Ever since I finished covering the era of the Adventures of Superman radio show, I’ve felt like I was just treading water until I reach the Bronze Age of comics, and especially this story. If anything I cover in this series has been explored on the Internet more often than this one, I’d be surprised. I don’t know if I’ll have anything meaningful to add to the discussion of this issue, but here we are anyway. It’s the one where Lois Lane turns Black:
“I Am Curious (Black)”
Issue: Lois Lane #106, November, 1970
The story begins with Lois in prime jerk mode. She happily declares that she has the “assignment of [her] life” as she does with almost every story she gets. But this time she’s been tasked with getting the “inside story” of life in Little Africa, a section of Metropolis with a predominantly Black population. Before even writing a word or doing a second of research, she’s bragging to Clark, “I should get the Pulitzer Prize for telling it like it is! The nitty-gritty no newspaper ever printed before!”
Lois jauntily hops into a cab, driven by an amiable friend of hers named Benny the Beret. Benny brings her to Little Africa and Lois begins her research by just walking up to people and trying to ask questions. She’s met with suspicious looks, doors shut in her face, and people walking away without saying a word. The only person to respond positively is a blind woman who immediately leaves once she realizes who Lois is. Lois wanders for some time, looking for anyone who will talk to her, until she happens across a street corner where activist Dave Stevens is giving a speech. He notices her as well.
Lois spends hours being rejected in Little Africa until Superman stops by to see how she’s doing. Lois has an idea: she makes Superman take her to the Fortress of Solitude, where she has seen his plastimold and transformoflux pack, which make up a device that can alter a person’s physical form for about a day. Lois has Superman use the machine on her so that she takes on the appearance of a Black woman.
Back in Metropolis and dressed in “Afro Attire”, Lois tries to hail Benny’s cab, but he drives right past her to pick up a white man. On the subway, Lois feels the attention of white commuters watching her every move. She’s experiencing the “othering” that comes with being Black and wonders “Is this what happens every time these human beings ride in a subway? Or bus? Or enter an all-white school? From childhood up, they’re made aware that they are different!”
Reaching Little Africa, Lois helps prevent a fire, then bonds with a woman who lives in a slum. She is moved to tears by how the woman, who has so little, still offers to help Lois, a stranger to her.
Wandering the neighbourhood again, Lois runs into Dave Stevens, who feels like he recognizes her from somewhere. Their conversation is interrupted when Dave sees some kids whom he knows should be in school, and he has a suspicion that he knows where they’re going. Lois and Dave follow the kids and Dave’s worry is confirmed, the kids are buying drugs. Dave confronts the dealers…
Superman arrives only seconds too late to prevent Dave from being shot. He destroys the dealers’ guns and rushes the wounded man (and Lois) to the nearest hospital with superhuman speed. The doctor determines that Dave needs a transfusion of O negative blood, and because the hospital is not well funded, they don’t have that at hand.
Lois has O negative blood! So she does the transfusion.
While waiting for Dave to recover, Lois decides that this is the perfect opportunity to confront Superman about their love. She wonders what would happen if she couldn’t change back. Would he still love her? Could he marry her if she was Black?
Superman takes this opportunity to remind Lois that he has no intention of marrying her Black or not, because he’s still using his Silver Age excuse that she’d be in danger from his foes if they wanted to get at him through her.
Before Lois can continue this line of thought, her transformation wears off. And to complicate things, the nurse arrives just then to say that Dave has been asking for her. Lois worries that Dave will hate her now that she’s “whitey! His enemy!”
She goes to Dave’s room and indeed he is surprised when he sees her. But in a series of silent panels he puts it all together, smiles, and they shake hands.
SUPERMAN VS BIGOTS?
If it isn’t clear, the most important bigot in this story is Lois, and I do think on some level the story is aware of it. She makes no actual good-faith effort to understand the people of Little Africa. At the start of the story they’re just fodder for an article she’s already patting herself on the back for writing. And then she has absolutely no qualms about posing as a Black person to make it easier.
One of the primary inspirations for this story would be Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin‘s book about posing as a Black man travelling through the American South. Only while researching this did I learn about Soul Sister, a similar book by Grace Halsell released in 1969 which I would believe could be a more direct inspiration. Either way, when I went to Wikipedia for Griffin’s book, I was surprised to not see a lengthy “Controversy” section detailing a negative reaction to the whole concept. I suppose the difference is that Griffin wasn’t doing it as entertainment. And I guess that maybe some people just won’t believe racism exists until a white person tells them about it. Maybe in some ways it was necessary…
But it sure isn’t necessary in this story. The blackface in “I Am Curious (Black)” serves a couple purposes. It’s a “wacky sci-fi premise” designed to get attention , as many Supeman plots in this era were. It’s also a part of DC’s attempt to create more “relevant” comics in an attempt to compete with Marvel (more on that in an upcoming article in this series). But I do actually feel like there’s good intentions behind this story, an attempt to teach about the evils of racism.
In most eras, Lois Lane is depicted as a street-smart, even cynical, city woman who would be well aware of things like systemic racism. But this story is coming off the Silver Age of comics, and the Lois of the Silver Age was more of an innocent idiot, meant to be more easily understood by the children reading. By teaching Lois about racism, they’re teaching the kids.
And I genuinely feel like it’s good to make children aware of things like the way Black people are made to feel Other, and the disadvantages they have in life. I think it’s important that children are aware that people who seem nice (like Benny the Beret) can act badly because of their prejudices. I want children to know that we need to better fund hospitals in poorer regions.
But none of the lessons ever come from a Black person (including, unfortunately, the creators of the story). Instead of any true Black viewpoint, we only get Lois’s fake one. Lois makes friends with a woman in the slum, but we never get that woman’s viewpoint (or even her name). If Lois asked that woman to tell her about life in Little Africa for the article, the reader doesn’t get to hear it. Instead, we move along with Lois to her next experience having to win over a Black person.
And then the climax comes and Lois stops learning lessons. The actual worry we have at the end of this story is whether or not Dave will accept that he got help from a white person. In the end it isn’t Lois who needs to be taught to get over anything, it’s the people of Little Africa. That’s the ultimate flaw in this story* and it’s one that could have been avoided if any of the Black people in the story were actually depicted as people.
* You know, that and the blackface.
- Dave Stevens will return.
- The plastimold and transformoflux pack is a device from an earlier story (Lois #90). It was owned by a Kryptonian scientist named Darh-Nel, who fell in love with Lois. In that story Lois used it to go through some transformations including Darh-Nel’s ideal (a blonde), a musclebound “girl-athlete,” and an “almond-eyes model” that Lois refers to as a “Dragon Lady.” So this device doesn’t have a great track record.
- It has been pointed out to me in the past that the name “Little Africa” for the predominantly Black neighbourhood in Metropolis is less than ideal because it simplifies all of African culture to the continent. That one got by me, living as I do in Halifax, where the story of the community called Africville is very important to the city’s history.
- I do like that this story doesn’t include one of those “Superman never comes to this part of town” scenes. The Superman of the Golden Age absolutely tried to improve the slums and I like being allowed to assume the Silver Age version does as well, even if it isn’t shown to us in the stories.
- I own this story in two collections, Superman in the Seventies and Lois Lane: A Celebration of 75 Years. In both of those reprintings there is a slight variety of skin tones depicted among the population of Little Africa, in that there is more than one tone used. Looking at the scans I found on the Internet to populate this article, which I assume come from the original issue, it seems like it was present but less obvious on the original newsprint, but I do feel like I should give them some credit for trying to depict more than one tone.
- I can’t help but think that the inclusion of a Black man among the criminals bringing drugs into the community was done because if they’d all been white it might have made white people look bad. And we wouldn’t want that.
- One of the first things the Internet will note about this story is how strange it is that it’s title is a reference to a 1967 Swedish erotic drama. I have nothing to add to the discussion on this topic, but felt like I had to reference it for posterity.
- Lois Lane is a good character, people. I promise. It may not come across in this series of articles I’ve been doing, but trust me. I’m actually disappointed that Lois Lane: A Celebration of 75 Years jumps right from this 1970 story to something after the continuity reboot of the mid-80s, which is a shame because there’s some great stuff in the period they’ve skipped.