The Strange Loves of Superman

With Valentine's Day approaching, I decided it might be fun to review Superman's major romances as chronicled in Michael L. Fleisher's "The Great Superman Book," the 1978 encyclopedic work covering the first 28 years of Superman's career. As it turns out, "fun" probably isn't the right word.

It's no secret that Superman was something of a flop at male-female relationships (unless you count stringing Lois Lane along for 50 years a "relationship"), but by Fleisher's reckoning, the guy never had a chance at domestic bliss, seeing as how he's a quivering mass of neuroses, chief among them a deep-seated hatred both of women and himself.

I should state up front, for those unfamiliar with Fleisher's work (recently reprinted as The Original Encyclopedia of Comic-Book Heroes, Vol 3: Superman), that it's built on the conceit that Superman is a real person, with his adventures from 1938 to 1964 forming a "biography." Taken in that light, I guess you might well conclude that a guy who can't settle down after 30 years of dead-end relationships might well have some issues, but Fleisher's attempts to apply Freudian analysis to a comic book superhero are -- assuming they're not meant as parody -- pretty icky.

Let's start in the most obvious place, with Lois Lane, the third side in a romantic triangle central to the first half-century of Superman adventures. Lois is in love with Superman, who can't seem to make up his mind whether to return her affections or treat her as a pest. Clark Kent, however, desires Lois but Lois can't see him for dirt. Lois is constantly tested to see whether she can overcome her infatuation with Superman's muscles and fame to love an "average Joe" like Clark, but Superman stacks the deck against her by making Clark a spineless weakling. In other's complicated.

Fleisher's contention is that Superman deliberately sets Lois up for failure and has no real desire to make the relationship work:

Indeed, by selecting, as the foremost object of his affections, a woman dazzled by his fame and blind to his personal qualities, Superman serves to confirm his worst suspicions about women and to fuel his unconscious hatred of them...The real reasons why Superman pursues Lois Lane so assiduously as Clark Kent are inextricably bound up with Superman's unconscious desire for confirm his inner feelings of worthlessness and insulate him against the agonies of mature emotional involvement, and to recreate the traumatic feelings of desertion and abandonment caused by his mother's "rejection" of him at the time of Krypton's destruction.

Come again? Yes, Fleisher's diagnosis is that Superman has an Oedipus Complex. He's been scarred by the death of Lara, which he inteprets on some deeper level as abandonment and rejection of the most profound sort. "Unconsciously," Fleisher writes, "Superman hates his mother for having abandoned him, and hates himself for having been unworthy of her lasting love." (Just as an aside, any time someone throws out the word "unconscious" this often your BS Detector should be ringing as frantically as a handbell choir playing "Flight of the Bumblebee.")

Our hero, claims Fleisher, harbors a deep-seated hatred of Lois:

Both as Clark Kent and as Superman, he expresses this hatred in many ways; by rejecting Lois as Superman, by scooping her as Clark Kent, by deceiving her as as to his true identity, by making her believe that he slavishly adores her while, in actuality, he laughs behind her back.

Whew. So much for the longest-running romance in superhero comics. Well, then how about Lana Lang, that sweet young lass from Smallville? Surely Puppy Love is a more pure and wholesome thing altogether, right?

Actually Lana rates only a couple paragraphs in Fleisher's review, dismissed as a teenage stand-in for Lois and more or less her clone: the girl with a crush on Superboy who is "alternately friendly to and contemptuous of Clark Kent," forever trying to discover his secret identity, etc. "Her appearance in the chronicles as one of Superman's most enduring relationships -- second only to the one he shares with Lois Lane -- dramatically attests to the irresistable psychological appeal this type of relationship has for Superman."

Then we have Lori Lemaris, the great love of Superman's college years who turned out to be a mermaid.

When Clark first meets Lori, she's in a wheelchair. As the story wears on, he and we learn this is not because she's crippled, but because she has a fish tail instead of legs. Either way, claims Fleisher, "because unconsciously, Superman fears emotional involvement and desires rejection, he had unconsciously selected, as the object of his affections, a woman whose own needs would cause her to reject him." (Wow, does anyone know how to create a shortcut button that will type "unconscious" for me?)

Sure enough, Lori ducks out on Clark "on the rather vague, flimsy pretext that her duty required her to return to Atlantis." When they remeet years later, Superman pushes her again to marry him and this time she gives in, only to be badly injured by an evil fisherman and nursed to health by a merman doctor, who she marries instead of Superman, drawing this "I told you so" from Fleisher: "Superman unconsciously creates situations in which his conscious desire for love is bound to be thwarted."


In "Superman's Kryptonian Romance", the Man of Steel, temporarily marooned and powerless on Krypton in the past, falls in love with a beautiful and glamorous movie star named Lyla Lerrol, who returns his passion in kind. (A full page of the story is dedicated to a make-out session that -- we are told -- makes a nearby volcanic eruption look like a gently shaken Coca-Cola). Ultimately, however, fate intervenes when Superman is accidentally rocketed from doomed Krypton, never to return. He seems to get over it pretty quickly, musing in the last panel that the whole thing already seems like a passing dream.

Personally, I never figured Superman as the type to go for a movie star, and indeed the relationship appears built on little more than intense physical attraction on both sides. But as Fleisher writes, whoever he picked on Krypton was equally doomed -- and thus safe to "love" -- so why not go for the Marilyn Monroe lookalike? "Once again...Superman has initiated a relationship certain to be unenduring. Krypton, as he well knows, is doomed to destruction, along with Lyla Lerrol and virtually all its inhabitants."

In "The Sweetheart Superman Forgot," Superman is temporarily left without his memory or powers, and begins a new life as "Jim White," working on a ranch owned by Digby Selwyn. Selwyn has a beautiful daughter named Sally, and when he meets her, our hero proves that although he's forgotten everything else, he still remembers how to deliver a smooth pick-up line:

I hope you're taking notes, Hal Jordan! From this inauspicious beginning a great romance blossoms, but alas it's not to be, as our hero eventually regains his memory of his Clark Kent/Superman personae and completely forgets his life as Jim White and his time with Sally. Fleisher postulates that it's only this temporary loss of self that frees up Superman to pursue what is possibly the only genuine romance of his life. Forgetting his origins, his mission and his hang-ups, he is free to love like any man, but when it all comes back to him, he's as screwed up as ever.

Support for this argument comes in the follow-up tale, "The Man Who Stole Superman's Secret Life," when Superman encounters Sally again and his memories of their love are restored. However, a brush with danger on Sally's part leads Superman to decide he can't marry her because of the constant danger she'd face as his wife, and so he lets her believe "Jim White" is dead, closing the door on the relationship for good.

Perhaps mercifully, Fleisher doesn't apply his psychoanalytic skills to Luma Lynai, the Superwoman of Staryl, but you don't need his half-semester of Community College training in Freudian theory to realize this is one messed-up relationship.

Here's the gist: after numerous failed attempts to hook up her cousin with a wife, Supergirl considers herself a miserable failure. Superman tries to cheer her up by explaining no woman can ever be his perfect mate because they'll never be...well...her!

Interestingly, Kara's status as a 15-year-old seems not to enter the picture at all. I mean, a child bride is one thing, but my own cousin? What do I look like, Jerry Lee Lewis?

Kara takes it upon herself to track down a Supergirl-lookalike for Superman to love, who as it turns out is not only a dead-ringer for the Maid of Might but even has super-powers, operating as a hero on her home world. Superman meets her and after conversing for a whopping three panels, they're ready to commit to marriage. Lacking evidence that the relationship goes any deeper than intense physical attraction , we're left to assume Kal-El wasn't kidding when he said Kara was his dream girl. Ick. Unluckily for the lovers (but fortunately for those of us with weak stomachs), it turns out Luma is unable to live on Earth, and her code of honor will not allow Superman to abandon Earth for her sake, so again romance is doomed.

Okay, so I'm not a big fan of Fleisher's application of pseudo-Freudian twaddle to the super-mythos, but he does make some good points. First, for all his claims of wanting to settle down and lead a normal life as a married man, Superman does have a tendency to exhibit real passion only towards women who circumstances ensure will be unattainable, or flat-out doomed, while he treats with indifference, aggression or dread the women who might actually be marriage material. I don't buy into the Oedipus Complex, if only because there's so little in the mythos to suggest Lara's memory is a huge influence on Superman (Jor-El looms much larger and gets tons more "screen time").

However you slice it, though, Superman's love life for the first 50 years was pretty screwed up. Then came a reboot, ushering in romantic commitment, a much-heralded wedding and 14 years and counting of domestic bliss, which has given us something all those decades of kooky neurosis never did; stifling, abject boredom.