Today, Shelby and guest writer Dad — er, Pete, are discussing Action Comics 23.3: Lex Luthor, originally released September 18th, 2013. This issue is part of the Villain’s Month event. Click here for our Villains Month coverage.
Shelby: If there’s ever been a character defined by ego, it’s Lex Luthor. He’s the classic evil genius; unimaginably intelligent and selfish to the bone. Lex Luthor’s primary concern is Lex Luthor, and there’s no moral code he won’t break to get his way. He’s the perfect nemesis for Superman because they are complete opposites. Superman uses the power he has to give, Luthor uses it to take. Writer Charles Soule, in the guise of a “day-in-the-life-of” piece gives us a glimpse of what the world would be like without a Superman to provide balance against Luthor. The results are grim and rather brilliant.
This issue takes place on the morning of issue one of Forever Evil. As Luthor is released from prison, he is stunned to discover Superman is not there. So he launches Project Ghost Town, a (literal) launch of a shuttle with four astronauts into low orbit. They shut off their engines, claim a malfunction, and plead for Superman’s help, all presumable to lure him out of hiding. Meanwhile, Luthor spends his day dealing with a man trying to take over a LexCorps subsidiary. The man ends up begging Luthor to take his money, his company, everything, just to leave him alone. Luthor replies that he just wanted to make the man beg, nothing more. With that, the shuttle incinerates in the atmosphere, incidentally landing on the man’s house.
You see, Lex wasn’t trying to get Superman to appear; he wanted the world to see those astronauts asking fur Superman, and getting nothing in return. He probably could have saved them himself, but if he couldn’t he would be the failure in the eyes of the world. Lex could have been the hero here, but instead he chose to make the hero out to be a failure. Anyway, he throws his assistant out he window for trying to call 911 instead of going along with his plan, and continues on with his day.
It’s interesting that Lex didn’t try to save the astronauts. If he had, not only would Superman have looked a failure, he would have looked a fool as well, with a criminal I believe he helped put away stepping in to do his job. Luthor would have appeared an absolute saint, and better than Superman, giving him an extra facade of goodness to further disguise his evildoing. So, why didn’t he? Luthor is a tactician, and a shrewd one at that; he knows the dangers of being placed on a pedestal. After all, the higher they are, the harder the fall. Lex doesn’t want to take Supes place up on that pedestal, where anyone can knock him down; he wants to be on the ground, with his evil roots entwined in everything. On top of that, Luthor is an egotistical ass; he hates Superman with a passion, and would never want to be compared to him. I am really impressed with Soule’s grasp of this character. These have got to be some of the most diabolical machinations I’ve ever seen, and I don’t make that claim lightly. Not only has Soule showcased Luthor’s evil genius with a pretty clever plan, he still manages to ground him as a human being. A terrible human being, but a human being nonetheless.
Sure, Lex is getting some solid QA time in with his armor, but he also just really wanted to shoot things. You know how it is, when you have had a long, stressful day, and you just want to punch something to let off some steam? It’s the same sort of thing, just more extreme. It’s a little reminder to us that Lex is just a person. When heroes are humanized, it generally makes me like them more, makes them more relateable. Here, though, the reminder that Lex is a person like you or me makes his actions that much more horrible. This spread also shows off Raymund Bermudez’s art. His figures are pretty straight-forward, but his panels are all free-floating, and frequently inset. It adds a lot of dynamism to a story that doesn’t inherently have a ton of action. Soule’s story is certainly interesting and engaging on it’s own, but I think more static panels would have weighed it down too much.
My biggest complaint about this book is actually about Forever Evil. As you may or may not remember, that book picked up exactly where this one left off, with Luthor’s meeting with Ted Kord in his helicopter. I really wish I would have been able to read this book first, to see the change in Luthor as the day concludes. Here, Luthor is on top of the world, he can do no wrong. At the end of Forever Evil, he is brought to his knees with the realization that the world does in fact need Superman, and he really is gone.
It was powerful enough to see Luthor cowed by what was happening in Forever Evil, but it would have been so much stronger to see him fall from the pedestal he put himself on that day. To execute an elaborate, cruel plan to defame Superman only to realize later the world was in a lot of danger without him? That’s an intriguing position for Lex Luthor to be in, and would make for even more compelling story-telling than what we’ve seen here. I honestly don’t know why this book wasn’t published the same week as Forever Evil.
But I do go on! Let me turn things over to another member of the Peterson clan, Pete, otherwise known as my dad! You may remember him from Superman 0, where he discussed the origins of Good and Evil. Dad, do you think it’s safe to say that if Superman represents absolute goodness, Luthor represents the absolute lack of goodness?
Pete: Yup. But wait, readers, there’s more. I certainly agree that Mr. Soule has done a brilliant job of introducing us to the inherently evil personality of Lex Luthor. In fact, the only disagreement I have with your assessment of Luthor representing a lack of goodness lies in my opinion that Luthor not only lacks goodness, he personifies evil in a proactive way that makes The Grinch look like Mother Teresa. But we knew that, didn’t we? I first laid eyes on a Superman book as a wide-eyed child more than fifty years ago, and Lex Luthor, sporting a drastically different appearance than he does today, was doing his best to commit mayhem on an ever-increasing scale way back then, albeit while employing far less innovative means to do so. What’s different, then, about this book? Aside from the hours at the gym and the tailor’s, and the deadly efficient technology, how have Lex and his fellow characters on both sides of the good/evil divide changed?
As I re-read the book, it struck me that only one character recognizes and possibly even respects Luthor’s capacity for evil, and successfully steers clear of it. George, the prison guard, has a chance to cash in by accepting Luthor’s offer of a valuable Lex-used prison jumpsuit. George stops just short of revealing what he’d do with the princely sum, but it’s not a quantum leap to conclude that he has some sort of laudable purpose in mind; perhaps a favorite charity project, or, as Luthor suggests, his kids’ education. But George, aware of what even approaching Luthor’s evil aura will do to his future, resists the temptation. All the other side characters think they can somehow live with Luthor’s evil ways, with some (i.e. the mightily relieved surgeons) clinging to success and some failing miserably (R.I.P, Casey.) Still others unsuccessfully try to fight back, as does the hapless Mr. Spheeris; only George is unaffected.
I agree with your criticism of the timing of this book and Forever Evil, Shelby. Since, unlike you and your Retcon minions, I’m not up to speed on this or any other current stories, I was thoroughly confused. When you’d explained the process, I thought about what I’d learned about Luthor’s personality and concluded that there’s a link between these two, and the link points to a tiny little chink in Luthor’s self-confidently evil armor. In order to continue the evil deeds that massage his massive ego, Luthor needs worthy, high profile, competent opponents to destroy. His obsession with finding Superman and his frustration with Supes’ apparent disappearance point to this potentially fatal shortcoming, and I don’t think I’m imagining the tiniest hint of concern on Luthor’s face as he walks away from the evil-resistant George.
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