Holy anachronisms, Batman!
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Lex Luthor is Superman's enemy. His most persistent and most driven nemesis by far, Lex Luthor has hounded the Man of Steel for most of his history across all his incarnations.
The character who would later become known as Lex Luthor debuted with a different look and personality than would later become "archetypical." This character, known only as Luthor, first appeared in 1940 with a full head of red hair and down-to-Earth, albeit criminal, ambitions (he intended to use his genius to sabotage a European peace conference). In this story as well as subsequent appearances, the Golden Age version of Lex Luthor was established as a stereotypical, egomaniacal, pulp fiction-inspired mad scientist, whose only goal was world domination, and who would be foiled time and time again.
After an artist's mistake during the character's fourth (4th) appearance (in 1941) in the newspaper strip, Luthor would take on his iconic appearance. Starting with his appearance in Superman Vol 1 #4 (1940), Luthor was now depicted as completely bald and far heavier complete with jowls, though still lacked a formal listed first name.
This redrawing of Luthor as a bald man would cause some to confuse Luthor with a similar bald character, the Ultra-Humanite. Though the red-headed version of the character only appeared three times in the original printed page of the 1930s and was not seen again formally until the late 1970s, all of Luthor's golden age appearances were later all attributed to the red headed version of the character, who years later was given the first name "Alexei" in order to distinguish him from the better known bald headed incarnation of Earth-One. (See Alexei Luthor for more details of that version's history.) Meanwhile, Per Degaton, who was similar in looks, ethnic origin and advanced super-scientific background to the original Luthor, would begin appearing in issues of All-Star Comics.
As one of only a handful of characters who continued appearing in comics throughout the 40's and 50's, there is no clear delineation between the "Golden Age" and "Silver Age" versions of Luthor. However, as years went on, the character of Luthor would become more fleshed out, and more distinct from his original origins.
Luthor's originally stated goals were to kill Superman and to take over Earth as a stepping stone to dominating the universe. Over the years, Luthor came up with every conceivable plan to destroy Superman: he synthesized kryptonite; traveled back in time; summoned beings from the fourth dimension; created robots, clones, and genetic monstrosities; allied himself with the alien super-computer android Brainiac; animated kryptonite rocks; detonated H-bombs; and has masqueraded and taken on a number of aliases. Although none of his schemes worked permanently (though one classic non-canonical "imaginary story" from the 1960s called The Death of Superman has Luthor finally killing Superman with Kryptonite after lulling him by pretending to go straight), Luthor's persistence made him Superman's most troublesome foe.
In 1960, Adventure Comics #271 (written by Jerry Siegel), reveals both the Silver Age origin of Luthor as well as his first name, "Lex." (Later stories would give his full name as "Alexis Luthor"). Now portrayed as a former friend of the teenage Superboy, who was driven to madness after a lab accident caused him to go prematurely bald, Luthor's vendetta became personal, giving him a dimension beyond his previous mad scientist archetype and suggesting that if events had unfolded differently, Luthor might have become a more noble person. These elements were later played up in various stories in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in Elliot S. Maggin's novel Superman: The Last Son of Krypton. This version of Luthor also became familiar to a much wider audience when he was portrayed in various animated cartoons and children's books.
The softer side of Lex Luthor's character would appear sporadically in the loose continuity of the 60's. In 1964, the concept of Luthor's planetary retreat, Lexor, was first introduced. Though he is a noted villain and an evil mastermind on Earth, Luthor is revered as a hero on the planet, which adopts his name as its own after he uses his scientific genius to rebuild the planet's technology. Though the planet and its inhabitants would only appear a few times during the 60's, later writers would draw on its existence in order to develop Luthor's character.
The 1960's would also feature the debut of a "new" versions of Luthor, who was in fact, merely an older version brought back into prominence. Alexei Luthor was none other than the very first Luthor, now retroactively given a first name and also now the "official" Luthor of Earth-Two. (Despite Alexei's hair, many of the Golden Age appearances of the bald Luthor would be retroactively attributed to him.)
The 70's and early 80's would solidify the character's persona in the minds of fans for many years to come. In addition to his appearance in comics of the time, Lex Luthor found a wider audience in the Super Friends television show and other spin-off merchandise. Luthor would finally receive a "true" costume in the form of the purple-and-green spandex suit with high-collar and crisscrossed bandoleers that would become familiar to an entire generation of children. Meanwhile, more humanistic writers such as Cary Bates and Elliott S. Maggin attempted to make Luthor more "realistic" and "human." Characters like Luthor's estranged sister Lena Thorul would appear, and the Lexor concept would be developed further, with Luthor being given a wife and child on that planet. Maggin would also first introduce the concept of "Lexcorp" that would be more fully developed after Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooted continuity. (In Maggin's comics and novels, Lexcorp existed as a holding company for various patents that Luthor wished to develop legally.)
The 70's also brought into existence yet another new version of Luthor, who would become famous through the medium of film. 1978's Superman: The Movie introduced a Lex Luthor who, as portrayed by Gene Hackman, was simultaneously evil, megalomaniacal, brilliant, and buffoonish. This Luthor, who in his vanity wears a wig to cover his baldness, has no apparent past history with Superman when the latter first appears on the scene. However, he comes into conflict with the hero when he plans to become rich and powerful through maipulation of the real estate market and the destruction of hundreds of miles of the United States coatline. The more mundane (and semi-comical) nature of this character would become a direct inspiration for later versions, and this incarnation would appear again in the four sequels to the movie.
In Action Comics #544 in 1983, Lex was given a makeover for Superman's 45th anniversary in comics, and gained a purple-and-green colored battlesuit that gave him the ability to take on Superman singlehandedly. Subsequently, the Lexor saga would finally reach its conclusion when a discharge from the battlesuit inadvertently causes the destruction of his world and family. Though the pathos generated from this story (as well as the similarity to Superman's own background) would deepen Luthor's character, Luthor's rage only magnified his evil intent. Though the "warsuit" period of Luthor's career would last fewer than three years, the fact that it would be incorporated into a Super Powers action figure as well as other spin-off material gave it an iconic quality for many fans. Variations of the design would continue to appear long after its Pre-Crisis origin was nullified.
The early 80's also saw the introduction of one more Pre-Crisis version. Alexander Luthor, a bald man with a red goatee and altruistic motives, was the Luthor of Earth-Three, who first appeared on the scene when the Luthors of Earth-One and Earth-Two teamed up with Ultraman in a plot to take over that reality. Alexander Luthor would appear several more times, alongside his wife, Lois Lane-Luthor, and their offspring would become a pivotal character in both the Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Infinite Crisis. (See Alexander Luthor, Sr.)
Crisis on Infinite Earths
The Earth-One, Earth-Two, and Eath-Three versions would all be destroyed in the series Crisis on Infinite Earths, even as the last Pre-Crisis Luthor was introduced. In issue #1 of the series, Alexander Luthor of Earth-Three perishes along with the rest of his universe when the Anti-Monitor attacks. However, he able to save his son, Alex Luthor, who is found by the Monitor and becomes key to the resolution of the Crisis. (See Alexander Luthor, Jr.) A later issue of the series would portray the death of Alexei Luthor (the Luthor of Earth-Two). Though the Luthor of Earth-One survived the Crisis, his story would end a few months later during John Byrne's revamp of the Superman mythos. Though it is an "imaginary story", Alan Moore's What Ever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow effectively sends the Earth-One Luthor out with a bang. (A fuller history of the Earth-One Luthor can be found here.
In 1986, John Byrne's "reboot" of Superman's mythos in the miniseries The Man of Steel rewrote the character of Lex Luthor (now given the full name Alexander) largely from scratch, in order to make him a villain that the 1980s readers would recognize. The basic concept was suggested by Marv Wolfman- Luthor would become a paunchy, (naturally) balding corporate white-collar criminal whom the law could not touch. He would become fleshed out further by Byrne and other writers, who later brought back some of the earlier elements of his character. This Luthor was still a scientific genius, but more importantly he was a master manipulator. His belief in power for power's sake would make him unable to accept the idea that Superman had a secret identity, and his motive for destroying his arch-enemy came down to the simple fact that Superman could not be "bought."
The Post-Crisis/Post-Man of Steel Luthor was significantly older than his previous incarnations, and rather than having a childhood relationship with Superman (who now had never been Superboy to begin with), Luthor was instead portrayed as an old friend of Perry White's, and the true father of Perry's son, Jerry. Luthor also now had an attraction to Lois Lane as well as a collection of ex-wives. This version of Luthor's character would become the basis for his portrayal in Lois and Clark and Superman: The Animated Series on television. (See Alexander Luthor (New Earth)).
After Byrne's departure, Luthor would become increasingly like his previous incarnations. As years went on, Luthor once again became a more "hands-on" scientist (an ironic expression, considering this Luthor would lose his hand due to Kryptonite-related cancer.) The mad scientist aspect of his persona would be played up during an elaborate storyline that featured him faking his own death, tranferring his brain into a younger clone of himself while masquerading as his own (Australian!) son, and causing the annhilation of Metropolis in his madness. Later, Luthor would sell his soul to Neron in exchange for a younger, fitter body more closely resembling his pre-Crisis incarnation. Luthor would go on to remarry and have a daughter, Lena (named for the Pre-Crisis Luthor's sister) who would play a role in further storylines.
Despite the increasingly public nature of Luthor's exploits, the core concept of him as a "respectable" citizen would remain, and would be carried to its ultimate conclusion in the next decade.
In an ambitious storyline spanning several years, Luthor finally receives ultimate power in America when he is elected President of the United States. Having managed to sweep his criminal history under the rug, Luthor becomes enormously popular as president, causing a new source of conflict between him and Superman, who is torn between his duty to uphold the law and his belief in justice. This development would prove fertile ground for the character, and Luthor would remain president until the onset of Infinite Crisis.
In 2004, the comics Luthor was retroactively altered once again, this time in the series Superman: Birthright written by Mark Waid. Though the bulk of Luthor's history remains true to the Byrne incarnation (Luthor is still a tycoon, still above the law, and still ends up President), many facets of his previous versions were rolled back into the storyline. This version of Luthor is once again contemporary to Superman (leaving the status of his relationship with Perry and Jerry White unclear.) Similar to his Earth-One incarnation, Luthor has an early relationship with Clark Kent in Smallville, and ultimately loses his hair because of a lab accident. Luthor is now also given a father, Lionel, much like the one portrayed in Smallville.
These retcons proved controversial, especially with series writer Mark Waid. According to Waid, the editorial staff at DC forced him to use the Smallville version of Luthor's origin. Waid, a longtime and extremely vocal critic of the 1986 Superman reboot, originally planned to use Birthright to purge the Byrne version of Lex Luthor's origin from canon. DC, aware of Waid's outspoken criticism, and unwilling to completely disavow the last twenty years of comics continuity, opted instead to dictate to Waid that any changes made to Lex's character should be done to make him more in line with the Smallville version of Lex Luthor. Although the changes in Lex's character and background were slow to appear in other titles, writers Geoff Johns and Mark Verheiden have referred to Lex's time in Smallville, reinforcing Birthright's canonical status. Despite the fact that Waid was unable to completely eradicate the Byrne/Wolfman version of the Luthor character, Birthright has made numerous stories of the 1980's/1990's Luthor and Superman difficult to reconcile with current continuity.
The later series Infinite Crisis has only made the continuity issues harder to sort out. In the lead-up to that series, the Post-Crisis Luthor's character underwent more changes, and the Crisis On Infinite Earths version of the character is re-introduced for the first time in over twenty years. Luthor, driven half-mad by chemical injections, loses his Presidency when one of his schemes is finally (and publicly) ended by the team of Superman and Batman. Though he is believed dead, Luthor (wearing a warsuit similar to the one introduced in 1983) declares that there will soon be a reckoning- a Crisis. Luthor, or someone pretending to be Luthor, then recruits nearly every villain on Earth into a newly-organized Secret Society of Super-Villains which is opposed only by the Secret Six led by the mysterious Mockingbird. Over the course of four "Countdown" mini-series, numerous crossovers, and the Infinite Crisis series itself, we learn that there are in fact two Luthors- Alex Luthor, the son of Alexander Luthor of Earth-Three, who is posing as Lex Luthor in order to further his own goals, and the genuine article, who has manipulated the Secret Six in an attempt to thwart his impostor. By the end of the Infinite Crisis, Alex Luthor is dead, and Lex Luthor has gone public again. However, subsequent storylines have shown this version of Luthor to be even closer to his Pre-Crisis counterpart than he had been previously depicted.