The '70s Were Awkward for Superman

The comic-book franchise's attempts to get hip included turning Lois Lane black.
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DC (via)

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.

Presented by

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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