Batman v Superman will be in theaters soon and we’re getting pumped. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor, the third big-screen Luthor after Gene Hackman in Superman, and Kevin Spacey in Superman Returns.
One thing I’ve noticed talking to my friends who aren’t comic book fans is that they all know Lex Luthor, but they don’t really know who he is. They have this vague concept of a bald man who hates Superman, and he’s… a scientist I think? Maybe some kind of business guy? This kills me because I honestly believe Lex Luthor is one of the best characters in comics. He’s a better DC villain than the Joker, though I know some may disagree. At the very least, he’s maybe the only person who can get under the Joker’s skin…
So here’s a list of my favorite stories to help people get to know him. This is a guide on where to start with Lex Luthor for people who have never picked up Superman comics, and maybe longtime readers will see something they haven’t read yet.
WARNING: YARR, THERE BE SUBJECTIVITY AND MILD SPOILERS AHEAD.
1. The Black Ring
This one requires a little background knowledge of Blackest Night, a crossover event where Luthor briefly became a member of the Orange Lantern Corps. They gave him a ring that channels the raw power of the universe by tapping into someone’s greed, making Luthor a perfect candidate. The Black Ring has Luthor scour the DC Universe trying to get his ring back, and he runs into a lot of the most powerful A-list villains along the way. Brainiac, Deathstroke, Gorilla Grodd, the Joker, Vandal Savage, even the personification of Death herself. His only steady companion is a robot he built to look like Lois Lane, as he believes he needs someone to criticize him and Lois is someone he’ll actually listen to. In addition to exploring his character through the lens of other villains, the story is also a great examination of what Luthor would actually do with the power he thinks he needs to save the world.
2. The Boy of Steel
A lot of my examples in this list are about Luthor’s extremely complicated motivations and how he sees himself as the hero. I thought it was important to include at least one story on here that’s just about Luthor being a huge dick for the sake of being a huge dick. Seriously, everything else aside, the dude just sucks. The Adventure Comics series by Geoff Johns focuses on Conner Kent, a clone made from mixing Superman and Luthor’s DNA (sorry for the mental image) who becomes the second Superboy.
The story has Superboy challenge Luthor to cure Luthor’s estranged sister, an impoverished invalid living in Smallville who Luthor has spent untold money erasing his connection to. Luthor has repeatedly insisted that he could save the world if Superman wasn’t getting in his way, and Superboy decides to make him prove it. After a full day of sending Superboy to the four corners of the Earth, to other worlds, and even back in time, Luthor finally develops a cure and his sister is able to walk again. Immediately after she gets out of her wheelchair and hugs her family, Luthor pricks her with a second needle that undoes his cure and sends her back to drooling in her wheelchair. Superboy furiously demands to know what the point was, and Luthor replies, “I proved what I could do. The secret stays with me until Superman is dead.”
3. Forever Evil
This big crossover event is another one where Luthor functions as a hero, leading into the highly notable run where he becomes a member of the Justice League. Forever Evil has a simple plot. The Crime Syndicate defeats the Justice League and takes over the world, so it’s up to the world’s greatest villains to stop them. Luthor leads his own Injustice League and saves the world by defeating an evil Superman. You gotta love the irony. In the aftermath, Luthor deduces Batman’s secret identity and weasels his way into a position on the Justice League. We’re still in the middle of that storyline as of this writing, but it seems like a real big change for the character instead of a temporary flavor of the week. It’s been fascinating seeing Luthor really try to get taken seriously as a hero, learning from the Leaguers when he needs to, but also calling them out on their B.S.
4. The Gospel According to Lex Luthor
I really WANT to put down the entirety of All-Star Superman here, because in my opinion it’s the greatest Superman story ever written. The full series doesn’t revolve around Luthor though, so I’m just gonna stick with the issue that focuses on him the most. You should read all of it though, especially if you think Superman can’t be interesting. Grant Morrison famously said that he wasn’t sure how to write Luthor, until he realized the character pencils in his own eyebrows. “The Gospel” opens up with Luthor being sentenced to death, to which his only defense is “Superman made me do it. He should be on trial here.” Clark Kent is then given an opportunity to interview Luthor on death row, bumbling around protecting him from a prison riot while making all of their good fortune look like an accident. The interview allows Clark to finally ask Luthor everything he’s ever wanted to know about his reasons for hating Superman. Luthor delivers his motives like a last will and testament, then reveals to Kent that he actually has killed Superman… he poisoned Superman with solar radiation and Superman is slowly dying. Luthor helps Kent escape the prison, and Kent demands to know why he hasn’t used the escape tunnel himself. Luthor tells him, “I’m going to the chair fulfilled.” The ending to All-Star, where Lex is finally given an opportunity to see the world through Superman’s eyes, is also maybe the most beautiful representation of their conflict ever written.
5. How Much Can One Man Hate?
Superman Adventures is an under-appreciated gem of the ’90s, especially the run by then-unknown writer Mark Millar. Based on the animated series, it generally delivers a more kid-friendly Superman, but issue #27’s “How Much Can One Man Hate?” is revered as a classic. The story involves Luthor creating a new superhero to overshadow Superman, making the public love “Superior-Man” while Superman is ridiculed. Ultimately, Superman beats Superior-Man, and is mostly unaffected because he doesn’t do what he does in an attempt to garner praise. It’s a transparent attempt by Luthor to make Superman feel the way Superman makes Luthor feel. The story also gives us a glimpse into Luthor’s bleak childhood, living in the Metropolis slums and dreaming of a day when people would finally stop looking down on him.
6. Lex Luthor: Man of Steel
Honestly, this is the most important item on the list. If you’re only going to pick up one comic that I recommend to you, it should be Lex Luthor: Man of Steel (also available now in hardcover with the simpler but harder to Google title Luthor). I don’t want to spoil too much here, but I love this comic because it completely flips the script. Everything is told through the perspective of Luthor, with him as the hero and Superman as the villain. We’re treated to a look inside Luthor’s head as he narrates everything, and we meet a man who really does believe he is sacrificing everything for the greater good. It might cost him millions of dollars every time, but from his perspective, if he can get just one more person to see Superman for the threat to humanity he is, then everything is worth it.
7. Red Son
This is an Elseworlds so it’s not exactly the standard Luthor, but Superman: Red Son by Millar is one of the finest representations of the conflict between Luthor and Superman ever written. The story takes place in an alternate universe where baby Kal-El landed in the Soviet Union instead of Kansas, and helped spread Communism throughout the world. Luthor manages to become President and marry Lois Lane without Superman to oppose him, but still becomes Superman’s greatest enemy. This story is great because Luthor is still a heartless and malicious man, but we actually get to see him be right for once… pitted against a Superman who really is stifling human progress by suppressing anyone who might endanger his vision of the greater good. Whether or not you agree with his politics, Luthor is a champion of American individualism when that voice is legitimately needed the most. The best thing this story does is show how Luthor’s genius doesn’t just allow him to build corporations and robots and monsters. It allows him to influence people’s hearts and minds, and sometimes that’s the greatest weapon against someone like Superman there is.
8. Rules of Engagement
This is a hugely underrated story by Andy Diggle, published as the first arc in Batman Confidential. “Rules of Engagement” isn’t a Superman story at all, instead it focuses on Batman fighting Luthor for the first time. Batman & Luthor have been dueling for “smartest brain in the DCU” for a long time, and this is a great exploration of that. It’s also extremely refreshing seeing the way Luthor handles a more normal enemy than Superman… especially someone like Bruce Wayne, who is also a business competitor. I won’t spoil too much, but the ending also tells us why Batman and Luthor never really come into conflict that much… it’s pretty clear that if they continued fighting they would both completely exhaust their resources and destroy each other anyway.
9. Salvation Run
I wish people talked about this story more because it’s awesome, and it was one of the only good things to come out of the otherwise abysmal Countdown. Salvation Run by Bill Willingham has a great premise. The U.S. government decides that it’s simply not worth dealing with super-villains anymore, so they have all of them deported to another planet. Every villain they can find is rounded up by the Suicide Squad and dumped several lightyears away. Of course, predictably, something goes wrong, and instead of a lush dreamworld they wind up on an insane planet where everything is trying to kill them. The villains quickly divide up into two camps, one tribe lead by Luthor and the other lead by the Joker. Needless to say, things rapidly descend into a bloodbath of C-list villains going to war. I could say more, but honestly I think this one sells itself.
10. The Secret Revealed!
John Byrne‘s 1986 miniseries The Man of Steel completely rebooted Superman for the modern age, making huge changes to Luthor as well. Prior to Byrne, Luthor had always been a pretty simple mad scientist. Byrne took a suggestion from Crisis writer Marv Wolfman and turned Luthor into a powerful greedy business executive. The Luthor we know and love today is a combination of these two interpretations, merged together around the time of Mark Waid‘s Birthright reboot.
There are a lot of great Luthor stories in this run, but the The Secret Revealed! is definitely my standout favorite. Like a lot of my favorite comic book stories, it examines a plothole in the superhero narrative and explains it by cutting deep into the heart of the characters. People have always asked the question: “If Lex Luthor is so smart, why doesn’t he figure out that Clark Kent is Superman?” In this comic, he finally does! Luthor has a team of scientists investigating Superman, and their computer proves once and for all that Superman must be Clark Kent. Luthor refuses to believe this conclusion because it doesn’t make any sense to him. “I know that no man with the power of Superman would ever pretend to be a mere human!” This moment is so great because it really illustrates the arrogance that keeps Luthor from ever truly winning.
I also have to give a shout-out to my other favorite Luthor story in this run, Metropolis 900 Mi., which is more about Luthor’s cruelty.
There were so many great stories that couldn’t fit on this list. A lot of Luthor’s best moments happen in stories that don’t completely revolve around him, so they don’t really belong on a list of the best Lex Luthor stories. I gotta toss out some more recommendations though or else I’m gonna be angry at myself.
There are several different versions of Luthor’s origin story, but I think Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright which shows him as a childhood friend of Clark is probably the best. 52 is essential Luthor, featuring a story where he figures out a way to mass-produce superpowers and gives them to the public.
Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography is another one that everyone should read. I’m not going to recommend the entire arc where Luthor becomes President.
Our Worlds at War is probably the best representation of that era, but that’s not really essential. The end of that era happens in Public Enemies, and it’s hilarious because Luthor held down the presidency for several years then had to resign over going crazy and trying to kill Superman again.
Rock of Ages is a great ’90s Justice League story written by Grant Morrison, where Luthor assembles a group called the Injustice Gang designed to defeat the League.
Villains United has Luthor mostly working behind the scenes, but it’s a great example of how far he’ll go to preserve his power in the super-villain community.