Transmyscira: Party Like It’s 1999 With LOIS LANE

I want to go back to 1999.

– Charli XCX, 1999

In Russia, a journalist critical of the government has been found dead. Meanwhile in the United States another journalist — in the midst of a personal scandal — is expelled from the White House and loses her press pass for asking pointed questions about detention camps. Shockingly, this isn’t the A-block of Rachel Maddow’s weeknight MSNBC broadcast. It’s the debut issue of Greg Rucka and Mike Perkins’ twelve issue Lois Lane series.

It’s a comic that relies heavily on habits that Rucka has worn into grooves over his two decades in the industry, namely running jokes about a female protagonist being a high-functioning alcoholic and specific emphasis on professional spaces and institutions in the context of a world full of superheroes.

There can be great potential for novel storytelling by focusing on the practices and processes of a key real world profession or institution within a fictional space as surrealist and fantastical as the DCU. Rucka has certainly proved it by mining policing, the military, and espionage through his work on Gotham Central, Batwoman: Elegy, and Black Widow.

The institutional lens on super-hero comics has been a major feature of the landscape since landmark series like John Ostrander and Kim Yale’s Suicide Squad began seeking out a new kind of realism and verisimilitude for how state-sanctioned violence operates in a world with super-heroes, which in turn gave rise to geopolitical military fiction as significant subgenre of super-hero comics (most notably Chuck Dixon’s early Birds of Prey and the simultaneous fixation on paramilitary groups as a framework for superhero comics that evolved from the likes of X-Force into Youngblood and the entire constellation of competing death squads and espionage outfits that make up the Wildstorm universe).

Lois Lane #1 (2019) art by Mike Perkins

What made Rucka a unique innovator is that he brought a specificity of language and tradecraft to the emerging genre that gave it a feeling of heightened authenticity that contemporaries like Warren Ellis wouldn’t fully develop in their work until much later. In some cases, Rucka’s penchant for integrating bureaucratic language and procedure into his super-hero work was outpacing the evolution of the aesthetics of the costuming into the hyper-militarized looks typified by Bryan Hitch’s work on The Ultimates.

Black Widow #3 (2001) art by Scott Hampton

That awkward transitional phase was most vividly captured when Rucka joined Devin Grayson on Black Widow in 2001, the same year that he began Queen and Country. Black Widow swerved immediately from a glossy, action-heavy romp by Grayson and J.G. Jones into a down tempo spy thriller co-authored with Rucka and illustrated by Scott Hampton using dreamy washes.

The story continued the rivalry between Natalya and Yelena Belova, her would-be successor as Black Widow from the preceding Grayson/Jones miniseries, but this time worked to stake out a definitive separation between what constitutes a “real spy” as opposed to a “super-hero,” a principle that Nick Fury lectures Daredevil on at its conclusion. That Rucka (presumably rather than Grayson) wanted to create and maintain an ideological and ethical divide between SHIELD as an institution and superheroes as individual actors is fascinating, but it was also a truly bizarre moment given that Fury delivered the speech wearing the blue spandex SHIELD costume offset with white straps and holsters. A Toys R Us action figure barking about what a “real” spy is.

Black Widow #3 (2001) art by Scott Hampton

Those rhetorical lines never made it out of the pages of Black Widow because Civil War obliterated any existing distinctions between super-heroes and state actors, delivering Marvel into a totalizing era of the super-hero as soldier. Which, ironically, was a sea-change foretold by Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke’s “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” in Action Comics.

At DC, the era of super-hero as soldier played out somewhat differently thanks in large part to Rucka’s influential institutionally focused approach. His Gotham Central collaboration with Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark reinscribed the kind of division he was articulating in Black Widow, and succeeded in doing so because he was portraying rank and file police who were never elevated into the kind of ersatz that Steranko imbued SHIELD with.

Action Comics #775 art by Doug Mahnke

Gotham Central was a modest seller, but achieved massive influence with critics and creators alike, affirming an appetite and curiosity for the mechanics of Gotham City and its public institutions that immediately carried over into Marc Andreyko and Jesus Saiz’s Manhunter. It set an overall tone that would go on to inform everything from Brubaker’s tenure on Catwoman to Scott Snyder and Tom King’s respective Batman runs. Gotham Central also ran concurrent to The Wire, capturing the zeitgeist in a novel way that saw David Simon and his collaborators open up the mechanics of the public institutions of post 9/11 Baltimore at the same time that Rucka, Brubaker, and Lark were essentially doing the same for Gotham City.

Simon’s stated intent to portray Baltimore’s institutions as the indifferently cruel gods of a classical Greek tragedy was more or less echoed in Gotham Central and Rucka’s subsequent DC work, constituting a big part of why DC’s equivalent to Marvel’s full-throated embrace of the super-hero as soldier was much more ambivalent. Where the post-Civil War landscape at Marvel was characterized by superheroes being co-opted by the state, like Tony Stark assuming control of SHIELD, the infamous 50 states initiative, or Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato’s scorchingly sarcastic Thunderbolts run, DC moved in the opposite direction.

Gotham Central #6 art by Michael Lark

Rucka transitioned Renee Montoya out of Gotham Central and the GCPD by portraying a loss of faith in that institution that drove her to become The Question. It’s a motif that he repeated with Kate Kane in Batwoman: Elegy, conceiving of becoming Batwoman as a means of recuperating the desire to serve that attracted her to the military following her discharge under DADT. Portrayals like those and Rucka’s conception of Checkmate as an unstable bureaucracy held together by clashing ideologies nullifying each other kept the institutions of the police, military, and intelligence community at arm’s length in comparison to Marvel.

Of course, super-heroes as non-state actors continued to enact the same kind of unilateral regime change and impunity as the concurrent political establishment either undertook or advocated, creating a different kind of symbiosis between DC heroes and American military ideology in the 2000s than Marvel. Rucka was always a primary participant in that motif, whether it was framing Checkmate’s mission along the lines of American foreign policy or opening his Wonder Woman run with a casual regime change in an unnamed African country. The latter being a major motif at DC between Bill Clinton’s second term and the invasion of Iraq, most notably in Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee’s Superman.

Wonder Woman (1987) #195 art by Drew Johnson

So it’s easy to see why there would be an appetite for Rucka tackling Lois Lane, given his profound interest in examining institutions and power structures in ways that are both allegorical and speculative imaginings of how they would be fundamentally altered by the existence of superheroes and all the other contrivances of the DCU.

But that isn’t what takes shape in the debut issue of the twelve part series. What we get instead is a listless retread of old habits and references to the Trump administration that are already long past their expiry date. We’re introduced to Lois living out of a hotel in Washington DC working on a story, establishing that she needs housekeeping to always fill the minibar and never clean the suite.

She’s an overachiever who drinks too much and is a bit of a mess. It’s a model for “complicated” female heroines that we’ve been seeing proliferate at an exponential rate since Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos debuted Alias. Rucka himself has gifted us with numerous variations on the theme including Renee Montoya as The Question and Kate Kane as Batwoman.

There’s probably a certain amount of verisimilitude in taking this approach to Lois Lane in the context of a series that treats the boundaries between the comics page and the real world news cycle as paper thin. The problem to me is that I just don’t find the idea of approaching a Lois Lane comic from the standpoint of a ripped from the headlines episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit even remotely appealing.

Lois Lane (2019) #1 art by Mike Perkins

Rucka’s viewpoint on Lois feels like a retread of his prior work, but it isn’t without precedent or some kind of merit: there are numerous iterations of her who feel remote, ironically detached from the world around her, and inhumanly competent but that doesn’t make it the most appealing or interesting take on her.

Tom King’s use of her in Batman as a foil and developing confidant for Selina has been a remarkable experiment that has added a rare texture and charisma to the character because she isn’t burdened with the expectations that come along with her as a primary character in a Superman comic. As a stabilizing influence for Selina, Lois’ appearances in Batman allowed her to cut loose and do things like get shitfaced at a county fair and lie on the grass of a baseball diamond with Selina. In a strange sense, it opened up the idea of Lois having a close female friend and the storytelling possibilities that flow from it in a way that just has not happened in recent memory.

That novel pairing of Selina and Lois also gave us the iconic bachelorette party and opened up entirely new facets and potential presentations for Lois. It was a particularly exciting issue not just because of the antics they got up to, but also because Tom King’s authorial voice disappeared completely behind the energy of Amanda Conner’s artwork, as it should be, given that she is super-hero comics’ current champion of transgressive female sexuality.

Batman (2011) #68 art by Amanda Conner

But it isn’t just Conner’s brash, misfit sensibilities that fail to transfer to the current mini-series. Conner is blessed to be among the least bashful artist of hers or any subsequent generation of cartoonists when it comes to fetish wear, but she’s also proven herself capable of sliding between the sartorial and sleaze with particular ease. The same cannot be said for Mike Perkins, who decks Lois out in a three piece suit that came from either the back closet of a 90s porn set or a hospital emergency room, ranging from a vacuumed-on mini skirt to a crumpled, oversized blazer.

There is maybe no greater indication of indifference towards any kind of feminine wish fulfillment than a haplessly assembled wardrobe. Do all women dress well, and further, do all of those who don’t, want to? No, obviously not, but the archetype of the schlubby female heroine who doesn’t have the time or inclination to be stylish has ruled the day in comics since, again, Bendis and Gaydos’ Alias, at once providing a somewhat valid portrayal of a flawed and lived-in heroine while also carving out an ironclad excuse for male cartoonists to never have to learn about fashion beyond stained t-shirts, leather jackets, and skinny jeans.

It would maybe be nice to get a whiff of The Good Wife/Fight’s ultra chic demimonde of legal drama, because we are never, ever going to reach the delirious heights of Euphoria in this medium of cargo shorts and pro wrestling t-shirts. There are some distinctions worth making here, though, because while it’s definitely true that most of this was written in pajamas and a bathrobe through a haze of marijuana and red wine it’s also true that the pajamas are the Sleeping Beauty set from Ralph Breaks The Internet, the bathrobe is a hooded, leopard print Betsey Johnson number, and the bong is decorated with the colors of the transgender pride flag. It’s entirely possible to be both enviably stylish while in a state of relative dysfunction, just like Ilana Glazer taught me.

Instead of a depiction of Lois that expands on the fresh horizons achieved by King, Conner, and Janin, this take feels like a retreat from a new sense of joy and imagination into a kneejerk conception of realism and political allegory. Which is disappointing because, unlike the fifth season of The Wire, the idea of Rucka transitioning his institutionalist lens from the police and the military to journalism holds a unique sense of promise.

Detective Comics #859 art by J.H. Williams III

Rucka has enjoyed what is more or less an utterly singular, reciprocal relationship with cable news: MSNBC host Rachel Maddow once confided that she’d once used an issue of Queen and Country to illustrate a point to a US senator on the Intelligence subcommittee while Rucka has equally shared that Maddow’s broadcast provided him with the understanding of the DADT policy that shaped his depiction of Kate Kane’s origin in Detective Comics.

However, instead of bolstering Lois Lane, Rucka’s avowed affinity for cable news seems to be its Achilles heel. Lois’ ejection from a White House press briefing at the tail end of the issue is certainly reflective of reality: the press secretary is vividly traced from Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ likeness and the circumstances appear to be culled directly from CNN Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta’s similar experience. Yet somehow, the version of events in Lois Lane comes off as reductive, out-of-date, and tone deaf.

Lois’ ejection is seen as a heroic moment of liberation, but for Acosta it was a surreal experience of what amounted to defamation: a video was circulated by the right wing media, manipulated to appear as if Acosta had provoked his ejection by violently attacking an aide.

While Lois made her triumphant exit, the narration placed special emphasis on her peers in the press taking up her line of questioning following her ejection. In reality, it’s been noted time and time again that throughout Huckabee Sanders’ tenure (as well as that of her predecessor Sean Spicer) as press secretary, pool reporters outright refused to carry forward the lines of inquiry after being rebuffed or ejected.

Lois Lane (2019) #1 art by Mike Perkins

Even the notion of tracing Huckabee Sanders’ likeness onto the press secretary was hopelessly out of date long before the issue shipped. While her resignation was more or less fresh news when the issue shipped, there have been well placed reports that dust is currently gathering on the lectern that she last occupied on March 11th of this year.

The breathtaking speed of the current news cycle has rendered this kind of winking allegory obsolete, creating a unique conundrum for creators, with some doggedly chasing the cycle to preserve certain moments and sentiments through their work and others embracing more speculative approaches that rely on capturing the broad strokes of the political and emotional zeitgeist over the kind of deeply specific references that Lois Lane relies on.

Calexit carved out a unique space for itself by running ahead of what was the current news cycle at the time to project dystopian outcomes of the policy proposals and underlying ideology of the Trump campaign. That approach paid dividends because it freed the creative team to deliver a story focused on the broad dynamics of authoritarianism and resistance that will live well beyond the current administration. It also opened up an examination of the geographic partisan divides in California, going beyond the typical (inter)national viewpoint that it’s an undifferentiated mass of progressivism.

Drawing attention to the granular political makeup of the state, and even LA county itself, had two very real impacts on the reader’s understanding of the politics of the moment it decided not to chase. The first was in helping to contextualize the emergence of far right thinkers from the Golden State like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Ben Shapiro. The second was to identify the wealthy, conservative Southern California suburbs as a moveable and important bloc to mobilize for resistance efforts.

In the comic itself, that manifested through literal armed uprising by the Mulholland Resistance, but, seen in a certain light, anticipated the democratic gains in that very same area in the 2018 midterm elections. In real life, the Republican defection in California was the result of ironically punitive provisions towards the state in the Trump tax cut, eliminating any incentive wealthy Californians had for backing the GOP.

But Calexit’s fundamental approach is more or less the same one that Alan Moore and David Lloyd took on V for Vendetta, back when the news cycle was, by comparison, bone achingly slow. As Lloyd put it, they crafted the comic for people who couldn’t stand to watch the news anymore, sickened by Thatcher’s ruling party at the time. So he and Moore crafted a dystopia out of what they felt were the logical conclusion of Thatcher’s proposed policies and even more radical thought coming from the right wing press.

The result was an absolute classic that continues to both contextualize the nature of British conservatism in the 1980s and remains an urgently necessary fable about the nature of fascist control and the necessity for resistance. It’s an ethos that goes back to George Orwell’s oeuvre and the logic behind Picasso’s Guernica at the very least and has only grown in pertinence since.

By comparison, the current Lois Lane series presents itself like a Maureen Dowd column, chasing the moving target of the most frictionless position of the moment that preserves the basic interests of those in power. Which is a poor match for Lois Lane, who, fictional though she may be, would never let the Speaker of the House eat off her plate.

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