Documents released during the ongoing case between the families of
Superman's creators and DC Comics reveal a little-seen history where
Lois was too sexy and the Man of Steel maybe a little too gay.
The documents in question
correspondence between Detective Comics (now DC Comics) and Jerry
Siegel from 1939 through 1947, entered into evidence as part of DC’s
attempt to establish that all the work done by Siegel & Shuster
during that time was work for hire. The case still has a while to
percolate — the judge has postponed the hearing on unresolved
trademark/copyright issues until September 15 — but the material itself
is a gold mine for folks interested in comics history.
As the papers reveal, early in the history of Superman, co-creator and
artist Joe Shuster was warned to tone down his depiction of Lois Lane
by his editor Whitney Ellsworth, and make her less sexy. It was a
warning that the artist chose to ignore for months, apparently, causing
Ellsworth made an argument that seems shocking even almost seventy
years later. Shuster’s Lois was so “unpleasantly sexy” that her
pulchritude made her seem a bit too heavy–a problem for which Ellsworth
and Murray Boltinoff had an easy solution:
[W]hy it is necessary to shade Lois’ breasts and the underside of
her tummy with vertical pen-lines we can’t understand. She looks
pregnant. Murray suggests that you arrange for her to have an abortion
or the baby and get it over with so that her figure can return to
something a little more like the tasty dish she is supposed to be.
And the criticism didn’t stop there; editorial also had problems with her hair style and her clothing,
…which looked like you have apparently dressed her out of a
Montgomery Ward catalogue. [Jack Liebowitz] suggests Vogue, Vanity Fair
and Harper’s Bazaar as likelier spots for dress-research.
The depiction of women in comics has received its fair share of criticism in recent years, most notably in Gail Simone’s Women in Refrigerators
and Valerie D’Orazio’s Occasional Superheroine
. Comics have likewise sparked some controversy
in regard to images of heroic homosexuality. But as the documents illustrate, these issues have a long history.
Even apart from the gender issues there’s a lot of amazing stuff in the
papers — the recurring savage criticism of Joe Shuster’s art; an early
critique of Wayne Boring as an artist unsuitable for Superman (who
later went on to become “the” Superman artist of the era); the hiring
of Winsor McCay, Jr., as Superman ghost-artist-in-training; the
insinuation that Superman was not significantly more popular than
Zatara, Pep Morgan and Tex Thomson (now all D-list heroes at best); and
the prohibition on depictions of a flying Superman are just a few of
the historical moments in the mix.
Of course, it’s the sex stuff that really stands out, providing a rare
insiders’ perspective on the comics writing culture of the past. One of
the true highlights of the newly released correspondence is the
black-and-white sketch of Lois Lane included above. The artist was
Siegel’s and Shuster’s editor, Ellsworth, who was attempting to get the
duo to make Lois Lane less curvaceous.
Although comics censorship tends to be associated with Dr. Frederick Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent
in the 1950s, in actuality the complaints arose almost as soon as
superheroes made comics a ubiquitous pop phenomenon. In a letter dated
February 19, 1941, Ellsworth makes clear that this was foremost on his
mind when he says to Siegel, “You know as well as I do what sort of
censure we are always up against, and how careful we must be.”
Which made a curvy Lois a bit of a problem. When drawn in an especially
tantalizing way she posed a risk of drawing the attention of the moral
watchdogs, a risk that Ellsworth tried to forestall in 1940 by ordering
the duo to “de-sex” her.
A look at the DC Archives Superman editions shows that these
admonitions had their intended effect. The first two color images above
are from Superman #7
complete with breast shading and vertical lines in her, um, lower
tummy. In contrast, a few months later, she appeared with a much
slimmer waist and bust-reducing lapels (see above).
The criticism did not stop with Lois, however. Another alleged problem
with Shuster’s artwork is that it made Superman look gay — or in the
period slang of Ellsworth’s January 22, 1940, letter, “lah-de-dah” with
a “nice fat bottom.”
What’s worse, the pose in the second panel also reminded Ellsworth of “certain FLIT ads
done by a cartoonist who signs himself ‘Dr. Seuss.’”
For a cultural historian, documents like these are a treasure trove,
providing insight into attitudes toward women, standards of beauty,
images of masculinity, censorship and the interplay between comics and
other illustrated media.
For Siegel and Shuster, such critiques were serious business. If you
want to understand why they took the risk of suing DC in 1947 to regain
the rights to Superman, read these letters — time and again the company
warns them that their work borders on the “unacceptable” — “the
situation is serious enough to warrant your doing some real worrying,”
as DC might “make other arrangements to have [the work] done.” Since DC
seemed to be building a case to get rid of them, a lawsuit — no matter
how risky — seemed to have better odds than the prospect of winning
over the publisher.
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