Gaiman on Superman

Picked up via Boing Boing , Neil Gaiman, brains behind the wonderful Sandman books has scribed on Superman to Wired Magazine. (Somehow also Adam Rogers was involved.) And it’s a nice brief examination of maybe how that particular character has fit into popular culture, but it’s a bit short. If there’s any comic book character with enough material for PhD level 500-page dissertation, Clark is it. Anyway, like I said, good read, a few tidbits about the upcoming film, Bryan Singer once again mentions he’s adopted and then all logic and reason goes out the window with this phrase:

For Superman, there’s pretty much only bitter, bald Lex Luthor, forever being reinvented by writers and artists in an effort to make him a worthy foe.

Neil, (and Adam) how could you? To slight the criminal genius, the mold from which ALL criminal genius has been cast, it’s inconceivable! And hey, you know what, I’m feeling generous, I’ll even tell you why.

Lex Luthor first appeared in Action Comics #23 (1940) , in which he didn’t really have a first name, but did have bright red hair, patent-pending zeal and exceptional fashion sense. Emerging from the realm of the medieval Alchemists, the mad scientist archetype has always been sort of a parable for human machination- whether it’s fear-slandered technology, greed or playing God, basically if you’re trying to be smarter than everyone else, whether for the good of mankind or your own greed you’re still evil and damned to hell (see Drs. Jekyll & Frankenstein). These are Lex Luthor’s predecessors and the birthright of any good villain- to show us the error of our ways. But then something really weird happens because of the never ending nature of the Comics medium, Lex is granted a pardon from hell itself and given free reign to forever pursue his villainy.

And portray villainy he has; in subsequent appearances he’s evolved from a brute with brains, a whacked out scientist out for revenge, a total Mafioso Kingpin rip-off and oh yeah, there was that time he got elected President. The whole spectrum of villainy! He’s been everything from petty to Machiavellian, and every reinvention blends into the idea of Luthor, the perpetual schemes and plans, as if changing tactics for his ultimate goal of domination. Domination of what? Of everything- Earth, Superman, space, time, you name it, Lex thinks he’s better and that everyone should recognize! I mean, come on, everyone wants a little love!

One of the big reasons Gaiman’s throwaway crack on Luthor annoyed me is that if you can elevate Supes for any reason then you should at least give Luthor that same love. Not just because he’s supposedly the main foe, but because Luthor’s been around since 1940, been reinterpreted as often as Kal-El, and therefore been shaped by any number of mitigating factors. Any writer worth his salt has taken a shot at trying to capture a little bit of the matter that makes a Luthor- be it an abusive childhood, intense jealousy, some physiological impulse or an unspoken love for Lois Lane. He’s had kids. He’s had cancer. He may never be eternally doomed, but then again he’s pretty much guaranteed a spot next to the Chicago Cubs for all time. Even so, the various retcons don’t detract for Luthor any more than Superman’s do.

Now here’s where I’m really going to cannibalize my own argument, because I’ve just rambled about holding Lex to the same standards as Clark, but the fact of the matter is they are distinctly different on a few key points and I think these are where Luthor really start to shine as the penultimate Superman villain.

Superman has always, (for me being a child of 1978), represented of ‘the potential for good’ in humankind. Hope, heroism, justice and bravery. He wear the primary colors, he is likewise very elemental in what he represents. He is an ideal. Superman’s always there to keep Luthor from mucking things up too bad, as only Superman can be with his invulnerability, and flight and strength and whatever the hell else power he needs to save the day. Seems just a little unbalanced, yeah? But standing toe to toe with a guy that could make him a pretzel and then vaporize all evidence, Lex Luthor persists. With ambition, single-mindedness, and intelligence, Luthor becomes positive aspects of human nature taken a step too far, twisted, and harkening back to those moralistic warnings. And while he’s still got plenty of whacked-out schemes and may on occasion be a little more insane than your Postman, or the dude at the Deli, Luthor is the one thing that Superman is not- human.

That’s the brilliance behind Lex, that all that physical stuff is completely superfluous in their rivalry, because he’ll always think around the inherent advantages of the kid from Krypton. I was watching Donner’s movie this weekend, and it struck me, Lex has everything worked out, he steals the meteorite, removes Superman’s advantage, does his little rant thing (which doesn’t bother me, cause Gene Hackman is like brain cholesterol yummy!) but what gets him, what unravels the whole plot is Hackensack, NJ. Lex has decided to send one of his nukes into NJ while the other is headed toward the San Andreas Fault, and who could blame him, I mean, NJ, it goes without saying. But unfortunately for Lex, Hackensack NJ just happens to be where Ms. Teschmacher(!)’s mom lives. Had he nuked, say Newark, Ms. Teschmacher might have been fine leaving Superman at the bottom of the pool to drown wearing the Krypto-bling. There’s no real explanation why Luthor decides on Hackensack, but since he’s designed to lose, it doesn’t really matter much. It’s never just that Luthor’s come up with a stupid plan that Superman has no trouble dispatching, it’s always got to be some moment of Fate intervening so that good triumphs, because that’s the function. The Villain exists to plague the hero, to provide a conflict, and is therefore servant to him.

Luthor does that really well, but that he’s so smart he can challenge not only Superman, and pretty much the whole DCU, Luthor’s an ideal in and of himself- the infinite capacity of a human mind. Not just in the don’t-be-greedy, Romantic mad scientist way, but really to such an extent that he undermines Superman being so darned super. Removing the advantages, the implausibility, and the fantastic nature of Superman. Kryptonian or no, Lex Luthor makes Superman a lot more human.

But Superman is always going to be the alien, something we hope to be. An ideal. Lex is what we are, reality. What we’re going to have to constantly struggle against to achieve the ideal. It’s an interesting balancing scheme and one that has defined Luthor as THE Superman villain.

And yeah, I’m a little predisposed to cranky, egotistical and sometimes evil characters, but probably because they represent a lot of what I’ve mentioned. But hey if you don’t like Lex Luthor, all my talking bullshit probably isn’t going to convince you, so I want to just point at SUPERMAN #149 that emphasizes the radness that is Lex Luthor, to quote Scott Tipton of Comics101 fame:
The man had cured cancer, just to lull Superman into a false sense of security. That, my friends, is evil.

And just isn’t it?