[This is excerpted from It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Podcast!, a superhero podcast on the Gradient Podcast Network. Scroll to the bottom of this article to hear the whole episode.]
In 1885, the Pittsburgh Dispatch printed a letter to the editor from a man known only as “Anxious Father” who was distressed about what to do with his five daughters — who were all unmarried and had no prospects for love. The letter was answered by a Dispatch columnist named Erasmus Wilson, who wrote under the name of “The Quiet Observer.” He used this opportunity to rail against working women, which he called “a monstrosity.” In his mind, there was no place for women outside of the home. He even joked that America should consider aborting all its girls to deal with the problem of too many working women. He titled the piece “What Girls Are Good For.”
The following day, the Pittsburgh Dispatch received a letter from a woman who only referred to herself as “The Lonely Orphan Girl.” The letter was a lengthy, fiery rebuttal to the “What Girls Are Good For” piece, with quotes like “Let a youth start as errand boy and he will work his way up until he is one of the firm. Girls are just as smart, a great deal quicker to learn; why, then, can they not do the same?”
The Dispatch editor was so impressed with the letter that he ran an ad in his paper, asking that this Lonely Orphan Girl stop by the office. The following day, 20-year-old Elizabeth Cochran walked in. She was promptly offered a job, and a pen name that would make her famous: “Nellie Bly.”
Nellie Bly would go on to become one of America’s great investigative journalists, living a long life full of dashing adventure, letting nothing stand between her and the truth. She would travel to Mexico for six months, reporting on the corrupt regime of Porfirio Díaz until she was forced to flee when the Mexican government threatened to arrest her. She left Pittsburgh for New York City and took a job as a reporter at Joseph Pulitzer’s paper New York World, where she would become a sensation for attempting to duplicate Jules Verne’s fictional Around the World in 80 Days trip in real life. She made it in 72, a world record at the time.
She would also inspire a teenage writer named Jerry Siegel and his artist pal Joe Shuster, two Jewish boys who also lived in New York City. They had just sold a character named “Superman,” and were struggling with to put their first story together. This Superman, they decided, would need a little romance, and Siegel — an aspiring writer, quite taken with the legend of Nellie Bly — thought this love interest should be an intrepid, tough-as-nails journalist, just like Nellie. He named her after a fetching young actress who was popular at the time, named Lola Lane.
And from this, Lois Lane — the first woman in any superhero comic — was born.
In 1935, fifteen years after Nellie Bly’s death, an aspiring 18-year-old actress named Joanne Kovacs placed an ad in the paper, offering her modeling services. This ad was responded to by none other than Jerry Siegel, who invited Joanne over to tell her about an idea he and his buddy Joe had about, as Joanne would later recall, “a man who could fly.” Jerry, a little nervous around this young beauty, even jumped off the couch to demonstrate what a flying man might look like.
Siegel and Shuster wanted Joanne to be the model for Lois Lane’s look, and she agreed. Action Comics issue one — the first appearance of Superman — would also feature the first appearance of the intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane.
Surprisingly for the ‘30s, the earliest versions of Lois Lane were pretty progressive. She was the intellectual equal in every way to the many men in Superman’s world — a capable, daring journalist in the Nellie Bly mold. When Clark Kent, Jimmy Olsen or any other of the Daily Planet’s well-intentioned but generally dopey men would try to patronize her, she would respond with dismissive wit. True, this attitude would get her in a lot of trouble with mobsters and bank robbers — meaning Superman would have to fly to her rescue in almost every issue — but while Lois may have been a damsel, she was never distressed. She took the frequent threats to her life in stride, standing up to criminals and bullies. And while Superman frequently flew her away to safety, she was never quite swept off her feet.
As time went on and the Superman comic changed hands, this characterization would suffer. Lois Lane would remain Superman’s primary love interest (although Lois never had any time for Clark Kent, a clear metaphor for Superman’s teen boy fans who felt certain the woman of their dreams would fall in love if she could only see him for who he really was). In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Lois spent a lot of time trying to confirm her suspicion that Clark and Superman were one in the same, often setting up elaborate traps to trick him into revealing his true identity. Superman would unfailingly outwit her in the end, often making Lois look ridiculous in the process. It was played for laughs, but it was a far cry from the sharp, daring journalist Siegel and Shuster had envisioned. It was during this time that Lois was given her own comic book called “Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane,” which was lighter and more fun than Superman’s adventures. It wasn’t the most feminist literature of the ‘60s, but it was DC’s third best selling title in 1962.
But by the end of the ‘60s, even the world of superhero comics couldn’t ignore the growing women’s liberation movement. Lois Lane would start wearing miniskirts and go-go boots, and her attitude became less obsessed with Superman and more interested in reporting for its own sake. It was around this time that DC started portraying Lois as a crack journalist, an award winner, someone who got her story no matter what and could frequently free herself from jams without Superman’s help. Her story was fleshed out to make her into an army brat, proficient in self defense and even firearms. This was the Lois Lane Superman’s creators had envisioned, and it was no longer difficult to see what the man of steel saw in her. The two even ended up getting married for a time, which thankfully did away from their 50-year, will-they, won’t-they courtship.
Indeed, the spark was very real. After World War II, Jerry Siegel, the creator of Superman, and Joanne Kovacs, the first model for Lois Lane, would run into each other years after that first modeling session at a costume ball in New York City. They struck up a conversation, and got married in 1948. They would remain so until Siegel’s death in 1996.
Of all Nellie Bly’s stories, her most famous would be a report called “10 Days in a Mad-House” — the details of which are almost too crazy to be believed. In 1887, Nellie decided to report an expose on the appalling state of New York’s insane asylums from the inside. After spending a night practicing deranged expressions in front of a mirror, she checked into a hotel and put on a magnificent show of being out of her mind, screaming at anyone who approached her and absent-mindedly telling the hotel staff that they were all insane. The ruse worked — the police were called, and she was put on trial where a series of experts determined that she was “positively demented. I consider it a hopeless case.” The case of a young, insane beauty ignited other newspapers. The New York Times wrote of a “mysterious waif” with a “wild, haunted look in her eyes.”
Nellie’s plan to be thrown into an insane asylum worked, and she spent ten days locked up in one, where she discovered that inmates were beaten, tied together, abused, fed slop, and submitted to water torture. After ten days, her employer called the asylum and secured her release. Nellie wrote about her ordeal a few days later, and the story made her a celebrity for the rest of her life. New York City made swift changes to its city asylums, raising the health and cleanliness standards for inmates and increasing its budget for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections but $850,000 — a huge sum in those times.
These are the sorts of things superheroes can’t do. Superman can catch a plane falling from the sky, but he can’t go to court to protest for increased rights for inmates. He can lock up Lex Luthor, but he can’t improve the conditions that might lead someone to commit a crime in the first place. For that, you have to turn to activists, protestors, community leaders, first responders and, yes, journalists.
For as long as there have been superheroes, there have been the mortals who walked in their shadows, floating down from the heavens like gods to dwell among those mortals. But Superman was the first superhero, and ever since he first appeared, there has been at least one mortal who kept him in check, called him out, cheered him up and truly, deeply, loved him. Saving the world? That was a job for Superman. But saving Superman — that was a job for Lois Lane.