Orange is the new Luthor.

§ April 24th, 2024 § Filed under byrne reboot, dc comics, superman § 16 Comments

So last time I talked a bit about the first issue of John Byrne’s Superman revamp, and how it felt to encounter it as it was happening, after having read Superman comics prior to this and witnessing the changes to the franchise in real time. I pointed out a number of those changes that happened just in that one comic, but a few of you beat me to the punch and started bringing up other alterations later in the Man of Steel mini-series.

Right out of the gate in the comments, David slings the following at me

“I always felt like the biggest change in Man of Steel was the change to Lex Luthor. His pre-Crisis persona was genius supervillain. Man of Steel established him as a genius businessman, who hated Superman, which moved him to villainy.”

Luthor went through several changes in the character’s history (a number of which I listed in this long-ago post which may amuse). The “mad scientist who hates Superman” remained fairly consistent from Luthor’s inception up through this point in the 1980s, cosmetic costume/hairstyle overhauls aside. The biggest alteration to the character was the adding the idea of Luthor having grown up in Smallville, concurrently with Clark/Superboy, and establishing the origin of his hatred (i.e. blaming the Boy of Steel for the loss of his hair).

But with the reboot comes A New Take (not to mention the loss of Superboy — more on that in a future post — effectively removing Smallville from Luthor’s backstory) and apparently Marv Wolfman had the idea for Big Businessman Luthor some time before Byrne came along. Here’s a bit from an article in Amazing Heroes #96 (1986), previewing the reboot:

Now the new idea as to why Luthor hated Superman had to do with him being the most powerful man in Metropolis…until the Man of Tomorrow showed up.

Hair still comes into play, as Superman’s first post-reboot encounter with Luthor in Man of Steel #4 ends with Lois hairline-shaming him:

Yes, I borrowed these scans from a two-year-old post where I go into a little more detail about the changes in Luthor’s motivations over the years. I’ll repeat here what I said there, in that there were some comments at the time that New Luthor bore some resemblance to Marvel’s “respected businessman” villain Wilson Fisk, AKA the Kingpin. Interestingly, both characters have had their evil shenanigans become increasingly more public knowledge as time has gone on, though still being able to hold high political offices (Luthor as President, Fisk as Mayor of New York).

Speaking of which, Byrne/Wolfman Luthor had that veneer of legitimacy crack a bit in that very “first” appearance, where Luthor was arrested. And as the years have continued, and DC continued its trend of backpedaling on the sweeping changes from both Byrne and Crisis on Infinite Earths, Luthor slowly became more and more like his pre-Crisis incarnation, to wearing versions of his early 1980s superarmor, to regularly being shown in prison. The “businessman” era still exists in current continuity, but now has more or less merged with previous versions.

Yet more reboot fiddling had initially made Luthor a much older man than previously portrayed. As you saw above, Lex and Clark were contemporaries in Smallville. In the reboot, he was at least a couple of decades older…he had to be old enough to believably have a son in his 20s, per a storyline a few years later. In Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography (1989), he’s shown as a child, and friends with a young Perry White:

However, Luthor has gradually become younger, both with an in-story explanation of his brain being transplanted into a youthful clone body, and with a no-explanation “he’s just younger now” pushing him back to around Clark/Lois’s ages. In fact, he’s now back to having have lived in Smallville and hangin’ with Teen Clark. I think this return-to-form was first evident in the continuity-or-not mini Birthright, discussed here (where the series’ writer himself chimes in).

So this new version of Luthor was indeed a significant modification to the Superman saga. But like many of DC’s changes from the period, the inertial effect of previous portrayals force at least some reversals of those decisions. If DC can make (multiple) attempts at bringing back the multiverse concept done away with in Crisis on Infinite Earths, it shouldn’t be surprising that Luthor has traded his business suit back in for his prison greys (or oranges).

16 Responses to “Orange is the new Luthor.”

  • ScienceGiant says:

    All that retconning and deconning was worth it though, when in the Justice League Unlimited finale, Luthor stops before confronting Darkseid with the Anti-Life Equation to change into his “power suit”.

  • DK says:

    Luthor as businessman is a natural result of asking “if this guy is such a great genius, why is he always broke and trying to steal cash?”. Also “where does he get the funding for all those robots and power armors?”

    But it also changes the fundamentals of the character- Scientist Luthor has no power and is trying to get power. He’s smarter than everyone else, and yet he is excluded from real (financial, political) power. It makes him bitter and jealous. Only crime will alllow him a pathway to power.

    If Lex is already (financially, politically) powerful, why does he even care about Superman? Sure he can fly, but can he get away with felonies? Can he have heads of state whacked on a whim? Can he buy and sell even the richest rivals? Lex can, he has tons of power.

  • Andrw says:

    I agree with DK – Businessman Luther doesn’t need to seek power, he already has it. This was my fundamental problem with this version of the character. I mean, being bitter that someone made you bald is a stronger motivation (in my mind, at least) than being rich and being mad at Superman for… reasons. Additionally, the whole power suit thing from the 80s and up until today is another issue for me – if Luthor has access to that much tech and power, why on Earth does he hate Superman? The whole “he’s an alien” thing never worked for me – first, from a dramatic point of view, there’s nowhere to go with that and it becomes a dead end story. Nice for some villain but not Superman’s nemesis. Second, if you are bitter that Superman can fly and oh yeah, you’re rich enough to put a suit together that lets you to essentially become an alien yourself, isn’t that just kind of removing his motivation? Sigh.

  • Paul Di Filippo says:

    I will never be happy until the planet Lexor is restored to continuity.

  • Thom H. says:

    The Lexor stories are some of my all-time favorite Luthor stories. You’ve gotta feel bad for the guy after he goes through all that.


    The way I see it: Luthor hates Superman because they both have power, but people like Superman better. It’s something Luthor can never admit because it would make him “weak,” but he just wants to be popular. He thought he was, but everyone who “likes” Luthor is actually just afraid of him.

    In effect, Superman is a constant reminder of how alone Luthor is. And if Luthor would just use his power (in business, politics, science, etc.) for good, he could probably be liked as much as Superman. But being good means being vulnerable, which is something Luthor is not willing to do.

    One of their arch-nemesis axes is: Superman is physically invulnerable, but emotionally vulnerable. Lex is physically vulnerable (hence, the armor) and emotionally not-vulnerable (hence, the armor again, this time as a metaphor).

  • Snark Shark says:

    We should refer to Byrne Luthor as Fred Mertz Luthor!

    “Luthor hates Superman because they both have power, but people like Superman better”

    That’s how I read this version!

  • Oliver says:

    It’s hard to argue that the villainy of Luthor-as-oligarch is unconvincing, given some of the things billionaire ‘tech bros’ now say and do in the real world!

  • aj says:

    it always amused and irritated me that scientists could “lose all their hard work in an instant!” We’ve seen it a hundred times in media.
    Do you not write things DOWN!? You experimented hundreds of times and got there, you had the memory to remember what DIDN’T work and modify it, but you can’t remember the last thing you did?!? Fiction is dumb sometimes hahaha!

  • Linus says:

    Always believed this Luthor came full circle when the cover of Action Comics showed Luthor triumphant the DAY after Trump won the presidency…

  • Tom W says:

    Luthor-as-businessman was in keeping with action movie conventions of the 80s, in which a suited businessman in a skyscraper office was always the villain. I don’t know the Byrne stories specifically, but always liked the take that this was a human who’d achieved incredible things and resented being outshone by Superman who merely had powers.

    But, and perhaps the most ProgRuin question it’s possible to ask, I first encountered businessman Luthor in Swamp Thing 52 and 53, the greening of Gotham storyline. Looking at publication though this would seem to be business Luthor’s first appearance; it certainly predates Man of Steel. The dialogue certainly indicates he’s deep in corporate culture, with lines like ‘one million dollars for a ten-minute consultancy’ ‘my people suggest’ and ‘I wanted to leave you enough time to sign and mail my check’. So is this the first post-Crisis appearance of Lexcorp Lex?

  • Cubs win the World Series in extra innings + rain delay. Wed. to the following Tues., it was sunshine here.

    If I recall, Lex made his fortune by designing the X-wing or L-wing. Which predated the Stealth Bomber, which was just a UFO until 1993. Back then, I gave some thought as to Luthor creating weapons of war and here comes Mr. Peace.

    One story that always stuck with me was only a few pages long. Luthor waiting on a plane somewhere out in Ohio, he flirts with the waitress or something to the effect of “My loins! Zoinks!” But the point of the story was that Luthor was happy thinking that the waitress will spend the rest of her life wondering/wishing she had gotten on the plane with him.

    It might have been in an annual.But it was another take on how big a dick he is.

  • ” is this the first post-Crisis appearance of Lexcorp Lex?”

    Yes. It is.
    The writer and artist were clever enough to be vague enough so that the Luthor portrayed in Swamp Thing was generally consistent with BOTH pre- and post-Byrne Luthor.

    I remember being impressed with that at the time.

  • Sean Mageean says:

    The link about the planet Lexor was quite interesting…I didn’t know all of those details. Have there been that many Superman runs that have delved into Lex Luthor’s backstory going back multiple generations of Luthors as with the multiple generations of Waynes in recent Batman lore? I mean, is Lex a one-off or is he descended from generations of evil genius Luthors?

    I think I prefer the Golden and Silver Age Luthors to John Byrne’s Trumpian Luthor, but I suppose he’s a wounded narcissist– so beyond the fear factor that Superman (a god-like alien possessed of immeasurable physical strength and steadfast moral character) can take away his power, Luthor also envies Kal-El’s physical perfection and genetics as well.

    And this has probably been touched upon in various Superman stories, but I’m guessing that Jor-El had a superior intellect to and was a better scientist than Lex Luthor, and that Kal-El probably would have become a scientist on Krypton, like his father before him, if Krypton wasn’t doomed and he hadn’t been rocketed away as a baby. So, there’s this implied threat from Luthor’s perspective that Kal-El could easily become a scientific rival to him if Kal were to seriously apply himself in that direction.

    Anyway, I haven’t followed much of what’s going on with Luthor since some New 52 story arc where he was allowed to join the Justice League as the team’s version of Iron Man. But I can see both Luthor’s and Batman’s rationales for wanting to contain Superman’s powers through kryptonite or other means… especially if he goes

  • Snark Shark says:

    “he flirts with the waitress”

    That was a back-up story in one of the regular issues. Might have been the Joker app/cover issue, but I’m not sure.

  • Thom H. says:

    As far as I know, the most we’ve learned about Luthor’s family history is in that Matt Fraction Jimmy Olsen miniseries from a few years ago. The Olsens and the Luthors apparently feuded over control of Metropolis.

  • Sean Mageean says:

    @ Thom H.

    Interesting, thanks for the information.

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