Superman’s Lawyer, An Idea I Like

Hey everybody, meet Douglas Giddings, Superman’s lawyer.

I’m not going to pretend that Douglas Giddings is an important part of the Superman Mythos and that his not being in the supporting cast is hurting things and he must be brought back, but I think he’s a neat idea and I could probably get a quick Superman Thoughts thing out of him.

Giddings made only one appearance, in the pre-Crisis era when it felt like the books were trying to use up their spare ideas before the 80s reboot of Superman. A backup story in Action Comics #581 gives us a day in the life of Superman’s lawyer. Like Jimmy Olsen, Giddings has been given a special watch by Superman. While Jimmy’s watch allows the kid to get in touch with Superman, Giddings’s watch tells him when Superman is coming to meet about legal matters. They talk about things like television stations using the rights to Superman’s image, to advertisers trying to mooch off his reputation. Then crimes happen and Superman races away to save the day, with Giddings riding his motorcycle there to capture footage of the events. The story implies that Giddings has been working behind the scenes with Superman for a long time, even if we never heard about it and never will again.

I like the idea that, when Clark made the move from vigilante to respectable superhero, he lawyered up to keep everything above board. Maybe there’s some story in which Superman saved Giddings, who then volunteered to help the hero out. We’ll never know, but I think there’s some ground that could be covered there, if someone ever wanted to.

(Fact: Nobody but me wants to.)

Lois Lane and Perry White are Alright

If there are any two members of Superman’s supporting cast who I don’t think need a lot of thinking to make them work, it’s Lois Lane and Perry White. I think that, though they are underused by the comics, at least the place they occupy is the place where they ought to be. Lois Lane is an intrepid reporter who cares more about truth and justice than her own safety. Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet newspaper is a stubborn crusader for justice who seethes with anger towards injustice. These two are the reason that Clark Kent, who could easily have a job basically anywhere he wants, wants to work for the Daily Planet.

A common take these days is that Perry is more of a father figure to Lois than her own father. I consider this the correct take. I’ll get more into General Sam Lane and the rest of the Lane family in some future post, but Perry definitely sees a lot of himself in Lois Lane and nurtures her career for that reason. I have not read a lot of YA fiction just yet, so I can’t be sure how they stack up to the usual fare, but I will unequivocally recommend the Lois Lane novels by Gwenda Bond as a great look into the dynamics of Lois’s relationship with her father versus that with Perry. I think they should be required reading for people writing those characters.

Now, Perry definitely wants his paper to be doing the right thing, to go after the bad guys and make the world better, but he also has to worry about sales and advertisers and whatnot (I think it’s best for his character if this pressure is forced upon him by higher-ups like Franklin Stern or Morgan Edge, characters I will cover in the future). He’s an idealist, but is upset by the realities of his job.

Then Superman and Clark Kent come along. Clark gives Perry a second Lois, basically. Yet another reporter doing the kind of work that Perry wants to do. Superman gives Perry something even better: sales. When Superman gives exclusive interviews to the Planet staff, I read that as his way of helping out the paper that puts so much focus on investigative reporting in Metropolis. If an audience wants to read about Superman, Superman is going to direct that audience to the paper that most deserves it.

And Lois Lane is absolutely the only acceptable romantic interest for Clark. Anyone who prefers Wonder Woman or some other even dumber choice just needs to give up.

Superman Cast: The Lee Family

Buckle in, because this is a long one. I am about to introduce a long-running group of supporting characters from the Superman franchise that are so obscure that even the people who wrote their appearances probably don’t realize that they are long-running supporting characters from the Superman franchise.

The Lee Family first appeared on the Superman radio show in the 40s. Specifically, they are the focus of the Clan of the Fiery Cross story. Here we met Tommy Lee, a friend of Jimmy Olsen who was recently promoted to pitcher on their baseball team because he was better than the guy they had before him. Tommy’s father, Dr. Wan Lee, was similarly recently made Metropolis’s head bacteriologist. In both cases, there are people who don’t like that Chinese immigrants were chosen over “real American” white men for those roles. And so, the racist secret society called the Clan of the Fiery Cross target the family, tries to scare them away or even kill them. It’s a decent Superman story that I have avowed for years ought to be retold. Admittedly, the Lees didn’t do much in the story, reacting more to things happening to them than acting of their own accord, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are characters who had an important role in a classic Superman story. That alone might not have caught my interest, if that had been all we had to go on.

The comics are still seen as the “real” version of Superman by most people, which is strange given that so much that is considered important to the mythos came from the radio show or the cartoons or the movies. But still, for me to claim the Lees were important to the franchise, they’d need to have shown up in the comics. Luckily, it happened. Granted, it wasn’t for nearly four decades. In the pre-Crisis 80s, DC did some stories called “the In-Between Years” which filled in a gap in Clark’s history, between his time growing up in Smallville and his time working at the Daily Planet. Mostly, these stories were about Clark’s time in university. It turns out that Clark’s roommate at Metropolis University was one Tommy Lee.

In this iteration Tommy is Clark’s friend rather than Jimmy’s, but otherwise he is very similar to the Tommy of the 40s. He is Chinese, the son of immigrants, lives in Metropolis, and likes baseball. His father is named John Lee here, but that is an easy Anglicization of “Wan Lee” and John Lee is still a doctor, albeit helping out abroad in war-torn Vietnam (his wife Susie along with him) rather than living in Metropolis. There is enough similarity here that if the writers didn’t do it intentionally, I am forced to think some magical cosmic force was trying to make the characters reappear. Tommy gets a bit more to do as Clark’s roommate, and Dr. Lee’s bravery in standing up to the racists Clan is amplified when he goes to war zones to help people.

Still, the 80s appearances of Tom total nine issues (his parents only in two of those) and the radio story lasted eighteen episodes. In a franchise that has run for fifty years at that point, that doesn’t amount to much, does it? Do I have anything else that proves this family is important to Superman? Of course I do.

For one, there’s an episode of Smallville with a character named Tommy Lee. Granted, this Tommy is a bad guy, white, and has super powers. But I can still cite him as proof that the name keeps cropping up in the franchise. And really, characters have been changed more than that when adapted across media.

But there’s one more piece that really solidified it for me. In the Clan storyline, there is mention of another member of the Lee family, a sister to Tommy, who is never named. I latched onto that and it paid off. In the 90s comics, there was a rookie cop who joined Maggie Sawyer’s Special Crimes Unit (that’s the special police task force that Metropolis had to form to deal with supervillains and such). This Lee, an Asian woman, appeared in only three issues that I know of and was never given a personality or history beyond being nervous about living up to her new job. She never even got a first name. She’d be utterly forgotten by anyone who isn’t me. But it turns out I am me, so I’m gonna make the claim that this young police officer is the post-Crisis incarnation of Dr. and Mrs. Lee’s daughter, sister of Tommy. Incidentally, I am in favour of calling her Betty, which is the most tenuous connection I will make here today: in Superman #108, way back in the 50s, there was a story in which Clark had to defend his secret identity from the smartest “Girl Cops” in Metropolis (being a woman police officer was enough of a novelty to merit a story in those days, I guess). One of those Girl Cops was named Betty, and while she was not coloured with the yellow palate that would usually have denoted an Asian woman in comics in those days (I mean, good, right?) she did have black hair and was not given a last name. Tying Betty and Lee into Betty Lee is just one more stitch to strengthen the tapestry I weave here today.

“Okay,” my non-existant reader asks, “but what does it matter? Even if they existed, what good would it be to bring these characters back?” Well, I’ve made it clear that I think rich supporting casts are something that all superhero comics need, and the Lees have plenty to offer the Super-franchise:

First and foremost: Diversity. There’s an annoyingly large (or at least vocal) subset of fandom that complain about “shoehorning” diversity into comics these days. I don’t agree with their complaints in the least, I say shoehorn away, but right here we have four whole characters who they can’t claim were made up out of nowhere just to be “PC” or whatever, because these characters have existed longer than those complainers have been alive. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that a family made up of immigrants and children of immigrants fits right into the franchise’s themes about that stuff, which begin with Clark himself.

And the characters have individual roles that can make them useful in stories as well:

Betty Lee is the easiest. As a police officer, she can show up any time the police do. This actually gives her the opportunity to show up in action scenes, which some writers feel is the only important thing for characters in superhero comics to do. But it gives her chances to interact with villains and heroes alike.

John and Susie Lee would likely be prominent figures among Metropolis’s high society. I could see them as the types who show up at ritzy galas thrown by Lex Luthor, or get targetted by criminals looking to rob someone rich. John’s medical career means Superman could consult him the next time some alien virus is causing problems, and Susie, as a blank slate, could be used in any way the writer sees fit.

Tom offers a more direct connection to the main cast. I think he’d be a good choice to give a friend to Clark, Lois, and Jimmy who doesn’t work at the Daily Planet. The Superman cast can get a little bit claustrophobic in that newspaper, so it would humanize the cast a bit if they had one guy who offered a different perspective. (Also, I bet Tom likes the Planet’s macho idiot sports writer Steve Lombard and fun could be had with that.) And, I wouldn’t do it, but if some hack writer wanted to take inspiration from Smallville, they could have him become a supervillain too.

Okay, I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. These characters deserve to be brought back on purpose for once. Meanwhile, just rest assured that as I continue to consume Superman-related media, I’ll be on the lookout for any more appearances of the Lees that nobody else has noticed.

Superman Cast: Jimmy Olsen Transforms

One of the things I intend to do with these Superman Thoughts is to talk at length about the supporting cast of the franchise. As I complained last time, the supporting cast is often the first thing writers cut out to fit in DC Universe Guest Stars and stuff that I don’t care about. So, if we are going to make the franchise the way I think it should be, getting the supporting cast working correctly is basically my top priority.

I’m going to get pretty darn obscure with these later, but not today. Today I am going to talk about possibly the least obscure member of the cast with the obvious exception of Lois Lane. Today I need to talk about Superman’s pal, James Bartholomew Olsen.

Jimmy Olsen’s deal is thus: He is a younger coworker of Lois and Clark at the Daily Planet newspaper, and frequently gets caught up in the various adventures and weirdness and Supermanning that happens there. It is hard to believe in today’s comics industry, but this character starred in a series that ran for over a hundred issues. There was a time when Jimmy was considered to potentially star in a television series, and that would have been before even Batman got one. Once upon a time, Jimmy Olsen used to be a big deal. Not lately, though.

As far as I can tell, nobody likes poor Jimmy anymore. Even among Superman fans I see on the Internet, Jimmy is mocked as a loser. And, sure enough, he is kind of a putz most of the time. But then, when he isn’t, such as on the currently-running Supergirl, where he is a successful photojournalist (and handsome as heck), a vocal number of people on the Internet saw it as being wrong for the character*. But, as with all things, I think it’s more complicated than people give it credit for. Neither putz nor pro is completely right or wrong for Jimmy.

When I read through the entire run of Jimmy Olsen’s comic, I particularly enjoyed the way he changed over the course of the series. In the beginning he’s a kid, kind of a sweet kid, but kind of an idiot. Superman always has to get him out of trouble and teach him lessons in bizarre ways. By the end, Jimmy is a legitimate photojournalist and bonafide action hero in his own right. If we think Superman should be about inspiring people to become better and step up to be good people, Jimmy was, in that era, an in-text example of that happening.

I contrasted that with a more modern retelling of Superman’s arrival in Metropolis, I think it was Superman: Secret Origin but it could have been Birthright, in which Jimmy was practically an action hero even before meeting Superman, and read the writer’s thoughts that they wanted to show why people like Jimmy (and Lois) were people Superman could be friends with. I can see that argument for Lois, but I feel like it takes away Jimmy’s most useful role in the franchise. Anyway, Superman can be friends with a chump like Jimmy. He’s Superman, after all. And Jimmy takes that friendship as a motivation toward self-improvement.

The problem is, I think, that no status quo in comics will ever again last long enough for that amount of growth to happen naturally. In my dream world, we would have a long-form telling of the Superman story that follows the cast for decades of their lives without interruption, but the odds of that happening aren’t great. So, if we’re only ever going to get glimpses of Jimmy in the process of his journey from chump to champ, I think the writers need to be more conscious of that fact. If you’re telling a tale set early in Superman’s career, let Jimmy be simultaneously a lovable doofus and an unlovable jerk. If your Jimmy has known Superman for longer, let him be on his way to being an actual hero, but not quite there. If you’re writing Jimmy who has been through it all and is now a true hero, you should emphasize how far he’s come, and how much work it was.

If I were writing a Jimmy in the middle of his transformation, I think I’d treat him like a Spider-Man type hero (minus the powers and costume, of course). He’s the kind of hero who can and frequently does make mistakes, but maybe we’ll believe he can learn from them, preferably being amusing on the way.

Anyway, I swear these were supposed to get shorter as I went. I had better sum up:

Jimmy Olsen, as a character, is about the way he is transformed by being friends with Superman.

And I didn’t even really get into why that concept is so appropriate for him.

*And let’s be truthful, they were also complaining that he’s black on the show, but that’s not actually a valid concern to me, so I’m not gonna bother with it.

Superman Doesn’t Need DC Heroes

Superman and Batman gotta stop hanging out. I expect, if I were in charge of the Superman books, this would be my single most controversial decree. And that’s saying something, considering that given the opportunity, I’d write Superman as bisexual*, but I still think this would be more hated. Entire generations of fans would be against me on this. I wholly believe that Superman would be better if his stories weren’t a part of the DC Universe.

It’s not just the fact that I don’t care about the DC Universe that makes me feel that way. I mean, it is absolutely true that I don’t care about the DC Universe. I’m not going to offend you all by pretending otherwise, but it isn’t just that. In fact, I think I actually first came to this conclusion from the other direction, because I like Batman. I don’t love him, but I like him fine. He’s got fun villains, Gotham is a decent setting for those kinds of stories, and I enjoyed 60s show and 90s cartoon as a kid. But whenever I encountered stories about Batman among the other DC heroes, it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t what I wanted from Batman stories. I pretty quickly decided I’d like Batman more if his franchise was a standalone thing.

It took me longer to decide that about Superman, but only because my interest in Superman took longer to grow. My primary introductions to Superman as a kid were the Reeve movies and the Lois and Clark show. Neither of those had other DC properties forced in. Let’s say that at that point in my development, I was a casual Superman fan, mostly because I liked goody-two-shoes heroes in general. In my twenties I remember checking out the first season of Smallville, but dropped out not long after that, so I encountered no real big DC elements (it wouldn’t be until I was obsessed that I suffered through the rest of that show). Also in my early twenties, I was drawn to the Silver Age of Superman, when the comics got really weird. That appealed to me and, I’d say, brought me from casual fan to actual fan. There were minor elements from DC, Superman would occasionally hang out with Batman or race against the Flash, but there was so much Superman-specific world building that the DC stuff was easily overlooked. From there, I slipped backward into the Golden Age of the character, when his social crusader nature was at its sharpest and his DC connections were absolutely minimal. That’s the point when I became an obsessed fan of the franchise. I had grown to love Superman, the supporting cast, and even the villains. I made my journey from casual to obsessed all without any real influence from the DC Universe showing in the stories. I don’t know that a fan could do that these days, given that there is no outlet for Superman family characters (or for Batman or, I assume, Wonder Woman or the Flash or whatever else) which is not strongly integrated into a universe of other heroes. Anyone who has become a fan more recently will think that a Superman/Batman relationship is a requirement.

After becoming obsessed, I finally got around to reading the Death and Return story from the 90s. Here I was introduced to still more great cast members and I loved it. But then the DC heroes came along. The collection I was reading included some Green Lantern issues, relevant to the overall plot, but with a focus on Lantern and his stories. I actively did not care about Green Lantern’s stories and had to slog through wishing we could get back to the people I actually wanted to read about. And that’s the exact problem I still have to this day. Any time I’m reading a Superman story and Batman or someone shows up, all I can think about is how many pages I have to flip through that could have been used for Lois or Jimmy. Imagine if every time someone was watching Game of Thrones (or whatever else is popular and people watch these days), they had to sit through fifteen minutes of each episode watching the cast of CSI: Miami or whatever. It’d be amusing once or twice, but every episode? Nobody wants that.

But even beyond DC’s other characters eating up precious page-space, the DC Universe is constantly exerting itself on the stories. For those who are lucky enough to not know, DC has had, for decades, a problem with wanting to maintain a continuity of all the stories that have ever come before, but also want to reboot and change things to constantly keep them fresh. They frequently come up with vast cosmic plotlines to explain why things have changed. So, instead of getting stories about Superman Supermanning, we get endless plots that do nothing but explain the latest status quo that last almost until the next big event changes things again. It’s like if Game of Thrones dropped all their plots for a season to explain how CSI: Miami characters came to be in their world, then the next season did a story arc about why the CSI: Miami characters weren’t around anymore. And so on. I might be rambling.

Unfortunately, Superman’s stories these days have no room for even the basic cast of Lois, Jimmy, and Perry, let alone the rich beyond them (whom I hope to cover in future weeks). The only way I can see to improve this is to cut out the characters who already have their own books and, presumably, their own overlooked supporting casts.

*This would, unfortunately, not be so radical as it sounds because I have no interest in any romantic relationship for Superman except that with Lois Lane. It’d be an informed attribute at best. But that’s a topic for another day.