It’s been kind of a running gag here on Multiversity Comics that I am the resident Superman fanatic. It’s born out of the fact that Superman is in fact my favourite comics character of all time. Still, as much as I love the Big Blue Boyscout, I also have a certain affinity for one of his greast villains.
With that in mind, I wanted to look back at “Luthor” by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo.
Written by Brian Azzarello
Illustrated by Lee Bermejo
Superman has been called many things, from the defender of truth, justice and the American way to the Big Blue Boy Scout. In LEX LUTHOR: MAN OF STEEL, he is called something he has never been called before: a threat to all humanity. Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo–the acclaimed team who brought you the best-selling JOKER–deliver a bold story in which readers get a glimpse into the mind of Superman’s longtime foe. MAN OF STEEL reveals why Luthor chooses to be the proverbial thorn in the Man of Steel’s side: to save humanity from an untrustworthy alien being.
It’s something of a universal truth in comics that a hero is only as interesting as the villains they face. Look at Batman, for example. Would he be half as interesting without his Rouges Gallery? One of the things about Superman, though, is that his Rogues Gallery is pretty limited in terms of his more recurring villains. I mean, does anyone really think of Atomic Skull or Kryptonite Man when they think of Superman villains? No, the most prominent villain in Superman’s history is one that has evolved just as much as the Man Of Steel has over the years: Lex Luthor.
Luthor first showed up as something of a mad scientist archetype in the 40s and quickly became one of Superman’s greatest foes. However, in the 80s, he was changed completely into a corrupt businessman and CEO, channelling the anti-authoritarian themes in Siegel and Shuster’s early Superman stories. Many series since have tried to marry these two forms of Luthor, but none, I would say, have doneit with as much grace and depth as the series “Luthor” by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo
Right off the bat, Azzarello and Bermejo show that their take on Luthor is one that’s just a little different from what many are accustomed to. We see a more personable side to Luthor as he has a friendly conversation with his janitor, remaining on first name basis with him despite the drastic difference in their positions of power. It shows the charisma behind Lex that shows that this is a guy who really believes that he is a good man. That’s a thread that runs through the narrative of the series as we see what would otherwise be a pretty typical Superman story from Luthor’s point of view. That doesn’t so much change the structure of the story so much as the theming.
Azzarello and Bermejo’s Luthor is a man captivated by his jealousy of Superman. Almost everything he does during the series is born of a need to defame the Man Of Steel in order to take his place as the most powerful man in Metropolis. It’s something akin to an inferiority complex and brings a lot of untapped depth to the character. Azzarello and Bermejo build the series around this perspective flip that, again, would feel like any other Superman story if it weren’t for the slight differences in the characterisation that spring from that change.
One of the biggest changes and most shocking things in this series is the way Superman is portrayed. He doesn’t show up much, but when he does, Luthor’s perspective colours him as this towering, ever-present and all power figure, stoic with glowing red eyes. This might not seem like such a big deal since it’s been his default look for the past few years in the New 52 comics, but trust me that’s not meant to be his default look.
Lee Bermejo is a perfect fit for this book. His pencilwork can honestly only be described as gritty, despite how I overused that word is. The way he sculpts figures with pencils, it’s like he paints with graphite and the effect is one of almost photorealism with a harder edge than artists with painted styles. That’s perfect for this series as the grittiness of the pencils bring a dark realism to the figures and to Metropolis that stands in contrast to how they’re usually portrayed. As I mentioned with how Superman is presented, this series is coloured by the perspective of Lex Luthor and that finds its wat perfectly into the harsh pencils of Lee Bermejo.Continued below
Bermejo doesn’t shy away from Luthor’s standing as a supervillain, though. This isn’t a series that’s ashamed of its association with Superman, in fact there are plenty of amazingly heroic scenes throughout the series that Bermejo captures perfectly, but that really gritty style of his always has that edge to it. And the contrast of those heroic scenes and the sometimes incredibly dark undercurrents of the series show a side to Metropolis that is rarely explored and Bermejo was entirely the right artist to explore there.
All in all, what makes “Luthor” work is the fact that Azzarello and Bermejo didn’t try to reinvent the wheel here. One of the key features is that this isn’t some grand plan by Luthor to take over the world or his last ditch gambit against Superman, instead it’s just another small play in his ongoing feud with the Man Of Steel. What makes it special, though, is how that perspective flip not only changes how we view Lex Luthor and his motivations, but also how we view Superman and his actions. It’s not a drastic change, just one that shows the difference in how these two figures see the world and their conflict. Azzarello and Bermejo do a great job of humanising Luthor throughout the series while retaining a lot of his history as both mad scientist and corrupt CEO hellbent on defaming Superman.