Continuing our reprinting of Stuart's Superman articles written for Starburst Magazine # 389 - and with the first (albeit slight) glimpse of Jesse Eisenberg in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (no really, that's still the title!) - we conclude with a brief piece he wrote charting the (somewhat messy) history of Superman's main foe.
LEX LUTHOR: A HISTORY
By Stuart Mulrain
Depending on your age or when you got into the comics, Superman’s greatest foe has many different back stories and origins, from power hungry mad scientist, to power hungry billionaire, to power hungry President and back to power hungry mad scientist again. We ignore Luthor’s death threats and attempt to bring some order to the continuity nightmare that is the story of Lex Luthor.
GOLDEN AGE (1938 – 1955)
Making his debut two years after Superman, Luthor first appeared in Action Comics #23 (1940). Created by Siegel & Shuster, this Luthor had no first name and a full head of red hair, although he lost this a year later. This Luthor is a scientist intent on world domination in the classic Bond villain mould (before there were Bond villains) who could usually be found hiding out in a city in the sky, or a base underwater or a base in space.
SILVER AGE (1956 – 1970)
In an attempt to make Lex’s battle with Superman more personal, it is revealed that, as a young man, Lex was a gifted scientist living in Smallville who befriended Superboy after saving him from exposure to kryptonite. The two were friends until Superboy’s attempt to put a lab fire out causes him to accidentally knock chemicals on to Luthor, leaving him bald and killing the artificial life form Luthor had come to love as his own child. When Luthor’s many attempts to make Superboy look small, Luthor snapped and attempted to kill him. Luthor’s life then follows a similar path as his Golden Age predecessor.
BRONZE AGE (1970 – 1985)
As well as being one of Earths greatest villains, Luthor ventured into space where he became a hero to the inhabitants of the planet Lexor after he restored their lost technology. Luthor made Lexor, which had a red sun (rendering Superman powerless) his base of operations in his war against the man of steel. This period saw the debut of Lex’s green battlesuit and saw him marry and have a child. As is always the case, Luthor’s story ended in tragedy when a battle with Superman led to the inhabitants of Lexor (including Luthor’s wife and son) all being killed.
MODERN AGE (1986 – 2011)
Following Crisis On Infinite Earths, John Byrne was tasked with reinventing Superman and the result is the richest story arc the character received to date. At the suggestion of Crisis writer Marv Wolfman, Luthor became a corrupt billionaire businessman who was obsessed with being the most powerful man in Metropolis. This Luthor was a childhood friend of Daily Planet editor Perry White and was the subject of child abuse at the hands of his parents. Following their deaths, Luthor took the $300,000 from their life insurance and eventually invested it into what would become LexCorp.
Byrne's Luthor was first introduced in Man Of Steel #4, where he sets up a situation to attract Superman’s attention and get him on his payroll. Superman refuses and Lex is arrested for reckless endangerment, leaving Luthor to make it his mission to destroy Superman and regain his birthright as Metropolis’ first son. As part of this Luthor fashions a ring made of Kryptonite as an attempt to keep Superman at a distance and out of his affairs.
Unfortunately for Luthor, the radiation from the ring gave him cancer and so he faked his own death. Luthor then re-immerged with his brain, eyes and spine planted into a cloned body that he passed off as his own long lost son. Lex Luthor II was younger and fitter, with a full head of red hair and beard and an Australian accent.
Luthor lived as his own son for years until his cloned body started to become frail and it was revealed that he was the original Luthor and a criminal all along. Luthor remained trapped in his clone body until the demon Neron offered him full health in return for his services and soul. Not believing in souls, Luthor agreed, cleared his name (by claiming an evil clone was responsible for the crimes) and regained his empire.
Luthor then turned to politics, eventually becoming US President. During his term in office he over saw the rebuilding of Gotham following an earthquake, tried to frame Bruce Wayne for murder and over saw Earths war with the alien Imperiex. Luthor’s corruption is later revealed to the world by Superman and Batman and, having lost his company to Wayne enterprises is sent to prison.
In 2004, a new origin for Superman and Luthor was written by Mark Waid, which drew inspiration from both the Silver Age Superboy stories and the Smallville TV series, revealing that Lex and Clark were both friends growing up in Smallville. This origin was then discredited by later stories before becoming canon again following the Infinite Crisis mini-series. Sort of. It all kind of became a mess at this point.
NEW 52 (2011 – Present)
The post-Flashpoint DC Universe sees Luthor return to the mad scientist mould, albeit one working for the government this time. He is hired by General Sam Lane to investigate and capture Superman. Luthor does and performs a series of tests on Superman to discover his strengths and weaknesses. He then tortures Superman until he eventually escapes. Luthor is fired by Lane although as a parting gift, Lex steals some Kryptonite which he intends to use in his war against the man of steel...
ALEXEI LUTHOR (Earth-Two) – This villainous Lex has a full head of red hair and is an enemy of Kal-L. He is killed by Earth-Ones Braniac, During the Crisis On Infinite Earths.
ALEXANDER LUTHOR (Earth-Three) – This heroic Lex sports a goatee and is married to Lois Lane. Both are killed during Crisis On Infinite Earth’s, but not before saving their son...
ALEXANDER LUTHOR JNR. (Earth-Three) – Along with Kal-L, Lois Lane and Superboy-Prime he saved the merged universe before disappearing into a paradise dimension. He is later executed by The Joker (overseen by Earth-One Lex) during Infinite Crisis.
SUPERMAN #2 (1987) – Evidence is presented to Lex that Clark Kent is Superman. Refusing to believe that anyone with Superman’s power would hide as a mere human, Luthor rejects the findings and fires his assistant.
METROPOLIS 900 MILES (Superman #9 – 1987) – Written by John Byrne, this short “indecent proposal” story sees Luthor offer a waitress the chance to earn a million dollars. It’s a nice and simple story that shows how Luthor likes to assert his power and toy with people.
LEX LUTHOR: THE UNAUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY (1989) – This crime noir story tells the tale of a down on his luck biographer attempting to claw his way back to the top by writing the story of Lex Luthor, only to find that his digging has caught the attention of those who don’t want the story to get out and are willing to stop him at any cost.
SUPERMAN FOR ALL SEASONS #3 – FALL (1998) – Luthor narrates this story by Jeph Loeb, which is a love story between Luthor and his city. It explores Luthor’s hate of Superman as the man who stole the heart of the city he loves, that now loves Superman instead.
LEX LUTHOR: MAN OF STEEL (2006) – Written by Brian Azarello, this story sees the world from Lex’s point of view, painting him as the hero and giving the reader an understanding of what it is to be Lex Luthor.
ATOM MAN Vs. SUPERMAN (1950) – Lyle Talbot
The second Superman serial saw Luthor make his screen debut. Kitted out with a bald cap, Talbot was every bit the mad scientist Luthor of the comics at the time.
SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978), SUPERMAN II (1980) and SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987) – Gene Hackman
Hackman played Lex as a comical villain with a strange obsession with real-estate and owning land. In a bit of meta hair work, Hackman kept his hair, which was revealed to be a wig Lex wore in the films, whilst Hackman wore a bald cap when his “wig” was removed.
SUPERBOY/THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERBOY (1988-92) – Scott Wells and Sherman Howard
Wells played Lex for four episodes of the first season before Howard took over from Season 2. Wells Lex was a college classmate of Clark’s before having plastic surgery and coming back as Howard, whose Luthor was more in keeping with the silver age comics Luthor.
LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1993-97) – John Shea
Lois & Clark marked the first live action Luthor in the John Byrne corrupt CEO mould. Shea brought a charm, menace and sex appeal to the role that had not been seen before in the part. Reduced to guest spots (and a bald cap) in seasons 2 & 3, Shea’s Luthor again became the underground criminal intent on winning the heart of Lois Lane.
SMALLVILLE (2001-11) – Michael Rosenbaum
Mixing the Luthor from the silver age comics with Byrne’s billionaire Luthor, Rosenbaum portrayed Luthor’s descent to the dark side over seven seasons before being “killed off”. Luthor continued to be a menace to Clark’s life as clones etc, before Rosenbaum became the full on corrupt CEO of the comics in the series final episode.
SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006) – Kevin Spacey
Of the many missed opportunities of Superman Returns, Spacey’s Luthor is probably the biggest. Choosing to ignore the reinvention of the character in the comics, Spacey instead plays Gene Hackman playing Lex Luthor. The result is a poor carbon copy instead of a Luthor of genuine menace (this is the guy from Se7en after all).
OTHER NOTABLE LUTHORS
BBC RADIO SERIES (1988-93) – William Hootkins
The man who was once Porkins made an excellent Luthor in the Dirk Maggs created series, playing both Lex Luthor and the Australian Lex Luthor II. His speech to the dead Superman in Doomsday & Beyond is a near perfect delivery of the characters hatred for the man of steel.
SUPERMAN THE ANIMATED SERIES (1997-2000) – Clancy Brown
Played the corrupt CEO Luthor for all three seasons as well as episodes of Justice League, The Batman, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and the Lego Batman Movie and Lego Batman 2 game.
JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRISIS ON TWO EARTHS (2010) – Chris Noth
In this DC Animated original movie, Noth gets the rare opportunity to play a good Lex (although he is essentially playing Alexander Luthor), being a Lex from an alternate earth in which the superheroes have gone bad.