DC Histories: Lex Luthor

Here at DC Histories, we try to make sense of the continuity that perplexes, befuddles, and intimidates. We discuss what worked and what didn’t. This week, we’re talking about the terrible Lex Luthor.

Action Comics (Vol. 1) #259 (1959) Cover

The man originally known only as Luthor first appeared just two years after Superman made his first appearance. Sporting a head full of red hair, Luthor was a scientist bent on taking over the world. His mad dream seemed possible thanks to his seeming unlimited technological resources. When he first ran into Superman, he was attempting to start a war between two European countries. Only super strength and unbreakable hide allowed Superman to thwart Luthor’s plans.

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #23 (1940)

Modern readers may be surprised by Luthor’s hair in his first few appearances. His trademark bald head didn’t arrive until the following year. This change in Luthor’s look may have been due to a mistake on a part of an artist. It’s unknown just who was used as a reference when Leo Nowak drew the first bald Luthor in 1941’s Superman #10. Perhaps he used an old drawing of the Ultra-Humanite, another Superman villain from that era, or he used one of Luthor’s henchmen from Superman #4 who looked suspiciously like the later drawings of Luthor. In either case, the bald look stuck.

From Superman (Vol. 1) #4 (1940)

For decades, there wasn’t any development in Luthor’s character aside from his gaining the first name of Lex. He kept trying to take over the world, or gain illicit goods, or simply try to kill Superman. Time and time again, he failed. After twenty years of failure, motivation for his actions was finally given. In a story written by Jerry Siegel, one of Superman’s co-creators, it was revealed that Luthor had actually grown up in Smallville alongside a teenage Superman, then going by the name Superboy. A young scientist dedicated to helping his community, Luthor was constantly tinkering with chemicals in his room. One day, when a mixture got out of hand, Luthor called on Superboy for help. Instead of whisking Luthor to safety or putting out the chemical fire at super speed, Superboy chose to blow the fire out with his breath. This choice was disastrous for Luthor, as it resulted in a chemical combination which both destroyed Luthor’s work and caused his hair to fall out.

From Adventure Comics (Vol. 1) #271 (1960)

Luthor never forgave Superboy. From then on, the two became mortal enemies. Feeling unappreciated, Luthor only used his genius for his own benefit. After learning about Lex’s new schemes, his parents hated what their child had become and kicked him out of their middle-class house. Lex was on his own.

From Superman (Vol. 1) #292 (1975)

That all started to change when Luthor transported both himself and Superman to another planet. In an attempt to see who was the better man when Superman was without his powers, Luthor challenged Superman to a fight on a planet with a red sun. Under that sun’s light, Superman became as powerful as a regular human. However, before the match took place, Luthor explored the planet and found humanoid aliens living there. Seeing that they were doomed without access to more water, Luthor allowed himself to be beaten in the fight so that Superman could regain his powers and save that world’s population. The population was saved and they knew that their true savior was Luthor.

From Superman (Vol. 1) #164 (1963)

Eventually, this planet would come to be known as Lexor. Luthor remained the people’s greatest hero and began to split his time between Lexor and Earth. While on that alien world, he took a wife and the pair welcomed a son to the universe. Still, Luthor found it difficult to not challenge Superman in the occasional battle for personal supremacy. When Luthor finally decided to spend all of his time on Lexor and leave Earth behind, he forgot to deactivate some of his infernal mechanisms before he left. When Superman traveled to Lexor to confront Luthor about the evils he’d left behind, the battle between the two ended when a blast from Luthor’s new battle suit went wild. The blast hit a weak spot in the planet, resulting in the planet’s destruction. The entire population of Lexor died, including Luthor’s wife and son.

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #544 (1983)

Only Superman and Luthor survived the blast. After Lexor’s destruction, which each of the two men blamed the other one for causing, Luthor renewed his attacks on Superman with a grim determination.

Then, the Crisis on Infinite Earths reset everything. As has been mentioned several times in this column, the Crisis was a massive reset button for the DC Universe. When all was said and done, the mad scientist version of Lex Luthor was no more. In his place was an unscrupulous business man who ruled Metropolis with political influence, crooked commercial dealings with his company LexCorp, and billions of dollars.

This Luthor had never lived in Smallville. Raised in the poor area of Metropolis known as the Suicide Slum, Luthor came from humble beginnings. Smarter than either of his parents, he resented the environment in which he was raised. In order to get away from his upbringing he set up massive life insurances policies in his parents’ name, cut the break lines on their car, and collected the money after their deaths. Luthor would turn that money into the start of his fortune.

From Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography (1989)

This time, Luthor’s baldness was shown to be hereditary and not caused by a young Superman. It was really the better way to go.

Years later, Luthor thought himself untouchable. His arrogance was stunning and when he first met Superman, he was shocked when the interaction ended with his being jailed. Although his lawyers quickly paid his bail and the court case was wiped away, it left Luthor with a bruise on his ego. From then on, he became more deliberate with actions and more careful in his plausible deniability. For instance, when he discovered Kryptonite was a substance that would harm Superman, he quickly made a ring out of the substance. Luthor went on to wear the accessory all day every day.

From Superman (Vol. 2) #2 (1987)

While Kryptonite is only deadly to Kryptonians in the short-term, it was proven to be a carcinogen to humans. Having spent years with the ring on his finger, Luthor learned that cancer was slowly spreading through his body. At first, the disease only affected his hand, which was eventually amputated. A robot arm was fitted in its place and Luthor took to wearing a glove over that hand.

From Superman (Vol. 2) #19 (1988)

As the cancer spread, Luthor realized that there was no cure for his affliction. In an effort to save himself from the worst of the biological indignities that laid ahead of him, Luthor appeared to take his own life when a plane he was piloting crashed into the side of a mountain. Superman quickly responded to the scene where he found a charred body and a broken artificial hand.

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #660 (1990)

Luthor’s Last Will stated that his fortune should go to a heretofore unmentioned son. Sired during Luthor’s youth, the now 20-something year-old man known as Lex Luthor II was found living in Australia by two of Luthor’s most trusted employees.

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #670 (1991)

After learning of his father’s death, Lex Luthor II moved to Metropolis and took over his father’s business. He seemed like a kinder, gentler Luthor who just happened to be pretty great at running a multinational corporation. This new Luthor was a bright spot in LexCorp and a wonderful turnaround from his black-hearted father.

At least, that was the story that was told to the public. The real story was straight out of a modern soap opera. This Lex Luthor II was really a young clone of Lex Luthor I who had his elder’s brain in his body. This Luthor was the same person who supposedly died in that plane crash.

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #678 (1992)

When Luthor found out that the Kryptonite cancer spreading through his body was guaranteed to kill him, he started up this clone project so that he could live. Realizing that cloning himself was weird, he invented a long-lost son story so that he could be reborn. Luthor loved his new, strong body and kept his mane of red hair long and flowy. This was the version of Lex Luthor who seduced the Matrix Supergirl and who was present during the death of Superman storyline.

Luthor soon learned that all good things must come to an end. In 1994, when a clone plague began sweeping its way through the Superman line of titles, Luthor found his new body become frail and sickly. Though he didn’t die, he slowly became a vegetable in his own skin. Just as he was fading away, he set loose a series of revenge contingencies which destroyed much of Metropolis.

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #700 (1994)

Just a year later, Luthor was restored to full power when he made a deal with Neron, a demon who was tempting various members of the DCU with their hearts’ desires. By signing away his soul, Luthor was made well again and he lost several dozen pounds that he’d packed on after the Crisis. Luckily for Luthor, this deal didn’t really come up again after it was made, unlike what happened to Blue Devil.

From Underworld Unleashed #1 (1995)

Shortly after his restoration, Luthor set about reclaiming his lost public facade. He was able to explain that Lex Luthor II was an evil clone and that he, the real Lex Luthor, had returned. The public bought this and Luthor regained his spot as the head of LexCorp. Along the way, he sired a child with the woman who had been running LexCorp in his absence. Naming his daughter Lena, Luthor vowed to give his daughter everything that he didn’t have when he was growing up.

From Superman (Vol. 2) #131 (1998)

Luthor tends to forget his vows when offered something that he really wants. When Brainiac came to Metropolis on New Year’s Eve as the calendar flipped to 2000, he brought with him vast technological upgrades to the city. All he asked in return was total dominion over the people residing in his city. Though Brainiac was defeated by the one-two combination of Luthor and Superman, Brainiac offered to leave his upgrades in place if Luthor would give Brainiac his daughter as a host. Luthor agreed and Lena was taken away. The city’s upgrades allowed Metropolis to be nicknamed the City of Tomorrow and Luthor remained among its chief figures. Superman wasn’t pleased with Luthor’s deal.

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #763 (2000)

Just as Metropolis was flourishing like never before, Gotham City was at its lowest. Having been destroyed in a massive earthquake and left to rot by the United States Government, Gotham was a shadow of its former self. Sensing that public sentiment had shifted against the federal government for its abandonment of a major American city, Luthor decided to step in and rebuild much of the downtown area, even though such action was illegal. Of course, he had an ulterior motive. Luthor attempted to destroy whatever was left of Gotham City Hall’s financial records. By destroying the records of who owned what properties, he knew that he could buy the devastated land for pennies on the dollar. Knowing that Gotham City was going to be reincorporated into the United States, Luthor would then own most of downtown Gotham City, thereby allowing him to gain financial and political control of a second major city.

From Batman (Vol. 1) #573 (2000)

Batman was able to see what Luthor had planned and stopped the records from being destroyed. Luthor’s influence in Gotham was stopped before it had begun, but Luthor was still seen by the public as a major figure in Gotham City’s restoration. Luthor used the public goodwill gained by Metropolis’ upgrade and Gotham City’s rebuilding in a run for the White House. He was the candidate who was key to job creation in two major American cities. Of course, Luthor won in a landslide.

From Adventures of Superman #586 (2001)

Unfortunately, there aren’t many great stories that spun out of Luthor’s presidency. He did help save the world during the Our Worlds at War event, but that’s about the most memorable thing that came out of this time period.

Luthor’s presidency ended in pretty spectacular fashion in the opening pages of Superman/Batman. In that story, Luthor claimed that Superman and Batman were fugitives that were somehow responsible for a giant asteroid headed directly for Earth. The duo were able to expose Luthor’s lies, which had culminated in Luthor climbing into his old battle armor and attempting to go toe-to-toe with our heroes.

From Superman/Batman #6 (2004)

Although he was impeached and lost his his job as President of the United States, Luthor managed to avoid a prison term. Pete Ross, Luthor’s Vice President, took over as Leader of the Free World until stepping down during the next election cycle.

Around this time, Luthor’s origins were changed again. Two future Superman origin tweeks, Superman: Birthright and Superman: Secret Origin, restored the idea of a young Lex Luthor having lived in Smallville. Somewhere along the way, Lex’s father became Lionel Luthor, a corrupt businessman who taught a young Lex all he knew. I call these changes the Smallville Effect, as they were obviously influenced by the rather successful CW series.

Luthor was never more powerful than when he became the lead character in Action Comics. During the events of Blackest Night, Luthor gained an Orange Lantern Ring. At that series’ end, Luthor lost the ring but attempted to reclaim that level of cosmic power. After a year of searching, he was successful. Gaining the powers of a god, Luthor found that he could literally do anything he wanted with that power as long as it wasn’t for selfish reasons. Sadly, Luthor discovered that he simply couldn’t live with the idea that Superman would live a full, happy life and, when he attempted to kill the Man of Steel, Luthor lost his power.

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #900 (2011)

That’s where Luthor was left before Flashpoint. In the New 52, he’s already appeared in the pages of the relaunched Action Comics. He is still a major foe of Superman and he’s still okay with getting his hands dirty. Obviously, he’s going to reappear sooner or later. Luthor is one of the most iconic villains in the DCU. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what that bald head will cook up next.

Jeff Reid is aware that one time, Lex Luthor took forty cakes when no one was looking. That’s as many as four tens. And that’s terrible. Follow Jeff on Twitter.


  1. I remember going on Wikipedia and seeing just how massive his page was….Felt like forever to read on his history.

    This is obviously better written and easier to follow Jeff. Didn’t realize about the robot arm or the planet he created.

  2. This is great! I would though, you kind of skipped over between Superman/Batman and Blackest Night. He is one half of the DNA made to clone Conner Kent (Superboy), he played a fairly significant role in the Infinite Crisis Saga, he played a large role in 52, and he has been a part of numerous Super Villain Teams such as the Injustice League.

  3. This is, without a doubt, one of the DC Histories that I have looked forward to the most. I was especially curious about his pre-Crisis mad scientist days, since the beats of his post-Crisis story was nutshelled pretty well in the Superman and Justice League cartoons, as well as elsewhere. I love that the origin of conflict between pre-Crisis Lex and Superman was basically just a wimpier version of the Reed Richards/Doctor Doom origin conflict in Fantastic Four. I’d probably swear a lifetime of vengeance as well if I lost the luscious locks of red hair that Lex had on his head.

    I’m a bit disappointed that there weren’t too many great President Luthor stories besides Public Enemies, since I’m in the midst of delving into that era of DC comics (beginning right around the time of Batman: No Man’s Land). Lex’s immediate post-Crisis story sounds quite fantastic up until the point of the Lex Luthor clone, where it seems to just get super wacky.

    But yeah, I thought that Paul Cornell’s Lex Luthor arc was pretty spectacular with a great ending. It’s a shame that he wrote one of the worst Superman arcs right after that (not really his fault though…I’m guessing the management REALLY wanted to have a story drenched in 90s nostalgia.)

  4. I remember thinking as a kid that Luthor had awfully hairy knuckles. Thanks for the blast from the past.

  5. Great piece. I think Lex Luthor might be my favourite supervillain.

  6. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t President Luther pretty important in the conclusion of the Bruce Wayne Fugitive story . . ?

    As always, a great piece . . .

    • Yeah, I actually thought Lex was the one who *made* Bruce Wayne a fugitive to begin with, in retaliation for Bruce outfoxing Lex at the end of No Man’s Land? Though I’m not sure.

      Other than the aforementioned Conner/Superboy omission, I think Jeff Reid did a great job recapping Luthor’s place in DC Comics! Really fun to read all this.

  7. Nice summary of Luthor! How Lex loses his hair in Adventure Comics #271 makes me laugh every time… I can’t wait to get more of Lex in the new 52 comics..

  8. Good stuff!

    One quibble, though: Did he really have a “chard” body after his plane crash? Seems more like something that would happen to Jason Woodrue or Alec Holland 🙂

  9. This was really a well written piece. It was thorough and well researched and made for great reading, I look forward to reading more articles like this. It was truly superlative.