Hidden History: Lois' 'Abortion' and Superman too Gay?

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.


Will DC Lose Superman?

Can the Siegels Sell Superman to Marvel?

Superman of Two Worlds

What’s Next For Superman?

Twitter activity