Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Hey Jealousy

I guess there's some consternation around the Interblag about Lois Lane's apparent jealousy in the latest issue of Superman. The issue basically follows the plot of every Maxima story ever, with a vampiric little twist, and Wonder Woman guest-starring. It's very Silver Age, with a more modern moral and some creepy implications, and I think that sensibility is creeping into how some folks are interpreting Lois in this issue.

Here's the story in a nutshell: Khyrana was a beautiful Greek woman who rebuked all would-be suitors, preferring solitude. Unfortunately for her, she spurned Zeus. If there's one thing Greek deities hate, it's spurnage, so the sexually-frustrated god-king doled out a classic ironic punishment. For refusing to give consent to a god who was never one to seek it, she would forever crave the touch of humans, especially men, and would need it to survive. So, she becomes a kind of succubus, draining men's life-energy so she can stay alive (though apparently she also can't die). After some plot-wrangling to get Clark, Lois, and Wonder Woman into the same room, Khyrana comes into contact with Superman and kidnaps him. Diana and Lois realize what's up, and naturally they go to rescue Superman. Diana and Clark beat Khyrana (in a moment taken straight out of a She-Ra episode), and Lois shows up with the cops.

Anyway, as you might expect from such a Silver Age plot, there's quite a bit of opportunity for Lois to jibe Clark about Wonder Woman's perfect body. This hasn't (to my knowledge) become a major issue in the comics blogohedron, but I noticed that a couple of people thought Lois was portrayed as uncharacteristically jealous. Me, I saw a secure woman who knew how to put the planet's most powerful man on the defensive. Lois's comments, like "Hmm. Maybe I shouldn't be wild about you attending so many Justice League meetings. You and her together, a secluded cave...," sounded to me like good-natured, playful ribbing between lovers. Heck, she follows that particular quotation up with "Ha! You're so easy, Smallville." She's just trying to get a rise out of him. The way she shifts between joking about Wonder Woman's "spangly trunks" to teaming up with her, without missing a beat or showing any distrust or animosity, further speaks not only to the fact that the "jealousy" is a joke, but to the fact that she doesn't see Diana as a threat to her relationship.

Incidentally, she doesn't seem to see Khyrana as a threat to her relationship either, just a threat to Clark's health and well-being.

But even if the jealousy were genuine, would it be such a bad thing? Why wouldn't Lois occasionally feel inadequate for the Man of Steel?

We occasionally hear about this on the other side; the Donner cut of "Superman II" deals with it explicitly (I can't remember if the Lester version does or not), and I'm pretty sure it was covered in the Rick Veitch "Swamp Thing" issue with Superman; hell, even the Spin Doctors' "Jimmy Olsen's Blues" touches on it. The argument goes like this: doesn't the presence of Superman make normal men (with Clark Kent usually acting as a stand-in) feel less adequate? Don't they get something like "power envy"? After all, here is the perfect male specimen, wrapped up in a red cape. How can mild-mannered Clark Kent compete with that? Aren't all women Holding Out for a Hero? Once you've been with Superman, everything else pales in comparison.

Heck, this is basically the modern justification for why Lex Luthor hates Superman.

We must, we must...So why shouldn't we get it on the other side? You've got these impossibly perfect women flitting about the DCU in swimsuits (or less), defying gravity in every possible way, why wouldn't "normal" women feel the same anxiety, the same insecurities? Over in "Bulleteer," we not only saw superheroines fetishized, but we saw the lengths to which some people will go to live out their fantasies. In the real world, people protest the unreasonable physical standard set by supermodels and movie stars and comic book superheroines, why wouldn't people in the DCU feel the same?

You know, I'm a normal guy, and I'm dating a normal girl in a world filled with normal people. We've been together a bit over five years now, and I still think I'm the luckiest guy on the planet. Of course, the flipside of that is that sometimes I wonder if maybe I'm not worthy of such luck. And I know sometimes she feels the same way, and sometimes we each get a little insecure, a little jealous when we meet each other's friends of the opposite gender. It's not a feminine thing, it's a relationship thing.

Take heed, Joe Quesada: This type of story not only should be told, but it's one of those running subplots that only works when the characters are in a committed relationship. The panel above is from one of my favorite (though oft-maligned) stories of the early 2000s, where Superman and Diana were taken to Asgard by Thor, to fight off the demon hordes. And though they fought for a thousand years (by their reckoning), Superman never compromised his vow against killing, and he never succumbed to the temptation of choosing Diana while Lois was long gone. Meanwhile, Lois is left in Metropolis to deal with her own insecurities at having her husband stolen from bed by an Amazon (and a subplot involving Lex Luthor, but that's neither here nor there). It's not that she feels actively threatened by Diana, it's not that she doesn't trust Clark, it's that we all have a tendency to judge ourselves in comparison to others, to suffer from insecurities, especially with regard to a relationship. Writers who understand relationships, who understand the new and myriad problems that come with a committed relationship or a marriage, do well with this basic fact of life.

Did you hear that, Joe? Married people have unique problems, ones that are at least as interesting as your latest love triangle.

And of course, such insecurities are bolstered by the problems presented in superhero stories. How many comic fans (and writers) think that Clark should be with Diana? The number ain't small; in-continuity, it's been made explicit that some people just kind of assume they belong together. Who in the DCU, not knowing Superman's dual identity, would think that he'd get married to a normal woman?

And on the other side of things, how often do we see people wondering aloud what Lois Lane could possibly see in nebbish Clark Kent? It's not something we see much post-Crisis (though I think Perry said something to that effect in the first Johns/Donner issue), but there's a social disequilibrium between Clark and Lois, not just Lois and Superman. Both would be generally perceived to be dating out of their league.

And so I like seeing stories where the main conflict is not necessarily a physical one, but a psychological one, where the only "villain" is self-doubt. Granted, that doesn't really describe Busiek's latest Superman issue; the insecurity there was mainly Lois's way of pushing Clark's buttons. But take the Action Comics issue in Asgard, where the giant demon battles take a backseat to showing just how committed Clark is, not only to the mission, not only to his friends, but to his moral values and his wife, that he would remain faithful for a thousand years in another world. And it shows that Lois isn't the tough-as-nails ball-busting bitch that she's sometimes portrayed as, but a human being with real feelings and issues of her own. And in the end, it shows that amor vincit omnia--"love conquers all."

In his 130th Sonnet, William Shakespeare says "I grant I never saw a goddess go; / My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground." But Superman has seen goddesses go, and alien princesses, and superheroines of every stripe. If we, or Superman, chose relationships based on power level or physical perfection, then he'd have settled down with Big Barda or Maxima or Wonder Woman decades ago. But relationships aren't just about which two people have the most in common, they're about who you connect with, who you love.

So, I think I know what Clark might say, were he writing that sonnet's final couplet:
And yet, by Rao, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.


Anonymous said...

"the only 'villain' is self-doubt."

boooooring. can you punch self-doubt in the face? thought not.
can you get self-doubt into a sweet, sweet love triangle?
hmmm....planning a crossover...brb!

LurkerWithout said...

Hey with the current creative team on WW I'm betting Diana is jealous of Lois' ability to order coffee from snotty Starbucks employees...

Dawn said...

From an old married woman, thanks. That was a great post and you hit the nail on the head. :)

SallyP said...

Well thought out, Tom. And by the way, that's one of my favorite sonnets.

Tom Foss said...

Mine too. It's one of two sonnets (and maybe half a dozen other poems and passages out of the Elizabethan era) that I've bothered to memorize. I can recite it word-for-word, but I still have to look up which number it is :).

I haven't yet gotten to read Ms. Picoult's WW issue, though from what I hear, the hype machine greatly disappointed. Which is really too bad, because Diana deserves better. Allow me to join the chorus singing "what was wrong with Greg Rucka?"

Thanks for the compliments, everyone. Also, if Mr. Quesada's comment is the prelude to "Soap Opera War" or something, I apologize in advance.


CalvinPitt said...

I agree that's there isn't any reason Lois couldn't be jealous, (I also agree that she really didn't seem that way). It reminds me of the Spidey/MJ/Black Cat situation that cropped up in the '90s when Cat started dating Flash to mess with Peter, and kept showing up to help out Peter, help which Pete usually accepted.

MJ trusted Pete, but she and Felicia tended to have some back-and-forth whenever they were in the same place. Even if Felicia and MJ aren't as far apart physically as Lois and Diana, there's still the fact that felicia can share the super-hero thing with Peter, and there's a previous romantic relationship thrown in for good measure.

Tom Foss said...

I remember that too, as well as a running subplot around the same time where MJ was dealing with her own insecurities and self-deprecating feelings. Her smoking habit, tumultuous television career, and quest for respectability all tied in, and I recall more than once that the supermodel questioned whether or not she was worthy of the geek.

I was totally going to mention that in this post, too, but didn't find a spot. Thanks for giving me the opportunity :).

David C said...

I'm just amazed that people could read that story and think Lois was genuinely jealous, not just joking around. She seemed just as self-confident as modern Lois usually does, if not moreso.

VP81955 said...

Intriguing. I wonder if things would be any different were the shoe on the other gender foot, that is, if a mortal male were in a dating/married relationship with a superheroine but felt inadequate when she cavorted with male superheroes. I'm sure there are some examples of that in the comic book world, though nothing remotely comparable in impact to Superman/Lois.

Tom Foss said...

if a mortal male were in a dating/married relationship with a superheroine but felt inadequate when she cavorted with male superheroes.

I could be wrong, but I think there was something along those lines when Trevor Barnes was with Wonder Woman.

Anonymous said...

Ok, this makes me kind of sad, but I cannot think of any time in the Marvel universe where a female super-hero/villain has ever dated a non-super powered guy... with the exception of She-Hulk who had a propensity for picking up guys in She-Hulk form and waking up next to them in the morning as Jennifer Walters. LOL. If anyone can think of an instance please post it, because I am at a loss.