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The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

This week, Team Lex jumps universes in pursuit of its namesake--Superman's nemesis, Lex Luthor!


First of all, a note on the nature of this week's column and its subject matter. The nostalgia filter's going to be thrown into high gear here, not least because Luthor remains my second-favorite comic book character and favorite villain (on a top-five that includes Norman Osborn, a certain Doctor of Doom, and, oddly enough, the Taskmaster). So with that caveat in mind--and you have full licence to leave now or stop reading if you so hate Luthor or my rambling nonsensical columns--let us plunge forward into a mighty Marvel-less edition of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Lex Luthor Edition.

Like most kids growing up in the 90s, I suppose, my first introduction to Lex Luthor was by way of Superman: The Animated Series. Luthor there was sleek, suave. Dressed all in black, impeccably-mannered and well-spoken, and easy enough on the eyes for a fictional character--more precisely, a cartoon character--he was everything a pie-eyed kid watching the weekly adventures of the Man of Steel could rationally aspire to.

Sure I couldn't be Superman, not technically, but then who could? Who would want to be? Who could measure up? The very nature of his power, his back story and character genesis, barred any kind of Daredevil or Batman-esque empathy: no average kid could be Superman. All the bathtowels in the world tied about all the shoulders in the world could nary produce a worthy Man of Steel to my preteen senses. So Luthor was more interesting, more engaging and analytically robust (to a ten-year-old who thinks about such things, I guess). He was smart, wickedly funny, and when he wanted to be, wickedly cruel. But it was a kind of cruelty that was different, say, than that of the Joker. (And really, who else but the Joker, in a little episode called 'Christmas With the Joker', could have turned an observatory telescope into a roving death cannon?) Luthor dealt in human lives. Wherever Superman saved one, or preserved one, Luthor threw another on the ash pile.

Similarly, who else but Luthor to oppose the Man of Steel? A human, insignificant, squishy, brilliant and deluded--facing down a living god, the last and greatest of his kind, bulletproof, tough, and compassionate. Heady stuff, this. To some extent Superman: Red Son answers the Whyfore Luthor question--and Grant Morrison buttressed the point in All-Star Superman. Luthor, "surely the greatest of his kind," takes on the Man of Steel regularly, "only with his bloody–minded arrogance and cleverness."

That sentence I've cannibalised; the first part comes from Red Son itself, and the last part comes from "All-Star Memories #5", a retrospective series of interviews that Morrison gave to Newsarama in late 2008. To a large extent, these two guys from Scotland nail down Luthor in one sentence or less.

College term papers have expressed less with more.

Few months ago, then, I came across an article on MightyGodKing.com, titled 'On Luthor'. Excerpts follow:

Why is Luthor so complicated when compared to other supervillains? I'm not kidding when I say you can sum up Dr. Doom's innermost character motivation in one sentence (more importantly, in one sentence and accurately). Lex is a book where most supervillains are a sentence. Why is that?

The answer's pretty obvious and wears a big red cape. Lex is going to be more complex because his enemy, the battle he fights, is more mythic by far than any other. [...]

But Luthor is unique – definitively the only great villain who is, by any reasonable standard, weaker  than his archenemy. Remember, Superman isn't just powerful – he's also smart, and wise, and personable, and generally possessed of a huge number of admirable quality traits, and he has a ton of friends who are also  for the most part more powerful than Luthor is (and who all hate Luthor too), and he has alien technology nobody else does, and a secret fortress, and a super-cousin, and a super-dog. Luthor doesn't have any  of that. Luthor has brains, determination and cojones, and that's it. Sometimes he has a corporation, sometimes a secret science fortress, but that's all ephemeral stuff.

Other villains fight men. Luthor is, when you get down to brass tacks, a man trying to fight God.

Morrison, wisely, and quite unknowingly (I suspect he's never come across MightyGodKing) echoed the sentiment in All-Star Memories #5:

I see him as a very human character – Superman is us at our best, Luthor is us when we're being mean, vindictive, petty, deluded and angry. Among other things. It's like a bipolar manic/depressive personality – with optimistic, loving Superman smiling at one end of the scale and paranoid, petty Luthor cringing on the other.

I think it's important to find yourself agreeing with Luthor a bit about Superman's "smug superiority" – we all of us, except for Superman, know what it's like to have mean–spirited thoughts like that about someone else's happiness [...]

However, he's played, Luthor is the male power fantasy gone wrong and turned sour. You've got everything you want but it's not enough because someone has more, someone is better, someone is cleverer or more handsome.

What is the point, then? That Lex Luthor's mad-scientist self-medicating supervillainy appealled to a very young Chris, who railed at intractable bullies, smug jerk jocks and the batty-eyed Lois Lane types who loved them anyway? Well, sort of: insofar as these characters can be boiled down to some schoolyard generalisations or tropes, they're useful for literary analysis. And since comics are art, an analytical approach to the people on the page is useful. Good art, like good music, like a good book, invades the purveyor. Makes him think, makes him feel something, connects with him on a deep and meaningful level. Now I wouldn't go so far as to troll the Ayn Rand line and say art exists for no other reason than itself, because I don't think that's true, per se. But I would say that art--meaningful media meant to evoke a particular emotional investment and/or response in the person purveying it--tells us something about ourselves.

Which is why I've quoted you Morrison and MightyGodKing and why Luthor as a character appeals so greatly to us here at Team Lex. To channel the MightyGodKing article once more, there are three Luthors at work at any given time in the comics, each with a theme and function:

1) Luthor exists to challenge God--this is the quasi-humanist bent that characterised Millar's omniglot Luthor in Red Son, and most excellently in Brian Azzarello's Lex Luthor: Man of Steel. Usually a reasonable character, well-spoken and clear-headed. No rage to speak of, barely any mention of Superman at all beyond an impersonal pronoun or two. Sometimes gets in a self-righteous plug, but keeps it understated and suitably menacing.

2) Luthor exists to replace Superman in hearts and minds: this the green-eyed monster of John Byrne and, later, Geoff Johns, that doth mock the Kryptonian hero on which it feeds. Though Geoff dispensed with subtlety in Blackest Night (and indeed took the jealousy bit way over the edge), Byrne let the Super-hate and Luthor's own issues simmer for years before finally they all exploded in the vastly under-rated and now sadly hard to find 'Clone Luthor' story-arc. Plays up the self-righteousness more vociferously, and more often than not tends to go off the rails with it--combining his own hubris and insecurity into a mad scientist furore (see Salvation Run or Johns and Donner's Last Son story in Action Comics).

3) The most nonthreatening Luthor of all doesn't even exist anymore: this is the humanist Luthor gone round the other end of the pier, bent on saving humanity and tossing on a green suit of armor to do so. Occasionally, he displays the mad scientist/Salvation Run/"I'm the hero!" fury but does so in a shape that is unrecognizable without, say, a planet Lexor behind him. So this is the Luthor from the 80s, the Maggin Luthor who you could root for and think, gee this guy, a villain? There was a little bit of this in Final Crisis but the pace changed before we could get some grand Luthor diatribe on why he's humanity's real savior (think Norman Osborn's naked dictations in the pages of Thunderbolts, or Emperor Doom, for suitable cognates). At his most extreme, and to date, only instance of doing so (Superman/Batman #6), this Luthor dopes himself up and roid rages through town. Luthor Smash! That sort of thing.

Plus it's a damn dynamite name. Luthor. Luthor, Luthor, Luthor. Lex Luthor. It rolls off the tongue.

But then, in the immortal words of Colonel-SS Hans Landa: "Verdict?"

Glad you asked.

The Very Good (aka, You Should Already Own This):

-Superman: Red Son: Millar's Luthor, to say nothing of his excellent treatment of Superman, is easily one of the coolest, most terrifying and most excellent. The only other treatments that come close are the next two.

-Brian Azzarello's Lex Luthor Man of Steel. Forget continuity on this one: don't try to place it. Just read and think, and in issue #3, maybe even root for him a little bit.

-All-Star Superman: Must I say why? (one quick mention: if for nothing else, go find issue #10 in the bins at your LCS for one scene alone: Luthor's hocked lugie at Superman.)

The Good (aka, Go Out And Buy This):

-John Byrne's Man of Steel, specifically issues #4 and #5. In addition to creating an all-new, all-interconnected world for the Man of Steel, Luthor's manipulations, his slimy claws stuck into every corner of Metropolis society are laid bare here, as well as his mountainous insecurity once Superman shows up. Issue #5 depicts the then-not-so-recetly-departed Mad Scientist angle: he's created, by the proxy of Dr Teng and Syndey Happerson, an all-new, all-Eighties Bizarro.

-Superman (vol. 2) #2: Luthor's pettiness, his hubris and refusal to believe the patently obvious wreak havoc on one unfortunate LexCorp scientist, and provide another decade's worth of stories at least.

-The Clone Luthor Saga: A sprawling epic spanning all the way back to Luthor's Kryptonite ring in Superman (vol. 2) #2 (which itself spans all the way to Superman/Batman #1, fully sixteen years later!) and covering at least five years of stories, features and back-ups, in the main Superman books from 1989/1990 to it's final resolution in Underworld Unleashed in 1995. Shows the full effect of Luthor's influence on Superman and over Metropolis. Overlaps with the Death of Superman, but only onsofar as Clone!Luthor is seen sulking in his office over Supes' death. A vastly under-rated tale, all in all, with whizbang writing by Roger Stern. By the time Action Comics #700 rolls around, the story had, directly or in-, tied up most of the plotlines coming out of Byrne's reboot of the line in 1986. The only collection of this that exists, as far as I've been able to tell, aside from The Death of Superman, is They Saved Luthor's Brain!

- JLA: Rock Of Ages: Aside from some tricky and thematic precursory material for Final Crisis, which you could take or leave, this is the story that transferred Luthor into a more generalised threat to existence in the DCU (see his biography on the Superman Homepage, for example). Here's he's got the Worlogog, the Sorcerer's Stone, and the Joker and the Mirror Master (noted coke-head Evan McCulloch, of dubious financial loyalty) to help him do a corporate raid on the Justice League. That concept is a little boneheaded, but the major point of the story--that there's a new Injustice League in town ready to stomp all over Superman's cabbage patch--is a well-deserved upgrade for Luthor.

The Bad (aka, Go Buy Our Cancer Year Instead):

-President Lex: I loved this story when it came out, but it tended to drag on and, in places, rear its head quite unexpectedly. Like in Green Lantern, when Judd Winick has Kyle Rayner's gay fried Terry get assaulted for Crimes Against Straighties, guess who shows up as the human rights Fidei Defensor? President Luthor. On a subtler note, though, making Luthor President was an excellent idea--but carried out somewhat glumly. Oh dear, Superman has to deal with his archenemy suddenly being in a (greater) position of authority (which probably pays less and hamstrings his anti-Superman shenanigans but not really) and he has to respect that position (which is exactly what Luthor was going for in the first place). In a way, then, by running, by winning, by doing anything at all to challenge Superman's admittedly cozy view of the world, Luthor had already won! He didn't even need to pull a war out of his bum to self-legitimise. Which brings us to...

-Lena Luthor/B13/Our Worlds at War: Must I say why? The birth of Lena was slightly moronical to begin with--Luthor begging Superman to return her was a tad uncharacteristic. Aging her into Brainiac-13's techno-organic familiar was fun, I'll admit, in a weird way; if having your own daughter extol the virtues of warmongering in the name of kingmaking is a strange and wondrous thing to read, thank you very much Jeph Loeb. Luthor's further role(s) in the Our Worlds At War story-arc were slightly more maddening. Again, this has to do with what we said about about him running for President/winning/doing anything at all. He's already put Superman into a sticky situation. By the end of this story, he'd killed off Lois' father (who came back fully 8 years later and crazier than usual), taken the credit for saving the universe--while indrectly causing most of the space-based trauma to begin with. Did Lex have to do anything further? Meh. His adroit skill at war manipulation, for fun and for influence, was admirable. Still...what was the freaking point of Imperiex? Oh joy, you've killed off Maxima, huzzah.

The Ugly (aka, Give it to Goodwill):

-52: I think I'm the only man on the planet who disliked what they did with Luthor here, partially because I revel in the xenophobic nutcase Luthor, who in turn revels in his own humanity and distinct un-Superman-ness. Luthor With Powers was one of the big problems I had with All-Star Superman, but I got over than when I figured Morrison was trying to make Lex less of a physical equal for Superman and more of a thematic or conceptual equal--put another way, Luthor's got Superman's powers and it's not even a matter of not deserving them. It's a matter of not comprehending them, or the man behind them, in the least.

52 circumvents all this. It gives Luthor Superman's powers and turns him into a raving, murderous psychopath--ever so much more than he's ever been, even on a bad day. We get that he wants to be Superman, but, eh, we liked him better as the utterly human paragon, however warped he may be, facing down a god. Does Luthor need powers to screw with Superman regularly? No. Is his villainy amplified with those powers? Sure, but it just doesn't feel like the Luthor we know and love. Luthor's bit is that he's human and Superman's is that he isn't. Respectively. Zilcho superpowers vs every goddamn power known to man. Giving Luthor powers in the manner 52 did was cheap. And thematically flimsy.

-Blackest Night: There I said it. Again: you're telling me that Lex Luthor, the man who wastes billions a month on his Anti-Superman budget, whose rampaging xenophobia and outright hatred of the Man of Steel can be seen in everything from Teen Titans to Brian Azzarello's 2005 miniseries, freely admits he wants to be Superman?(!) As in, powers and all? Yeesh.

-Venom!LiquidK!Armor!Luthor: I want to steer clear of Loeb-hate, but suffice it to say, it was a thoroughly numbskulled thing to have Luthor do, dope himself up on the DCU equivalent of ultra-amphetamines and an alien mineral that killed him once before--just so he can talk bad about Superman and get thrown through his own office! (Clancy Brown's thunderous adaptation in the DVD was highly awesome, though.)

-Salvation Run: Sure it cornered Luthor neatly into the 3rd example we saw above, with elements of the 1st, but it's a mostly passable story with two lasting elements. One is Luthor's sort of innate status of leader of any appreciable group of super-villains. The other is that the Joker will usually screw up that appreciable group. For the lolz.

-Birthright: There, I said it. And here's why: the amount of influence that that damnable Smallville show has exerted on the comics is maddening, not the least of which are the continual fuckarows with Luthor's origins. If I didn't care so much, I'd have given up in frustration after Infinite Crisis and 52. It's not that we don't like that he was in Smallville in his youth, Mark Waid, it's just that we don't care. Luthor knowing Kent before any of this superhero business begins is insignificant next to the relationship their adult selves have as rivals, and turns the mythos into little more than a bad 90210 rehash.

So now, like Jeph Loeb's insane, Waller-kissing, 'roided out version of Luthor, whose very own building collapsed on top of him, this little column of mine has descended into madness and incoherence.

Next Week: Scott Lang. (Or Hank Pym.) You decide!

Written or Contributed by: Chris
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