It’s hard to tell at first from looking that the Clark Kent of 1959’s “The Girl In Superman’s Past” is desperately in love. Yet despite the absence of the typical signs of comic-book romantic longing in artist Wayne Boring’s peculiarly stiff and yet entirely dignified characters, it soon becomes clear that the repressed, anxious and utterly sincere Superman of the tale is quite besotted. Untouched as yet by the melodramatic excesses which have tended to characterise the crush-bearing super-person since the early years of the Marvel Revolution, this Eisenhower-era Clark Kent cuts a disturbingly intense, lonesome and even fearful figure. He’s a college senior who appears to be entirely friendless, who finds it impossible to smile instead of frowning at the woman that he longs to marry, and who lives haunted by the thought that those he loves will be targeted by the “underworld” should his secret identity ever be revealed. In his isolation and his loneliness, he carries a sense of a time when men simply weren’t supposed to emote, let alone ever discuss their unease, and when the very idea of an inner child, let alone entitlement, would’ve struck the likes of this Clark Kent as a nauseous self-indulgence.
The young Clark is unknowingly in love with a mermaid, although he’s entirely unaware that she’s a telepathic, water-breathing, and benign super- spy from Atlantis. Improbably disguising her tail with toe-length skirts and body-wrapping blankets, the apparently wheelchair-bound Lori Lemaris allows herself to be regarded as a “paralysis victim”, while gathering information about the “surface people’s progress” as a student at Metropolis University. Though she, like Clark, rarely ever seems to either relax or express anything other than the most disciplined if not glacial of emotions, she’s undoubtedly a remarkable woman. Living alone in an environment which requires her to spend 10 hours a night in a secret salt-water tank to survive, entirely isolated from her own people except for the brief comforts offered by occasional radio contact, Lemaris is every bit as much Kent’s equal in bravery and honour, and she’s considerably more clear-headed and intelligent too.
Like Kal-El, she’s also a strange visitor from, if not a far away planet, then a profoundly separate environment, and she too must guard her secrets to the extent that she can never trust any of the people that she shares her days with. She is, in fact, another of those almost-entirely admirable women which once so populated the Silver Age DCU, and the contrast between her and the self-involved and marriage-obsessed Lois Lane is made quite explicit at the story’s end. In a scene set at least a decade past those showing the collapse of Clark and Lori’s doomed love affair, Lois bemoans the supposed fact that Superman won’t ever marry her because it would mean the end of his career as a costumed crime-fighter. It’s an entirely spurious explanation, of course, because the criminals who’d target Superman’s wife were his secret identity ever to be discovered are the same ones who’d do their best to hurt his friends and work colleagues even if he were still single. “I guess he’d never do that for any woman!” pouts Lois, while a wry smile on Clark’s face accompanies a thought balloon in which he declares to himself that “Lois will never know that Superman almost did once!”. The meaning seems clear. Lois Lane isn’t in any way the equal of Lori Lemaris, and it’s not just a concern for her safety which keeps Superman from proposing to his fellow reporter.
The problem with “The Girl From Superman’s Past” is that its conclusion struggles to make sense even when considered entirely from Clark’s point of view. For there’s no reason at all that we’re given for why Clark and Lori couldn’t simply continue to see each other at the close of this story. It’s not a worriment which the books original audience of pre-pubescent boys would have probably been too concerned with, because to them, the very idea of Superman marrying anybody would have been abhorrent. But to read the story again from the perspective of an age which Bill Finger’s cleverly-constructed script was never intended to appeal to is to note that there seems to be an even more interesting tale hiding in plain sight right before the reader’s gaze. Why, for example, doesn’t Lori point out to Clark that they simply don’t need to part forever, as he seems to believe, just because she’s a mermaid who lives under the sea and he’s a Kryptonian who doesn’t? After all, Clark shows no signs of difficulty surviving beneath the waves, as he shows when he follows her into and beneath the ocean in order to snatch a final and tragic goodbye kiss from her. Each can survive for a time in the other’s worlds, so there’s no physical justification for their eternal separation. Nor can it be that Lori has been forbidden under all circumstances to betray the existence of Atlantis and its people to outsiders, since she and Superman work openly together to save the women and men endangered by the collapse of “The State Dam”. Certain circumstances were obviously considered pressing enough for the young spy to completely abandon her cover, and it seems obvious that they’ve been fulfilled. So why is it that the she simply accepts the fact that she and Clark belong apart? Why, if she loves him, and it appears that that’s certainly so, does she accept that theirs is a relationship which cannot possibly prosper? The reader’s clearly expected to regard this as a touching tale of a love that by its very nature could never be, and yet the reason for that is never mentioned at all.
Two explanations come to mind. The first might be that there’s an Atlantean prohibition on mixed marriages with even the most trustworthy of outsiders, although such is never once hinted at in the narrative. These Atlanteans are by Lori’s accounts a secretive people, but there’s nothing to say that they’re in any way xenophobic or isolationist. A more likely reading would regard Lori as feeling rejected by Clark’s inability to perceive their differences as being anything other than insurmountable. For his immediate response to her statement that “.. though I love you, I must now return to my people” is to offer to carry her to the sea! There’s no effort made on his part to suggest that they might try to create a life for themselves in her world or his, or even a combination of the two. It’s as if Lori has thrown the most obvious of cues in Clark’s direction in order to discover whether he might be daring and determined enough to still marry her despite the fact that she’s a tail rather than legs, and a home on the seabed rather than “a trailer house off the campus”. And yet Clark simply decides, with a touch of undoubtedly genuine sorrow, to help her on her way. The reader is, of course, supposed to take it for granted that no Superman could ever marry a woman that’s so anatomically dissimilar, and yet, if the difference was so profoundly important and ultimately repellent, then why that tearful and passionate kiss between the two of them at the end of their brief relationship?
Perhaps Clark had thought that he was getting the brush-off when Lori announced that she had to return to Atlantis. It may be that he believed that the decent thing to do was to bear his apparent rejection in as modest and unobtrusive way as possible, for he’s certainly a naïve and inexperienced young man in “The Girl From Superman’s Past.” (One of his first responses to falling in love is to dream of flying an orchestra around the world so that everyone might hear a song of praise for Ms Lemaris that he’s to write.) Or it may be that this child of the Thirties and Forties is just too much of the rural middle-American to be able to conceive of anything so unconventional and challenging as a marriage with a mermaid, no matter that he himself is as different to his fellow landlings as they are in comparison to Lori. At the very least, he lacks the experience to know that opting for whatever appears to be respectful and decent-minded isn’t always the same as doing the right thing. Whatever, the sadness and longing in Lori’s face during that scene of explanations and farewells suggests that Clark missed his opportunity to turn imminent tragedy into triumph, and, regardless of his motives, conscious or otherwise, the moment passes. It’s a brief juncture between hope and its eclipse which Wayne Boring’s artwork, in its unique fusion of restraint and regret, captures in a convincingly touching fashion.
In the story’s very last scene, we’re shown an older and evidently more confident Clark Kent explaining to Lois Lane how he’s been “ … thinking about a friend of mine – and why he never married.” But as his memories have already shown us, there’s no sign that he really understands why his very first love affair ended as it did. The most wonderful woman in the world has fallen beyond him and here he is, in the present-day of 1959, sitting with Lois Lane watching a football game in the cold at his alma mater, thinking how he’d never once thought of giving up being Superman for anyone but Lori Lemaris. In a brilliantly observed moment on Finger’s part, Clark’s even tellingly shown to have brought blankets to cover Lois’s legs from the cold, as if he just can’t put the thought of Lori and her swathed tail out of his mind. Bill Finger and Wayne Boring’s charming “The Girl in Superman’s Past” becomes a more and more quietly moving story every time the reader returns to it.
“The Girl In Superman’s Past” first appeared in 1959’s Superman #129, and has since been quite rightly reprinted in a host of best-of collections.
The above was the first of two Valentine Day’s pieces. Reader, beware; things may not end any better next week either.