If you listened to our Death and Return of Superman bonus episode – or if you’ve heard me discuss it here and there on other episodes – you’ll know that I’m a pretty big fan of Lex Luthor. And in particular, I’m especially a fan of the post-Crisis Lex – specifically, the one from the beginning of John Byrne’s run in 1986, through the work of the late ’80s/early ’90s Superman team (predominantly Roger Stern, Jerry Ordway, Louise Simonson, Karl Kesel and Dan Jurgens). The arc that Lex goes through – toppled from his position of power in Metropolis by the arrival of Superman, then spending several years battling him not through a desire for world domination but through simple petty jealousy, and finally coming up with the mother of all ridiculous soap-opera-meets-comic-book plots to try and put himself back on top – is one of my favourite stories in comics, and I love the consistent characterisation of Lex that is built up and runs through it.
If you’ve never read this era of Superman comics, then the sheer volume of content to get through, and the number of overlapping storylines and character arcs, can be a bit of an overwhelming prospect to dip into. And across those eight years or so of comics, Lex isn’t always a recurring character or villain. So if you’re interested in finding out a bit more about why I like him so much by reading the comics firsthand, I thought I’d put together a reading list to help.
These comics aren’t an exhaustive list of Lex’s appearances between 1986 and 1994, but they cover basically all the major plot beats. It’s broken down into various groups and/or story arcs, so you can either work your way through the whole thing, or dip in and out of the bits that seem interesting – I’ve tried to summarise what they’re all about without giving too much of the plot away. And while I’ve generally explained this in the summaries, any issue that’s in brackets in the bullet list is one that only features Lex on a few pages or isn’t as integral to a bigger story – it’s up to you whether you want to go the whole hog and pick up these issues too.
So prepare yourself for Kryptonite signet rings, dodgy Australian accents, protomatter superheroine girlfriends, and a lot more besides…
The “business tycoon” incarnation of Luthor first appeared at the beginning of John Byrne’s run on Superman – but this interpretation was not created by Byrne, but instead suggested by another writer, Marv Wolfman. In typical Byrne fashion, the writer/artist would subsequently say that he thought it was a bad idea, which is annoying firstly because it isn’t, and secondly because he’s the one who proved that it isn’t. Lex makes a single, fleeting appearance in the second issue of the Man of Steel miniseries – I include it here for posterity’s sake, but you don’t really need to see it – before becoming the focal point of issue #4. His first encounter with Superman, aboard his opulent yacht, is one of those instantly iconic comics moments that has been referenced several times since.
Lex’s character was further pinned down in the handful of subsequent issues in which Byrne had him appear. Superman #2, “The Secret Revealed”, is legitimately one of my favourite single-issue comics of all time. Issue #9 is half given over to a piss-weak Joker story, before its second half is a brilliant vignette that serves no purpose other than to show what a complete shit Luthor is. Issues #10 and #13, and Action Comics #600, aren’t entirely centred around Luthor, but each contain some good little character moments – particularly in the former and latter, where he faces off against Maggie Sawyer. And finally, on a single page in issue #19, we get Byrne’s farewell to the character, leaving Luthor with (or, rather, removing) his major legacy to him.
After Byrne departed, the Superman storylines focused on the aftermath of Clark’s decision to execute the three Kryptonian criminals in the parallel universe. This ultimately led to him masquerading as the vigilante Gangbuster at night (without remembering doing so during the day), deciding he was too dangerous to stick around on Earth, and going off to space for a while.
This might have been bad news for his Earth-bound supporting cast, but actually, they managed to get on with their own storylines without him. Chief among these was Hostile Takeover, a four-part vignette that was told in eight-page chunks as backup strips in two months’ worth of Superman and Adventures. It’s not the most essential storyline you’ll ever read, but it marks the point at which Roger Stern takes what I’d consider to be his ownership of the character – it’s not the very first time he’d write him, but he does so with obvious relish.
And I’m also including at this point a one-shot titled Lex Luthor: The Unauthorised Biography (yes, the one you might have seen the cover of floating around about the time the current US President got elected). It was published around the same time, but doesn’t really tie directly into then-current continuity – however, it’s the fullest telling up to that point of Luthor’s background and origins. It’s not available digitally, though, so you’ll need to dig up a print copy!
I’ll also just give a quick mention to a three-part story that appears a short while after this: Soul Search, which takes place in Action #656, Superman #47 and Adventures #470. It’s about Jerry White (son of Perry… or is he?) and Jimmy Olsen, but contains an important character beat for Lex. However, he only appears on a couple of pages, to give revelations that will be referred back to further down the line. So check it out for completeness’ sake if you want, but it’s not “a Lex Luthor story”.
Jumping forward by well over a year, we have the first major, direct confrontation between Lex and Superman since… well, probably since Superman #2, to be honest. Luthor teams up with Mr. Mxyzptlk to vex Superman with a piece of “red kryptonite” that strips the Man of Steel of his powers, but it doesn’t entirely go to plan because… well, because Mxyzptlk. A fun, if not entirely essential, little story.
(Note that the story crossed over in part with Starman – the Will Payton version, not the Jack Knight one – which Roger Stern was also writing at the time. I’ve included the relevant issue, #28, in the list – but the pertinent part of the story is actually recapped in shorter form in Action #659, so don’t grab it unless you really feel the need for some extra elaboration. Or if you really like Stern’s character work, which to be fair, is a good reason.)
Right, here’s where things get serious. With Roger Stern now ensconced as the writer of Action Comics, he embarks on a long-form storyline that will take us all the way through to the point at which he leaves the book four and a half years later.
The main event takes place in Action #660, an absolutely fabulous done-in-one issue by Stern and Bob McLeod. Seriously, so much happens in this issue, it could quite easily have been a six-part arc in its own right. And annoyingly – it’s not on Comixology. I’ll add the link if it does ever turn up, but for now, you could read a summary of it on the excellent Superman ’86 to ’99 blog.
After this, Lex is seemingly off the table – but amid other events going on in the series, the story picks up again first with Action #668. This is again a Luthor-centric issue (despite him being dead) that sets the tone for a status quo where Metropolis is floundering economically, and Lex has become a much-missed figure. This one, too, is not available digitally at the moment – but you can find pages from it, along with the entirety of #660, in the trade of They Saved Luthor’s Brain, should you be able to find a copy!
Two issues later, Action #670 largely deals with the fallout of the Armageddon 2001 event (don’t ask) – but features one-and-a-bit incredibly significant pages, as away from the action (in Australia, to be precise) comes the very first appearance of (ta-da!) Lex Luthor the Second! Yes, the seeds had been planted for the idea of Lex having a long-lost illegitimate son throughout a few issues preceding (they were in the middle of a complicated storyline called Time and Time Again, so I won’t recount those issues here), and now he appears for the first time.
The following issue, Lex II arrives in Metropolis to claim his inheritance – but like #670, this takes place amid another wider storyline, and again only on a couple of pages, so you could be forgiven for skipping it. But #672 is an entire issue you won’t want to miss, as we see more of Luthor Jr quickly getting his feet under the table at Lexcorp – and suddenly coming off as altogether more sinister than he seemed in his initial, benevolent appearances. #673 only features him for a couple of pages again, but they’re helping to build the mood.
So what is the deal with Luthor II, anyway? Fortunately, Stern wouldn’t keep us waiting for long, and the absolutely classic They Saved Luthor’s Brain! kicks off with issue #676. Not only is this three-part arc an utterly ridiculous joy, it features two significant events in Action‘s history: firstly, it introduces Lex to Matrix/Supergirl, and secondly, it marks the debut of the brilliant Jackson Guice as artist. Finally, all the pieces have come together for what I consider to be the definitive take on the character – from now on, every time this team tackle Lex, even if it’s only for a couple of pages, it’s brilliant.
Lex is largely peripheral throughout The Death of Superman, but gets to come to the fore a little more during the aftermath – where, entertainingly, his primary emotion is one of anger that someone else other than him got to kill Superman. The Action Comics issues listed here involve Supergirl taking on the mantle of Metropolis’ super-powered protector (with Lex, of course, lurking in the background); Superman’s funeral itself, which Lex organises, is in Man of Steel #20 (incidentally, S:TMoS was a fourth ongoing Superman title that was added to the roster circa 1991 – it’s a distinct title from Byrne’s earlier MoS miniseries); and Superman #77 is the culmination of a “Superman’s body gets stolen” plotline, but features a significant Lex event that will have ramifications further down the line.
As you can probably tell by the name, the most significant Luthor issue from this era is the Supergirl and Team Luthor special, which expands further on Lex’s attempts to take Superman’s place in the hearts of Metropolitans.
During Reign and Return, Lex largely gets handed off by Stern to the other books (although there are still a couple of nice pages in Action #687). In Man of Steel, he faces off with an adversary of Steel’s, the White Rabbit; while Adventures focuses on his (Supergirl-assisted) attempts to get Superboy to work for him.
Then there’s the Superman Annual #5, which is part of the best-forgotten Bloodlines summer crossover event. However, in this instance, the person who gets superpowers from the alien invaders (it’s complicated, and not very good – but at least we got Hitman out of it) is someone connected to Lex, and this is basically the second chapter in that “has ramifications” story I mentioned above.
Okay, cheating a bit here – the list below is the entirety of The Return of Superman. But honestly, if you try to just read the issues that have Lex in, a whole load of stuff won’t make a lick of sense – so really, you should either read the whole thing (which you can do so as a trade here), or skip it. However, if you do want to just seek out the Lex stuff, then the issues in which he literally does not appear at all are in brackets.
Having not been the primary villain of The Death/Return of Superman, Lex got to rise to prominence again in the year that followed. The story is a slow-build, however, taking place in the background while other, shorter, Superman-centric arcs are going on. Instead, what we get over this six months or so of comics is Lois Lane investigating the disappearance of a Lexcorp employee, and gradually uncovering more and more in the way of shady information about Luthor II.
With the exception of the first two issues listed here, Lex isn’t especially prominent (and Superman #83 is an aftermath to Reign/Return rather than relevant going forwards). You could feasibly skip all of it and just get a recap of it when the story really kicks in – although in the last few issues we do start to see the beginnings of his illness, which will become more significant in the issues that follow.
So here’s where it all unravels for Lex II, as he does battle with an increasingly investigative Lois (also giving as good as he gets by attacking her personal life), falls out with Supergirl, and declares war on Cadmus. The story here actually takes place over the course of two individual arcs – “Power Surge” and “Bizarro’s World” – alongside the standalone Supergirl miniseries, but they all basically build towards the endgame bit by bit.
And here’s where it ends – Lex’s war with Cadmus comes to a head, with Metropolis caught in the middle. This is basically the culmination of his entire character arc from Man of Steel #2 onwards – it’s not spoiling too much to say that he does come back after his departure in Action #701, but it’s not for a while, and once he does return he becomes a quite different proposition (the Lex who would become President in 2000, for one thing). Action #700 is a particularly notable issue – the final issue of Roger Stern’s run, it also includes a guest art spot from the late Curt Swan (one of the very last he would do), drawing Lana Lang and Pete Ross’ wedding.
If you really want to carry on and see Lex’s comeback (also written by Stern, as it happens), you can grab Superman: The Man of Tomorrow #1 – but after that, we move out of my era of expertise, so I’m afraid you’re on your own…!