30 December 2009

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #16: Lex Luthor: Man of Steel

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2005 (contents: 2005)

Borrowed from a friend
Read December 2009
Lex Luthor: Man of Steel

Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Lee Bermejo
Additional Inks: Mick Gray, Karl Story, Jason Martin
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Letterers: Phil Balsman, Pat Brosseau, Rob Leigh, Nick J. Napolitano

DC Universe Timeline: Seven Years Ago
Real World Timeline: 2005

(When I assembled this timeline, I placed this story after For Tomorrow, Volume Two on the basis of an on-line timeline I saw somewhere that gave this placement. But after reading the story, it's plainly not true: Luthor is still CEO of Lexcorp and doing quite well, so it must come before his term as president. In addition, Superman and Batman don't have a friendly relationship-- Lex gives Batman a piece of kryptonite, and Superman fights him to get it back-- so it must occur early in their careers... but not too early, as Mona, who's probably in her 20s, says Superman's been in Metropolis since she "was a little girl". One timeline cited the apperance of Mr. Orr in both this and For Tomorrow as evidence they go close together, but that actually works in favor of an early placement for Lex Luthor: in For Tomorrow, he's working for shadow governments and fighting Wonder Woman, whereas in this one he's intimidating union bosses. Obviously he's got some mercenary credentials to acquire yet. Considering all that, I've placed the story a year before Crisis on Infinite Earths. Which disappointingly means it's not really the last stop on my chronological journey, but oh well.)

It's a well-established fact that Lex Luthor is my favorite comic book villain of all time. Superman's my favorite hero, and Luthor is the perfect opposite for him:a self-made man, through and through. Both see themselves as wanting the best for everyone around them, but the difference is that for Luthor, what's best for everyone else is always also best for him. I also love his casual arrogance, his manipulation of those around him... which is deserved, because he actually is the smartest man in the room. My preferred Luthor is the accomplished, brilliant businessman-- that's the one I grew up on in the Superman cartoon-- but I also admit a fondness for the Gene Hackman/Kevin Spacey version, who I think still has the same fundamental core. The highest compliment I can give to a villain is to compare them to Lex Luthor; I like to try to do this in graduate seminars, and have thus far succeeded with the man in the yellow suit in Tuck Everlasting and Madame Beck in Villette. But the threat to Luthor is simple and strong: Superman.

The threat that Superman poses to Luthor is something that Lex Luthor: Man of Steel aims to explore. It's a Lex Luthor comic book, told almost entirely from his perspective. What are his adventures? What does he think? Why is he such an utter bastard?

As Azzarello paints it-- and this I agree with, it's how I see Luthor as well-- Lex Luthor thinks that Superman is a threat to humanity. Not because Superman is openly antagonistic or anything like that, but because the idea of Superman threatens humanity. As an outsider, Superman cuts off humanity's potential. Why should humanity aspire to do greater, if Superman is out there, doing it for them? Lex rejects the concepts of fate and destiny: "All of us-- everyone-- deserves a chance at greatness. All that takes is the belief that it exists. But his existence threatens not just that belief... but our existence. I believe there's something inherently dangerous when something real becomes something mythic. I believe when that happens, we lose the part of ourselves that yearns to be great. Because when faced with a myth? We can't win." Superman threatens that achievement time and again... and the possibility of humanity to achieve is something Luthor spends all his time in Man of Steel trying to prove.

The event that's going on in the background of this book is Lexcorp's construction of the Science Spire, a gigantic research facility in the heart of Metropolis. The book doesn't have one strong overarching storyline, but a couple smaller ones, interspersed with moments of Lex Luthor being Lex Luthor. It's one of these moments that's my favorite: Luthor learns that his office janitor's son is interested in science, but that he cuts class frequently, so he's not making the grades he should be. Luthor gives the janitor an invitation for the opening of the Science Spire, one he can only pass on if the son gets an A. But after the janitor leaves, Luthor instructs his personal assistant, Mona, to ensure that the son gets one of twelve spots in the incoming class at Von Rauch Academy, a very exclusive private school. Mona objects that the school's picked its incoming class already; Luthor tells her to make it work. That's Lex Luthor. He's a man who believes every human being has great potential within... and will do totally unethical things to realize that potential.

My other favorite small moment is when Luthor brutally dismisses Mona and her advances:
MONA: Lex, can I talk freely?
LUTHOR: I sign your checks, Mona.
MONA: Do you want to know what I think about this?
LUTHOR: No. Here's what you think: "My boss is getting dangerously close to making a mistake that could ruin him. He's been touched by an ideal, when all I want is for him to touch me. Despite the way I dress, he won't notice me. He only has eyes for his ideal. How can I change that? How can I make myself... ideal?"
MONA: You're a bastard.
LUTHOR: No, Mona... I'm an idealist.
It's one of these small moments that's also my least favorite. The Science Spire is going overbudget, but Lexcorp can't renegotiate its contracts with its construction workers because they have a strong union, so Luthor has Mr. Orr intimidate the union boss and threaten to throw him over the side of the building. Though this is the sort of problem-solving the ever-crude Mr. Orr might partake in, it seems a little bit beneath Luthor, using a bludgeon when a scalpel will suffice. Threatening murder just to get a building finished on time and on budget seems to be overdoing it-- especially when he's thinking about incorporating the Science Spire as a nonprofit and doesn't care about the money he makes! So why all this then?

The best extended plotline is Luthor's trip to Gotham, to meet with one of his business partners... a certain Bruce Wayne. It's a well-done chapter, cutting between Luthor's conversation with Wayne and a Batman/Superman fight precipitated by the visit: Luthor gives Wayne a piece of kryptonite, and Superman's not too happy about that. Does Luthor know that Wayne is Batman? It's never directly said... but it seems strongly implied. He knows that Wayne has something going on, though, and is willing to take a chance to get what he wants. It's a fantastic conversation. To an utterly innocent outside observer, Luthor would appear to be a forward-thinking idealist, Wayne a lackadaisical playboy. Yet, underneath, neither is the man they pretend to be.

The dedication of the Science Spire corresponds with Luthor's revelation of his own, homegrown hero: Hope. Hope is a woman created in one of Lexcorp's labs to be the ultimate superhero. You see, she's human, and the pinnacle of human achievement. Humans created her with human technology. There's a brief time where she supplants Superman in the hearts and minds of Metropolis. And as for Luthor, how does he react? Hope is the ultimate expression of his every desire. How could he react but to fall in love with her? Dang, Lex Luthor, but you're creepy. But it's believable, because Luthor's really in love with one person beneath it all: himself. He is the best humankind has to offer, and he created Hope. The sheer arrogance of that name-- who other than Lex Luthor could believe that he'd personally created hope itself?

But Hope is part of a more elaborate plot, and this is where the book loses me again. She's just not an artificial superhero: she does artificial good. The initial disaster she helps fight is manufactured by Luthor via Mr. Orr (who gets the Toyman to do it for him, in a rare good use of the character). And the book climaxes with Hope apprehending the Toyman for his crime... and dropping him, her body operating at Luthor's will. Superman saves the Toyman, of course, and a battle between the two "heroes" ensues. And during that fight, Luthor causes her to detonate, collapsing the Science Spire himself. I love the idea of a man willing to destroy is own greatest achievements for the greater good. But the justification is weak: "What the world watched you do tonight... if it only changes one mind about what you are..." That's it? Turning one mind against Superman is worth that? I don't buy it; Luthor is too calculating for that. And the fight just doesn't work either; why would saving the Toyman escalate into something like that? It's a disappointing ending, even if it does yield another fantastic Lex Luthor line: "I know 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."

The art's usually great. Lee Bermejo's work is rough and harsh, perfect for the world of Lex Luthor. Even if he does look a little too craggy from time to time. His Luthor is perfectly expressive, able to go from warm and friendly to cold and calculating and still be the same person. He does a good job at all the other characters, too. There is one very weird sequence with a redhead being reflected in a glass wall that I found confusing, but I eventually puzzled my way through what was happening there. The occasionally switching style is nice, too: the issue that intercuts Lex talking to Bruce with Batman fighting Superman uses a different style for each strand-- the Batman/Superman one looks more painted-- which is very effective. The colors by Dave Stewart really help, too: a lot of dark grays and greens, muddy colors for Lex's world. Superman is brighter than everything else... but only relatively. It's still a dim world.

Superman is an ominous presence in Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, and that works immensely well. He hovers outside Luthor's office, fights Batman, reports on the Science Spire, and battles Hope for the Toyman. His glowing red eyes are a recurring motif. But he only has one line of dialogue: "You're wrong... I can see your soul." It's a line that chills Luthor to the bone, because he knows it's true. Lex Luthor might be the better human being... but Superman is the better person and always will be. And they both know it, even if Luthor will never admit. Luthor will go on fighting that good fight, trying to serve humanity the best he can: the most unethical way possible. And that is why I love him.

Amazingly enough, I've finished my chronological journey through my friend's comics. But Faster than a DC Bullet's not over yet: these have just been the in-continuity ones. We've got three more out-of-continuity stories to go before this thing wraps itself up.

Note that this originally appeared on my old LiveJournal and included pictures back then. Sadly, the pictures are lost in the mists of the Internet.

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