'Investigating Lois Lane' Is as Smart as, Well, Lois Lane Herself

Tim Hanley's book is a compelling read that reveals the ways in which Lois Lane has reflected cultural assumptions about gender.

Investigating Lois Lane: The Turbulent History of The Daily Planet's Ace Reporter

Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Length: 303 pages
Author: Tim Hanley
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-03

In many ways, the very concept of Lois Lane is anachronistic. Both her major roles -- the hero's girlfriend and the intrepid investigative reporter -- seem like quaint holdovers from an earlier age, an age when the purveyors of pop culture thought that a woman's role in any adventure story was to be rescued by the hero and an age when reporting was a more noble profession whose practitioners' work appeared in black ink and revealed the truth in a way that helped to make the world a better place.

The character of Lois Lane has changed through the decades since she first appeared as a reporter for the Daily Star. She began as a "sob sister", whose job was to answer letters from the paper's female readers about problems with their love lives, one of the few roles open to female reporters in the years before World War II. Even then, however, Lois clearly wanted more.

Tim Hanley describes her early ambition in his history of the character, Investigating Lois Lane: The Turbulent History of the Daily Planet's Ace Reporter. He writes that Lois "fought for every assignment she got, even stealing tips when she had to, and over the years she endured kidnappings, fires, and explosions all in the pursuit of a good story."

Investigating Lois Lane traces the history of Lois Lane from her brave beginnings in 1938 in the pages of Action Comics #1 through the rise of a decidedly domestic culture in the post-war years and the feminist revolution that followed. The story of Lois Lane has played out through the years in the pages of comic books and newspaper strips, on radio and television broadcasts, and on the silver screen, and Hanley's book covers it all.

Hanley's story of Lois is at its most evocative when he describes her place in the comic books of the post-war years, a time when Lois was arguably at her most popular. In March of 1958 Lois debuted her own title at DC Comics, Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane. Headlining her own magazine placed Lois Lane in the same league as Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman's book, however, had a majority female readership, while Lois' was read predominantly by boys. (Hanley bases his numbers on the percentage of female writers published in the letters columns of the respective magazines.)

Perhaps as a consequence of this, Lois' role in her own book was often as a foil for the hero, a silly woman who was endlessly scheming to trick Superman into marrying her. In these stories, Superman spent a lot of time playing tricks on Lois in order to teach her a lesson. According to Hanley, "(M)any stories ended with Superman breaking the fourth wall and winking at the readers as he explained his clever machinations with a thought bubble... (B)y winking at the reader and revealing the details that Lois didn't know, he was bringing the reader in on his plan. Instead of being on the side of Lois, the series' supposed protagonist, the readers became coconspirators with Superman in his many lessons."

Lois Lane, the smart, brave and ambitious reporter, was overwhelmed by blatant misogyny, and Superman, hero to millions, was turned into a super-powered jerk.

The history of Lois Lane that followed has, in many ways, been an attempt to shake-off the burden of those cruel stories and create a different kind of relationship between Lois and Superman.

DC Comics wiped the slate clean with the 1985 series, Crisis on Infinite Earths, effectively recreating their fictional universe in such a way that those, now embarrassing, Lois Lane stories never really happened. A new Lois, along with a new Superman, was introduced. The new Lois was no longer the butt of Superman's cruel "lessons" and was treated with more humanity and grace.

Influenced, perhaps, by Margot Kidder's version of the character in 1978's Superman, the post-Crisis Lois has generally been presented as a strong, liberated, and modern career woman. The tenacity and fearless ambition of the early Lois, elements of her character that were played for laughs and cruelty in her mid-century stories, have now once again become central to her appeal.

Investigating Lois Lane is a compelling read that reveals the ways in which Lois Lane has reflected cultural assumptions about gender. Hanley's account is incredibly thorough, and he gives the distinct impression that he has really been immersed in all things Lois Lane, and that he may have even read most of those old Silver Age stories. His approach is smart and informed, but refreshingly free of the heavy-handed theory that often turns a discussion of something as fun as comic book history into a bore.

Hanley covers practically everything you need to know about the multi-media phenomenon that is Lois Lane and does so in a way that illustrates how the complexities of our culture's past assumptions about gender continue to shape our popular entertainment.

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