In his dreams. Artists: Ernie Chua and Bob Oksner.


Original Medium: Comic Books
Published by: DC Comics
First Appeared: 1940
Creators: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
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Before Brainiac, before Mr. Mxyzptlk, even before The Prankster and The Toyman … Superman's arch-enemy was Luthor. Not the relatively suave Lex Luthor of today — this Luthor started as a …

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… grubby East European arms merchant, fomenting war between a couple of fictional countries, Galonia and Toran, even while in the real-world, war was ravaging Europe (but more than a year before President Roosevelt succeeded in getting the U.S. involved). He didn't even have a first name.

Luthor's first story appeared in Action Comics #23 (May, 1940). Many comics experts believe his appearance in Superman #4 (Spring, 1940) went on sale before that, but internal evidence (Superman questioning a henchman as to who the villain might be) suggests the Action Comics story was intended to be first. Either way, he was created by Supes's own creators, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, whose other collaborations include Dr. Occult, Slam Bradley and Funnyman..

By the time that chronologically second story was done, he'd undergone the first step in the gradual development that culminated with his complete revamp in 1986. He'd become a scientific genius who used his abilities for evil. But he hadn't yet assumed his classic look, the complete hairlessness that identified him whether he wore his business suit of the 1940s and '50s, the prison gray he was usually seen in during the '60s (to put across the idea he'd always escaped so recently he didn't even have a chance to change his clothes before being put right back in), or the green and purple superhero-style look he adopted in the '70s.

No, Luthor was originally identified by his flaming red hair. It isn't 100% clear how he switched to the cue-ball look in 1941. Most likely, an artist (probably Leo Novak, who was drawing Superman in newspapers at the time) used the wrong picture as reference. It may have been the cover of Superman #4, or it may have been the henchman interrogated in Action #23. It may even have been another early villain, The Ultra-Humanite, tho that one had a white fringe around his typical male-pattern baldness, at least before turning into a gorilla. But Luthor was bald as an egg, from shoulder to pate.

It made Luthor look considerably older than Superman, which he was probably intended to be. This was confirmed during the '50s, when he made his first appearance in the Superboy series, as a middle-aged adult. Later, when DC Comics decided to give him an origin story, he was retconned into Supes's contemporary. It was about then that he was finally given a first name, Lex, in keeping with the theme of using "LL" for the initials of Superman supporting characters. (Lois Lane and Lana Lang were only the tip of the iceberg.)

According to the origin story that appeared in Adventure Comics #271 (April, 1960), Luthor and Superboy knew each other back in Smallville, where the newly-dubbed Lex already showed immense talent for scientific and technological innovation. Superboy, a friend of his at the time, was involved in an accident that caused the long-characteristic baldness, and that's why Luthor has been his enemy ever since.

It made more plausible character motivation than he'd had before. Certainly, his crimes couldn't have been committed for money, which was never a problem for him — the techno-toys he used in them must have cost a fortune. Even if he'd needed money, he could have made more from patents than from anything so strenuous as robbery.

Also, it provided basis for a "good streak", which was exploited during the '60s by making him responsible for restoring an extra-planetary civilization's lost technology. The newly-re-technologized people made him their hero, renaming their planet "Lexor" — the first instance of Luthor identifying himself by his first name rather than his last, later seen in the 1986 revised version naming his industrial empire "LexCorp". Luthor visited Lexor several times during the decade, even establishing a family there.

Superman was regarded as a villain on Lexor, giving Luthor a refuge like Doctor Doom's in Latveria, where the good guy/bad guy polarity was reversed. Lexor was later disposed of by having the entire population, showing the emotional stability of Luthor himself when he'd lost his hair, reject him en masse. Lexor then got destroyed completely and went down the memory hole as if it had never been; and with it, Luthor's "good streak".

(Not that he hadn't had a family here on Earth — but the one he'd been born into rejected him for his villainous ways, so thoroughly they even scrambled the spelling of their name, so nobody would suspect they were related. The only member who had any prominence in comic books was his sister, Lena Thorul, a supporting character to Supergirl.)

As the DC Universe's continuity became confused by consigning the 1940s and '60s versions of characters to different parallel worlds, the '40s Luthor was depicted with the original red hair and his first name was made "Alexei".

Luthor wasn't present in the 1940s Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman cartoons. His first film appearance was in Atom Man Vs. Superman (1950), where he was played by Lyle Talbot (Commissioner Gordon in the previous year's Batman serial; also a villain in the Dick Tracy TV show).

But he was animated in Filmation's various TV versions. There he was voiced by Jackson Beck (Bluto/Brutus, (no relation) King Leonardo). Gene Hackman played him in the 1978 Superman feature and some of its sequels.

Luthor has been replaced by an industrialist and politician with the same name, but he'll always be the quintessential Superman villain.


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Text ©2008-09 Donald D. Markstein. Art © DC Comics.