Monday, September 10, 2012

Building a Better Lex Luthor: The Man of Steel #4

The Man of Steel #4 (November 1986)
"Enemy Mine..."
John Byrne-Byrne/Dick Giordano

Karen: With this issue we enter the second half of the mini-series. John Byrne has established the new Superman, new Lois Lane -isn't it time we met Lex Luthor? Well, we'll get there, but first we get to see how the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois has evolved. It's been eighteen months since Clark showed up at the Planet and scooped Lois on the first Superman interview (very naughty of him). Lois is still ticked off! The two are going together to some big event and Lois has shown up at Clark's apartment to pick him up. She's early, and Clark still needs to shave. Being invulnerable, however, makes that personal hygiene task a bit difficult. Clark excuses himself and goes into his bathroom, where he turns on the electric razor that he apparently keeps for situations like this! Then he pulls out a piece of curved metal, from the rocketship he came to Earth on. Using his heat vision, he burns away his five o'clock shadow. Then he and Lois head out. He starts for the elevator, but she leads him to the roof. Their host has sent a helicopter for them! Clark frets that the roof is not designed to hold its weight, and Lois remarks that Luthor is pretty much above the law. Ah yes, they are going to a party held by Lex Luthor! 

Doug:  Byrne sure gives us a different Lois Lane from what we're used to, doesn't he?  I thought Clark's personal shrine to his own football career was... interesting.  He never comes across as conceited, so I'm not sure even if it was a ruse why he'd have such a thing.  Did you think the step-by-step explanation of the shaving was a bit long?  I did -- I mean, it's clear that some of Superman's powers have been revised but I just thought that played a panel or two longer than it needed to. 

Karen: The shaving sequence seemed very Silver Age -maybe it was a tribute.  As they fly off, Lois says that Luthor pretty much owns Metropolis, and this disturbs Clark. Lois states that Lex has an interest in just about every business in Metropolis, and  that he is the second or third richest man on Earth. Despite his power, he's never been caught doing anything illegal, although Lois has tried to dig up any dirt. They fly out of Metropolis and head out to sea, where Luthor's gigantic ship, the Sea Queen, awaits them. 

Doug:  Despite my misgivings above about the shaving explanation, the narrative of Lex Luthor's status in the new DCU was handled well.  It was necessary information, and provided in the context of the story; rather than just have Lois and Clark show up at Luthor's party, Byrne used two panels showing their flight path to provide this education. 

Karen: Once they've landed, Clark mentions that Lois and Luthor are a well-known 'hot item,' and this makes Lois bristle. She says Luthor wants her -he's a collector -but she has no interest in him romantically. But it's because she resists him that Luthor continues to pursue her. Lois and Clark are escorted into a plush apartment, and we get our first clear view of Luthor: a paunchy, balding, middle-aged man. Not quite what we're used to! As an aside: I've been watching the TV series Hell on Wheels and it struck me that Luthor here looks a lot like actor Colm Meaney from that show, right down to the red hair and cigar! 

Doug:  The panel right before we get our first look at Luthor is really well done, with just headshots of Clark and Lois -- minimalist, but really nice.  Too bad the muddy newsprint of 1986 doesn't make it pop.  This Luthor... I couldn't even picture this guy in the green/purple battlesuit! 

Karen: Luthor tries to give Lois a kiss but she turns her head aside. He shakes hands with Clark and complements him on getting the Superman scoop. We learn that Luthor and Perry White are former friends now. When Lex expresses surprise that Perry isn't there, Lois says, "Oh, come on Lex, Perry doesn't much care for living in the same solar system with you, you know that. He'd never come to one of your parties." 

Doug:  Curious.  But I don't recall that there is any sort of reveal coming later.  Could just be my memory failing me again. 

Karen: Luthor asks Clark for a moment alone with Lois. He had sent her an expensive designer dress to wear -just a loan, the card said. But now he tells Lois it's a gift. She becomes livid. She never would have put it on if she'd known he was giving it to her. He tries to convince her to keep it. "You know how much I desire you," Luthor says. "Give me the chance, and I could make you the happiest woman in the world." But Lois is having none of it. She hollers for Clark, who enters the room looking confused. Lois asks to borrow his suit jacket. As he gives it to her, she tells him to turn around "and be as wide as you know how." Not hard, considering how massive Clark looks! Lois removes Luthor's gift and storms out of the room wearing Clark's enormous jacket! But just as she leaves, she insults Luthor by telling him he's starting to look like Fred Mertz! 

Doug:  Luthor is just sleazy, isn't he?  The scene with Lois dropping the gown, on the spot, was great -- sexy, angry, and funny all at the same time. 

Karen: The two reporters are heading for a way off the ship when a gun is thrust into Lois' face. A group of shabby-looking terrorists have taken over the ship. Clark places himself in front of Lois -who can't believe how fast he is - and when he tries to talk to the thugs, gets clocked in the head with a gun. The terrorists throw Clark overboard and Lois is stunned. She's herded to a room along with the other passengers, including the mayor. 

Doug:  If I had a dollar for every time I've read "I've never seen anyone move that fast!" in a comic book, I'd be retired by now. 

Karen: Well, of course Clark wasn't hurt at all. It was simply a convenient way for Clark to disappear and Superman to make his appearance. The Man of Steel lifts the entire ship out of the water, thinking to himself that it's odd that things seem lighter when he is flying, as our pal William said in the comments on issue 1. As everyone is startled by the ship rising, Lois uses this as an opportunity to wrest a gun from one of her captors and begins firing on the rest. What a gal! However, she misses one and Superman -having already set the ship down on dry land -swoops in front of her to deflect the terrorist's bullets. He makes quick work of the man, and the mayor comes forward to thank him. 

Doug:  Wrest a gun?  Wonder if ol' boy sustained any permanent damage to the nether regions?  So what's the story with things being lighter when aloft than when on the ground?  Is that part of the "force field" deal?  I loved the way Byrne depicted the crushing of the baddie's gun. 

Karen: As Superman shakes the mayor's hand, Luthor comes out and gives him a check for $25,000. Supes is puzzled, and Luthor tells him that he's putting him on retainer. When Superman tells Luthor he's not for hire, the plutocrat laughs and says that everyone in Metropolis works for him. He then says though that the Man of Steel was not really needed, as his security team could have handled the situation. He just wanted to see Superman in action. Lois and the Mayor are livid that Luthor endangered people just so he could check out Superman. Lois says that Luthor is an accessory to murder, thinking that Clark is dead. Superman then reassures her that Clark is alive, that he saved him -the first in probably many hundreds of times he'll have to do this, I suppose! Even so, the Mayor says that Luthor is guilty of reckless endangerment, and deputizes Superman on the spot to haul Luthor in. Luthor is incredulous - "You can't arrest me. I'm Lex Luthor. I'm the most powerful man in Metropolis!" "Not any more," the Mayor says. The expression on Luthor's face shows his shock and indignation. Things have changed in Metropolis, quite dramatically. Luthor is arrested and booked, and put in a cell. 

Doug:  Throughout this book, I think the zenith of Byrne's art was his depiction of various facial expressions, never more passionately evident than on the page you reference.  Byrne also shows a defeated Luthor very convincingly.  I really cannot say enough about the art in this fourth installment of the series. 

Karen: A few days later, we see Superman fly a woman in labor to a hospital just in time to deliver. he's feeling pretty good about it, even chuckling to himself that the woman gave her boy "Superman" as a middle name. Just as he leaves the hospital he has the feeling his photograph has been taken, but before he can ponder that, Luthor confronts him on the steps to the hospital. He tells Superman that he made a big mistake in arresting him. He says it is he, not Superman, who controls Metropolis. He tells Superman flat out that he's going to destroy him for this, and he'll make sure everyone knows it was he who did it, but he'll never be arrested for it! And so Superman's greatest enemy is reborn for the 80s. 

Doug:  So here we have the burning hatred that was so evident through the Silver and Bronze Ages.  This time it's not about hair falling out, but about a man spurned by a woman, and the fear that he may be spurned by a city.  This is a powerful scene; Byrne the writer has done a bang-up job, too! 

Karen: It was a novel enough idea to make Luthor a powerful businessman rather than a scientist. He had resources aplenty to make Superman's life miserable. But a part of me will always prefer that green and purple power suit!


Edo Bosnar said...

I really liked the way Luthor was re-imagined here: a highly-intelligent, unscrupulous, manipulative and yes, sleazy, tycoon. The ongoing development of Lois' character was also quite good. And Doug, I guess Luthor does look a bit like Chief O'Brien (that's what he'll always be to me) in those initial panels, although I think - as in so many other instances in this re-vamp - Byrne was trying to evoke the Superman movie by making him resemble a slightly corpulent Gene Hackman.

Dougie said...

My memory of this is very vague but isn't the bad blood between Luthor and Perry White really about the paternity of White's son Jerry? Was it an element of Byrne's Metropolis miniseries? Or was it an Ordway addition?

I do like this Luthor-as-Kingpin iteration- thanks to Byrne's expressive art- but I actually prefer that screwed-up poor little rich boy on Smallville.

humanbelly said...

I like (and buy into) Byrne's version of Lex much more now than I did at the time. Although I know that this type of character has existed pretty much since Greek drama unfolded several thousand years ago, there's something about this particular L.L. that seems a lot more in synch w/ today's Donald Trump-esque type of hubristic corporate megalomaniac. He really seems more "ripped from today's headlines" than he did even 20-some years ago. . .

I also liked this story for using a very conventional, traditional Superman Steps In and Saves the Day structure in which to flesh out our beloved foe considerably more. (Well, more flesh-- less hair--) This was the first issue that felt comfortably like a sturdy, dependable Superman story-- w/out having to focus as much on origins and various backstories. Might be my favorite issue of the series, in fact.

And still liking the art w/out an reservations at all.


William said...

This was my favorite issue of the Man Of Steel mini series. I had watched the Super Friends and read some of the pre-Crisis comics, but I was never really into Superman before this. So I consider this version of the character to be the definitive version for me.

I absolutely love what Byrne did with Lex Luthor. He transformed Luthor from a corny, cliche mad scientist into a recognizable villain that mirrored the real world's growing distrust of big corporate America. A ruthless, wealthy, disconnected megalomaniac who thinks he's above all the "regular" people. A very relatable villain for the times. A bad guy who is the ultimate representative of the Reagan Era "one percent".

He was a much more complex, interesting and scary villain than the old Luthor. You always knew where the old Lex stood. He would come right at Superman head on with some kind of Kryptonite death ray or some such. Everyone knew he was the bad guy. This new Luthor was much different, and more dangerous. He was hiding in plain sight. The most respected man in Metropolis (until Superman came along). A man who is practically above the law, and who has almost unlimited resources. This version of Lex Luthor was a very inspired idea, and probably Byrne's most significant contribution to the Superman mythos.

Fred W. Hill said...

This revised take on Luthor owed much to not only the movie version of Lex, but also to the Kingpin and even a bit of Obadiah Stane from Iron Man. Here he doesn't seem particularly impressive visually, but as depicted in Gaiman & McKean's Black Orchid mini-series, Lex was truly scary because he seemed all too real and hence more threatening than say, Dr. Doom or Thanos who are more the stuff of nightmares at worst rather than the sort of person who might really ruin your life in the real world. Of course, Byrne's version looks like the guy you might not expect to be so terrible and thus even worse!

Jack Alberti said...

How long do you think the strike in Chicago will last? Hope it works out.

Edo Bosnar said...

Just one thing: this version of Luthor is not Byrne's alone. In fact, I think Byrne just created the look, while the whole idea of having Luthor be a ridiculously megalomaniacal businessman was initially proposed by Marv Wolfman.

Karen said...

Actually Edo, I was the one who said Luthor looked like Colm Meaney. He's certainly had a lot of roles in his career, but I agree, I tend to think of him as Chief O'Brien. As an aside, before he did Deep Space Nine, he was a regular at the PCPA (Pacific Coast Performing Arts) Theater in my hometown in California. I saw him on stage several times but of course,he wasn't well known yet. It was when DS9 came out that I said, "Hey, I know him!"

William said...

You're absolutely right Edo (my bad). I went back and read Byrne's take on the creation of the new Luthor, and Marv Wolfman did come up with the idea of making him "the world's richest man". If you notice in the actual story though, Byrne made him something like the "third richest man" instead I believe. Byrne goes on to explain that he took the rich man concept and then created Luthor's look and personality. He says, "…and I built the character as a cross between Donald Trump, Ted Turner, Howard Hughes and maybe Satan himself!"

Byrne also went on to say that Wolfman later claimed the entire credit for creating Luthor, and even received a bonus from DC for the "creation" of the new Lex Luthor.

I'm sure Wolman tells the story differently, so I guess it mostly depends on who you choose to believe. I tend to believe Byrne on this one, mostly because he doesn't claim sole credit, and he comes across as pretty sincere to me.

Edo Bosnar said...

Karen, oops, sorry, I can't believe I mixed up the blue and black text. And you're right, once you start paying attention, you realize Meaney appears everywhere: movies, TV shows, etc. But yes, I always call him Chief O'Brien (by the way, that character actually started appearing in TNG before moving to DS9).
And William, as I understand it, the main elements of the Superman retooling were decided by committee, mainly Byrne, Wolfman and Giordano putting ideas on the table. I just remember that - as you noted - even Byrne acknowledged that the Luthor as an evil rich guy was mainly Wolfman's idea (although apparently he wanted Lois to initially be Luthor's mistress - an idea which, thankfully, was rejected by everyone else).

Michael S. Alford said...

Luthor's character, at least to me, always made more sense as a ruthless corporate gangster than yet another mad scientist.

Anonymous said...

I disagree. Byrne's Lex Luthor felt much more one-dimensional than his Pre-Crisis counterpart.

To start with, Lex did NOT want to kill Superman because a hair loss. That is a misconception. If you read the original story, he blamed Superboy for burning his lab down, destroying his experimental lifeform out of and jealousy and causing his baldness. Then he swore that he would prove he was better by creating grand works. However, his machines kept malfunctioning, forcing Superboy to save the day, and Lex convinced himself that Superboy was trying to ruin his life. And then he swore he'd get rid of Superboy, thus proving he was better.

Elliot S! Maggin's Lex Luthor was a tortured soul, soneone who could have led a very different life under other circumstances. He could have improved the whole world but he was too obsessed with destroying the man he perceived as his enemy. He led a miserable life but he couldn't bring himself to change. He could have lived in the planet Lexor where everyone loved him: his wife, his son... but he was unable to live peacefully unless he killed Superman. And then his obsession and his hatred cost him everything.

Pre-Crisis Lex also loved his family. He hated his father but he reached his nephew out after his parents disavowed his big sister, and tried to leave his little sister and her family alone for their own good. It made him a little more human.

In comparision, JB's Lex Luthor was a megalomaniac with zero redeeming qualities who was evil... just because he was. Also, he was actually less smart. IIRC, he hired scientists to come up with new weapons or ways to kill Superman. Pre-Crisis Lex needed no one to come up with some diabolical machine.

So, no. I'm sorry, but I don't agree with Byrne's Lex Luthor being more complex or more realistic or scarier. He felt flatter and less interesting to me. And Superman's inability to take him down didn't make Luthor look more brilliant and scarier. It made Superman seem incompetent. Seriously, the faster-than-a-bullet investigative journalist who can see through walls and hear anything cannot gather evidence against Lex?

IMO, of course.

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