Tropes in Capes: Reporter Girlfriends
Superhero comics have many well-worn motifs that have been popularized, subverted, and mocked over the decades, such as secret identities, reporter girlfriends, and all things radioactive. In Tropes in Capes, I will examine the history of these elements: how they began, when and if they fell out of favor, and where they are now. Today: the journalist friend!
In superhero pastiches, parodies, and media homages, the superhero in question will almost always have a quick-talking, thrill-seeking reporter as (usually) their love interest. This is, of course, a tribute to Lois Lane, the first and greatest of the “newshens” superhero comics. (Yes, they used that word. Sigh.) But scratch the surface of the genre and you’ll find plenty of other journalistic novels. Where did this trope come from and how did it become so iconic?
Clark Kent, Lois Lane and the then-unnamed newspaper they worked for all first appeared in action comics #1 in 1938. While this early story explains Clark’s extraterrestrial origins, it doesn’t explain why he would choose to disguise himself as an ordinary human and work at a newspaper. This is because there was no need to explain to readers of the 1930s. As James Vance points out in his introduction to Superman: The Dailies, 1939-1940, “the press was respected by the public and feared by the corrupt. Decades before Woodward and Bernstein brought this notion back into fashion by exposing the Watergate scandal, journalists were seen as heroes who fought against social injustice – a conviction and concern evidently shared by [Superman’s creators] Siegel and Schuster […] even when the Man of Steel wasn’t around, it seemed like Clark and Lois were forever threatened, kidnapped, and nearly murdered by gangsters and thugs in high places…just because they were journalists.”
Comics of the 1930s and 1940s were full of heroic journalists, just like other media, and often included women. The Warner brothers made new films between 1937 and 1939 about Torchy Blane, a heroic journalist and a recognized inspiration for Lois Lane. Women reporters were the stars of comic strips like Jane Arde (1928) and Brenda Star (1940); His daughter Friday released in theaters in 1940.
So it made perfect sense to use a job at a newspaper as a means of generating stories for Superman, and it made perfect sense that his closest colleague was a smart, fearless, and independent woman – qualities that were clearly meant to be. admirable, and which left the mighty Superman stricken.
Lois was so popular and important to the Superman mythos, in fact, that at first she was given a regular backup feature in the eponymous movie. Superman comic. Each Lois Lane usually opens by either giving her an obviously gender puff piece to write or being teased for not being able to get a story without Superman’s help. She then inevitably ends up stumbling upon some crime of some sort and apprehending the criminals while getting the scoop, again with plenty of slapstick involved. While Clark appears occasionally at the beginning or end of the story, Superman never does. These stories are silly, but they’re also a fierce defense of Lois’ skills and independence throughout the war years.
Although other journalists abounded in the Golden Age (Captain Marvel/Billy Batson, Green Lantern/Alan Scott, Johnny Quick/Johnny Chambers), surprisingly few contemporary comics have emulated the Lois formula, although the Liberty Belle’s alter ego, Libby Lawrence, was a radio columnist. One notable exception was the Blue Beetle’s love interest, Joan Mason, who is undeniably cast in Lois’ mold, from her no-frills patter to the pistol grip in her handbag. But then Blue Beetle was published by Fox Comics, which was sued by DC for plagiarizing Superman for the very first comic they ever publishedso maybe they were the only publisher with the nerve to copy Lois so directly.
In the post-war years and entering the Silver Age, Lois was sadly disfigured. She was no longer slapping gangsters and dismantling criminal networks; now she was trying to trick Superman into offering or admitting that he really was Clark Kent. As comics settled into mid-century paternalism (especially under the mind-numbing auspices of the Comic Book Code), other books began to approach Superman’s formula. So in 1948, Batman finally got a journalist girlfriend in the form of Vicki Vale, a very Silver Age character even though she technically debuted in the later years of the Golden Age, and when Barry Allen debuted as the Flash in 1956 and launched the Silver Age, he came with his journalist girlfriend Iris West.
Although Lois got her own book in 1958 – and Superman’s girlfriend, Lois Lane was a best-seller that lasted 16 years, which is not to be despised – Lois, Vicki and Iris spent the 50s and 60s reporting on fashion shows, inauguration ceremonies and parades honoring their respective heroes. Torchy Blane would have been disgusted.
Marvel, meanwhile, has never really gotten into the journalist girlfriend trope, preferring Stan Lee’s wildly boring favorite love triangle, the secretary girlfriend, in which the hero and his comically named best friend languish. both of the secretary, who yearns for the hero. (See Iron Man, Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan; Daredevil, Karen Page and Foggy Nelson; etc.) daily bugle Secretary to editor J. Jonah Jameson, poor woman. (She would later become a journalist.)
Iris was killed off in 1979, but Vicki and Lois were eventually able to do more interesting things, and at the start of what’s sometimes called the modern era of comics, in the ’80s, the super-girlfriend heroes was firmly entrenched as iconic, even if comic book examples weren’t exactly thick on the floor. Among Batman’s many potential love interests, it was Vicki Vale who hit the big screen with him in 1989. Batman. Almost more revealing, even if it is not exactly a girlfriend, the world’s most beloved superhero parody would come with a daring journalist ally in 1987: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and April O’Neil. Another famous superhero parody, the 2010 animated superhero parody Megamind, included a journalist love interest, the – of course – alliteratively named Roxanne Ritchi.
The reporters’ girlfriends (and love interests of all genders) of course remain those most strongly associated with the Superman franchise. Kon-El/Conner Kent Superboy’s first love interest was journalist Tana Moon, in 1993; Smallville inserted teenage journalist Chloe Sullivan into Clark Kent’s high school years in 2001; super girl created the dreamiest Jimmy Olsen yet as a love interest for his heroine in 2015 before swapping her with the insufferable Mon-El; and last year, current Superman Jon Kent had his first boyfriend, Jay Nakamura, whose internet revelations are reminiscent of the corruption-exposing Lois in the late 1930s. The Flash franchise has also remained pretty loyal to the trope, Wally West following in his uncle’s footsteps and falling in love with journalist Linda Park, who debuted in 1989.
Even more than every child sidekick owes a debt to Robin, every journalist girlfriend owes a debt to the powerful Lois Lane. She started the trend so well that journalists and superheroes became indelibly linked in the public’s mind, even if they’re not really more common than secretary girlfriends or model girlfriends (sigh). But there are plenty of characters worse to imitate to nausea than Lois. (Looking at you, Joker.) And besides, there’s something about figuratively and sometimes literally marrying a superhero to a character who represents the quest for truth that feels right and appropriate.
So hats off to Lois Lane and all her sisters who speak fast, speak the truth and fight corruption in ink. I love Superman, but in the end, the journalist girlfriend will always be my hero.