Sunday, November 01, 2015

Essays on Comics Characters: Lex Luthor!


luthor goldenAs I wrote about the Joker last month, I figured that this month I should turn to Superman's arch-foe, Lex Luthor, as the subject of this month's essay on comics characters! And why not? Luthor has been around longer than many superheroes, and he's definitely one of the iconic super-villains.

luthor challenge
Luther's initial appearances had him with a full
head of red hair.
Luther first appeared, sans first name, in Action Comics #23, cover-dated April 1940, as a mad scientist type wearing a lab jacket and red hair, with his headquarters in a flying city, and his plan involves getting two nations to war with each other. Naturally, he's stopped by Superman. He would return again in Superman #4, in two stories in this issue, first challenging Superman to a duel (his weapons against Superman's powers), and then in a plot involving recreated prehistoric monsters (decades before Jurassic Park)! Clearly, he was a genius.

luthor golden age
When he came back, Luthor was bald!
Luthor's next appearance was in the Superman comic strip, where he was depicted as being bald! Two theories about how this occurred have been posited: One is that the artist (Leo Nowak) mistook Luthor for the Ultra-Humanite; another is that he mistook Luthor for a bald henchman. Either way, this change proved permanent (later revisionist history had it that the red-haired Luthor was Alexi Luthor, the Luthor of Earth-2, while the bald Luthor was Lex Luthor of Earth-1).

Luther has the distinction of being the first character in a comic book to use an atomic bomb, although this 1944 story was delayed in publication until 1946 by the Defense Department's request. He disappeared from the comics for a while after that, until 1957, when he made his first appearance in Superboy #59, where he was presented as an adult, and using the alias of Amazing Man! It would be three years later before Luthor appeared in the form we've come to expect of his appearances in Superboy, appearing at Superboy's age in Adventure Comics #271's origin story. 

luthor superboy
Luthor blames Superboy for his hair loss!
luthor lena
Lena Thorul, Lex's sister.
This story formed the basis for the Earth-1 Lex Luthor's backstory until Crisis on Infinite Earths, and should be familiar to most of you, but just in case it isn't, I'll recap: The teenage Luthor saves Superboy from a chance encounter with Kryptonite, and in return, Superboy builds Lex a lab. Weeks later, Luthor creates an antidote to Kryptonite poisoning, but before he can give it to Superboy, a fire breaks out in Luthor's lab. Superboy arrives on the scene and uses his super-breath to blow the flames out, but exposure to the chemical fumes causes Lex to lose his hair. Lex decides that Superboy caused the fire and made him bald on purpose, as he was jealous of Lex's genius, and turns to evil, plaguing Superboy every chance he could after that.

This turn to evil disturbed Lex's family to no end, and they moved away from Smallville, changing their last name to "Thorul" (an anagram of "Luthor"). Lex's little sister, Lena (who had gained ESP abilities after contact with one of Lex's inventions prior to this) was too young to recall the details at the time, and was led to believe that her brother died in a rock-climbing accident (Lena would later be a recurring character in Supergirl stories, in which Supergirl spends a lot of time keeping the secret of her past from her, although later Lena would discover the truth).

luthor nasty
Luther's "niece," Nasty.
Oddly enough, in the early 1970s, Lex has a "niece" appear, Nasthalia Luthor (nicknamed "Nasty"), but there doesn't appear to be any other sibling that could possibly justify any blood relation between them! Perhaps Nasty was more of a second cousin or something like that who admired Lex's evil, or maybe the whole thing was a put-on by her (similar to Duela Dent, aka The Harlequin, or "The Joker's Daughter," who wasn't the daughter of the Joker or Harvey {Two-Face} Dent), and Lex went along with it for giggles.

Anyway, Luthor continued to make life miserable for Superman every chance he could, usually using whatever means he had available to him. Sometimes he would team up with another villain (including one memorable team-up with the Joker in World's Finest in which they combined forces to deal with their respective foes; in other stories, he'd team up with other Superman enemies). But for the most part, he operated solo, using his scientific prowess to attempt to defeat Superman.

A weird aspect of Luthor's character for a time was that when he'd escape from prison, he'd often continue to wear his prison greys while back in his headquarters for a time! Speaking of his headquarters, "Luthor's Lair" was a hidden base that he started using in the Silver Age, with a secret entrance that could only be opened by shaking the hand of a Julius Caesar statue. This would be the first place he would head when escaping from prison, although in later stories, he'd have a different base of operations he could use when he wanted to "get away from it all."

luthor lexor
In Superman #164, Luthor challenged the Man of Steel once again, this time without Superman having any powers. Superman accepted this challenge, and the two took a spaceship to another planet that orbited a red sun. If Superman won the fight, Luthor would agree to serve his prison sentence. As it happened, Superman did manage to win their boxing match on this other world, but a subsequent sandstorm caused Luthor to think that Superman had died. While Superman struggled to survive, Luthor came upon a city of a once-advanced race that had since lost all knowledge of their science and technology. Luther was easily able to make their technology work for them again, and the people of this city hailed him as a hero... and he liked it. 

The biggest problem this city had was a water shortage, and Luthor modified some robots to dig for water underground, but failed to find any. Superman arrived in this city shortly, and the two fought again, but Luthor had an attack of weakness and lost this second bout. The two returned to the spaceship and headed for Earth, but once outside of the red sun's influence, Luthor asked Superman to throw masses of ice from a frozen world back to that planet to solve the water shortage. Superman did so, although he wondered if Luthor purposely lost the fight in order to have this be able to happen later.
luthor lexor 2
Lex, Ardora, and Lex. Jr. in happier times.

luthor silver age
Back on earth, Superman brought Luthor a photograph taken through a super-telescope, showing a statue of him built and dedicated by a grateful world for their hero. Later, this world would rename itself Lexor, and Luthor would later marry Ardora, a citizen of this planet, and later they had a son, Lex Jr. Ardor and all the other Lexorians later died in an explosion that was caused when Luthor's warsuit accidentally activated a device called a Neutrarod during a battle with the Man of Steel. Luthor, naturally, blamed Superman.

luthor battlesuitluthor jumpsuitSpeaking of Luthor's warsuit, this was Luthor's second upgrade in the Bronze Age. In the early 70s or so, Luthor adopted a purple and green skintight suit that incorporated much of his technology that he would use in his battles with Superman; a later story had Luthor building more of a suit of armor (again using the same color scheme), around the same time that Brainiac had an upgrade of his own.

luthor brainiac 3
luthor brainiac
Be careful of who you partner with... some partnerships
end very badly!
Luthor and Brainiac had a long history of teaming up together, although Brainiac would ultimately betray Luthor time and time again, considering Luthor to be of inferior intelligence. This partnership came to its ultimate end in the two-part classic "Whatever Happened to the Man of Steel?" storyline that wrapped up the story of the original, pre-Crisis Superman. During this story, Luthor died, but his body was reanimated by Brainiac before Brainiac was finally destroyed for good.

luthor serial
Luthor from Atom Man Vs. Superman
Before getting into the post-crisis Luthor, a few other notes about him!

I forget which issue it was presented in, but in at least one story, it was noted that Superman and Lex Luthor look enough alike that if he wore a bald-head appliance, Superman could be mistaken for Luthor! This is one of those things that was never mentioned again. 

luthor hackman
Gene Hackman's Luthor.
Luthor was first portrayed on the big screen in the seria Atom Man Vs. Superman, in which he was played by Lyle Talbot. In this serial, Luthor was secretly the Atom Man, blackmailing Metropolis and being defeated in the end. Luthor did to appear in any of the Fleischer Superman cartoons, but would appear in a handful of Filmation's The New Adventures of Superman in the 1960s, voiced by Jackson Beck. Of course, Gene Hackman portrayed Luthor in Superman, Superman II, and Superman IV, although this was a much different version of Luthor.

luthor superfriends
Super Friends Luthor.
Stan Jones voiced Luthor in his appearances in Challenge of the Superfriends and other incarnations of Super Friends, where he was often portrayed in the jumpsuit version, except for the Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show episodes, which had the armored suit. In the short-lived Superman animated series by Ruby-Spears, he was voiced by Michael Bell, and Sherman Howard played him in the live-action Superboy

luthor animated
Clancy Brown's Luthor
Clancy Brown voiced my favorite on-screen version of Luthor, starting in Superman: The Animated Series, and later in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. John Shea played Lex in live-action form on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, mostly appearing in the first season, with sporadic returns. Luthor would appear sporadically in cartoons after this, in the direct-to-video All-Star Superman, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Young Justice, and elsewhere, while Michael Rosenbaum played him in Smallville. In Superman Returns, it was Kevin Spacey who played Luthor, while in the forthcoming Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Jesse Eisenberg has taken over the role.

luthor post crisis
Man of Steel Luthor
It was in the miniseries Superman: The Man of Steel that the new version of Luthor was introduced, this time as a powerful businessman, and it's this version that's formed the basis for most Luthor stories since then. This version was created mostly by Marv Wolfman, who felt that Luthor's story didn't make much sense. Luthor was portrayed as significantly older than Superman here, and the wealthiest man in Metropolis, as well as the most powerful... until Superman came on the scene. This Luthor was manipulative and would do anything to accomplish his goals, including large amounts of misdirection and outright falsification. 

An odd part of this Luthor's story that seems to have been ignored in subsequent years involved the Kryptonite ring that Luthor started wearing to force Superman to keep his distance. While Kryptonite radiation didn't affect humans like it did Kryptonians, it did have a long-range effect, and Luthor developed cancer from constant exposure to this, and died... 

luthor junior
Lex II or Lionel Luthor? Both
characters look remarkably alike.
...and then, months later, Lex Luthor II appeared, a long-hidden son of Lex's, who took over his father's operations. But this wasn't the truth at all... Lex Jr. was really a clone of Luthor, with Luthor's brain transplanted into it. This deception fell apart not too long after the whole "Death of Superman" storyline, and eventually this version of Luthor lost all his hair as well (he'd appeared initially with a full head of hair and a beard), and apparently aged a little faster than normal. By the time he ran for the presidency of the United States (and won!), it had been completely dropped from the backstory.

Naturally, Luthor's reign in the White House didn't last, as his manipulations for his own ends continued to occur and eventually led to his being removed from office... and from this point, I'm afraid I've lost track of Luthor's story in the comics completely. According to Wikipedia, most of the original history of Lex Luthor (including his upbringing in Smallville, as shown in Smallville) has been returned to his backstory, Apparently the current Luthor is a blend of Silver and post-Crisis Luthor's.

And in a lot of ways, I kind of like that idea... as much as I enjoy the criminal scientist Luthor of the Silver Age, there is a point as to why Luthor would spend so much money on hidden bases and amazing technology just to rob banks... he obviously had money to begin with, and it seems like he'd be spending millions to steal thousands! It definitely makes more sense to have Luthor view Superman as a threat as well as a rival, and to view himself as the real hero of Metropolis as well as Earth... and if he happens to make money and amass more power for himself while being the savior of mankind, that's only his right (at least, in his eyes). I think the real reason that he hates Superman so much is not just because he sees Superman as the major stopping point in his goals, but also because Superman does what he does without seeking anything for himself in return... and that makes Superman the better man, and in Lex's mind, he cannot tolerate someone being better than him.

No doubt, as with many other characters in comic books, Luthor's backstory, motivations and method of operating will continue to be revised and changed by new generations of writers, as each one tries to come up with their own twist on Luthor, instead of building upon what they started with. 

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