Saturday, September 27, 2008

Episode #41: Lex Luthor: Bald Evil Genius!

Lex Luthor's birthday is traditionally accepted to be on September 28, the day after my birthday. While he did not appear at the beginning of Superman's career in Action Comics #1, Luthor's history almost goes back as far. He first appeared in Superman and Action Comics on the newsstands during the month of February 1940.
Luthor's first appearance was in Superman #4, the Spring 1940 issue which appeared on the racks on February 15, 1940. He appeared in two stories, The Challenge of Luthor and Luthor's Undersea City. Both stories were written by Jerry Siegel, with art by Joe Shuster and Paul Cassidy. The first story was reprinted in the following editions: Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told (1987) trade paperback and hardback, Superman Archives vol. I and Superman Chronicles vol. III. The second story has also been reprinted in the same Archives and Chronicles editions.
In The Challenge of Luthor an earthquake hits Metropolis. The cause is an earthquake weapon a scientist has invented and the U. S. Army is interested in. Luthor's gang attempts to steal the weapon, only to be foiled by Superman. Luthor, known only by his last name and with thick red hair, challenges Superman to a physical challenge. Superman describes Luthor as "the mad scientist who plots to dominate the Earth." This would be the best description for Luthor for most of his history. While Superman engages Luthor in these challenges, his gang succeeds in stealing the weapon. Superman finds Luthor's mountain hideout, and after being hit by the weapon, destroys the hideout and the weapon.
In Luthor's Undersea City Superman investigates the destruction of some oil wells and learns that Luthor is behind the plot. Lois Lane is kidnapped and taken to a domed city in the middle of the ocean. Superman battles a pterodactyl before overcoming the beast, destroying the city and saving Lois.
The next week Luthor made his first appearance in Action Comics in issue #23, appearing on newsstands on February 22, 1940. This issue also marked the first appearance of the Daily Planet instead of the Daily Star. In these early years of comic book history continuity had not been invented yet. Some speculation is that the newspaper name was changed to avoid confusion with the many real newspapers called Star. This story has been reprinted in Superman Archives: Action Comics vol. II, Superman In The Forties, Superman Chronicles vol. III and Superman vs. Luthor.
The story in this issue continued the story begun in the previous issue, about a war between two fictional European countries, Galonia and Toran, clearly in imitation of the early years of WWII. This story was also done by the creative team of Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster and Paul Cassidy. It was untitled but carried the same headline on the front of the Metropolis newspaper, Europe At War, as did the previous issue of Action Comics. Superman discovers that Luthor is behind the breaking of a truce between the warring factions. Lois is kidnapped by Luthor and Superman finds her at Luthor's dirigible base. Superman destroys the dirigible and rescues Lois.
Luthor next appeared in Superman #5, the Summer 1940 issue, released on May 10, 1940. In Luthor's Incense Menace, he used incense to mind control businessmen, manipulating them to order massive layoffs to create economic chaos. This was the last story to feature Lex Luthor with red hair.
In Superman #10, the May/June 1940 issue, released on March 5, 1941, Luthor first appeared as the bald criminal genius we are familiar with. The Invisible Luthor was written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Leo Nowak. This story has been reprinted in Superman Archives vol. III. There is no explanation for the change, continuity not being an issue in the early years of the comic book history. There are several theories about why Nowak drew Luthor bald. He might have confused Luthor with the henchman posing as the professor in Superman #4, or with another golden age villain, the Ultra-Humanite. Another possibility might be the evil bald Superman from Siegel and Shuster's fanzine story Reign of the Superman. In this story Luthor uses an invisibility machine to extort money from Metropolis by making the city's water disappear. Superman foils the plot and Luthor escapes. Doesn't he usually?
During the 1960's development of the multiverse, the Earth-2 Lex Luthor was portrayed as having red hair. This Luthor met his demise in the 1986 mini-series Crisis On Infinite Earths issue #9, when Brainiac killed him when the two were arguing over leadership over a super-villain army.
Another version of Luthor in the multiverse was on Earth-3, where Lex Luthor was that Earth's only super hero whose enemies were the Crime Syndicate, an evil version of the Justice League. His wife was that Earth's Lois Lane. He was killed when his universe was wiped out by the wave of anti-matter that swept the multiverse in Crisis On Infinite Earths issue #1. The only survivor of Earth-3 was the Luthor's infant son Alexander, who the Luthors sent in a rocket into the multiverse. Alex would play a key role in Crisis and the more recent Infinite Crisis mini-series.
Adventure Comics #271, April 1960 issue, on sale approximately on February 25, 1960, we read about the origin of Luthors hatred of Superman. How Luthor Met Superboy was written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Al Plastino. Lex Luthor's family move into Smallville. Young Lex saves Superboy from a kryptonite meteor. In gratitude Superboy builds a fully equipped lab for Lex. After an early success Lex experiments to find a cure for kryptonite poisoning. He succeeds but a lab fire breaks out. The fumes cause Lex's hair to fall out, and he blames Superboy. Lex still wants to help Smallville so he continues his experiments. They flop and Lex blames Superboy for his failures. He tries to kill Superboy with a kryptonite trap, but Superboy escapes and Lex hates Superboy (man) for the rest of his life.
There is one place in the galaxy where Luthor is regarded as a hero. The Showdown Between Luthor and Superman was published in Superman #164, the October 1963 issue, released on August 1, 1963. The story was written by Edmund Hamilton, drawn by Curt Swan and inked by George Klein. The cover shows the famous image of Luthor and Superman, both shirtless, fighting inside a wooden ring, with a red sun hanging in the sky. Luthor escapes prison and pirates a TV signal, challenging Superman to a fight, man to man. Superman agrees and builds a space ship to take them to a world orbiting a red sun. The light of a red sun renders Superman powerless. To make sure the odds are even, he even gives Luthor special shoes that compensate for the planet's heavier gravity. (Nothing is mentioned about the effect heavier gravity wll have on Luthor's arms in a fight.)
In the fight Luthor grabs an early advantage by giving Superman a black eye and punching his gut. Superman bounces back and knocks Luthor out with a solid shot to his chin. While Superman goes back to the space ship to get some water with which to revivie Luthor with, Lex escapes to a nearby jungle. He attacks Superman with some inventions he smuggled in his pockets. They are separated by a sandstorm. Luthor finds shelter while Superman is caught in the storm. Superman stumbles into a city, where he finds large beasts with water filled horns. Superman drinks just enough to refresh himself. Lex finds another community and is welcomed by the citizens when he scares off some flying beasts. Luthor finds ancient advanced technology that the citizens have forgotten how to operate. His genius figures the technology out and he uses it to search for water on this dry world, to no avail.
Superman catches up with Luthor. When the people learn that Superman is Luthor's enemy, they want to execute Superman. Curiously, Luthor convinces them to have him and Superman duel in the town's arena. After pressing an early advantage, Luthor hesitates and Superman defeats him. Luthor honors his challenge and agrees to return to Earth. During the return voyage Luthor points out an ice world orbiting a yellow sun. He suggests that Superman hurl icebergs to the previous planet, replenishing its water supply. Being a silver age story, the icebergs do not crash into inhabited areas, only low-lying areas. Luthor would return to the planet in Superman #167, and would be named Lexor in Superman #168.
In Action Comics #544, the 45th Anniversary Issue, Luthor's hatred of Superman would reach a new intensity. This issue also marked Brainiac's change from a green skinned android to a robot made of "living metal". Luthor discovers another hidden lab on Lexor which contains a battle suit. He also invents a "neutrarod" to stabalize the planet's unstable molten core. Superman returns to once again capture Luthor, who is a new father with his wife Ardora, whom he met in Superman #167 and married in Action Comics #318. Superman has coated himself with a special sun screen that shields him from the neutralizing effects of Lexor's red solar radiation. During Luthor's battle with Superman, he unleashes an energy blast from his battle suit which ricochets off of Superman and hits the neutrarod. It starts a chain reaction in the planet's core which destroys Lexor. Luthor's suit and Superman's limited invulnerability make them the only survivors.
In a number of stories showing Luthor's lairs, we see statues of his criminal heroes, Genghis Khan, Atilla the Hun, Captain Kidd and Al Capone. There is one "good guy" that Luthor admired. In Superman #416 (February 1986), released on November 14, 1985, we see a series of vignettes Luthor does some unusual things on his escape from prison on a particular day over the decades. Superman finally figures out the significance of this behavior. After capturing Luthor once again, he makes a detour to Princeton, New Jersey on the way back to prison. He takes Luthor to the statue of Albert Einstein. There, a teary eyed Luthor simply says, "Happy Birthday, sir." The name of the story was The Einstein Connection. The back story, The Ghost of Superman Future is a story that describes the end of Luthor's life.
The golden and silver age Luthor met his demise in the story Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow. In part one, Superman #423, Luthor finds Brainiac's robot head buried in the snow. It is the only thing left of his robot body. Brainiac's head activates and seizes control of Luthor's body. In part 2, Action Comics 583, during a battle at the Fortress of Solitude, Luthor briefly gains lucidity and begs a super-powered Lana Lang to kill him because Brainiac is controlling him. Lana obliges with a blow to his neck.
When the world of Superman was revamped with the mini-series Man Of Steel, Lex Luthor was reinvented as a genius criminal business mogul. The idea was inspired by Marv Wolfman. Luthor made his first appearance in Man Of Steel issue #4. Clark and Lois are invited to an event on Luthor's yacht. Terrorists attack the ship, only to be defeated by Superman. At the end of the issue Luthor attempts to put Superman on a personal retainer and attempts that he staged the whole thing to test Superman himself. He didn't figure on an angry Mayor of Metropolis deputizing Superman and ordering him to arrest Luthor. This begins Luthor's animosity toward Superman.
In the later mini-series World of Metropolis it is revealed that Luthor and Perry White were childhood friends growing up in Metropolis' Suicide Slum. their friendship ends when Perry returns from an extended time as a foreign correspondent to find that Lex had an affair with his fiance. Perry forgives her and later marries her. In later stories in the regular Superman titles it is revealed that their son Perry, Jr. was actually fathered by Luthor during the affair.
The single issue Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography reveals the dirty details about Lex's rise from poverty to riches. He has an abusive father, but Lex shows his criminal genius early. He hires someone to tamper with the brakes of his parent's car, and after their deaths in a car accident, collects a sizeable settlement from a life insurance policy. After graduating from MIT Lex invents the Lexwing, which establishes his fortune.
After the appearance of Superman, Luthor aquires a piece of kryptonite, and has a ring made with a kryptonite setting to keep Superman at bay. Unlike the silver age, in modern continuity, prolonged exposure to kryptonite is harmful to people. Luthor loses his ring hand to cancer, which would later return and prove terminal. Luthor fakes his own death and clones a new body to have his brain transplanted into. He returns to public life as his long lost son from Australia, complete with accent and long red hair. Luthor would lose the hair once again.
In recent years Luthor became president, only to be impeached and removed from office. He has since returned to his roots as a criminal genius.
There have been a number of "imaginary stories" featuring Lex Luthor over the years. In The Death of Superman, in Superman149, November 1961, Lex fakes rahabilitaion until he lulls Superman into a false sense of security when he springs a lethal kryptonite trap on Superman. Clark Kent's Brother, from Superman #175, February 1965, shows Luthor all but deducing that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person. Superboy realizes this and aranges for Clark to run away from home, and then Superboy would publicly leave to look for Clark. Lex decides to ingratiate himself into the Kent's lives in order to expose Superboy's secret identity. (NOTE: I mistakenly stated during this episode that Luthor planned to murder them, after not skimming this issue closely enough.) The Kent's were so kind to Luthor they killed his plans with kindness. When Superboy returns he confesses to all of them. They respect Luthor for his having the courage to admit it and he becomes part of the family. As adults, Luthor would sacrafice himself in order to save Superman from a deadly trap.
Another interesting imaginary story began in Superman #230, October 1970, Killer Kent vs Super Luthor finds Luthor the infant son of Jor-El, as Lex-El. Together they are the only survivors of Krypton's destruction. Only Lex has super powers, through a strange quirk, after their rocket lands on Earth. The landing of the rocket causes the crash of the criminal Kents, a Bonnie and Clyde couple. The Langs adopt their infant Clark, as Jor-El and Lex settle into secret identities in Smallville. Clark would follow his parent's example into crime, and become Superman's arch-enemy. this story was continued in issue #231. However, I do not have this issue, and the web sites and do not have plot summaries for this issue.

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Thanks for listening to Superman Fan Podcast, and, as always, thanks to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

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