It is October 6, 1996. This week, Superman: The Wedding Albumcomes out, although its cover bears a December 1996 date.
The long-delayed marriage of Lois Lane and Clark Kent is presented in a rather odd little volume. The idea, it seems, was to present it as the work of a comic-book supergroup, with the cover announcing it to be the work of many “Superman artists and writers, past and present.” In practice, the result is a disjointed book that shifts tone and art style every few pages, more like a series of vignettes joined only by the fact that they occur in the same couple of days. It has very little in the way of overarching narrative, just a series of “and then… and then…” (“And then Mxyzptlk shows up, and then he turns into a “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” reference, and then he leaves, and then they get married, and then Batman is Superman’s landlord.”)
But that’s more or less what the title promises: an album, a set of photographs which need share in common only that they be in the same book. A wedding album isn’t a narrative, except in the sense that all experience is narrative because it occurs in a temporal sequence. Most of the time, however, there is just a photo, and then another photo, and then another photo. The photos may be arranged in the order they were taken, or they may not. Some may be candid and others may be posed. Items other than photos may be inserted, such as a copy of the marriage certificate.
Ultimately, any photo album is an exercise in nostalgia. The point of it isn’t to narrate, but to point at narratives, to remind the reader of past events and people. A wedding album in particular is also about celebrating the event; it is meant for members of the family to leaf through and, ideally, relive a moment of love and joy. The point of The Wedding Album isn’t to tell the story of Clark Kent and Lois Lane’s wedding day, but rather to remind readers of “old friends” (i.e., significant supporting cast) and take joy in the love of Superman, Lois Lane, and their families and friends.
All of which adds up to being better than dozens of issues of “let’s kill ‘im,” but still can’t really rise above empty fluff, and not particularly well-executed empty fluff at that.
Speaking of (generally) well-executed empty fluff, it’s October 6, 1996, and after more than three years of build-up, the wedding episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (known by only its subtitle outside the US) is finally here: “We Swear to God, This Time We’re Not Kidding.” The title refers to the number of times the title characters broke up, got back together, pretended to be married, tried and failed to get married, and so on over the course of the series, including a gloriously ridiculous five-episode arc in which they appear to marry, but at the last second Lois is swapped out for a clone created by Lex Luthor, and then Lois gets amnesia and thinks she’s the main character of a novel she started writing while mad at Clark, and then the clone gives her life to help Superman defeat Luthor and get Lois back, and then one of the doctors who are supposed to be helping Lois recover her memories brainwashes her to assassinate Perry White, and then after she and Superman foil that plot the other doctor manipulates her into thinking she’s in love with him, and then her memories are accidentally restored by an unrelated mad-science scheme by one of that doctor’s other patients.
Even the wedding episode itself teases the possibility that it might not happen. In the course of the cold open, Lois bumps her head and then pretends to have amnesia again, then floats the possibility that their relationship is cursed, and then Clark quips that at least the (never before seen) Wedding Destroyer hasn’t escaped and vowed revenge. The Wedding Destroyer then escapes and vows revenge. (In the following episode, it turns out Lois and Clark’s relationship is cursed and they have to time travel to a Robin Hood pastiche and the Old West to undo the curse before they can consummate their marriage. Herein lies the entire essence of the show.) In the end, it is only through the intervention of what is heavily implied to be both an actual guardian angel and a stand-in for the show creators, as well as possibly the Archangel Michael himself, that they actually manage to get married.
The story is, in short, silly, but that’s in keeping with the rest of the show. It is light, goofy, and frequently quite funny, full of disarmingly mediocre performances and charmingly bad special effects. And, as you may notice from my description of the one five-episode arc, its metastructure is precisely that “and then… and then…” I noted above in regards to The Wedding Album. That said, the really surprising thing about Lois and Clark is that it has a metastructure at all–in the mid-90s, most American television was still highly episodic: individual episodes might occasionally call back to past episodes, but arcs longer than the occasional two-parter were extremely rare. This was starting to shift by the late 90s, but most television still consisted of individual, largely self-contained episodes. Occasionally there might be shifts in the status quo, such as cast or setting changes, characters getting married or divorced, and so on, but these were not arcs per se–there would be an episode in which the status quo changed, and thereafter it would be treated as the new status quo.
The primary exception to this was, of course, soap operas, both day- and prime-time. Soap operas were notable both for their serialization and the relative complexity of their episodes; where most hour-long dramas would have an A plot and sometimes a B plot, soap operas would typically have at least three plots, given roughly equal weight. In addition, where most shows generally resolved plots in the episodes that introduced them, in soap operas plots were usually staggered, so that a new plot might be introduced while another is ongoing and yet another is drawing to an end–a very deliberate structure designed to simultaneously give new viewers a good jumping-on point and encourage established viewers to keep watching, without sacrificing a sense of resolution. And Lois and Clark does frequently draw plot elements from soap operas, including amnesia-inducing head-bumps, elaborate revenge schemes, dark secrets, fake and disrupted weddings, doppelgangers, and dual identities.
But Lois and Clark isn’t structured like a soap opera, as frequently as it draws on that aesthetic. Instead, each episode is its own self-contained story, sometimes with a (usually also self-contained) B-plot. However, frequently, a twist will occur in that story’s denouement, just when everything seemed to be over, that then prompts a “To Be Continued…” and forms the basis of the next episode’s story. This is not how soap operas do it–but it is, frequently, how comic books work. A given storyline might take up a single issue or several, but very often it will end with a setup for the next storyline, this being how comics solve the problem any indefinite-length serialized work has of providing resolution while also encouraging readers/viewers to return for the next issue/episode.
In other words, Lois and Clark is fusing the soap opera and the comic book, both in terms of story elements and at the structural level. Indeed, look at the list of soap-operatic elements it plays with: amnesia, elaborate schemes for revenge, doppelgangers, dual identities and dark secrets (with the secret often being the dual identity)–other than the fake and disrupted weddings, these are all staples of superhero comics as well! (And even those showed up from time to time in the Golden Age.) What the show reveals is that there is very little difference between a superhero comic and a soap opera, and honestly that shouldn’t surprise us: both are melodramas structured as open-ended serials that can run indefinitely. The only real difference is that soap operas are (at least on the surface) usually about sex, while comic books are (at least on the surface) usually about violence.
Also, Lois and Clark makes an excellent metaphor for the inherent and irreconcilable contradictions of liberalism.
To Be Continued…
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