A stripper once told me that so many women in her line of work choose stage names with two “L”s—Lulu, Lily, Lola—because saying them makes you tap your tongue up and down in a licklike way. (It happens that my conversation partner was Elisabeth Eaves, a Slate contributor and the author of a memoir titled Bare, but all that matters here is that she was Leila, plain Leila, in the peep-show booth.) This factoid must have some implications for the women we share with the Man of Steel—Linda Lee, aka Supergirl; Lana Lang, Superman’s main squeeze back in Smallville; Lori Lemaris, a mermaid he was sweet on at Metropolis University; and, of course, Lois Lane, girl reporter. Those licks smuggle a hint of lasciviousness into Superman’s all-American story. What about Lex Luthor, you ask? That a superhero’s archrival should resemble his love interest is just one of those Freudian twists that makes great comic books pop. Among the charms of Lois Lane—always a tough dame and yet forever a damsel in distress—is the elegant way she reflects Superman’s kinks and its ideas of womanhood.
Exhibit A is Action Comics No. 1—the one with the cover image of Superman bashing the grill of Butch Mason’s green sedan into a roadside rock, our introduction to Metropolis, and the enduring template for what’s been called a love triangle of two. The sixth page of the book finds Clark Kent standing at Lois’ desk at the Daily Planet, asking for a date. “I suppose I’ll give you a break … for a change,” she says. One panel later they’re dancing at a supper club. “Why is it you always avoid me at the office?” he asks. “Please, Clark!” says Lois, clad in a rather daring gown. “I’ve been scribbling ‘sob stories’ all day long. Don’t ask me to dish out another one.” Butch, a two-bit hood, rudely tries to cut in on the dance and shoves Clark around, causing Lois to leave in a huff: “You asked me earlier in the evening why I avoid you. I’ll tell you why now: Because you’re a spineless, unbearable coward!” Butch and his boys abduct Lois—we must presume they plan to assault her virtue—and it’s left to Superman to smash the car and sweep up the girl in the evening dress. The next day at the office, Clark gets the cold shoulder. The conundrum of Lois’ existence is that’s she’s pursued by a dope and saved by a dreamboat and doesn’t know they’re the same person—a nicely deranged fairy tale.
The DC Comics Encyclopedia informs us that Lois Joanne Lane (5-feet-6, 136 pounds) is the daughter of a U.S. Army general who always wanted a son, which led the daughter to become “a model of self-sufficiency.” But her background has shifted over the years—she was at one point a farm girl—and so has that self-sufficiency bit. While it’s true that in a supplement to Superman No. 28 (May-June 1944) she was intrepid enough to follow a jumper onto a ledge and good enough to earn praise as “an elegant reporter,” almost two decades later she was writing the Daily Planet’s “Dr. Cupid” advice column while wearing a pillbox hat in the manner of the former Miss Bouvier. She didn’t fully emerge as the broad we love until 1965, when she spent an issue of Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane in charge of her newspaper: “You’ve seen Lois Lane in many roles, but never as a rough, tough newspaper editor, out to show the world that a member of the so-called ‘weaker-sex’ can be as hard-boiled as any man alive!”
To see how Lois grew into herself in the popular imagination, check out the DVD edition of the original Superman feature film, which has actresses screen-testing for the role. Anne Archer, Michael Douglas’ wife in Fatal Attraction, goes at the balcony scene preceding Lois’ first flight with the hero as breathily if she were Elizabeth Taylor. Stockard Channing approaches it with her usual brass and spiky cleverness. Lesley Ann Warren comes across as a hysterical freak. You see Margot Kidder’s test, and you she why got the role; Kidder is breathy and brassy and a touch neurotic—and beams sweetness from her anime eyes and carries herself like a dame. Her most direct antecedent is Hildy Johnson, the Rosalind Russell character in His Girl Friday. It’s fun to draw that metaphor out and think of Superman as Cary Grant and Clark, poor Clark, as Ralph Bellamy.
The last time I saw Lois on the page, her mouth and eyebrows were set like a vixen’s and her boots were fit for a go-go dancer. This seemed wrong and even a hair offensive, an indication that she’s headed somewhere I don’t wish to follow her. I’m quite content with Kate Bosworth’s portrayal in Superman Returns—the tenderness in her baby face, the steel in her sentences, the honest way she makes trouble. She’s worthy of the commendation a cop on the street made when Lois Lane was falling from a ledge (and, for once, surviving without Superhelp) in that 1944 supplement: “Miss Lane was a fine girl—a bit difficult at times, but a fine girl!”