The Quarter Box – Superman Family #178

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Today’s comic: Superman Family #178

Story: “The Girl with the Heart of Steel”

Publisher: DC Comics

Price paid: twenty-five cents

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Synopsis: Intrepid reporter Lois Lane pays a visit S.T.A.R. labs to interview Professor Mathers about breakthroughs in the field of bionics. The Professor introduces Bimmo, the six-million dollar monkey.

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Lois, intrigued by what she’s seen, volunteers to be the first human subject. Her rationale is that it would be a “sensational angle” for her next story. Heedless of the risks involved, Lois is determined to get what she wants.

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A week passes. When we next see Lois, she and Daily Planet editor Perry White are on their way to Smallville to investigate reports of mysterious UFOs. Lois brings up her desire to follow up on the bionics story, but Perry doesn’t want to hear about it. He’s not about to have his star reporter take such a chance just for a headline.

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The car veers out of control and crashes as a result of the mysterious machine. Using heretofore-unseen super-human abilities Lois gives chase, but the machine escapes. Perry confronts her about her new powers and Lois makes a shocking confession:

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Lois confides to Perry that Superman won’t commit to being in a relationship with her because she’d become a target for his enemies. Her new bionic abilities put her on equal footing with her Kryptonian crush, and she plans on revealing them to him as soon as she and Perry have solved the mystery of the Smallville UFOs. These plans go awry when Superman sees Lois use her powers to protect a politician from assassination.

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Superman confronts Lois, who explains her transformation. Surprisingly, Superman is fine with it, but Lois’ happiness is quickly curtailed by some unexpected changes. She rushes back to S.T.A.R. labs to reveal:

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The S.T.A.R. lab scientists clue Lois in to what’s happening.

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The scientists offer Lois sanctuary, but she refuses. In spite of her now-freakish appearance, she’s determined to get to the bottom of the UFO mystery and returns to Smallville to resume the investigation. However, in spite of being “Superboy’s hometown” the residents proves more than a little xenophobic:

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“Yeah, let’s get it!”

Using a S.T.A.R. Labs homing device, our increasingly-robotic heroine tracks the UFO activity to a distant forest on the outskirts of town. Smashing a sentry with a tree, she enters the mother-ship only to find it entirely automated. It turns out the UFO is also a robot that’s come to Earth to analyze Superboy’s amazing powers. Unfortunately, the trip took years and by the time it arrived in Smallville, Superboy had grown up and moved to Metropolis. The robot, now purposeless, makes Lois an offer:

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Unsurprisingly, Lois goes back to being a normal human. There’s no telling how far her transformation will actually go and, let’s face it, the wedding is off either way.

Reflections: For years, DC comics wanted to have it’s cake and eat it, too. Unwilling to actually pull the trigger on the decades-in-the-making Superman/Lois Lane wedding, the company told a series of “imaginary” stories that envisioned the couple’s nuptials and growing Super-family. The stories were popular at first, but fell out of style as time wore on. What’s really striking about this issue is, it’s not an imaginary story — though the process was undone by the end of the comic, it still actually happened, and was part of Superman’s continuity up until Crisis on Infinite Earths.

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During the Nineteen Seventies, characters like Batman were returned to their dark roots and Green Lantern and Green Arrow were transformed into social crusaders, but the Superman family remained firmly entrenched in the Silver Age. It’s part of what put me off of DC as a young comics reader. DC’s willingness to spend an entire issue telling a goofy story with zero consequences seemed old-fashioned and trite compared to the seriousness and sophistication found in a Marvel comic. Over in Amazing Spider-Man, Gwen Stacey was being thrown off a bridge. But here:

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Is it me, or does Lois have a Bettie Page thing goin’ on? Hubba-hubba!

Rereading a lot of these bronze-age books, I’m struck by the willingness of Superman to allow S.T.A.R. labs to remain in operation. How often are these clowns responsible for the very messes Superman has to clean up? I mean, Bimmo? Who thought making a monkey bionic was a good idea and how long was it until Superman was called in to deal with it’s inevitable rampage?

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On the guest star front, Perry White is an odd choice, but I guess being a top reporter doesn’t allow Lois time to make many friends. Perry does his best Edward G. Robinson while being crotchety and fellating his cigar, providing the desperately out-of-control Lois with a badly-needed father figure…. for all the good it does.

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Creepy. The bit about Lois revealing her transformation to Superman is a subtextual riot:

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“If part of me becomes damaged, it can be replaced with a bionic component!” HINT, HINT! In return, Superman embraces Lois with all the raw passion of a Carpenters song.

Long-time comics artist Kurt Schaffenberger provides the art for this issue, which adds to it’s throwback feel. In spite of outfitting Lois in popular fashions of time, the comic still looks like something from the early Sixties. From the cars to the UFO, everything has a dated quality. It’s not bad, by any stretch: Schaffenberger draws a good-lookin’ woman and his rendition of Robo-Lois is downright terrifying, but I have to wonder: with all of the other physical modifications that have occurred as a result of Lois’ robotic condition, why does she still have breasts?

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As a result of the popularity of The Six Million Dollar Man, bionics were the happening thing in 1976. I guess we can’t blame DC for wanting a piece of the action: after all, they’d pioneered the concept with characters like Robotman. We never really learn the full extent of Lois’ transformation. The whole thing was done in “just four days,” which is pretty impressive — it took me a week just to get new eyeglasses!

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Apparently the process involved adding circuits to Lois’ brain — not bionic per se, but enough of a jumping-off point to tell the story. It’s more than bit silly, but it’s certainly entertaining enough for a quarter! Personally, I would love to see Robo-Lois return to comics — in this kooky post New 52 world of ours, surely there’s room for a plucky bionic girl reporter. Someone get Grant Morrison on the phone…

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