She wants to interview the residents of Little Africa – Metropolis’ answer to Harlem – but none of them will talk to her, and she thinks it’s because of the color of her skin.
Rather than do what most journalists would do, that is, build relationships with community leaders to win trust, Lois decides she must become black.
What some reporters won’t do to make a deadline.
Welcome to one of the most notorious stories DC has ever published.
Start by marveling at a story peddled to children with a title that riffs on Swedish erotica.
In “I Am Curious (Black)!” in “Lois Lane” No. 106, cover date November 1970, and written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Werner Roth and Vince Colletta, the Pulitzer Prize-winner starts her Little Africa expose by trying to interview a bunch of school kids.
They run away.
Maybe they were taught never to talk to strangers.
Or Daily Planet reporters.
In “a nearby slum tenement,” a door is slammed in her face.
So goes the rest of the day. Lois can’t even admire a baby without the mother getting huffy and pulling the carriage away.
As she passes a “street meeting,” the leader calls her out:
“Look at her, brothers and sisters! She’s young and sweet and pretty! But never forget – she’s Whitey!
“She’ll let us shine her shoes and sweep her floors! And baby-sit for her kids! But she doesn’t want to let our kids into her lily-white schools!
“It’s okay with her if we leave these rat-infested slums! If we don’t move next door to her! That’s why she’s our enemy!”
Lois keeps walking, downcast, thinking to herself, “He’s wrong about me … but right about so many others!”
In a conversation that happens off-panel, Lois convinces Superman that the only way she can get her story is if she changes the color of her complexion by using the Kryptonian technology in his Fortress of Solitude.
Why did Super-Sap fall for this? We’ll never know, but it seems as if the most interesting part of the story was left out.
Before you can scream, “Holy hit the brakes, Batman!” Lois is locked within a “plastimold” and altered by the “transformoflux pack” into – maybe the Gold Key Comics version of Lt. Uhura.
Freshly afroed and emboldened, Lois returns to Metropolis and discovers her regular cab driver won’t stop for her.
On the subway, she feels as if everyone is staring at her.
“Yet I’m the same person I was before,” she thinks. “Only my skin is black!”
In Little Africa, she finds a tenement mother who makes her a cup of coffee, between bits of falling plaster and a visit from her baby’s regular playmate – a rat. Lois is moved to tears by the woman’s kindness.
“She lives in misery … yet asks if she can help me!”
Back on the streets, Lois encounters that same street activist – Dave Stevens – who is far friendlier. “You remind me of someone!” he says.
He must know a lot of idiots.
Before they can talk further, Dave notices three neighborhood dropouts venturing into a dark alley.
“Stay here!” he orders Lois. “This is a man’s business!”
Yeah, that’s pretty much the wrong thing to say to Lois, no matter what her complexion.
The two interrupt a drug deal, and the hoods, looking like Chicago gangsters, turn their weapons on the couple. Dave is shot.
Superman’s heat vision melts the hoods’ guns. In a hospital, Lois endures a blood transfusion to save Dave’s life.
Later, she challenges Supes about their faux reality.
“Suppose I couldn’t change back? Would you marry me? Even if I’m black? An outsider in a white man’s world?”
It’s an odd conversation considering Silver Age Superman wouldn’t marry her when she looked like Casper the Ghost’s auntie.
“You ask that of me … Superman?” he sputters. “An alien from Krypton …. another planet? A universal outsider? I don’t even have human skin. It’s tougher than steel!”
“But … your skin is the right color!” Lois says.
Then Lois fades away – that is, all her color anyway. The treatment wears off early, and now she’s worried. How will the street activist who condemned her react upon seeing her true pale hue?
Dave is shocked – but he takes her hand in gratitude.
So the ultimate message is that a person of color can learn that white people can be OK.
Oh this story.
It came at a curious moment for DC.
Writers across the company were downplaying the fantastic and experimenting with more grounded stories. Green Lantern took a road trip with Green Arrow to discover the real America. Wonder Woman lost her powers and became a mod warrior. The Justice League confronted pollution.
“Lois Lane” for most of its run had been more a sitcom following Lois’ exploits to either discover Superman’s identity or trick him into marriage or both. But DC across the line was growing up – or trying to, and more of Lois’ stories centered on her actually trying to do her job as opposed to landing a caped husband.
It’s tempting to want to throw Kanigher under the bus for this hot mess, but that wouldn’t be fair to the prolific writer.
In addition to writing “Lois Lane,” he created the ahead-of-her-time Rose and the Thorn, a heroine suffering from dissociative identity disorder, and regularly scripted “Wonder Woman” and “Our Army at War,” two titles diametrically opposed in terms of tone and maturity.
While he wrote the Amazon as if he were telling bedtime stories for toddlers, he delivered some of the grittiest comics of any era in “Our Army at War.” Sgt. Rock and Easy Co. faced the monotony, melancholy and madness of combat in every issue.
Kanigher prided himself on his historical accuracy, with one significant exception. Rock led an integrated unit, with ex-heavyweight boxing champion Jackie Johnson, introduced in 1961.
Kanigher stated on more than one occasion in the letters column that he included Jackie to honor the contributions of African-Americans during World War II. As far as I can ascertain, Jackie stands as DC’s first regularly appearing black character, and he was not a stereotype.
In “What’s the Color of Your Blood?”, “Our Army at War” No. 160, cover date November 1965, Jackie suffers horrific beatings from racist Nazis but finally triumphs over his captors. When a wounded Nazi needs a blood transfusion, Jackie is the first to volunteer.
“The color of your blood – is – red!” the humbled soldier says, an acknowledgement of their common humanity.
For 1965, this is an astonishingly daring tale.
That Kanigher would center another story around a blood transfusion years later does not lessen the impact of the first story.
Jackie remained an important member of Easy Co., right through OAW and the retitled “Sgt. Rock,” sometimes taking the spotlight, sometimes offering support to the greater story, as all the soldiers did.
As late as 1985, Kanigher was still honoring African-American servicemen. The two-part “Angels with Black Wings” in “Sgt. Rock” Nos. 405 and 406, cover dates October and November 1985, re-created the achievements of the Tuskegee airmen. This story was told from the point of view of a veteran who went on to march with Dr. King.
It’s worth noting that Dave Stevens was not a one-off character. He made about a dozen appearances in various Superman titles over the next couple of years.
Kanigher definitely had social justice on his mind, even if “I am Curious (Black)!” is a spectacular misfire.
The issue remains something of a collector’s item, with some sellers on eBay trying to get $450 for a copy.