The '70s Were Awkward for Superman

The comic-book franchise's attempts to get hip included turning Lois Lane black.
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Having spent much of the previous decade merely observing from the cultural sidelines, the now-thirtysomething Superman was hit hard by the disillusionment that seized the country in the 1970s. This was the era of the Man of Steel's midlife crisis: a new job, a new wardrobe, and a newly defined relationship with Lois Lane, freshly minted women's libber. It was also the age of "relevance" in comics—which meant Superman's dance card would quickly fill up with issues such as pollution, famine, gang warfare, and racism.

Meanwhile, as Vietnam and Watergate further soured the national mood, the public regarded authority figures with a new breed of cynicism, if not outright contempt. With his close-cropped hair, clean-shaven face, and literally muscular defense of the status quo, Superman had now come to represent the capital-E Establishment. Marvel heroes bickered and questioned and agitated—they were agents of chaos, and they looked like the kids who read them. Superman, on the other hand, dutifully imposed order, and he looked like a cop.

"There's a New Kind of Superman Coming!"
With longtime overseer Mort Weisinger gone, his vast kingdom of Superman titles was divvied up among several editors. Weisinger's longtime assistant E. Nelson Bridwell took over Lois Lane. Murray Boltinoff took the reins of Action, Superboy, and Jimmy Olsen. Mike Sekowsky took over Adventure. Julius Schwartz—the man who'd orchestrated the Silver Age resurgence of DC heroes, was brought in to edit Superman and World's Finest. And he was none too happy about it.

Schwartz was frank with his fellow creators about his inability to "get his head around" the character he'd inherited from his friend Weisinger. His first act was to bring in writer Dennis "Denny" O'Neil, who'd spent the previous years contemporizing characters such as Wonder Woman and Green Arrow and attempting to wrest the character of Batman from under the long shadow of the '60s TV show.

O'Neil shared his editor's ambivalence, because he figured that such a high-profile character would come with too many corporate strings attached. He also found it difficult to get excited about a character who could see through time and blow out a star. "How do you write stories about a guy who can destroy a galaxy by listening hard?" O'Neil famously joked.

Schwartz and O'Neil resolved to depower the Man of Steel, taking him back to World War II-era levels. The key, they decided, was to let readers see him struggle again.

Fortress of Lassitude
Off in the pages of Adventure, meanwhile, Supergirl attended college and experimented with new Super-outfits, settling on a mini-skirt with a chain belt and a pair of red thigh-high boots in October 1970 (Adventure #397). It was the first of many costume changes the Maid of Might would experience. Unlike Wonder Woman or Batgirl, whose looks remained largely unchanged for decades, concerted efforts were made to ensure that Supergirl reflected the fashions of the times. Yet, of course, those times, and hemlines, continually changed, necessitating a constant cycle of new Supergirl looks and hairstyles. As the years progressed, miniskirt would give way to hot pants, a tunic to a V-necked blouse, short blond locks to a riotous perm.

The Man of Steel had a harder time keeping up with the fashions—and the social issues—of the day. His writers' uneasy relationship with the new passion for relevance in storylines is never more clearly displayed than in Robert Kanigher 's Lois Lane story "I Am Curious (Black)" (Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane #106, November 1970). Looking past the appropriateness of the title—a nod to a then scandalous 1967 film full of nudity and sex—this tale of Lois Lane is a well-meaning but ham-fisted puzzle.

Lois decides to visit Little Africa, "Metropolis' black community" in the hopes of "get[ting] the Pulitzer Prize for telling it like it is! The nitty-gritty no newspaper ever printed before!" Arriving in the black neighborhood, she finds herself shunned by locals. "Look at her, brothers and sisters! She's young and sweet and pretty! But never forget. She's Whitey!" Undaunted, Lois gets Superman to expose her to a narratively convenient piece of Kryptonian technobabble.

Superman: Are you sure you want to step inside the plastimold, Lois? Do you know what's going to happen when I pull the switch of the Transformoflux pack?

The machine turns Lois into a black woman, and she returns to the community that wouldn't speak to her before, only to have a taxi refuse to pick her up and to suffer the suspicious stares of white people on the subway. She sees firsthand both the appalling conditions conditions of life in Metropolis's slums and the selfless warmth of its residents. Her eyes opened, Lois confronts Superman.

And proceeds to make it all. About. Her.

Lois: Look me straight in the eye! And tell me the truth! Do you love me? Suppose I couldn't change back? Would you marry me? Even if I'm black? An outsider in a white man's world?

Superman, showing superhuman restraint, politely points out to her that he himself might know a little something about being an outsider—what with the whole being from another planet millions of light-years away and all—before giving her his standard speech about not wanting to put her in danger from his many enemies.

"Let's Rap!"
In 1970, a survey appeared in the pages of DC's comics, with Superman and the Flash soliciting reader feedback. What's striking—and what speaks to just how disconnected the publisher felt from its readers—is that the two heroes talk in such tin-eared, self-consciously hip lingo.

"Let 's Rap!"

Answer all the questions so we know who you are and what you think is groovy. Just because you helped us out and we love you for it we're giving away big gifts including a portable color TV set. We're drawing the names on September 30, 1970.

DIG!

Amid questions about the readers' ages, hobbies, where they bought their books, and whether they read advertisements in comics, the survey includes this question:

(Q5) How interested are you in reading about: (For each question check [Very interested, Fairly Interested or Not interested]).

a. Pollution

b. Black People

c. Space Flights

d. National Problems

e. City Problems

f. Sports (which one)

g. Hobbies

h. Romance

i. Astrology

Pollution, city problems, astrology, and black people. The '70s had arrived in force.


This post is adapted from Superman: The Unauthorized Biography.

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Glen Weldon

Glen Weldon is a freelance writer and book critic. He is a regular panelist on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour and writes frequently for the NPR website about books and comics. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book ReviewThe New Republic, and Slate.

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