COMICS RETROSPECTIVE: "Lex Luthor: Man of Steel": 2005's Azzarmejo spin from the villain's POV
Writer: Brian Azzarello, Artist: Lee Bermejo, Colorist: Dave Stewart, Letterer: DC Lettering (per the DC website)
"I am a man, I hope." —Lex Luthor
I've been known to mention my aversion to Superman. I don't hate him, as some do, and I can say that there have been excellent Superman stories that I'm happy to recommend to others, I've just never found him that interesting. Though, ironically enough I find that it's the things that I'm not fond of with Superman that make him work so well, and his genuine desire of inspiring people to be better and to find the hope in themselves is a truly heartfelt one. I guess it's just my gravitation to more 'human' and grounded characters like Batman, Daredevil, and The Punisher that has also led to my general lack of enthusiasm towards Superman.
Yet there are great Superman stories, if you look. Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman reeks of his signature oddness, but is also one of the most touching and heartfelt tributes to Superman that I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Alan Moore's "For The Man Who Has Everything" and "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow" are also surprisingly heartfelt stories. With a more tragic tinge is Tom King's recent Superman: Up in The Sky: a poignant reminder of why Superman still matters in our modern, more cynical age. Mark Waid and Alex Ross' opus Kingdom Come is not only a great send up to Superman, but of superheroes in general. There are others, but the point still stands that there are great Superman stories out there.
Luthor is one of the most iconic villains in comics history; he is Superman's antithesis in every way. Like many who grew up in my era (good God, I'm old) most remember Clancy Brown's iconic performance as Luthor in Superman: The Animated Series and the later Justice League cartoons, and I'd go as far as to say that his version is the definitive version of the character (without being Gene Hackman of course). He's gone through a lot of odd changes throughout the years, to put it lightly, but Azzarello is different, he's more interested in the man rather than the myth that's been cultivated of his character.
Everyone loves to hear the villain's point of view, even if there's some who won't admit it. Azzarello writes with a deft hand, painting Lex as understandable and human while still being arrogant and self-righteous. He writes Lex deftly, basing many of his decisions off of his psychology, his desires, and motivations. Luthor has certainly had some strange motivations for hating Superman over the years, but here Azzarello gives him more natural and human reasons for disliking Superman. One is his fear of what Superman could do, rather than anything that Superman's done in his past. Brian's roots in writing noir crime fiction also comes into play here, with him getting in Luthor's head and offering him a chance to give his side of events, which brings another interesting point to the table: Who's telling the story. Luthor is, and with that, we see his side of the story, skewed and paranoid as it is. It goes the opposite direction of Morrison's All-Star Superman, where we see the world as seen by Superman.
Also touched on is Luthor's other underlying motivation for hating Superman: jealousy. As he points out in this book, how could people like someone just because he looks human, and also Supes is the only person who has the gall to try and stop him. Like Victor Von Doom and Reed Richards, Superman makes Lex insecure about his own place in the world, because he's so ingrained in the thought that because he's made it based on his own skills that he's some sort of supreme being. It's the old Randian ideal on how one can make it on his own, without help from 'the herd.'
Really, his desire to help humanity is rather self serving. Like Ozymandias in Watchmen, he says that he wants to save humanity and does horrible things in order to get to his goal, but he's rather taken with the idea of being the one who did it, rather than actually attaining the goal of doing it. Like in All-Star Superman, he boasts to Clark Kent that he could've saved the world a long time ago if Superman hadn't came along and stolen his thunder. He can't handle the fact that Superman helps people far more than he ever could, and he can't comprehend the ideas of coming together and being inspired to be better, because in his view, everyone should be able to work hard and get to their best, and anyone who isn't is just part of 'the herd.'
It's just so misanthropic and delusional, for Luthor to think that he's better than everyone simply because he has extraordinary abilities and he was lucky and skilled enough to apply them. He only hates Superman because, he feels, that Superman is the only being that dares to come to his level and the one who might prove that what he believes is wrong. But he'll never accept it of course, because how can someone as supreme as himself be wrong?
Lee Bermejo's art is also impressive, and this, alongside with him and Azzarello's later collaboration Joker, was some of the first work that I encountered from him. He takes Alex Ross' hyper detailed style of artwork, refines it, and offers a more gritty, grounded approach to said art style. It showcases Bermejo as one of comics' great talents who is still working today. While everyone knows the Azzarello/Risso partnership from their much lauded collaborations such as 100 Bullets and Moonshine, I've found myself more fond of his collaborations with Bermejo. They work together in a way that complements each other's talents perfectly, not unlike other powerhouse duos over the years like Ennis/Dillon, Brubaker/Phillips, and Lemire/Sorrentino. I must also commend the work of Dave Stewart, who seems to be on everything that I find myself reading. His uncanny ability to perfectly mimic the art styles of the artists that he works with is one that makes me wonder why he is isn't praised more often, it makes me more annoyed at the constant dismissal of the work of colorists.
Some of my favorite moments of the miniseries include Luthor's monologues about Superman, and his confusion on why people love Supes so much because he looks human; Batman and Superman's fight which sees Superman finally getting one over on the Caped Crusader (painful as it is to admit, as a Batman fan); seeing Luthor's plan to put out Hope (who's basically an android version of Superman who's controlled by Luthor) to attempt to discredit Superman; and my personal favorite moment, we see Luthor and Superman have one last confrontation where Lex tells Superman why he despises him so. He says that Superman can't see his soul, only for Superman to say that he does. Luthor is enraged by this, but then tells Superman to 'just fly away,' which he does. I also love the ending where Luthor says the infamous line: "I am a man, I hope."
Yet in the end, we see the exact opposite of what Luthor thinks of himself: he's merely a man, alone, fearful, and arrogant in his conviction that Superman is a menace to society. By the end we see him as a pitiful and sad man, rather than as the triumphant super-genius that he'd like to imagine himself.
The collected volume of Lex Luthor: Man of Steel and issues 1-5 can be found on Amazon, Comixology, or even your local comic shop.