Written by James D. Hudnall
Drawn by Eduardo Barreto
Inked by Adam Kubert
Published by DC Comics
Superman is one of the most well-known fictional characters in the world. People who’ve never read a single comic-book in their life, nor watched any Superman cartoons, TV shows or movies, nevertheless can recognize Superman and knows significant details of his life. Like that he’s from Krypton which exploded, works at the Daily Planet disguised as Clark Kent, works with Lois Lane, and they know that his arch-enemy is Lex Luthor.
Next to The Joker, Lex Luthor may the most famous supervillain in the world. The character debuted 80 years ago this month in the comic-book Action Comics #23 (well, technically it came out on March 31, but it was cover-dated April). I’ve read it, the story is rather simple, as is typical of the time, as “Luthor” (as he’s known, no first name revealed yet) attempts to goad a couple of foreign nations into a war, so that he can then sell them weapons to fight each other, and Superman stops him, and I doubt that anyone involved in it, nor anyone reading it at the time, would have guessed that the character would go on to become so intrinsically linked to Superman.
He was much later revealed to have been a childhood friend of Superman’s, who used to also live in Superman’s hometown of Smallville, who eventually turned against Superman because of raging jealousy from an accident which caused Lex to lose all of his hair.
In 1986, John Byrne oversaw a complete revamp of Superman, beginning in his 6-issue miniseries MAN OF STEEL. In the fourth issue of that series, Byrne debuted what was perhaps his most radical change to the Superman mythos, with a new portrayal of Lex Luthor (suggested by Marv Wolfman). Up until that point, Lex Luthor was generally shown as an evil “mad scientist,” who would show up every couple of years with some new crazy scheme, using high-tech inventions like giant robots and death-rays, to conquer the world and/or kill Superman. Superman would stop him and throw him in jail until Lex would escape and try again, and the cycle would continue. In recent years, Lex’s primary weapon had been his own high-tech extraterrestrial suit of armor, which enabled him to fight Superman physically.
But the new Byrne/Wolfman version of Lex Luthor was a brilliant and publicly respected businessman. He was a genius who built and ran a multinational business conglomerate called LexCorp., which was said to own 90% of the businesses in the city of Metropolis, and which made Lex one of the richest men in the world. To the public, he was an innocent philanthropist, but behind closed doors he was a ruthless egomaniac, in the vein of J.R. Ewing and Gordon Gekko, who would do anything to make money no matter who he hurt. This version of Lex also hated Superman out of jealousy, but it was more logical jealousy, as he felt that Superman had usurped his status as the most important man in Metropolis, and he resented that Superman was the one person he couldn’t control. Superman became one of the few people to learn of Lex Luthor’s duplicitous nature, but Lex was always able to use his money and power to cover up his crimes, leading to a perpetual stalemate between the two enemies.
In the years since then, this version of Lex Luthor is the one that’s become ingrained in the public mind. Even when they change some of the minor details, most cartoon and live-action Superman shows and films portray Lex Luthor as a ruthless businessman, not an armor-wearing mad scientist. From John Shea on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman to Michael Rosenbaum on Smallville to Jon Cryer on Supergirl. It’s probably the most lasting contribution Byrne made to the Superman mythos, even with DC Comics’ penchant for revamps, I can’t imagine it being changed any time soon.
In 1989, DC Comics released this special one-shot issue, delving into the background of Lex Luthor. And the cover wasn’t exactly subtle in showing who else this version of Lex Luthor was also inspired by…
Note: in the year 2000 this version of Lex Luthor ran for and got elected President of the United States.
This 48-page story has an interesting framing sequence. Clark Kent has been taken in by the police for questioning in regard to the recent murder of a writer named Peter Sands. We then flashback to when Peter was still alive and the story is told mostly from his perspective, detailing the last few weeks of his life.
Peter is a writer who’s fallen on hard times due to his drinking problem. In order to rebuild his career and his life, he gets a publisher to hire him to write an unauthorized biography of Lex Luthor. So Peter begins researching Lex’s life, including meeting with and interviewing an old school teacher of Lex’s, a former employee, and an ex-girlfriend.
Over the course of the story, we learn that Lex Luthor grew up poor in the ghetto section of Metropolis known as “Suicide Slum” (that’s the place were Superman was once almost forced to star in a porno film), his only friend as a child was future Daily Planet editor Perry White. When he was 13 he forged his father’s signature to take out a $300,000 life insurance policy on his parents, and then he sabotaged their car so that they’d have a fatal accident. He used the money to get into designer drugs to make even more money and eventually built his “legitimate” company. As Pete gathers more evidence against Luthor, it turns out that Luthor finds out what’s going on and has Peter abducted and brought to him.
This is the most chilling sequence in the book, as the artist draws Lex only in the shadows, making him appear as a more sinister figure. Coupled with the dialog showing his psychotic megalomania, it shows why this take on Lex Luthor is as deadly as any before this.
Ending with a return to the present, and Clark Kent at the police station, the story ends with a bit of a twist, explaining what Lex meant about using Superman’s friends against him. Although he had an extensive comic-book writing career, before moving on to novels and screenplays, it’s a shame that writer James D. Hudnall (who, sadly, died in a year ago this month just before he turned 62) never got a chance to write an extended run on one of the Superman titles, he seemed to really have a handle on what makes Lex Luthor such a compelling rival for Superman, and I would have loved to have seen him get the chance to follow up on this story in the regular comic. The art team of Eduardo Barreto and Adam Kubert nicely illustrate the story, making this a very engrossing book to a read, a I consider a must for every Superman fan.