I’ve badly wanted to cover a story in which Lois Lane got more focus than she has in the previous things I’ve covered. But I’ve also been trying to go through the franchise mostly chronologically and, to put it kindly, the 60s were not the best time for Lois in comics. This is a shame because she actually headlined her own title in those days. But I’ve scoured the era for a tale that could be classified as Superman vs. Bigots and the best option I’ve found in Lois’s book is actually not a very good comic. But here we go anyway:
“Witch On Wheels”
Issue: Lois Lane #83, May, 1968
A motorcycle gang called “the Maniacs” has been terrorizing the streets of Metropolis and reporter Lois Lane is writing a series of articles she’s calling “Youth on Wheels” with the intent to get the inside scoop. But now she’s reached the limits of what “quizzing officials and social workers” can tell her, so she’s on the lookout for a way to get closer to the Maniacs.
That turns out to be easier than expected, because the articles have angered the Maniacs, ultimately leading to the gang’s leader driving his motorcycle directly into the Daily Planet offices.
Kaiser Bill (“Kais” for short, instead of Bill for some reason), who wears a Pickelhaube and an Iron Cross and chomps a cigar at all times, makes a scene at the Planet until Clark (Superman) Kent stands up to him. But when Kais resorts to violence, Clark doesn’t want to risk revealing his secret identity, so he takes a dive. Lois sees an opportunity to get her scoop, so she decides to act enamoured of Kais. Before long Lois has purchased a motorcycle and gear of her own, and drives out to the “Skull and Wheel” club in a junkyard outside town.
To prove her skills to the Maniacs, Kais has Lois help them on a mission. They get Lois to distract a security guard (it’s a convoluted process involving her using a flagpole as a lance to send a statue of planet Venus rolling away so the guard has to chase it because this is Silver Age superhero comics), allowing the gang to raise their own flag in the hand of a Superman statue. When Clark hears what the gang has done, he worries that Lois may actually be falling for Kaiser Bill. To check on her, he creates his own motorcycling identity as King Cross.
What follows is King and Kais vying for leadership of the Maniacs by performing various stunts. Kais tries to cheat, but Superman perseveres, though his motorcycle is destroyed in the process. Lois interviews King, with Superman creating a backstory about rising up from poverty to become an ace motorcyclist. This all greatly impresses the other Maniacs.
Kais points out that King has no bike anymore, so he can’t take over the Maniacs. Clark, still unhappy about Lois’s possible infatuation with the biker, wants to drive a wedge between them. He bets that Kais can’t beat Lois in a race along a roller coaster track. The two race, while Superman secretly ensures Lois’s safety. When Lois has won, she and the gang lament that King has vanished, though they all know they’ll remember what he taught them, even Kaiser Bill.
(Wait, Kais, when did he teach that?)
SUPERMAN VS BIGOTS?
If you were paying attention to that summary, you may have noticed a distinct lack of any bigotry. But here’s the thing: while Kaiser Bill’s aesthetic may be World War I-focused, several of the other members of the Maniacs are dressed as Nazis, complete with swastikas. The “Skull and Wheel” flag they brandish is essentially the Nazi Germany flag with their own symbol in place of the Swastika. (And, of course, the gang has no non-white members but, typical for this era, no non-white characters show up in the comic at all.) We may never see these kids doing any overt acts of racism, but what we know is that they ride around town wearing racist costumes because they know it’ll get a reaction of fear from people. And we see them deface a monument with what is essentially a Nazi flag.
If this gang is made up of “youths” in a story set in 1968, they would not likely have lived through the Second World War. With that, we could try to be generous and say they don’t really understand what they’re doing, but they would have grown up with the generation most affected by that war, so even that generosity feels wrong.
As far as I’m concerned, being an idiot who uses racist imagery like this, either because it makes you feel a sense or power or because you find it fun to provoke people, is so similar to doing actual racism that the difference is negligible.
With that in mind, it’s a real shame that the story never comes out and condemns the actions of the gang.
I also wanted to pull something out of the story about its recurring themes about “manliness”:
- In the beginning Clark is unhappy because his timid personality as Clark can’t win Lois’s affection. He’s at the point where he is scanning the obituaries in case anyone who died had an identity he could steal to be more impressive to her. That actually occurs in this comic. Superman just seeing if he can identity theft any fresh corpses. (Wait, you don’t suppose a real motorcyclist named King Cross died recently…?)
- And to be clear, when Lois sees Clark standing up to Kaiser Bill, she is very impressed. “Is it possible? Clark sounds like a real man!” At no point does she buy into Kais’s macho posturing, but we still see that Lois actually does like a manly man. This has been a part of Lois’s character since the beginning, but this story deals with the theme in a way that makes it significant to note.
- Clark’s entire motivation in this issue is never about anything other than being jealous that Lois might actually be falling for Kaiser Bill. Once Lois is in the gang, she’s never in danger. It absolutely seems like she could have hung around with them for a couple days and written her story, but for the jealously of the male lead.
- Kaiser Bill is insulted because he doesn’t want to be thought of as a “youth”, he wants to be seen as a man. And he’s unwilling to turn down the challenge to race Lois because he doesn’t want anyone thinking he’s scared of losing to a “chick”.
- For that matter, the fact that leadership of the Maniacs is decided by challenges and macho stunts is pretty ridiculous.
But all these threads that go through the story are never woven into anything worthwhile. The stated moral to the story is that you “can never be real great just by actin’ big” but the lesson is badly told. It’s not saying “You don’t need to act so tough” it’s saying “You’re not so tough, Superman is, so shut up.” It’s not a healthy mindset we’re seeing here.
- Kaiser Bill sure doesn’t look like a “youth” but the story says he is, so who am I to fight it?
- Incidentally, Kais correctly guesses that his rival is none other than Superman in disguise, but never gets it confirmed.
- Lois’s stunt riding in the climax are aided by Superman, so the only actual moment she gets to shine in this issue is when she helps the Maniacs on the flag raising mission. Not a good showing for the book’s star (and yet probably not the worst showing she’s had in her own comic). At least she gets to look cool riding a motorcycle and all that.
- Before the confrontation at the Planet offices, the Maniacs drive Lois’s car off the mountain road and Superman has to save her from plummeting to her death, he chides her. “Some day you’ll count on me when I’m not on patrol, Lois… and you may not live to regret it!” Which is a pretty mean thing to say. This isn’t one of those cases where Lois’s pursuit of a story got her into trouble. She was just driving to work and got attacked. This issue is also not a good showing for Clark.
- Apart from Lois, not a single woman appears in the story. Not even in the background somewhere.
- At no point is Lois made aware that King Cross is actually Superman. There’s a 100% chance that the lies he made up for his backstory will be retold in Lois’s article about the gang.
- This is not a good issue by any means and paired with a later bad issue (Lois Lane #119) I am convinced that Lois just should not have stories with motorcycle gangs. It doesn’t work.