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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Comics Rainbow - Lex Luthor

Well this has been a strange year for the Superman franchise.  On the one hand it enjoyed what has been easily the franchise’s best live action installment since Superman 2 in the form of CBS’ Supergirl.  On the other hand, it was struck a possible deathblow by the worst live action Superman entry of all time in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film so bad it killed any future plans for more Superman movies.  Given my maniacal obsession with topicality and the fact we’re still talking about Superman related things I figured I’d jump on board with a look at Superman’s greatest foe Lex Luthor. 

Lex Luthor is one of the most well-known and oldest super villains of all time, first being introduced in 1940 and working his way through numerous live action and animated adaptation.  In the 70 plus years of his time in the comics he’s gone through numerous changes and re-imaginings, some terrible, some brilliant, some meh and we’re going to dive in to get the full spectrum on all of them.  

Firstly let me just assure you that this Lex Luthor did not dye his hair that color, it was apparently just that red.  Okay, a little background is required here.  After DC re-invented itself in 1986 with Crisis on Infinite Earths Lex Luthor underwent some radical changes.  

We’ll cover those a little later on but as the momentum of the DC reboot slowed the Superman writers decided to kick start interest by having Luthor seemingly die and get replaced by his son Lex Luthor Jr.  Lex Jr. was his father’s opposite; hunky and well built, hairy as all get out, and outwardly altruistic.  One other way he was Luthor’s opposite was that the fans hated him. 

Yeah, in a shocking twist it turns out nobody was interested in a good Lex Luthor sporting a full head of hair and banging Supergirl.  That was another weird twist of the era, introducing a new Supergirl who became involved with Lex Jr. even though they were basically siblings (it was complicated and gross.)  

Eventually Luthor Jr. ran his course of fan hatred and disinterest and it was revealed he was actually just a clone that the real Luthor had put his brain inside of.  Since then we’ve all agreed to just never mention Luthor Jr. again, to the point that he tends to get excised from adaptations of Death of Superman despite being a key figure in that story.

Fun fact about the set-up for Comics Rainbow, the color alignment is actually based on the emotional spectrum from the Green Lantern mythos.  If you’ve never encountered it before, it’s basically a set-up of colors to emotions so red becomes anger/hate, orange is avarice, yellow is fear, green is courage, blue is hope, indigo is compassion, and violet is love.  

This was all revealed in a big, multi-year storyline where each color got its own core and then fought ring-powered zombies called Black Lanterns.  In the midst of that event, a bunch of Earth heroes and villains got lantern powers like the Flash became a blue lantern and Lex Luthor became an Orange Lantern of Avarice. 

That’s a lot of set-up for “Lex Luthor has power equal to/greater than Green Lantern” but the set-up is part of why I like this version of so much.  He’s steeped in DC myth and lore but in a way that makes use of the company’s history and concepts and expands on them well.  Throwing a character like Luthor into a completely different corner of the DCU is the entire point of a shared universe.  

What’s more, Luthor is a perfect fit for the Orange Lantern role.  I think a lot of people tend to interpret the idea of avarice as just being “greedy” but it’s more about control and Lex Luthor is all about control in a lot of his best interpretations.  That’s the big contribution of making Lex a business overlord, it emphasizes his obsession with control and egomania to set himself up as Superman’s ideal opposite. 

This is an even more recent reworking of Lex Luthor but I’ll be damned if I’m letting it slide.  So, a while back DC had an event called Forever Evil.  In it, the JLA was rendered incapacitated by their evil counterparts from a parallel universe and it fell to a handful of villains to actually stop the evil version of the Justice League.  It’s a big, dumb, weird idea that was dumb in concept and twice as dumb in execution but part of the aftermath was that Lex Luthor ended up a key member of the Justice League, which is also dumb. 

All the stuff I just mentioned about Luthor’s massive ego and desperate need for control are part of why he’s such a poor fit for the league.  He’s a villain through and through, some might say he’s THE villain and it’s all because he’s too stubborn, petulant, and self-important to even consider acting altruistically.  Having Luthor join the JLA completely ruins why his character works or is even remotely interesting, turning him into just another smart guy hero.  The entire concept forced him into the role of diet Iron Man and it was a terrible look. 

A lot of folks seemed convinced this was a bold expansion of Luthor’s character but I’m really not sure why.  I understand the desire to see a villain redeemed but this really doesn’t feel like the path Luthor would take to being a good guy, especially cause his various character flaws weren’t really solved by his joining the league.  Even though he was now counted as one of Earth’s mightiest heroes he was still a smug, self-obsessed jackass who often put the team in jeopardy for his own ego. 

I’ve discussed this period of Luthor’s time as a villain previously but in case you missed that here’s the skinny.  After Luthor lost the Orange ring at the end of the Blackest Night event he took over as the main character of Action Comics.  During this time, Luthor was obsessed with regaining his lost power and went on a massive adventure to the corners of the universe to regain it.  It’s one of the all-time great villain comic books and the perfect blend of Luthor’s greatest attributes.  

Right from the start Luthor’s ego and sociopathy are put front and center, with the arc of the comic being how we relate to this madman.  We see him as the embodiment of cold, villainous inhumanity, as a bold adventurer fueled by his own unwavering self importance, as a necessary evil against threats greater than himself, even as a human with the need to be challenged and doubted. 

Aside from how fully realized as person Luthor is, the series also draws from the character’s entire comic history.  Ever since the 1986 DC reboot Luthor’s often been locked into the role of evil businessmen but Action Comics manages to bring back his rogue scientist roots without alienating the stuff that worked about modern Luthor.  

He’s the billionaire head of a massive corporation but that’s just used to give him the resources to run all over the galaxy doing crazy science and make companion robots.  The series does a great job finding the complexity and multi-facetted identity that’s kept Luthor so popular for over 75 years. 

Speaking of Luthor’s rogue scientist days, let’s talk about that for a minute.  Most folks nowadays tend to associate Luthor with his company Lex Corp, and think of him as an evil businessmen type bad guy.  It’s actually pretty surprising how well known this version of Luthor has become, given that it only came into being in 1986 and for the most part hasn’t been adapted that often.  

By the time Luthor got his corporation most of the live action adaptations of Superman had come and gone, and even some of the remaining ones didn’t include it, such as Superman Returns.  As such, a lot of folks forget that for most of Luthor’s existence, for about 40 years or so, he was a jack-of-all-trades rogue scientist. 

Given how closely tied this classic version of Lex Luthor is to the goofiest elements of the Silver Age (the dude had statues of history’s greatest criminals in his secret lair) a lot of modern fans have been happy to turn their back on this era and I think that’s a big mistake.  I love business Luthor, we’ll get to him in a bit, but Lex’s time as a crazy underground scientist, building power armor out of stolen and salvaged components in secret headquarters is some of the character’s greatest stuff.  

It emphasized the more whimsical and crazy sci-fi aspects of the Superman universe without needing to be self-conscious over its own high concept nature.  What’s more, Luthor was brimming with personality in this era, even he was more linked in identity to Superman than ever before.  The whole concept of the character in these books was that he had such a vendetta against Superman he was more willing to create evil science than just patent his inventions and get rich, that’s dedication to your villainy. 

I’ve spoken before about Luthor’s time as President but in case you missed that post firstly: no, this wasn’t a scheme.  Luthor actually ran and was elected President of the United States fairly by the people of America.  It’s an odd story owing to how much it has to bend over backwards to explain why everyone would just shrug and vote Luthor.  

Part of this came from the era, this was the later ‘90s, after the Clinton sex scandal had crystallized the growing faux anti-establishment vibe and directionless nihilism of the era.  Basically, the prevailing societal attitude was “screw everything” so the comics reflected that by having folks just say “whatever” and vote Lex the presidency. 

It was stupid and I mean laughably stupid, especially given that none of the DCU’s superheroes did a damn thing to keep the populous from voting for a man with a skull shaped orbital death satellite (yes, really.)  The idea of Luthor buying his way into the presidency is pretty cool in the same vein as Penguin becoming mayor of Gotham, as it creates a new dynamic for the heroes as they now have to work against the government grain, but it never amounted to anything.  Not long after Luthor became President 9/11 happened and suddenly no one really wanted “evil US government” storylines.

The Luthor administration lasted awhile longer with really no major surprises.  The biggest involvement President Luthor had with continuity was just being around during a big dumb event comic called Our Worlds At War, a book so directionless and dumb it’s been stricken from collective memory.  Eventually Luthor was impeached for using the super steroid venom while in office, even though he was using the steroid to try and kill Batman and Superman, for some reason that wasn’t a good enough reason to impeach just the steroid abuse.  The whole thing was a shabby end to a shabby business. 

Businessmen Luthor has been looming over this entire list from the word go.  As I mentioned, Luthor spent his first 40 years as a classic super villain, a rogue mad scientist with mechanical armor jumping from secret lair to secret lair and building gadgets to pester the heroes.  That all changed in 1986 when DC rebooted its whole universe in attempts to make things more adult.  Rogue scientist Luthor was out and Machiavellian businessman Luthor was in.  Making Luthor a rich CEO was a smart move to evolve the character as, after all, if Luthor could invent robots and super suits why not just patent his inventions and make a fortune? 

Obviously, fans loved the change as it became immediately accepted and so ingrained in the character’s history it now seems odd if he ISN’T a Lex Corp billionaire.  The weird thing is that the initial rich Luthor re-imagining wasn’t all that great.  His wealth came with a trade off of being interesting as he tended to just sit back and taunt Superman from afar while pretty much inventing every Superman villain like Metallo and the Parasite.  Eventually writers realized it was cooler to have Lex Corp build all kinds of crazy science projects and keep Luthor as a science genius as well as a savvy businessman and the whole idea got a lot cooler.

The reason I think LexCorp is so beloved and so many authors come back to it so often comes back to that control aspect I mentioned earlier.  Luthor’s wealth allows him to own and control Metropolis through power that Superman actually can’t match: financial and political power.  It’s a maneuvering tactic to give him an edge on Superman beyond just weird science and it emphasizes the idea that Luthor exists as an opposite of Superman’s inspirational aspects.  It makes LexCorp this looming, monolithic construct in its own right that can blot out the sun and step on people’s lives, where Superman exists to raise us up Luthor and LexCorp exists to keep us underfoot. 

I wasn’t originally going to comment on this version of Luthor as he’ll likely be gone in a few months but I promised the full spectrum on Lex Luthor and I’d be remise in my duties if I didn’t touch on Super Lex.  Recently, as in this year, DC is undergoing yet another rebranding/reboot event entitled DC Rebirth.  Rebirth is more or less an attempt to reverse the past 5 years of disappointment and destruction worked by the disasters New 52, whose early high sales quickly gave way to fan disinterest and alienated audiences.  

A big part of DC Rebirth is that DC is greatly expanding its roster of Superman titles in the wake of its New 52 Superman getting killed and replaced by the classic Superman we all knew prior to 2011.  This return comes with a weird caveat as classic Superman must now contend with a new quasi-heroic Lex Luthor: Super Lex. 

While it might seem like this is the same as Luthor joining the JLA I actually really like the core concept of Super Lex.  Luthor’s obsession with Superman has evolved into a unique form of inferiority, which is one of his most interesting facets.  Luthor hates Superman for much the same reason Ozymandias hates Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen: because Superman invalidates Lex as the Earth’s great person.  

What makes Lex even pettier and unique is that deep down he knows that invalidation is well deserved.  He secretly knows that he’s actually just a miserable selfish jerk but Superman is his ultimate excuse to live down to the lofty goals he sets for himself.  The whole thing is like some brilliant Greek tragedy. 

Having Lex dawn Superman’s costume and go forth to fight crime is a great way to blend his pre-existing egomania with the possibility of redemption.  Outwardly, his rejection of his identity as Luthor and embrace of Superman’s iconography speaks to personal growth, finally learning to put aside his own need for validation and emphasize action as a way to showcase his own abilities, importance, and potential.  

On the flip side, Lex Luthor is still the iconic villain of all time and setting himself up as a replacement Superman could easily be a twist, a way to get people to worship him and pander to his already massive inflated ego.  Only time will tell which it was (though it’s probably the latter) but in the meanwhile it’s a great new direction to take this character in. 
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