One of the dramatic advantages of the TV show Mad Men was its timing.
Aired almost 50 years after the events it portrayed, Mad Men dramatized an era that was still within living memory. But that era was also sufficiently remote in time for significant social change to have occurred since then. The result was a drama that felt both familiar and, at times, strikingly alien. The attitudes of the times were remembered as real, yet now recognized as shocking.
And old comic books can, accidentally, serve the same function.
For example, take the "imaginary" tale The Wife of Superman! in Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane 26 (July 1961).
In Jerry Siegel’s story, TV reporter Lana Lang accidentally discovers Superman’s secret identity, but tells him she will forego the scoop and keep his secret to protect his work against crime and injustice. Impressed by Lana’s compassion and maturity, Superman finally falls for her and proposes.
“Her lips … they’re THRILLING!” thinks Superman. “Great Scott! I love the girl! Despite all my mighty powers of mind and body … I … I never knew it till NOW!”
With Lois Lane as a heartbroken bridesmaid, Superman marries Lana and, as a wedding present, provides her with a test tube full of experimental serum. The treatment grants Lana super powers identical to his own. And because she’s a human being, not a Kryptonian, Lana will also remain immune to kryptonite.
Yet in the context of 1961 sexual politics, that happy outcome turns out to be tragic.
As Super-Lana repeatedly rescues her husband from kryptonite traps, his attitude shifts from gratitude to depression.
“His pride’s hurt, due to my invulnerability to kryptonite!” Super-Lana thinks. “Before HE was the world’s mightiest person … But now they’re saying I’m GREATER than he is, and that he NEEDS me desperately!”
After saving Superman from the effects of his own rampage when he’s rendered evil by red kryptonite, Super-Lana does what is obviously the only thing left for her to do, and packs her suitcase to leave Earth forever.
“My invulnerability to kryptonite has proven a CURSE! So – I’m going to give you back your self-respect by going out of your life forever!” she tells Superman. “I’ll live in another galaxy! If you love me … HELP me … By looking the other way with your telescopic vision, so you won’t see where I go! Don’t … follow! Goodbye … darling…”
Of course, Superman talks her out of this self-sacrificing but obviously bad decision, right?
Wrong. He agrees with her.
Turning away heartbroken, Superman thinks, “She’s … right! In time, our love for each other would’ve been destroyed by her pity for me! How can I be her hero when she’s mightier than I am? … (Choke!!)”
Neither Superman nor Lana seem to care or consider that more than the “destruction of their love” is at issue here — that robbing the Earth of another hero like Superman will result in the loss of thousands of lives in tragedies that could have been prevented.
I’m still touched by the soap operatic grandeur artist Kurt Schaffenberger invested in that last panel of a tearful Super-Lana flying off into space, thinking that she’ll “never, never stop loving him … (Sob!)”
Very noble, Lana. But the fact remains that you are exiling yourself from humanity forever merely in order to spare Superman’s fragile ego from having to confront the fact that a mere woman might be more powerful than he is.
Clark Kent and Don Draper turn out to have a lot in common.
Goes to show you how the unconscious attitudes of one generation can, soon enough, become the sick jokes of another.