Lex Luthor, when he still had hair. Artist: John Byrne.


Medium: Comic books
Published by: DC Comics
First Appeared: 1986
Creators: Marv Wolfman (scripter) and John Byrne (artist)
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All comic book fans know Superman's arch-enemy, Luthor, goes back to the very early days, and he was repeadly revised and tinkered with before he became the great villain he is today. He started as a warmonger in eastern Europe, and quickly became a scientific genius bent on world conquest. By the '50s, he was practically Supes's only recurring …

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… bad guy, and thoroughly Americanized. His development was so slow, it was the 1960s before he got so much as an origin story and a first name.

But in 1986, there was a sharp break in his slow, evolutionary development. That's when the modern Lex Luthor, the financial powerhouse whose fortune was based on technological innovation — sort of a super-villain version of Bill Gates — was introduced. This Luthor's first appearance was in The Man of Steel #4 (November, 1986), tho previous issues had alluded to him as CEO of LexCorp, a dominating figure in the affairs of Metropolis.

The occasion of the six-issue Man of Steel mini-series was to reinvent Superman and all his supporting characters, and to re-introduce and re-establish the entire cast. DC Comics had just finished Crisis on Infinite Earths, which straightened out its universe's confusing back-story, and took the opportunity to re-make its most lucrative property into something that seemed fresh and new. The creative force behind the revamp was cartoonist John Byrne (X-Men, Alpha Flight) with a scripting assist from Marv Wolfman (Blade, Night Force).

This version of Luthor hadn't had a relationship with the hero going back to the Superboy days. They first met in that issue, and it was Luthor's realization that he couldn't control Superman, through either intimidation or bribery, that led to the decision to destroy his enemy.

Luthor as re-imagined in 1986 has been compared to Marvel's villain, The Kingpin — as villainous as can be, but more than just untouchable by the law. In many ways, he controls, even embodies the law. Vast sums of money have made him as respectable as Superman himself. In 2000, he was even elected president of the United States.

But as criminal as many people believe the U.S. presidency has become, no office holder in the real world ever approached the corruption of President Luthor. It was during his brief time in office that his embrasure of villainy became open and notorious. One way the DC Universe improves on reality is that there, legal proceedures have actually resulted in a president being removed from his post. Since that time, unlike many former presidents, nobody doubts Luthor is a bad guy.

An early schtick adopted by Luthor was a ring made of kryptonite, the only substance whose radiation can destroy Superman. But in the revision, kryptonite radiation can hurt Earth people as well; and Luthor wound up losing the hand he wore the ring on, and contracting cancer as well. But that's okay, because his brain has been transferred into a clone once or twice, so he has a hand now. He's also gone through a couple of cycles of starting out with red hair and becoming bald again.

Superman has been adapted into the media many times, often with Luthor tagging along. Since the current version of Luthor came into his life, media adaptations have concerned the respectable businessman version of Luthor. The first was a 1988 animated TV show, where Luthor was voiced by Michael Bell (Chaz Finster in both Rugrats and All Grown Up). Another early one was the 1993 TV series Lois & Clark, in which Luthor was played by John Shea, whose other comics-related roles include a priest in HBO's Tales from the Crypt. In the 1996 Superman animated series, Luthor was voiced by Clancy Brown (Mr. Krabs in Spongebob Squarepants). In Smallville, the youthful Luthor is played by Michael Rosenbaum, voice of The Flash in 21st century Justice League animation. In the 2003 Krypto series, Luthor was voiced by Brian Dobson (Skeletor in He-Man.).

Now a fully self-acknowledged super villain, Luthor is closer to his traditional self than he ever was before. But so, after later revisions and retcons, is Superman himself. In today's continuity-conscious comics community, he still can't quite be reconciled with the notorious felon Superman repeadly slapped in the slammer.


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