it lost its raison d’être and appeal once that tension changed.

In contrast, breaking the love triangle didn’t seem to damage the comics much at all. (Well, their sales fell over time, but so did sales of all superhero comics.)

By the 1990s, Lois Lane’s role in the older comics had become embarrassingly anachronistic, anyway. The love triangle’s classic form rested on misogynistic assumptions: girls were icky, women’s desires were shallow, a married woman would give up her career, and so on. With the new relationship, DC could finally acknowledge that Lois Lane, ace reporter, had been right about Clark Kent’s secret all along.

And it turned out that Superman stories could be fueled by a different unresolvable foundational conflict: the title character’s struggle to protect his adoptive planet from every threat while also living on it as a regular human.

In its new universe, DC has returned to the status quo sevente: Clark Kent is once again single and pining for Lois Lane, who once again won’t give him the time of day but is curious about this new super-man. I don’t know if that relationship is at the center of the saga again, though.

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