Superman’s Doorman, Frank

Back in the 70s and 80s, the doorman at 344 Clinton St. (Clark Kent’s apartment building) was a minor recurring character in the Superman titles. He was named Frank. He was never a major player, but his recurring presence added an element of verisimilitude that made Metropolis seem like a real place. But then, when the franchise was revamped in 1986, Frank was dropped. Even on the occasions when a doorman was seen, it wasn’t him. I contend that this is a shame.

What I’m here to address, however, is the matter of Frank’s name. On the Internet, one can find him listed as Frank Morris or as Frank Johnson. Well how did the Internet mess that up? Well, it’s a mistake that comes from the comics. For a long time Frank was never given a surname. The earliest I can find of him having one is Superman #360, which was June 1981. He was Frank Morris there. It was a single off-hand reference in a story that wasn’t even about Frank. That was upended by Superman Family #215 (February 1982) in which Frank gives his full name as Franklin Pierce Jackson. That story is actually about Frank reveals that he’s a retired baseball player who was keeping his identity quiet for personal reasons. So maybe he was using Frank Morris as an alias? Well, maybe, but we only ever learned the Morris surname from a narrative caption, not a character in the story, so you think it’d be a fact given from an omniscient viewpoint. No, clearly Morris was never an alias, it was just that the writer of the Superman Family story didn’t know about the Morris naming. The latter story even has Clark explicitly note that he’d never bothered to learn Frank’s name. Anyway, the Jackson name is the one that stuck (It was used in Superman #413 in 1985, for example). So I’d say Jackson is pretty clearly the one that counts.

So why did they get rid of a nice guy like Frank? Well, I have my suspicions, which I can not prove, that maybe it was an overcorrection for fear of being perceived as racist. “The one black guy in here is the doorman?” they might have thought. Well, sure. If Frank Jackson was the only representative of black people in the franchise, I’d agree that was unfortunate. But I’d also say that the solution isn’t to cut Frank out, it’s to add more roles for black people (and that is better in the books now than it was back in Frank’s day). After all, I don’t think there’s shame in being a doorman. Working class people deserve to be represented in stories as well as anyone else. I for one, would be happy to see Frank back at his post.

Also, it’s worth noting that the era that ignored Frank Jackson was also the era that introduced Franklin Stern as the publisher of the Daily Planet. I’m not going to pretend I know why, but it seems like the name “Franklin” was very popular for token black characters. I’d guess it’s a name that they thought sounded black, but not so black as to scare anybody. You had Franklin from Peanuts, and Roosevelt Franklin from Sesame Street, and the latter led to Franklin Delano Bluth. Anyway, Superman has outdone them all by having two Black Franklins. Take that, everybody else.

Black Women of the Daily Planet

Hey, here’s another one of the classic characters who have appeared in various Superman comics over the years:

Oh wait, my mistake. As those names suggest, this is four different characters. Remember how I talked a bit about the attempts to make the Daily Planet cast more diverse back when I discussed Ron Troupe? Well that’s not the end of it by any means. There has been, since the 70s at least, frequent attempts to add a black woman to the cast of reporters appearing in the Superman franchise. I consider this a good thing. I don’t think, however, they’ve gone about it quite right so far.

Melba Manton, on the left, was the first. When she came into play they pushed her as a real potential addition to the cast. She not only got an active role in Superman and Lois Lane stories, she even got to headline the occasional story of her own. The next two can not make that claim. Fran Johnson and Jackee Winters, appearing in the 90s and the 2010s respectively. They were not characters. They were set dressing. The only thing of note which Johnson ever did was appear as a bridesmaid in the wedding of Lois and Clark. Winters doesn’t even have that. It actually took years for me to find one instance of Jackee’s name being spoken so that I could find out who the woman always standing around Planet briefings was.

Finally, in spite of my including her here, Robinson Goode, the currently-appearing Black-Woman-of-the-Daily-Planet is actually an active participant in the story, but it’s helpful to show the contrast. I won’t get into specifics, for spoiler reasons, but she seems to actually have a purpose beyond being furniture in the Planet offices. That’s nice. Interestingly, Goode is also the first of them to not be introduced as a friend or ally of Lois. She’s come into the Planet at a time when Lois isn’t even working there. That is probably to her benefit, but we’ll see how things play out in the long run.

These four are not the only examples by any means. On the animated series of the 90s there was a television reporter called Angela Chen (half black, half Asian) who was used more than the bad examples, but still never got to really shine. I’m confident there’s also another example in the comics of the early 2000s but I can’t be bothered to research it right now, as I think I’ve enough evidence for this post’s scope.

So what’s the problem with having more than one black woman working at the Daily Planet? Well, obviously that wouldn’t be a problem, but each of these women come in as a new addition in spite of the others, not alongside them. Even Goode, who has only been around for a couple months, seems to have completely erased Winters from the timeline. The problem as I see it, is that every new writer who comes onto the book and wants to add a black woman to the cast, does so as if they’re the first to do it. Whether they lack knowledge of the earlier women, or they just want to put their own stamp on things, the result of this is that none of these characters have ever made it to the big leagues.

There are “iconic” supporting cast members in the Superman franchise. Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White are this for the franchise. The secondary tier of supporting cast members (among the reporters, I mean) include Ron Troupe, Steve Lombard, and Cat Grant. If, say, the writers from the 1990s to the 2010s had foregone their desire to create a new character and used, say, Melba Mantan, she would now be alongside that secondary tier. Instead what we have is a handful of characters who have made no real impact. It could be better.

What would I, the guy obsessed with perfecting the franchise, do with all this? Well, the only way to actually get one to stick is to use them prominently for a while as much as possible. Someone, an editor or something, really needs to pick one and commit finally. Just don’t abandon them when the next one comes along.

Bibbo Is The Boss

Today’s topic is Bibbo Bibbowski. Bibbo is usually depicted as one of Superman’s biggest fans. When Bibbo first became a fan of Superman, he did so because Superman was the strongest. That was what Bibbo valued: strength. Thus, things weren’t always great for Bibbo when stronger villains came along to beat up Superman.

But, like Jimmy Olsen, Bibbo’s arc is one of being improved by learning from Superman. Over time Bibbo came to realize that it isn’t Superman’s strength that makes him great. It’s what he does with it. We live in a society where, unfortunately, people with power don’t often enough use that power for the benefit of others. Superman needs to show why that’s the wrong way to use one’s powers, whatever they happen to be. And Bibbo can be a great example of that in the stories.

In the original comics where he appeared, Bibbo was very poor until he won the lottery and went on to buy a bar down by the docks. This gave some of the characters a place to hang out apart from the Daily Planet, which is great. In other media he has occasionally be depicted as owning the bar without starting off poor, but I like the idea that he has suffered and come through. I also like that he is nearly always depicted as a “low-class” sort. He’s been a punch-drunk alcoholic boxer, a dumb dock-worker, and an lowlife informant for Lois Lane. I like that he can be all these things and still be, ultimately, a good guy. It’s a good message to send that you don’t have to be a hoity-toity type to be a friend of Superman.

What To Do With Lana Lang?

Lana Lang was basically a derivative of Lois Lane. I mean, when they decided they wanted to tell stories about Superman in his youth, they introduced another love interest to complicate his life, who had the same initials. Lana did eventually come to be her own character though, and became one of Clark’s closest childhood friends, alongside Pete Ross. That makes her a handy character to have when flashing back to his upbringing or whatever, but what can we do with Lana in the modern day?

I consider it telling that there is no iconic version of Lana Lang’s adult life. In the Pre-Crisis comics she became a television reporter and worked with Lois and Clark. Post-Crisis she married Pete Ross. In the movies, she stayed back in Smallville until Clark brought her to Metropolis. On the 90s cartoon she got into the fashion industry. On the show Smallville, she got powers and left town or something. In more recent comics, she actually became the hero Superwoman. Basically, there is no consensus on how to use Lana after Clark is grown and Lois comes into the picture.

Well, I’m on board with her becoming a superhero. Lana, like most of the cast, spent a large portion of the Silver Age gaining temporary super powers, but unlike the rest of the cast, she doesn’t have a defined role elsewhere in the mythos, so there’s no shame in latching onto that. If I’m saying that Jimmy is a representative in the story of someone being inspired by Superman to help the world, Lana is that in the past tense. She’s been inspired and, through whichever contrived means, has also gained superhuman powers. Time to get to work.

In the hypothetical run I’m creating, in which the rest of the DC Universe doesn’t exist, we’re going to want other heroes around to help out during the big events. Lana can be that.

It’s worth noting that, in her recent book, she was in a romantic relationship with Steel. I don’t have enough interest in that relationship to care yet if it stays or it goes, but at the very least it would help keep Steel around.

The Black Men of the Daily Planet

Last week I covered Ron Troupe, who has a bit of a reputation for being “the black guy” of the Daily Planet. And certainly if a named black man is going to show up in a scene at the Planet these days, it’s probably gonna be Ron. But he’s not the first nor the only. (This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, it’s just me rambling on a topic, same as always.)

The earliest attempt to add a black man to the cast of the Daily Planet that I know of happened in the 70s with a man named Dave Stevens. He had about a dozen appearances in those days, but was forgotten. I do actually think the character should return, but I’d write him as a politician, not a reporter, and that’s something I’ll write about some other day when I’m more willing to give away actual plot ideas that I have.

More significant than another reporter is the owner of the paper. There have been many depicted owners of the Daily Planet, most either actively criminal or complete nonentities. To me, Franklin Stern is the most interesting of them. Like Ron, Stern came to be in the 90s, when the books were consciously working on their diversity. He has had less longevity than Ron, but he was played by James Earl Jones on the Lois and Clark show and that counts for something.

In the comics, Perry and Franklin were long-time friends (though that isn’t true on the show from which I’ve taken the image) but they disagreed on a lot of things, including sometimes, how the Daily Planet should be run. As I’ve said, I want the journalism to be a focus of the Superman books, and I also think it is a cliche when the Planet is bought out by a villain (Luthor, usually) just for cheap drama. I want my drama more nuanced. Stern is a good man, but he can still disagree with the main cast and provide obstacles for them. Let’s use that.

The attempts to add a black woman to the Daily Planet cast have had less long-term success and are, I think, potentially more interesting. I intend to cover that more fully some day, when I’ve got more research done.