Lex, Justice and the American Way: When Presidential Life Imitates Art

  • DC Comics DC Comics

  • The CW’s Smallville series showed a future where Luthor, played by Michael Rosenbaum, was elected president by 2018. DC Comics/The CW

  • Lex Luthor’s in-universe biography was modeled off the real-world “Art of the Deal,” now-President Donald Trump’s autobiography. Trump has called “The Art of the Deal” his second favorite book, after the Bible. DC Comics

For the Bulletin
Thursday, January 26, 2017

L.A. Williams: He had great ambition and achievements but no political experience.

Bob Greenberger: He campaigned on a platform of being against alien immigrants, boasting of using his knowledge and wealth to successfully lead the United States of America into a new age.

The man is not, as you might suspect, Donald J. Trump, but instead, bald-headed criminal scientist Lex Luthor. In an eerie case of life imitating art, Trump’s ascendance this week to the Oval Office was the subject of a lengthy storyline running through the Superman comics from DC Comics in 2000 through 2003.

L.A.: Some think of Luthor as the schemer played by Gene Hackman in 1978’s Superman: The Movie, but there have many been different versions of Luthor over the decades. (DC Comics habitually “reboots” their continuity and revises characters.) In 1986, Lex Luthor was re-envisioned from the mad scientist he’d been since 1940 to a Bill Gates/Rupert Murdock/Donald Trump/Steve Jobs/J.R. Ewing mash-up: a super-smart, celebrity tycoon.

Bob: Luthor used his inventions to create an international conglomerate, with his headquarters in Metropolis...

L.A.: ... a big tower shaped like an “L” to remind everyone who it belonged to. Hmm…..

Bob: In the 1986 reboot of the Superman mythos, writers John Byrne and Marv Wolfman used Trump as their model. He possibly branded more businesses (LexCom, LexTel, Luthor Technologies, Luthor Industries) and owned more patents than Trump could dream of. His rags to riches story was immortalized in a one-shot Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography, whose cover was an homage to Trump’s Art of the Deal. Along the way, he had grown to hate the affection showered on the Last Son of Krypton, love normally directed his way. He remained suspicious of Superman and other aliens coming to live on Earth.

L.A.: But while readers and a tiny handful of DC characters knew Lex was a corrupt, manipulative, and murdering megalomaniac, the public only knew his inventive, philanthropic, and occasionally controversial persona. In the Superman: Birthright storyline published more than 12 years ago, Lois Lane tells Superman Lex is popular “Because he knows how to amplify the fear that drives people and how to trick them into turning to him for protection.”

Bob: Luthor worked on his reputation through a series of comic book storylines culminating with his coming to the aid of an earthquake-ravaged Gotham City. In the summer of 2000, Luthor announced his campaign. He advocated for using technology to make America greater, and didn’t have the same number of opponents to wade through to get the nomination that Trump did. Luthor won, of course, making the DC Universe of stories further divorced from the one we live in. His cabinet was filled with familiar people such as Lois Lane’s father, General Sam Lane (who also distrusted aliens), as Secretary of Defense. Clark Kent’s childhood pal, Pete Ross, was Luthor’s Veep.

L.A.: Superman’s core values remained “Truth, justice, and the American way.” The truth? Superman knew first hand that Luthor was a criminal. Justice? Superman’s journalist persona, Clark Kent, hadn’t even amassed enough evidence to run a career-ending exposé on Luthor, so there certainly wasn’t enough evidence for Luthor’s prosecution. As for the American way, the masses elected Luthor president, putting Superman in a position where he has utter disdain for Lex yet utmost respect for the office he’d won.

Bob: Superman, always taking the high road, counseled his fellow members of the Justice League to let the people have their say and give Luthor a chance. Of course, he was also going to keep an eye on his long-time arch enemy.

L.A.: Some memorable moments of the storyline are watching Superman grit his teeth while President Luthor gives him an assignment. Superman is the epitome of heroism in DC Universe’s, so most other heroes follow his example. Some even join Luthor’s staff.

But not Batman, who was very aware of Luthor’s hidden history. If the storyline had come out in 2017 instead of 17 years earlier, Batman’s motto might have been “Not MY President!” POTUS or not, Batman’s determined to bring Luthor down.

But should he?

Most people wholeheartedly and simultaneously have two contradictory beliefs: “A leopard can’t change its spots” and “Everyone’s redeemable and deserves a second chance.”

Will achieving the pinnacle of success and having the responsibilities of being president along with the trust and faith most Americans have in him be enough for Luthor to let go of some of the issues that led to his pre-presidency nefariousness? Superman and Lex won’t be BFFs at the end, but can Luthor be a smug and xenophobic jerk whose business acumen and unorthodoxy also actually make him a good and effective president?

Bob: The idea of Luthor being president was so great that the CW’s Smallville series had flashes of the future where that version of Luthor (played by Michael Rosenbaum) would be president by 2018. Cartoon Network’s Justice League animated series also depicted Luthor running for office, but the twist there was that he never wanted to win. “Do you know how much power I’d have to give up to be president? I spent 75 million on a fake presidential campaign, all just to tick Superman off,” he said in the episode. The “Public Enemies” storyline that concluded the presidency sage became a 2009 direct-to-video animated film. Oddly, the comic stories of Lex Luthor as president are not all currently available in trade paperback collections.

L.A.: But you can catch some chapters of it, like the final trade paperback volume of Batman: No Man’s (showing L.L. working on his pre-campaign public image), Superman: Our Worlds at War (showing L.L. as President) and Batman /Superman: Public Enemies (the story’s conclusion.) The storyline raised a number of interesting questions: How do you respond when you feel Americans have made the wrong choice? What’s a higher priority: what you know or what you can prove? Under what circumstances are you loyal or do you rebel?

Bob: With Jesse Eisenberg portraying a younger, loopier Luthor in the new DC films (to be seen next in November’s Justice League), the notion that he could become a cinematic Commander in Chief is just as improbable as the idea that a real estate mogul could be our country’s 45th president.

Bob Greenberger was an Editor and Executive at DC Comics and co-authored The Essential Superman Encyclopedia. BobGreenberger.com

L.A. Williams is an Amherst Regional High and UMass Amherst alumna and Assistant Editor of Superman/Fantastic Four who runs AquaBabyBooks.com online bookstore.