Beyond Lois Lane: Civilian Girlfriends in Love and Capes and Jersey Gods

Posted by Jennifer

In the third issue of Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, Superman grants Lois Lane powers to match his own. For one 24-hour period, Lois has all of the strength and power of her superhero boyfriend. She can hear around the globe and see the smallest molecule; she can fly, and she’s nearly impervious to injury. Filled with all of this power, she immediately tries to fight a super battle… and is instantly usurped by two male heroes who spend the rest of the issue aggressively courting her. The moral of the story is that Superman, on top of being the perfect hero, is also the perfect boyfriend, far more deserving of Lois than the other two louts. But over the course of the issue, Lois gets to use her fantastic powers for exactly one thing: wearing radioactive jewelry given to her by one of the suitors.

Needless to say, I was less than impressed.

I don’t mean to slag on All-Star Superman — the other 11 issues are nothing short of brilliant. And I don’t mean to slag on Lois Lane, the quintessential civilian girlfriend, who for most of her existence has been portrayed as strong, sassy, smart, and one of the best in her professional field. But this underscores the fact that women in comics have come a long way since the Silver Age stories to which Morrison’s series pays tribute (and, in other issues, manages to update and subvert). To see something that’s such a blatant step backwards is disheartening.

Luckily, two current creator-owned series are picking up the civilian girlfriend slack, showing us women and their relationships with their superhero boyfriends that are more The Adventures of Lois and Clark than All-Star Superman: Love and Capes and Jersey Gods.

I first discovered writer/cartoonist Thom Zahler’s Love and Capes on this year’s Free Comic Book day, which featured the tenth issue among the free titles. In that issue, Abby – the girlfriend of Mark, a Superman-esque hero called The Crusader – also gets her boyfriend’s powers for the day. But unlike Lois, Abby displays a startling amount of agency. The powers aren’t a gift, or an accident – she asks a Dr. Strange-esque hero, Dr. Karma, to give her the powers so that she can better understand the other side of her boyfriend’s life. And once she has those powers, she immediately starts to use them to save people – to be a hero. Sure, she makes mistakes, but it’s not because she’s a woman, it’s because she’s new at the hero business. Once she gets her legs under her, she commits quite a few acts of heroism before suffering the hero’s ultimate tragedy: failing to save someone. In the end, Abby decides that the hero life isn’t quite for her, but her day as a hero isn’t considered a failure, despite its sad conclusion; instead, Mark reassures her that no hero can save everyone, and shows her the dozens of thankful letters she’s received from the people she did save. It’s a much more satisfying gift than radioactive jewelry.

After meeting Zahler at HeroesCon (at which he chose to directly combat the sexism of IGN’s infamous “boys-only” Comic-Con contest by giving a free issue of his comic to any women who stopped by), I decided to buy the trade of the first six issues of Love and Capes, as well as issue 7. After reading all of that, I started kicking myself for not picking up issues 8 and 9 as well (time to hit the back issue bins!), and I’m eagerly anticipating picking up issue 11 when it hits stores in a few weeks. The series is every bit as charming, intelligent, and progressive as the Free Comic Book Day issue made it seem, and I couldn’t be happier.

Abby, from the moment we meet her, is wonderful – and who could expect anything less from a character admittedly named after Abigail Adams? Her first action in the entire comic is to point out a grammar mistake in a newspaper article, thus forever endearing her to my copy editor’s heart. Sure, the scene is a bit of a joke – Abby can find the smallest typo, but she hasn’t noticed that her boyfriend is a superhero – but her keen sense of observation and attention to detail becomes a key part of her characterization over the course of the series, and since she learns her boyfriend’s secret in that first issue, her ignorance on that front becomes a moot point pretty quickly.

Abby is a self-employed entrepreneur, owning her own independent book store where she works with her sister, Charlotte, and though she’s unlikely to ever punch someone out, that doesn’t make her any less strong. She has flaws – she can be jealous and extremely picky, and her generosity is offset by moments of selfishness– but they only serve to make her feel more real . And, best of all, though most of the comic is devoted to the relationship above all else, (it isn’t called Love and Capes for nothing), Abby is allowed to have her own needs and desires that have nothing to do with her boyfriend. She wants her book store to be a success; she wants to try out for a part in a play. Her entire world doesn’t revolve around Mark, and though I’m as captivated by their happy, romantic comedy-esque relationship as anyone else, it’s nice to know that she, like Mark, has a life beyond it.

Jersey Gods is a bit different. Unlike Love and Capes, which rarely shows any of Mark’s superheroics on panel, Jersey Gods, by Glen Brunswick and Dan McDaid, is very concerned with the Jack Kirby-inspired super-powered battles of its lead, extraterrestrial god Barock. But, as I said in my letter to the creators – which, in my proudest moment so far as a comic book fan, was published in issue 4: “[the sci-fi world building] isn’t scary at all when there’s someone relatable to serve as a conduit. By intertwining [a] very human, domestic story with your gods-and-wars-and-aliens narrative, you’ve made the comic as a whole much easier to follow, turning a premise that might have made me skittish into a book I look forward to eagerly each month.”

This is because, for every moment of huge cosmic action, there’s also another side to the books: the romance between Barock and regular Jersey Girl Zoe. As readers of this blog know, I am a Jersey Girl, and very proud of it; the reason I picked up Jersey Gods was the name and the cover to the first issue, which featured a Mike Allred drawing of the characters running up the Garden State Parkway past the sign that points to my own exit. But what I found inside was a fun but complicated sci-fi story balanced by a female lead who embodied everything I’ve known as a denizen of this much-maligned state. Zoe isn’t a stereotype – she’s just, as I said in my letter, “a normal girl who’s simply getting swept up in a world larger than herself. Sure, she hangs out at malls, sits in traffic, and has a complicated relationship with New York City culture, but that doesn’t stop her from being a three-dimensional individual.”

Five issues into the series (the first trade paperback of which hits stores tomorrow), I still stand by these words. Zoe is smart, creative, a bit of a control freak, and eternally struggling to do the best she can with what she has. She comes into conflict with her parents, and has problems in her job as a go-to-girl (and aspiring journalist) for the fashion section for the local newspaper, but it’s these very mundane issues that serve as such a brilliant contrast to the cosmic battles and illuminate Zoe’s character. Her problems are given no less weight than Barock’s are, and though she sometimes needs to be saved – that’s how she and Barock meet in the first place – it’s not because she’s weak. She holds her own as best she can, brave and quick-witted in the face of danger; she simply lives a different kind of life than her alien soldier boyfriend does.

There’s a lot to love about both of these comics. In addition to brilliant writing, each book features distinctive and gorgeous artwork, from Zahler’s curvy cartoony figures to McDaid’s Kirby-esque action panels. Both Mark and Barock also have best friends who are black men, giving the books points on the race front as well as the gender front. And both comics are just plain fun, engaging and witty and endlessly creative in their use and subversion of well-known tropes.

But what I love best about these books is their treatment of their female leads. These women, like Lois Lane and Mary Jane Watson before them, transcend the role of “the girlfriend” to become heroic, if not superheroic, characters in themselves. They’re fully-realized, autonomous, and altogether refreshingly human, and there’s no question in my mind why Mark and Barock – not to mention the readers – love them so unconditionally.

By Jennifer Smith
Twitter: throughthebrush

  • Sam

    I will definitely check out both these titles. They sound equally interesting in their different ways, and one of my favorite parts of the superhero mythos is how the “normal” people around them, especially the ones who are romantically involved with them, are portrayed by the writers.

    On that note, as a movie geek, I feel the need to mention My Super Ex-Girlfriend, which was one of the worst movies (let alone superhero movies) that I’ve ever seen. It basically equated women having superpowers with being catty at best and insane at worst, while the calm and rational men in their lives were the “real heroes”. I rented it thinking it would flip the traditional roles on their heads, maybe be a bit witty, but man was a disappointed (and a bit disturbed).

    Anyway, thanks for the recommendations.

  • Caroline

    This is a really great analysis. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one disappointed in/aggravated by that Lois Lane issue. And you KNOW how I feel about ‘Love & Capes’ <3 <3 <3 So full of awesome. I apparently need to check out Jersey Gods too. Sorry my analytical skills aren't worth much atm, but I really enjoyed reading this!

  • sigrid

    Now I have to check out the Jersey Gods tpb tomorrow . . . .

  • I’m definitely going to pick up these titles next time I go to my comic book shop. This is the same issue I have with Twilight– why, after Buffy, Underworld, hell even Anita Blake, was there a return to The Girlfriend title?

    IIRC, Silver Age Lois Lane didn’t go around pining after Superman. She KNEW Clark Kent was Superman; she just wanted to prove it. She clawed her way into an industry which was, at the time, very male-centric. Current Age Lois has just as much agency and while she does go into occasional bouts of jealousy, hey who wouldn’t? 😉

    I think this is one of the reasons why Lois is still so popular. She’s heroic in a very non-powered way, in a way that the reader can be.

    Thanks for the post!

  • Jo

    Mary Jane is my favorite non-superpowered female character by far, which I think is why the “divorce” upset me so much. I don’t understand why they would do that still.

    She’s not a “hero”, but she’s still so important. She’s sexy, feisty, independent, loving, flirty, and smart underneath all of that too.

  • Menshevik

    Thanks for directing our attention to these titles, I’ll be giving them a try in future.

    Some observations with reference to All-Star Superman and My Super Ex-Girlfriend (not to try to justify everything in those two stories, but):
    It is, I think, a bit much too expect from everyone to leap from “hey, I’ve got superpowers!” to using said powers responsibly and selflessly for the common good in two seconds flat. If I may use the examples of some male superheroes, when Peter Parker was bitten by the spider, he at first tried to use his new powers to try and make a quick buck and only chose to become a costumed vigilante after his inaction caused the tragedy of his uncle’s death weeks later. Depending on what origin you choose, Superman spent years basically doing nothing before he first went into action. So on a human level I would find it excusable in a lot of people that they would at first simply try to enjoy their superpowers (however, I don’t know if Lois Lane in her current characterization would be such a person; the Lois Lane I recall from the time I still read the Superman books really was too much of a “busybody” for that and certainly too much in love with Superman to fall for the attentions of those two other guys).
    “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” is a guilty pleasure of mine, I must confess. Granted, G-Girl is very neurotic (as befits a New Yorker, at least in the movies) and high-strung, but she actually is the character I empathize with most when I watch the movie. When you think about it, she has some admirable qualities: After gaining her superpowers, she chooses to become a superheroine, an occupation that causes her a lot of stress and gains her little thanks or reward, and she does this without having either the kind of supportive social environment that Superman has in his family and friends (throughout most of the film she is pretty much isolated) or the kind of tragic back-story like Batman or Spider-Man to strengthen her resolve and determination, to provide the drive when things look bad. So while she may not be the most sterling character, I can sympathize with her exasperation that everybody expects her to be there to save them. And while G-Girl goes off the rails, I would not really describe Hannah (the other woman with superpowers) as insane or even catty, at least not while she has superpowers (there she acts under extreme provocation, having just been nearly killed). And I certainly don’t see the male characters as calm or rational. Doctor Bedlam is a loopy megalomaniac and Matt Saunders (Luke Wilson) is nervous and weak-willed, continually letting himself to be talked into doing dumb things by both Bedlam and his hormones-driven pal. And what enables him to bring about the reconciliation between G-Girl and Bedlam (after which the two ladies with superpowers co-operate non-cattily and everyone is happy) is not cool and rational thinking, but more a combination of intuition and hope IMO.
    But what do I know? I’m also one of the people who’ll willingly admit to liking Ang Lee’s “Hulk”… :-)

  • @Menshevik — You make some interesting points. I don’t know about the Super Ex Girlfriend movie, so I can’t comment on that. And I can’t speak for Jennifer, but my take on the All-Star Superman issue isn’t that I think the writer was trying to make Lois look bad, but just that the story is framed so that the story’s not really about her — the powers are a gift from Superman, and the whole conflict in the story involves guys fighting over her. (It also doesn’t help that, in that story, the whole nature of their relationship and how much Lois knows about Clark’s identity is pretty murky, so it’s hard to read their relationship).

  • @Jennifer — You know, I know you’re not a Frank Quitely fan, but my eyes keep going to that cover because I think it tells a different, and much more interesting, story than the issue itself. Also, I saw a girl at a con once, dressed in that costume, heard her comment “this is the only time I ever LIKED Lois Lane,” and totally didn’t stab her. I think I should get points for that!

  • Menshevik

    Much love for MJ from here too. One quality that immediately set her apart was that she grasps that superpowers can be enjoyable (at her first date in ASM #43 she got on the back seat of Pete’s little motorbike to drive to Manhattan and watch the Rhino fight Spider-Man) and thus she was the only one of his love interests who reacted positively to both his civilian and costumed ID (the first time he saved her as Spider-Man during she started flirting with him), while the others tended to be scared of Spider-Man (Betty, Gwen, Debra) or disdainful of Peter Parker (the Black Cat).
    And on the other hand, she has proven time and again to be able to handle herself in a crisis, e.g. when she was able to free herself from Jonothon Caesar’s clutches after he kidnapped her, when she put the Chameleon in the fear of his life with a baseball bat, or when she gave Normie Osborn a severe talking-to in Spider-Girl. I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks that given the powers and opportunity, and maybe a little additional motivation, she would make a pretty competent superheroine, and I think that was what Marvel tried to exploit by the creation of Jackpot, making people believe she might by Mary Jane so that her fans would continue to buy ASM after OMD.

  • Menshevik

    @Caroline – Ooops! My apologies to you (and anyone else who hasn’t seen “My Super Ex-Girlfriend”) for not putting a spoiler warning in that post.
    Speaking of the Lois Lane story, that brought back memories of a truly awful Silver Age story I read as a kid where Lois and Lana got superpowers (can’t remember if it was through red kryptonite or that pesky Mxyzptlk) and they had nothing better to do than carve their own faces into Mount Rushmore…

  • @Menshevik That IS awful, but also kind of awesome.

  • @all I’m glad you enjoy the recommendations, and I hope these series bring you as much happiness as they’ve brought me.

    @Sam I haven’t seen My Super Ex-Girlfriend, but from the trailer alone I had a feeling it was going to be something that would fill me with rage, so I’ve avoided it. Maybe I’ll watch it someday, as a comparison study.

    @Menshevik What Caroline said. It’s not that I think everyone with powers would go off and be a hero — but the fact is, Lois doesn’t even get the chance, because Morrison decided to make it a story about guys fighting over her instead. In fact, she WANTS to be a hero — her instinct is to enter a super-battle right away. But Morrison removes that agency from her, and her purpose in the story becomes that of an object to be won (an object, additionally, who is now even more desirable with powers. When Superman has powers, he gets to save people; when Lois has them, she upgrades to the next prize level on the shelf.) There’s nothing wrong with Lois herself. It’s a problem with the way the story is told. As noted above, I haven’t seen My Super Ex-Girlfriend, so I can’t speak to that, though your analysis seems sound.

    @Caroline Oh, yes, the cover is definitely the best part of the issue, and I do like that drawing of Lois. She doesn’t look all… shriveled, for once.

  • @xenokattz @Jo I’m really happy that Lois and Mary Jane exist, and that they’ve been around for so long. There ARE a lot of disposable girlfriends in comics, but it’s nice that two of the biggest flagship heroes have had fairly stable relationships with women who have personality, agency, and self-reliance.

  • Also, since that’s a Quitely cover, I sometimes try to pretend that it’s Scott and Jean, and figure out exactly what’s going on there.

  • @Caroline See, you say that and then I have to whip out my photoshop:

  • Jesse Jackson

    A Great review and you’ve done a really super (pardon the pun) analysis of the Mark and Abby relationship. I’ve been a fan of Love and Capes from the start so I’m not surprised you’ve enjoyed the series. What impresses me is how you’ve pointed out some of the reasons the book succeeds that are all under the surface. I get the feeling that Thom just tries to write the best stories possible and works at making his characters as real as possible. To paraphrase the series catchphrase, I knew he was doing a good job, I just didn’t know how well he was doing!

  • @Jesse Oh, thank you! You’re very kind, and I certainly agree that Thom tries — and succeeds! — to write the best stories possible.

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  • Phil

    Darn it, Jennifer, now I’m going to have to check out Jersey Gods! Still, given the generally depressing state that most mainstream comics are in, a Kirbyesque title with an entertaining romance sounds like something very welcome.

    I found this blog through Thom Zahler’s website, so it should be no surprise that I’m a huge fan of Love and Capes — now, if pnly it was easier to get on this side of the Pond! Forget about the back issue bins if my experience is any guide, get what you don’t have straight from Thom; I can recommend his service. And I absolutely agree that L&C #10 wipes the floor with the Super-Lois issue — or, rather, the bits of that story that involved the idiotic interlopers barging in on Lois’ birthday; when the writing concentrated on Lois and Superman, it was actually pretty good. Morrison wrote Superman’s attitude to the testosterone-poisoned twits in a believable and satisfying way, showing the restraint and patience that has always been a part of the best versions of Supes, and then finally having him get fed up and deal with the fools without breaking a sweat. It’s so nice to see a hero allowed to be a hero for a change, and competent — that is, able to deal with a challenge — as well.

    The jewellery sub-plot was, I think, partly one aspect of Morrison’s continuing homage to the Silver Age in this series, which he took too far in this issue, trying to pack in too much so that it ruined what ought to have been the heart of the story — super-powered Lois — but then, a lot of SA comics did that, too.

    By contrast, that focus is exactly what Zahler does in Love and Capes, and it works brilliantly. It’s also very neatly tied in with events of previous issues, everything from Abby getting a little of her own back on Amazonia to Zoe taking Mark’s place in the now-traditional clock-tower scene.

    One final comment: you mention that Mark has a black friend and say that that’s a good thing; I would go further and say that Thom’s achieved the ultimate end for anybody writing a non-WASP character: he’s come up with someone who is black, but for whom it doesn’t matter. Paul/Darkblade could be of any ethnicity and the character could still be the same, and yet he is very much who and what he is; the fact that he has brown skin is irrelevant, and that is true equality.

  • @Phil Thanks for the feedback! I definitely think you’d enjoy Jersey Gods.

    As I said in the article, I realize that Morrison’s intention was to pay homage to Silver Age issues — he just fails, here, at updating the parts of them that need updating. He manages to make the pseudo-science sound threatening and believable, and he even makes Jimmy Olsen’s Silver Age propensity toward being in ridiculous positions (a woman for a day! a gorilla for a day!) into a compelling modern story with a clear, conscious purpose for Jimmy himself. The fact that he couldn’t do the same with Lois here was disappointing.

  • I ordered the trade of Love and Capes through my local comic shop on your rec–picked it up and zipped happily through it today! All the fun you said–AND a SLINGS AND ARROWS reference! *adores* Thanks for the tip!

  • @spuffyduds Glad you enjoyed it! I hadn’t wanted to spoil the Slings and Arrows reference, but that was definitely icing on the cake!

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