by Michael Hutchison
Lex Luthor began his comic book life as a red-headed generic mad scientist who fought Superman in Action Comics #23. At the time, there were no pretentions that this would be Superman's arch-nemesis.
Over the years, Lex evolved into Superman's main thorn-in-the-side. I'm sure part of his mystique was that he had the magic initials of the Superman Universe, L.L.
When the Superman mythos had grown to feature Superboy ("the adventures of Superman when he was a boy!"), Lex Luthor's history was expanded consequentially. It was revealed that Lex Luthor lived in Smallville and became fast friends with Superboy after saving his life from a piece of Kryptonite. The two became great buddies, and Lex was working on a cure for Superboy's vulnerability to Kryptonite when a fire broke out in his lab. Superboy rushed to the rescue and blew out the fire...and the chemical blaze caused Lex's hair to be blown out. Angry, Lex swore revenge on Superboy and the two became rivals as Lex descended into a life of crime.
(I believe that this story was later rewritten to try to give Lex a greater motivation than "lost his hair". As a guy who started losing his wonderful head of thick hair his freshman year of college, I can tell you: that's plenty.)
Lex Luthor was an absolute genius. He could build a Phantom Zone projector from a flashlight, a band-aid and the cap off a glue bottle. His plots against Superman would often involve a new invention or a strange discovery made during his quest to find something with which to hurt Superman.
As the Silver Age moved into the modern age, Lex had more and more of a tragic side. Superman and/or Lex would lament how much good Lex could have done if not for his obsession with defeating Superman. In particular, writer Elliot S! Maggin could write a hell of a good Luthor story any day of the week. (Check out Maggin's two novels, "Superman: Miracle Monday" and "Superman: Last Son of Krypton", to read his best characterization of Lex.) The charity benefit book "Heroes Against Hunger" offered one example of Lex's possibilities; he calls a truce with Superman in order to feed part of Africa. (So, is Africa full now? Nobody ever mentions the African hungry these days. I guess thousands of people paying a few bucks for a comic book must have solved the problem, because they never had to do another such project. These days William Messner-Loebs can't make his house payment, but in the 1980s comic sales could feed every bloated belly on a continent!) (There's always one ninny who thinks I'm being naive, for whom I have to point out that I'm talking tongue-in-cheek, so: I'm talking tongue-in-cheek, okay?)
As an example of Lex's better side, Lex Luthor would occasionally visit a planet where he was considered a hero. On this planet, which renamed itself "Lexor" after their savior, Lex was a visionary inventor, a public figure...and a devoted husband to a beautiful Lexorian wife! (See "Luthor -- Super Hero! in Superman #168)
In Action #544, Lex finally decides to relocate to Lexor permanently. He and his wife Ardora settle down to begin a family, and Lex leaves Superman and his life of crime behind him in order to focus on bettering the planet via science. One of Lex's inventions is a stabilizing rod which prevents the planet core from exploding. However, when Superman arrives looking for him, Lex adopts his battlesuit (which became his new look for the early 1980s) and the two fight in the upper atmosphere. Lex fires a fireball which bounces off Superman and strikes the stabilizing rod, causing the planet Lexor to explode.
Naturally, Lex blames it all on Superman, and Lex's loss of his wife and the other Lexorians becomes his new all-consuming motivation.
In 1986, John Byrne and Marv Wolfman became the new writers of the Superman books, and they revamped Superman from the ground up, up and away. Superman's powers were greatly reduced (not that they weren't impressive, but he wasn't bathing in suns and leaping interstellar distances anymore) and his character was taken back to the original concept before the addition of 48 years of continuity. On top of this, they added their own take and spins on the original mythos.
One of their out-and-out changes was that Lex Luthor was no longer a rogue scientist. He was, instead, the most powerful and untouchable man in Metropolis. From his L-shaped tower (which, like the World Trade Center of the time, jutted far into the sky above the rest of the city skyline), Lex would ruin careers, torment the women around him and wage corporate wars all for his own personal gain and no one could stop him. However, when he tried to lure Superman into the open by allowing a group of terrorists to threaten innocent people, Superman (deputized by Metropolis' mayor) placed Lex under arrest for endangerment. Lex was on the streets within an hour, but he would never forget that it was Superman who refused an offer of employment and instead challenged his authority. To Lex, Superman was a threat to his monopoly of the Metropolitans' affections.
From 1986 to 2000, Lex Luthor has NEVER been defeated by Superman. He has suffered at the hands of fate, sure. His wearing of a Kryptonite ring cost him his hand and eventually his life. He had his brain transferred into the body of a young clone, under the pretense that this was his illegitimate Australian son. When this charade fell apart and Lex fell deathly ill, he attempted to take Metropolis down with him. (Metropolis was destroyed...but then Zatanna magically rebuilt it all over again.) He bargained with Neron for a renewed, vigorous body (but still bald; go figure) during 1995's "Underworld Unleashed," and he regained his reputation by assisting the superheroes during the "Final Night" in 1996. He has since blamed the attack on Metropolis on an evil clone of himself...which is, actually, true. Thus, Lex continues his dominance of Superman, untouchable by the law.
Before I get to recent developments, I need to voice my major complaint with the whole 1986 revamp of Lex Luthor. See, I hate the entire idea.
First of all, it all seems like an overwrought cynical exaggeration of the way New Yorkers view Big Business. The mystique during the 1980s was that corporate raiders ruled the world, ruined the lives of the downtrodden for their own benefit and got away with all of it because they had the world in their pocket. (I realize that, in addition to a social "feeling" of the time, there really is an entire political school of thought which believes this to be utterly true, but I don't have the space or the patience to try to disprove anyone's entire worldview.)
Obviously, this is what Wolfman and Byrne were commenting on in their redesign of Lex Luthor, but there are three major problems with it:
Lex continued his wealth-soaked reign by financing the rebuilding of Gotham City and gave his own daughter to Brainiac in exchange for the futuristic technology behind the 1999 redesign of Metropolis. Then, in 2000, he formed a third party and ran for president...and won.
Boy! If you thought Lex's continuing freedom as a dirty businessman got under my skin...you can imagine how much I love this idea.
I suppose anyone who thinks I'm naive in my beliefs about Big Business is just going to elevate me to a full-fledged Pollyana if I say that I believe such a thing would not happen in real life. (No, please, no e-mails full of info about the Truth About Halliburton and how Bush fired a missile at the Pentagon himself.) Obviously, the goings-on in the administrations of Harding, Johnson, Nixon and especially Clinton-Gore prove that the American people don't always vote for the most sainted candidate. Still, it's hard to believe that Lex would make it in, just given the extraordinary microscope candidates get put under. And it's a little offensive to be told once again by the Superman offices that Americans are a flock of sheep. Oh, but they can just take the curse off that by running yet another image of Superman with an eagle and a flag.
[Aside: This is a whole separate rant that I never managed to turn into a proper article, but I've been mighty annoyed that the Superman offices have been shying away from the whole "...and the American Way" thing. I think too many writers misinterpret that to mean that Superman works for America, when it's really more a commitment to the ideals of the country. Of course, 15 years of Lex Luthor being a respected businessman kinda proves that the Superman office doesn't have a lot of idealism anymore. In Superman #178, Uncle Sam, tainted by Lex Luthor's distrust of aliens, attacked Superman. This was the umpteenth dramatization of the comic world's belief that, post-9-11, Americans would turn into a bunch of xenophobes who would beat up immigrants out of hate and fear. At the end of the story, Clark and Lois talk about how the phrase "American Way" seems too limiting for Superman. I guess no one told the cover artists for Adventures of Superman #600, because the very next week Superman strutted on the racks, flag waving, by the text "NOW MORE THAN EVER: For Truth, Justice and the American Way!"]
There are any of a hundred things wrong with the way the whole Lex presidency thing has been handled in the Superman books, to the point that one has to chalk it up to an absolute ignorance of the American system. The Superman writers seem to have given it no further thought than, "Wouldn't it be horrible for Superman if Lex Luthor was the President of the United States and Superman had to treat him with respect?"
Their view of the Presidency as if it was some kind of Imperial throne is, well, odd. It's as if Congress doesn't exist in the DCU; a third party president with few allies on either side of the aisle should be a man without a mandate. The American system is all about checks and balances and limitations on executive power and freedom of the people, but the Superman writers write Lex Luthor as if he had succeeded Castro as dictator of Cuba.
For some reason, it's taken as a kind of law that Superman must treat any man in the Oval Office with respect. Excuse me? Superman is an AMERICAN, and we can say and think whatever we like about the president. Superman could exercise his God-given American First Amendment freedom of speech rights and just tell the President of the United States to take a flying leap. What the heck do they think "and the American way" means, if not at least that?
And I'm still unclear as to why he didn't openly campaign against Lex Luthor in the first place. I know Superman has, in the past, stressed how he'd like to stay out of meddling in normal affairs of politics, but this is LEX LUTHOR, the man who tortured his high school girlfriend and tormented him in so many other ways. Superman could have turned the tide with one smiling statement into a TV camera about his belief that the American people won't make the bad choice of choosing Luthor.
How Do You Solve A Problem Like Lex Luthor?
I'm not saying that "Lex Luthor becomes President" couldn't be a good plot, but so far it's terrible. It's very unclear as to what Lex gains via the presidency that he didn't have as an unstoppable juggernaut tycoon with more money than Uncle Scrooge McDuck.
There is also the matter of it breaking from reality at the most inopportune time. I'm sure this all seemed like a great gag in 1999. The Clinton presidency was winding down and the American people seemed to believe that any doofus with a James Carville campaign and Alan Greenspan at the helm could become president and then coast for 8 years while mouthing pithy slogans like "I feel your pain." Respect for the presidency was way down, and the general concensus of 2000 was that neither of the candidates was very good (not the opinion of yours truly, to be sure, but I'm speaking generally). So why not just have Lex Luthor take over the office?
Now we have Lex Luthor as president while America is in the middle of a war, and the DCU has to pretend that it's not happening in the DC Universe. (Or is it? Apparently the WTC was attacked sometime between "Our Worlds At War" and Superman #178, since Superman mentions it. But aside from that one mention, the war against the "terrorists" seems to have not happened in the DCU.)
Will Lex Luthor serve out a full term? I figured he'd be impeached and removed if for no other reason than to prevent the addition of a trackable full four year term to the DC Timeline. And, as I've stated above, Lex Luthor really needs to be well and truly defeated for once and for all so that Superman wins.
It bothers me that Superman has never gone on the offensive and used every means at his disposal to take down Lex Luthor. A simple recording device in his costume could have gotten some evidence at some point, given how openly Luthor talks to Superman of his plans.
On the Justice League TV show, meanwhile, that is exactly what happened. Superman engages the Justice League in some subterfuge to undo Luthor's pretense of being a respected businessman, and Luthor goes to prison. How sweet! If only that had happened in the actual books at some point between 1986 and today.
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This piece is © 2002 by Gerald Wilson
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