Or – “I Suppose Their Hearts Were In The Right Place…”
In one of our Major Spoilers Podcasts, Stephen, Rodrigo and I talked about when the various ages of comics began. I believed (still do, actually) that the Bronze Age began when Neal Adams & Denny O’Neil crafted Green Lantern #76 back in 1970, with it’s echoing query for the Emerald Gladiator about working for blue skins and saving orange skins, but having no concern for the plight of skin-colors right here on Earth. That book came out in the early months of 1970, and ushered in a period of issue-awareness in comic books, and many of the best tales of the Bronze Age took those themes and ran with them.
Also because of Green Lantern #76, this book happened…
SUPERMAN’S GIRLFRIEND LOIS LANE #106
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Werner Roth
Inker: Vince Colletta
Editor: E. Nelson Bridwell
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: 15 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $60.00
Previously, on Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane: Well, what exactly do you need to know? Lois Lane started her career in the Golden Age as a tough-as-nails Gal Friday type who would fight for a story as hard as her male counterparts, and wanted nothing more than to forward her writing career. She was slowly Flanderized into a nosy Nellie who wanted nothing more than to reveal Superman’s identity and then marry him (which, when you think about it, is an odd order in which to do those things.) During the Silver Age of Comics, she headlined her own title (something which, I might add, that many popular superhero characters couldn’t pull off, and certainly not for FIFTEEN YEARS!) and slowly pulled away from her reliance on her Big Blue Boyfriend into a life of her own. This issue beings with a very confident Lois bragging to co-worker (and not yet retconned-husband) Clark Kent about her newest assignment: Get the bird’s-eye lowdown (whatever that means) on life in Metropolis Little Africa district. There’s just one problem: It’s 1970, and for all her good intentions, race relations aren’t that easy, even in a bastion of futurism like Metropolis…
I will say this from the get-go, Werner Roth (best known to me as the penciler on early issues of X-Men) puts a ton of character in all his characters and their facial expressions. I actually WANT Lois’ smugness in panel two to get punctured, and panel three is extremely satisfying in that regard. Lois is no more successful in interviewing grown-ups of the area (including trying to walk into a back-alley craps game, which proves to me that she has little idea of how humans interact at all, much less whether people are responding to her because of her skin color.) The story really tries to give us a meaningful insight into race relations circa the end of the tumultuous 1960’s, but there’s awkward moment after awkward moment in Lois’ attempts to get her prize-winning interview…
Remember that angry young man, as we will see him again… Lois realizes that the real reason no one will talk to her is that she represents The Man holding them down, and turns to her Kryptonian beau for assistance. With her imaginary Pulitzer Prize in the balance, Lois nags Supey into letting her use his “Plastimold Machine” (which, in a rare show of continuity, was actually used in a previous issue, albeit for a different purpose) to transfer her into an African-American woman for precisely 24 hours, which is apparently all the time it takes to do research for an amazing newspaper piece.
The rebuff of her newly black self by her old pal Benny The Beret (who, aside from having excellent taste in snappy headwear, you may have remember from the first panel up top dropping her off, and who has always treated Lois as a special customer) is only the first shock in store for Miss Lane in her new “Afro” attire. This issue really wants to be an earnest look into race relations, but there’s a clumsiness here that reminds me that these stories are crafted by people used to aiming their stuff at children. There’s a hilarious moment where Lois stands on the subway feeling like everyone is staring, while Werner Roth has clearly drawn everyone in the panel pretty much completely ignoring her. Her first stop in Little Africa has her putting out a fire in a crowded tenement building, after which one of the residents invites her in for coffee. (It’s the least she could do, after all…)
They… tried… SOOO… hard!! We never find out if Lois interviews this angelic woman and her adorable daughter, because we cut to a sequence in “an improvised back alley pre-kindergarten” where a man in a dashiki and kufi cap teaches a group of children that black is beautiful. Before we’re able to process that, though, the angry young fellow who branded Lois as “whitey” arrives, hits on her, then leaps into action to stop a drug deal, all in the space of about four panels! (He also proves that he’s seixst as well as quasi-racist, telling her to stand back while he does “man’s work.”) Dave does poorly against a pair of thugs straight out of ‘Guys & Dolls’, forcing Superman to step in and crack skulls…
Lois gives the vital blood transfusion to save Dave’s life, and then stops to confront Superman about their relationship. She demands he tell her if he loves here (something with which the hero has had issues before) and wonders whether her new skin color would change his feelings. Superman replies that he’s actually an alien anyway, throwing in his eternal excuse that his enemies might kill her if they were an actual item (an argument which does NOT work on real women, I will tell you from sad experience.) The effects of the plastimold wear off, just in time for Lois to go greet the man whose life she has saved…
That is a truly lovely image, isn’t it? It’s just a shame that the characterization of Dave is so stereotypically 70’s angry black man, and that the creators threw in the mixed message that it took the two white people in the story to save his life. These days, comic book writers have a lot more experience in dealing with adult themes and topics, so you can’t really fault old-school Bob Kanigher for not being able to quite get the whole story to hang together (certainly it’s not as awkward as the origins of Tyroc would be a few years later.) All in all, the creators bring up a lot of things that they’re simply NOT gonna be able to wrap up in 25 pages, and try to hand-wave the whole thing with the (admittedly pretty) final panels of the story. The book finishes up with a backup tale of The Thorn, in only her second appearance, addressing the issue of Women’s Liberation by dressing like a stripper and hanging out in back-alleys… like you do.
“If he still hates you, with your blood in his veins… there may NEVER be peace in this world!” Oh, god… they just tried SOOO hard. There’s a lot in this issue that is flat-out cringeworthy, and the use of Superman & his supporting cast to address real-world ills works extremely poorly (much worse than with the basically human Green Lantern & Green Arrow.) The fact that Dave is vocally as hateful to “whitey” as any of the caucasian characters are to transformed Lois makes it that much worse, to the point where this issue’s only real merits are in Roth’s art and the ‘e for effort’ given for at least trying to address a real-world hot button issue. Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #106 is a strange, faintly embarrassing missive of a bygone age, which boils down to not much more than “racism is bad, mmmkay?”, earning 2.5 out of 5 stars overall.
Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day: Has there ever been a “Message Comic” that was also successful artistically?