Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lex Luthor: Man of Steel

Lex Luthor: Man of Steel is a short comic book miniseries about the perspective of Lex Luthor, Superman's arch-enemy. It isn't often that you see spin-offs of popular stories that feature the point of view of the villain, but this is one of those.

For those not in the know, what makes Lex Luthor Superman's arch-enemy is the fact that he is a very powerful man; he is wealthy, influential, and incredibly intelligent. But, as he painfully realizes, he is just a man whereas Superman is something more. Lex Luthor's aspiration to be the leader of the world is one that is constantly rendered unimportant, merely by Superman's existence. For Lex Luthor can't really compete with the mythical figure of Superman; people place their hopes and dreams in Superman precisely because he is more than human. This struggle with what Lex Luthor wants to be versus what he can actually accomplish is one that defines his character, and this inner conflict is what causes him to hate Superman so passionately.

The Defender of Humanity
"I can't beat you alone. But then, I'm not alone. There are six and a half billion of me... And only one of you."

Lex Luthor: Man of Steel goes into Luthor's perspective in immense detail. We see his efforts to serve humanity in a way that undercuts Superman. We hear Luthor's justifications for opposing him. And, most of all, we watch as Luthor's obsession becomes one that undermines his own lofty goals. This perception of Superman is one that manifests in the very art of the comic itself. Superman is powerful, disturbing, godlike, and inhuman. His eyes, when not glowing with a sinister scarlet flame, are shadowed and hidden from view. It is clear that this is what Luthor sees, not someone trying to do his best to serve humanity and its ideals but an alien usurper arbitrarily doing whatever he pleases. Luthor knows that he can't defeat Superman physically, so he tries to do so intellectually; Luthor tries to free the hearts and minds of humanity from a slavish devotion to a man who is not a man.

Luthor is a staunch believer in humanity's potential for growth and excellence. Many times throughout the comic, he muses upon why Superman's existence challenges this state of being. He explains to us how, with someone like Superman around, people grow complacent. Men and women look to Superman as a savior, a shield against danger and despair. But Luthor points out that this causes people to become content with this status quo; people believe that this is the pinnacle of human achievement, and they don't bother to progress beyond this point. Essentially, Luthor views Superman as a perpetually active safety net for humanity, one that makes people stop trying so hard and one that won't necessarily be around forever.

On top of this, Luthor is constantly aware of the fact that there is no way to control or trust Superman. If Superman were to decide that the best way to save people is to rule over them, then there would be no way to prevent him from doing so. Superman is one of the most powerful entities probably to ever exist in comics, and it is a rational concern that he could possibly snap and potentially destroy the world. Of course, everyone knows that Superman would never do that, but that is a belief based on trust and societal expectation. Luthor looks past this and sees an all-powerful alien being that could endanger everyone. Thus, to his eyes, he is the only sane man trying to stop a potential armaggedon. This is a belief that is based on a rational possibility, but it is one that can become incredibly self-centered. And this echoes itself in Luthor's personality.

When you gaze into the Abyss...
"Superman is a name that we gave him, an attempt to humanize him – as pointless as naming a hurricane."

Part of what makes Lex Luthor: Man of Steel so interesting is Luthor's plans against Superman. Luthor plays a delicate and careful game, putting separate threads into motion to achieve his particular goal. He is a chessmaster, a manipulative genius. And, though he is always perceived as the villain, this is his story. You feel for him and you want him to succeed up until the very end. The problem here is that Luthor's obsessive goal in opposing Superman causes him to sacrifice every other principle and everything he cares for. It is both weirdly admirable and immensely disturbing that he goes so far. To put so much faith and willpower into any goal without compromise is interesting to watch, but it is a determination akin to blowing one's self up to send a political message; Luthor's story is one that draws you to him yet pushes you back.

The point here is that, as one would expect, Luthor goes as far as it takes to accomplish his goal. This includes using his immense wealth for blackmail, assassinations, you name it. But what is truly tragic is that, in the comic book, he totally annihilates his own personal relationships to do it. It is a process of self-destruction that is almost a lesson in the extremes of psychology and how it affects mankind. Needless to say, this book is a psychoanalysis of Lex Luthor and also a judgment on Superman himself, and it is good.

"You would see a man who willingly denied himself happiness. Who chose to give up hope. For a world without a Superman."

While on the whole it was excellent, the comic book wasn't without its flaws. Some of Luthor's actions don't quite make sense and this serves to make the final execution of his master gambit a trifle hard to follow. I couldn't tell if it was a personal failing or a simple writing issue, but it impacted a pretty decent chunk of the story. Another thing is that the artistry jumps sharply in quality, up and down. Sometimes it looks beyond epic, and sometimes it looks like something the artist shat out under a deadline. Also, I found myself wishing it was longer; for a comic book miniseries it is pretty damn short. But I don't really consider that a failing. If anything, it is probably a compliment to the author's ability to sharply grasp my attention.

All in all, this was a memorable story that will stick with me as an intriguing character piece on one of the more interesting villains in comic book history.


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