I like that early appearances of Superman's nemesis gave him a single name. It makes him more of an institution than even his later corporation could manage. Luthor.
I write about this in the book a bit, but it's worth putting here: one man I interviewed says that he has come to appreciate Luthor as a man who is trying to kill god. Or was it 'a god'? I'd have to go back to my recordings, or my manuscript, neither of which I'm going to do now.
Anyway, that puts the Superman story firmly into one of the two dominant narratives of our time. The first is simply that this reality, the one we all experience and agree upon, is not the real one. It's not really reality. It's just an illusion, and lying underneath or up above is the reality we all crave or know is there and just out of reach. The second dominant narrative, and it's only become so recently (whereas the first is pretty old) is that of humanity overthrowing gods.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, they're related. Gods experience the ultimate reality that humanity longs for.
|I wish Luthor always had to wear that suit. Or at least the flower.|
Anyway, Luthor is a bit mercurial. Moreso than Superman. Luthor went from mad scientist to mad capitalist. But he's always ego- and megalo-maniacal. The common thing to say about him is that he's the one bad guy to think he's the hero. That's his definition. I tend to think of him in light of something John Steinbeck wrote: to a monster, everyone else is a monster.
So the thing about Luthor comes down to the final issue of All-Star. He gets Superman's powers, and with them he begins to see the world as Superman sees it. And it's different than the way we normal human beings see it. He sees the ways in which everything is connected, the ways in which we are connected to each other, and how we are all there is. This follows a realization that 'the fundamental forces are yoked by a thought alone.' The animated version gives a slightly different take; instead of 'thought alone', it's 'consciousness.' Either way, he has transcended what humanity can perceive.
So he gets a glimpse into that level of reality lying beneath the one we can see. He becomes a god. Until Superman punches him in the face. He's apparently unconscious for the final few moments during which he has his power.
|Sorry, no Quitely art this time.|
Luthor in this story (and in "The Black Ring" by Paul Cornell, which ran through Action Comics while Superman was off on New Krypton) gains god-like power. And he uses it to try to kill Superman. I think this is the perfect distillation of Luthor. He could do so many things, but he lets something stop him. I tend to think that, even were Superman out of the picture--or had never come to earth--he wouldn't have done those things anyway. He would never be great enough to satisfy himself; he would always find a foe to fight and waste his time in doing so.
|Purple and green.|
Superman is change. Luthor is the inertia of the present; the ignorance of the need for change, and the pathetic hope that we don't need it at all.
Or maybe Luthor's change, too, but change in the wrong direction. I don't know. I'm just a folklorist.