Egomaniac, billionaire, inventor, astrobiologist, philanthropist, former President of the United States, and super-villain. Lex Luthor could save the human race ten times over if he wasn’t so obsessed with destroying the only thing he can never be: Superman. Unlike the Joker, Lex Luthor doesn’t instantly intrigue fans. He isn’t a pop-culture poster child fit to be inked onto campaign posters, money, or flesh. No one is shaving their head in tribute to Lex Luthor. His villainy is frequently more concealed and defined by the long-con instead of the flashy substance that superhero comics are often made of.
Lex Luthor never held much interest for me as a child, despite my interest in Superman. I collected Superman comics, not as diligently as Batman, but I still had stacks by the hundreds and it was the monsters that interested me: Parasite, Doomsday, Conduit, Metallo, Darkseid. A bald white man in a business suit was about as far from my general area of interest as you could get. Lex Luthor didn’t look like a monster, didn’t wear his sins stretched across his face, and it was only when I got older and a little more aware of the world that I realized that was the most appealing aspect of his character. Lex Luthor’s villainy is cut from the cloth of our reality as it is, and as the world continues to shift under our feet to the will of tectonic plates made of fear-mongering and intolerance, he becomes an increasingly relevant figure.
Lex Luthor first appeared in Action Comics #23 in April 1940, going only by his last name Luthor. But the conceptions for the character began before that, before even Superman had been defined. In fact, both Lex Luthor and Superman were born from the same character. In 1933, five years before the Superman we know hit the stands, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster published a story titled “The Reign of the Superman” featuring an impoverished bald man who is given telepathic superpowers which he uses to try to destroy the world…until the powers fade and he falls back into a life of poverty and obscurity. The bald man, determined to rule the world and be remembered is one of the defining traits of Lex Luthor. But even when he first appeared in Action Comics, these pieces hadn’t quite clicked into place yet. In his first appearance, Luthor was a red haired genius who lived in an airship and was intent in creating war between America and Europe until he is defeated by Superman. In his second appearance, his plans are even grander with Luthor having created a continent complete with genetically engineered dinosaurs. One could never accuse Luthor of not aiming as high as he could. His bald head actually occurred as a mistake in a newspaper strip when the artist mistook Luthor for another character, and it has been a defining characteristic ever since.
Almost from the beginning, Luthor stood frighteningly close to our own reality, becoming one of the first characters in fiction to use an atomic bomb, in a story that the U.S. Department of Defense kept delayed for two years. While other stories at the time featured heroes fighting villains in colorful costumes, and strange beings from other planets and dimensions, Luthor always remained a human example of the worst of our capabilities. Luthor disappeared for quite a while, perhaps because a bomb-toting would-be American dictator didn’t sit so well with publishers as America entered WWII. It wasn’t until 1960 that Siegel defined Luthor’s origin, revealing him as a childhood friend of Clark Kent and a resident of Smallville who tries to produce a cure for Superboy’s kryptonite weakness that starts a fire. When Superman tries to blow out the fire he blows the chemicals on Luthor leaving him bald and turning the friends into bitter-enemies. Through the decades, Lex Luthor grew to more closely resemble DC Comics’s other major supervillains, adopting a colorful open-collared costume, and eventually adopting a battle suit. Luthor’s image became even more defined by the outlandish due to the Challenge of the Super Friends cartoon.
My first encounter with Lex Luthor wasn’t in the form of the purple and green clad mad scientist who reigned during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, but the businessman Lex Luthor introduced in John Byrne’s retelling of Superman’s origins in 1986’s The Man of Steel. This Luthor was an older, overweight, balding but still redheaded businessman whose evil wasn’t a result of Superboy but a childhood of poverty and abuse. It was in Byrne’s version that LexCorp and Luthor’s business-minded interest in science were introduced. And it is this version I’ve grown to appreciate, which absolutely bored me as a child. Around the same time that I discovered Luthor in the comics, Superman: The Animated Series began, in the style and tradition of the enduringly popular Batman: The Animated Series. In this series, Luthor was still a businessman with his hands in experimental and illegal science. Voiced by Clancy Brown, Luthor was ruthless, handsome, powerfully built, and battled Superman with a sheer intensity and confidence that seemed far more adult than his costume clad counterparts. Lex Luthor seemed real. He wasn’t a favorite character of mine, not yet, but he was more interesting than his comics incarnation.
Though Luthor was always present in my increasingly varied comic book interests, it wasn’t until high-school and my enjoyment, nay obsession, with the show Smallville that I really found Lex Luthor interesting. Here was a young man determined to be good, but setback by lies, secrets, and a cruel father, left him destined for evil. Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex was charming, charismatic, well-read, and the perfect older brother figure for the young Clark Kent. And it was that relationship between the two that I found fascinating, that two characters so different and yet so similar could be friends and one day end up as enemies. In Smallville I got the Lex with all the moral complexities and shades of gray that I’d been denied by Gene Hackman’s buffoonish real-estate investor.
The show was catered towards adolescents, but as an adolescent myself, it gave me an entry point into questions of adulthood and how someone could end up bad. Questions of morality consumed much of my time, in part to my education as a non-Catholic at a Catholic school, and my fascination of sweeping tales of good and evil. Lex Luthor ultimately ended up being one of my first considerations of shades of grey, of the deeper characterizations that defined by New Hollywood and auteur driven films I was just getting into. I understood the inherent Luthor-ness in Michael Corleone as he shut Kay out of his life in The Godfather, the Luthor-ness of Howard Beale’s mad commitment to waking up society as he launches into his tirade in Network, and the Luthor-ness of Daniel Plainview as he smashes Eli’s head in with a bowling pin in There Will Be Blood. And hopefully, it will be these shades of Luthor-ness that define Jesse Eisenberg’s performance.
So who is Lex Luthor? He’s human progress in both the worst and best ways, a man who will force us to confront our human weaknesses whether we want to or not because he believes it will ultimately make us better. Superman is a gift, a handout, that Lex Luthor says we do not need to survive, and that we in fact cannot survive with him in our lives. With a Superman there to rescue us and tell us what to do, human beings no longer need to depend on themselves, or struggle, or find their own means, moral or immoral to make their lives better. Superman makes us weak and lazy and denies us all the opportunity to survive natural selection. Lex Luthor believes that a Superman should be exactly that, a self-accomplished man, not an alien with powers of a god. Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo explored these very notions in 2005’s Lex Luthor: Man of Steel. Alongside the previously discussed television shows, it is this series, Maid Waid and Leinil Francis Yu’s Superman: Birthright, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, and movies that couldn’t be further from superhero blockbusters that have defined the character for me. Lex Luthor will cheer for the human race, try to wake it up while sacrificing personal pleasures, but he’ll also bash your head in if you’re too slow to catch on, whether that be literally or metaphorically.
I recently returned to John Byrne’s Superman run, and in the back of Superman #9 (1987), there’s a short story titled “Metropolis 900 Mi.” In it, Luthor goes to a diner just outside of Metropolis and tells a waitress that he’ll give her a million dollars to leave her husband, and come stay with him for a month in Metropolis. He condemns her lifestyle, her decision not to go to college and take the opportunity to better herself, he makes her feel worthless by analyzing every life choice she’s made by reading her like an open book. He gives her ten minutes to decide, but pulls away before the ten minutes are up, leaving the waitress to question what decision she would have made while thinking about her own worthless choices determined by her own inaction. It’s one of the most brilliant stories in the entire medium, and leaves a character we’ll never see again in either the cruelest position possible or the most proactive one. This Luthor at his most vile. This is Luthor at his best.
Our world is filled with grey men who turn a shade darker with each passing day, whose complicated attempts to better themselves and better humanity make for fascinating fiction, but a dire reality. Lex Luthor is a testament to our reality, our Manhattan Project mad science creating a fictional mad scientist in the 40s and 50s, our ruthless businessmen creating a fictional ruthless businessman in the 80s and 90s, our compromised President creating a fictional compromised President in the early 2000s. Currently Lex Luthor is a superhero, a member of the Justice League who’s more morally gray than ever. It won’t last, and he certainly won’t become a white knight, so perhaps this year, of all years, we should start considering where the next definition of Lex Luthor will come from and if we can prevent his rise in this reality, because this time the villain isn’t a dark reflection, but a very real threat we have the power to defeat or deliver.
Featured Image: Lee Bermejo (DC Comics)