Last updated: September 27, 2004
When John Byrne re-booted Superman in 1986, he created Lex Luthor as a businessman, rather than the mad scientist we knew and loved (well, you know what I mean). Three early issues showcase the new Luthor.
Luthor first shows up in issue 4 of the Man of Steel miniseries. Luthor is older than Superman, and his bright red hair is rapidly receding. He is large and overweight but looks physically powerful and intimidating. He has made his wealth and describes himself as "the most powerful man in Metropolis". He has returned to Metropolis after a year's absence and meets both Clark Kent and Superman for the first time. His attempt to test Superman's abilities, and then to buy his services, lands him in jail. Luthor's parting words: "Remember, Superman. You're a dead man. It's just a question of how soon".
Luthor operates largely behind the scenes -- manipulating others to his ends. He creates or encourages many of Superman's foes -- starting with Bizarro in Man of Steel #5. Luthor's connection with the various villains is shown in Superman Villains Secret Files and Origins.
A good example of how Luthor works is in Adventures of Superman #424 (the first issue of the series, continuing the numbering of the old Superman comic), when he provides Lois with a serum to save her mother's life.
The catch is that the serum must be used monthly, is very expensive, and is only available through Luthor. Yet Luthor asks for no payment -- he just wants Lois to know that he cares for her, and gets her to agree to dinner with him. After Lois leaves, Luthor muses "Month in and month out, Lois Lane will be forced to gratefully accept my helping hand. And that is why I've already won." He also reveals the origin of Ellie Lane's illness. Now that's a villain!
Luthor's ruthlessness is well showcased in Superman #2. He rips out Metallo's kryptonite heart (using it to make a ring), has Lana Lang kidnapped and tortured, and does some very nasty things to his employees. All to manipulate Superman.
In these early stories, Luthor comes across as a chess master -- sacrificing some pawns and losing some moves, but confident of his overall strategy. An untouchable spider in a large and growing web. The tide finally begins to turn in Action Comics #600. Luthor, while trying to intimidate Captain Maggie Sawyer, slams his fist on his desk and collapses in pain. Dr. Kelley tells Luthor that he has kryptonite poisoning -- and it's likely to cost him his hand. After this issue, Lex has a mechanical right hand.
Luthor's early history is highlighted in the first two issues of The World Of Metropolis miniseries. The first issue begins with Perry White returning from 18 months overseas as a foreign journalist for the Daily Planet, owned by Luthor. We learn that Luthor and Perry were childhood friends, and used to be best friends. While Perry was away, Luthor seduced and bedded Perry's girl, Alice Spencer. Perry saves the paper and resolves matters with Alice. They marry, and have a son, Jerry. Alice doesn't reveal to Perry or Luthor that Jerry is Luthor's child.
The next issue of the miniseries focuses on Lois. To get a job at the Daily Planet, the 15 year old Lois breaks into LexCorp to get a scoop. Luthor catches her, but Lois gets away with a piece of paper. Her work impresses Perry and earns her a job. The focus of the issue is on Lois -- Luthor is mostly there to react and be villainous.
Luthor gets a much more in-depth story in the graphic novel, Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography. Written by James Hudnall, it has gorgeous art by Eduardo Barreto and Adam Kubert. Down and out reporter Peter Sands is murdered while working on an unauthorized biography of Luthor. The story opens with Clark Kent under police interrogation, accused of the murder.
We follow Sands as he investigates Luthor's past. We learn Luthor has written an autobiography, modestly titled "Simply Brilliant: Lex Luthor". The library microfiche provides details of Luthor's corporate takeovers and philanthropy. Sands' starts with Mrs. Anderson, Luthor's grade 7 teacher. She is also his last recorded teacher. She refers to Luthor as a genius, but a cruel boy -- especially to girls. Perry White is Luthor's only friend. Luthor is picked on by two boys until one day, when they come to school looking as if they had been in a serious accident. The rumour was that Luthor paid grown men to beat them up.
They never bothered Luthor again.
Through an interview with an insurance agent, we meet Luthor's father and get a glimpse of their home. The home is clearly poor and squalid. Luthor senior is an ugly and mean man, clutching his beer can. Shortly afterwards, Luthor's parents are killed in a car accident. Luthor inherits the large insurance monies. The circumstances of how the policy was obtained and of the accident are suspicious -- but were apparently never investigated.
Sands discovers that Luthor was involved in a heroin smuggling business -- to raise money for a high tech company that he dreamed of starting.
An old girlfriend describes her relationship with Luthor, and how he used the Daily Planet to attack competitors for government contracts.
Sands' final interview is with Luthor himself. The final pages of the graphic novel allow Luthor to explain and expound on his past. It shows both how evil and manipulative Luthor is. This is Luthor as chess master. It is a terrific and terrifying conclusion. Highly recommended.
The threads of this story also resurface nicely in Superman #131 (the murder of Mayor Berkowitz).
Another interesting graphic novel with Luthor in it is the "Clark Kent" novel, Superman: Under A Yellow Sun (by John Francis Moore of Elseworlds' Finest and Chronos fame, with art by Barreto, Gammill, and Janke). The graphic novel has two concurrent plots -- Clark trying to get some dirt on Luthor, while writing a novel whose main characters include a familiar protagonist and antagonist. While not advancing the character greatly, it is an interesting look at Luthor from Clark's view.
Superman's Greatest Enemy
Back in the regular books, Luthor next gets a spotlight while Superman is off in space. The Hostile Takeover storyline runs in the back of Superman #30, Adventures of Superman #453, Superman #31, and Adventures of Superman #454. Roger Stern writes a tale of Luthor the businessman, as he plots a takeover of STAR Laboratories. With Luthor, all is not as it seems and we only learn at the end of the storyline about his real motivation and of the extent of his abilities to manipulate others.
The first issue, Superman #30, contains the set-up and begins with Luthor reminiscing on his confrontations with the absent Superman. Stern provides a good review of the Luthor/Superman conflict. Luthor muses, "With Superman gone, I am denied the satisfaction of humbling him. In a way, I will actually miss him. Great men need great challenges and he was my greatest." In typical fashion, Luthor's next thought is to move on to having to find new "challenges".
The theme of Luthor defining himself as Superman's ultimate enemy is one that will continue to develop in later stories -- especially seen in his anger when Doomsday kills Superman, apparently cheating Luthor of the chance. At the end of the Hostile Takeover, a victorious Luthor is asked whether he is happy as to how everything went. He answers, "Happy? Yes, I suppose. This has been an invigorating exercise -- but it was almost too easy. For years, I've set myself against ... much more powerful opponents. I wonder if I shall ever again face any real challenges?"
In addition to the Hostile Takeover backstory, Superman #31 has Luthor meeting Mr. Mxyzptlk. Mxy (don't expect me to keep typing the full name) is in town and, with Superman absent, decides to look up Luthor.
Mxy plays on Luthor's fear of Superman and then plays on Luthor's backside (horse riding -- with spurs!). Luthor decides to exploit Mxy's weakness he doesn't know what a lie is. Luthor ups the ante by making a deal with Mxy and then trying to eliminate him. Mxy confronts Luthor about the deal and Luthor admits "...obviously, I lied." Fortunately, Mxy gets so angry, he leaves.
This issue shows the lengths to which Luthor will go when he feels threatened. Nothing is unthinkable when the chips are down. Luthor says, "There was no other position to take ... he had me backed into a corner."
This attitude arises again in the battle for and fall of Metropolis stories. It also shows that Luthor is capable of serious mistakes, or at least willing to risk them. The story ends with Luthor's nervous aide asking what if the experience has taught Mxy to lie. "What then, Mr. Luthor? What then?!?"
Superman returns to Earth in Action Comics #643. Luthor admits (to himself), "Strange. I must admit, I'm almost glad. Despite the strife ... regardless of the inconveniences ... A world without Superman can be pretty mundane, indeed."
A super-villain team up simmering on the back-burner for many issues is the Luthor/Brainiac team. Luthor has possession of the comatose Brainiac (I'll deal with how this comes about in the Brainiac article). In The Brainiac Trilogy (Action Comics #647-649), Brainiac takes mental control over Luthor's employees. Brainiac tries to kill Luthor, and then captures and toys with him. Luthor only gains his freedom when Brainiac uses his star-ship to escape Earth and Superman.
Death Takes It's Toll
The next issues focussing on Luthor are in the Krisis Of The Krimson Kryptonite (Superman #49, Adventures of Superman #472, Starman #28, Action Comics #659 and Superman #50 -- also collected in trade paperback). We start with a brief look at the human side of Luthor -- at the gravesite of his biological son, Jerry White. Lex is contemplating his cancer (from the kryptonite poisoning) and lack of "an heir to my fortunes when the cancer inside me finally takes its toll".
Fortunately, his maudlin thoughts are interrupted by Mxyzptlk in the form of red kryptonite. Mxy grants Luthor a wish, that removes Superman's powers. Luthor finally gets his chance to go one on one with the half-drowned hero and, after a few well placed punches, has his security eject Superman.
During the fight, Luthor tells Superman that he is doing this because he despises Superman and all that he stands for. He says "I've built this empire by being a good judge of my enemies' motivations -- greed, jealousy, lust for power ... I refuse to accept that those emotions do not exist in you". Interestingly, Luthor does not say that he uses positive motivations -- using people's altruism or trust. He seeks to find and use the evil or weakness in people.
Luthor's tossing Superman on the street, rather than killing him, is another example of how his mind works. He seeks to win by humiliating and breaking Superman. Luthor wants Superman to know that he is in control. He leaves the dirty work to others, who will come gunning for Superman once word is out that he is powerless.
The alien Starman (from the Roger Stern written series) impersonates Superman and confronts Luthor. The setback is only temporary, though, as Mxy reveals the impostor. However, Luthor's arrogance is his undoing as he reveals Mxy's involvement to Clark Kent (by Mxy's rules, Superman gets his powers back if Luthor reveals the imp's involvement).
Luthor's arrogance continues to blind him to the connection between Clark and Superman (as in Superman #2) despite knowing the rules that Superman's powers would return only if he told Superman. He tells only Clark, yet the powers return. Despite Luthor using the masquerade of a philanthropic businessman, he refuses to believe that someone as powerful as Superman would bother to disguise himself as a mere mortal.
Superman returns to find Dr. Kelley caring for an unconscious Luthor.
Superman knows that Luthor is dying. The WGBS newscast has set up phone lines for viewers to say whether they believe the rumours of Luthor's health (call 1-900-LEX-LIVE or 1-900-LEX-DEAD). Luthor is back to maudlin at the end of Superman #50, musing over "vultures circling the dying man" with "no heir to an empire".
The Death Of Luthor comes in Action Comics #660. A great cover has Luthor on the floor, cowering from a grim reaper who has a skull face, scythe, flowing robes and Superman's shield. It begins with a dream sequence showing Luthor's fear of death and of Superman. He expresses anger to Dr. Kelley over the radiation from the kryptonite that he could have used to kill Superman. Instead, the radiation is claiming his life. "Superman has haunted me for the better part of a decade Kelley. And now ... he is going to be the death of me."
Luthor continues to worry about his death and lack of an heir. Dr. Kelley tells him that he has about a year at the most to live. We also learn that Luthor invented the Lex-Wing, a jet plane that launched the LexCorp empire and "captured the world's imagination and made me a household word."
Thoughts of the Lex-Wing inspire Luthor. He announces to the press that he will be going on the new X-27 model to attempt a record for flying around the world from pole to pole. His parting words to Kelley are "while I am still able, I aim to give this world something to remember!"
Over the ocean, Luthor ejects his pilot and takes the controls himself.
Later, the plane suddenly falls and crashes in Peru. Superman hears the news and rushes to the site. Amid the wreckage, spread across half the mountainside, Superman finds Luthor's artificial hand. That night, Superman, in disbelief, thinks "He made himself my most persistent enemy. I still can't believe it's over ... I never thought it would end this way."
But of course, it didn't.