A Tribute to the of

In our last episode we witnessed the unlikely pairing of two criminal geniuses' in the form of Marvel's Doctor Octopus and DC's Lex Luthor.  In the process of reviewing that story, we learned a little about each man's origin.  See if this sounds at all familiar:   

"Young Lex Luthor, on the other hand, was a criminal since the days of his adolescence.  Like Octavius, he, too, was the victim of an experiment gone wrong—this time, indirectly, because of his childhood friend, Superboy.  As a result of the disaster, Luthor lost all his hair—permanently—and the shock of this, coupled with the explosion itself, and the loss of a vital experiment to create life, caused Luthor to hate his former pal.  Over the years he's invented many devices to defeat the Man of Steel—and has proven himself Superman's toughest and most elusive enemy!"

Well, it just so happens that I have a reprint of the very story that synopsis refers to from Adventure Comics #271 from April of 1960.  The story by Jerry Siegel is entitled "How Luthor met Superboy!" though inexplicably the cover by Curt Swan & Stan Kaye (as you can see from the scan) clearly states:   "Superboy's First Duel with Luthor!"  Artwork is provided by Al Plastino. This book's (in addition to all other "Superman Family" titles of the day) editor is Mort Weisinger.

The Bronze Age Limited Collector's Edition treasury (#C-39 dated October-November, 1975) containing this reprint offers the following introduction, which may have been done by legendary DC historian E. Nelson Bridwell:

The first running villain who matched wits with Superman was the Ultra-Humanite.  When he died, his brain was transplanted into the skull of a beautiful actress.  Jerry Siegel had plans to switch Ultra's brain into different forms as time went on, but something happened to put this villain in limbo. Luthor happened.

In 1940, Clark Kent and Lois Lane went to Europe for the Daily Star to cover the war.  Once tyrant Superman battled was a thin, red-haired man called Luthor.  But, after a few stories, Luthor's appearance changed—he became stout and bald.  Had someone in the Shuster studio mistaken one of Luthor's accomplices in an earlier tale for the master criminal himself?  Maybe—but Ultra was originally bald, and, as Siegel pointed out to me, Joe liked to draw bald villains.

Superman has battled Luthor for more than forty years, but it wasn't until 1960 that the villain was even given a first name—and this is the story in which it happened.  With this tale, he was also firmly implanted in the Superboy mythos as well.  The artist was Al Plastino, a veteran Superman portrayer whose work has been seen in such syndicated strips as Abbie 'n' Slats, Batman and Ferd'nand. There is more that has developed since.  Luthor has a sister, Lena Thorul, from whom he has tried to keep the fact that her brother is a notorious criminal; he has a wife on the planet Lexor, where he is a hero; and his full name is Alexis Luthor.

Our splash page shows the Boy of Steel, working at super-speed to construct a laboratory for his grateful friend, Luthor. 

As the tale begins, Superboy is flying toward a curly haired youth operating a bulldozer near a water-filled gully.  This is a newcomer to the rural town of Smallville and Superboy has come to get acquainted.  No sooner does he land, however, when a kryptonite meteor chooses that very moment to strike the ground right beside him, placing our hero into paralyzing pain.  The next panel briefly explains that when the infant Superboy escaped the explosive destruction of his home planet of Krypton in a rocket ship, atomic fission transformed the planet's broken fragments into Kryptonite, whose radiations are deadly to Superboy or any other native of Krypton.

The young man at the controls of the bulldozer obviously understands Superboy's predicament and wastes no time in employing the blade to push the meteor into the gully where it promptly sinks in the quicksand below.  As Superboy rapidly recovers he thanks the young man for saving his life and asks his name.  He replies that it is Lex Luthor and this is his most thrilling moment.  Luthor then invites his new friend to see a surprise in the barn.  Once inside, Superboy sees a sort of shrine to himself, with photos on the walls and various bits of memorabilia, such as a rock with his fist imprint in it and a twisted girder that he'd bent around an escaping giant gorilla.  Lex says he's hero-worshipped him for years.  It is then that Superboy notices the other part of the barn, arrayed with laboratory equipment.  Luthor explains that while he is a farm boy now, his ambition is to become the world's greatest scientist, buoyed with the hope that he'll one day be as famous as his hero.

A little later, outside, Krypton's last son begins a task to express his gratitude to Luthor.  Using scrap and other detritus nearby, he rapidly constructs a modern experimental laboratory for his new found friend, but he doesn't stop there.  Still later, the delighted Lex Luthor receives a stock of rare chemicals retrieved from deep in the ground, some of them still unknown, as a supplement to his regular equipment.  Superboy cautions the young inventor, though, to be careful with these mysterious chemicals.  Luthor reassures him that he knows what he's doing and shows Superboy a stack of papers containing a formula that is the basis for an experiment that will make him the most famous boy scientist on earth.  Superboy comments that he could easily peek at the materials with his super vision, but he wouldn't want to pry.  He soon departs, thanking the budding scientist again for saving his life.  An awestruck Luthor, filled with fresh inspiration, immediately starts to work, thinking that Superboy would be very surprised if he realized that Lex was on the verge of discovering the very secret of life itself.

After several weeks of experimentation, young Luthor is successful in creating a crude form of protoplasm from chemicals alone.  He is overjoyed and his next thoughts turn to the source of his success.  He wonders how he can possibly repay Superboy for giving him the ability to perform this feat.  It then occurs to him that if he could create an antidote to Kryptonite, he could successfully reciprocate.

Lex wastes no time in using some other facilities in his modern lab.  He dons welding attire and begins to construct a giant metal claw arm to use as an attachment to the 'dozer.  Later, he uses the device to easily pluck the Kryptonite meteor from its quicksand prison.  Back at the lab, he uses a hammer and chisel to remove some chips from the meteor prior to replacing it in the quicksand.  Later still, he has ground the kryptonite chips into a fine dust and blended it with a liquefied form of the protoplasmic life.  He works feverishly all night and then, just before dawn, he is triumphant.  In his enthusiasm, however, he has accidentally upset a flask, causing a rapidly growing fire that is causing fumes, smoke and radiation when interacting with the materials in the lab.  The panicked Luthor heads for the window and spots his hero flying by on patrol.  He quickly cries out for help.  Superboy responds swiftly and uses a puff of super-breath to extinguish the flames.

The Boy of Steel enters the lab, but instead of finding a grateful Luthor, he encounters blatant hostility.  Lex shouts that the burst of air from Superboy's lungs blew an acid bottle against the antidote bottle, breaking both and destroying his formula.  Furthermore, the gas fumes caused his hair to fall out.  When Superboy protests that it was an accident, the irrational Luthor retorts that he's a liar, jealous of his genius and knowing full well that the formula was the result of thousands of experiments that could never be duplicated again.  He continues to rant and rave that his protoplasmic discovery is destroyed, he's now bald and everything is ruined because of Superboy's jealousy and fear that Lex's fame would outstrip his.  Superboy insists he would never deliberately harm him, particularly after he saved his life.  It is then that Luthor notes a tube on a nearby shelf with a small bit of the protoplasm that survived the fire.  He calms down, asks Superboy's forgiveness and says he's created an antidote to Kryptonite and invites him to return tomorrow to see it work.

After the young hero's departure, however, Luthor reverts to his prior state of rage and wields an axe viciously at his Superboy shrine, vowing to make him regret the day he stole the glory of Luthor.  He removes the speck of protoplasm and blends it with a variety of liquid chemicals to re-create the antidote, but gloats that no more will ever be made since no more protoplasm is available.

The next morning, an eager Boy of Steel arrives with a space-globe in tow so that Luthor can witness Superboy's test of the antidote in outer space.  Lex offers him the liquid to ingest and soon Superboy is airborne, carrying Luthor in the globe as they depart the earth and ultimately the atmosphere.  Soon the blue and red clad figure spots a kryptonite meteor swarm and with some trepidation approaches it, thinking that the lives of both he and Luthor depend on the success of the antidote.  Soon he is whizzing in and out among the meteors feeling no effects whatsoever.  It's a good thing, too.  Ol' Lex would have been badly up that familiar creek otherwise.  Moments later, Krypto the superdog arrives from somewhere in space and seeing his master flying among the meteors decides they must be "Fool's Kryptonite."  The canine of steel soon discovers, however, that he is mistaken and beats a hasty retreat, never having caught his young master's attention, but Luthor looks on with smug satisfaction from the globe.

As the duo returns to earth, Superboy offers his grateful thanks, but the vicious Luthor informs him that he placed some crystals into the antidote to make it only temporary.  It could have been permanent if not for Superboy's transgression of trying to crush Lex's greatness.  He continues to vow he'll be more famous than Superboy.  The disappointed hero flies off, wishing Luthor well in his efforts and secretly wishing that Lex's father, a traveling salesman, were home more to help guide his son.

Many weeks later, the ambitious boy scientist approaches the mayor of Smallville with a proposal.  He's designed a weather tower that will allow the community to escape winter, allowing them both comfort and the ability to extend the growing season for summer crops.  Young Lex basks in the adoration of the citizens and Superboy is happy for him until one day, while in his alter-ego of Clark Kent, he watches as his parents begin to collapse from oppressive heat.  Changing to his Superboy uniform, he makes a beeline for the weather tower, which has proven faulty and has somehow intensified the reflected solar rays to the point it is causing fires and dangerously raising temperatures.  Using his super breath, he issues a burst of super cold air to freeze the tower, which then breaks and begins to collapse.  Lex's success has turned into a bitter defeat and he is more certain than ever that Superboy is to blame for sabotaging him.

Filled with firmer resolve, Lex throws himself into another project for many months, this time developing hybrid seeds and distributing them to members of the community, promising overnight, mature fruit trees.  They are somewhat skeptical but decide to give them a try and sure enough, the next morning, full-grown trees have sprouted from the plantings.  That night, however, something again goes awry after a heavy rainstorm.  The trees have somehow been affected by the interaction of the rain with the chemicals and they've grown unabated, like Jack's beanstalk, destroying structures.  Superboy quickly uproots the menacing trees and uses heat vision to burn up any remaining seeds.  Luthor is again spurned by the community and his seething rage drives him to further mischief.

We find him again at the controls of the claw arm, retrieving the Kryptonite meteor.  When our hero calls on Lex to offer his sympathies, the angry youth tells him to save it and springs his trap, activating a hidden lead panel that exposes Superboy to the kryptonite.  As our hero collapses to the floor, Lex hovers over him, gloating that he will die, inches from the bottle he holds in his hand with the last remaining drops of the antidote.  A desperate Superboy uses his vacuum breath to suck the flask from Luthor's grip, breaking it against his steel-hard mouth and allowing him to consume the antidote.  Luthor is nonplussed and merely taunts that the antidote will again wear off and he'll never again be immune.  He challenges Superboy to jail him, but the Boy of Steel's response is that he hasn't forgotten Lex saved his life and they are now square.  He then admonishes Luthor to use his brilliant mind to help humanity.  Sneeringly Lex says he'll become more famous than he and will ultimately destroy him.

As Superboy flies away in the final panel, a still angry Luthor shaking his fist at him, he muses that he just realized Lex Luthor has the same initials as Lana Lang, and he wonders if Luthor will become a great scientist or a criminal.  The final text answers the question:  Unfortunately, as we all know, Luthor grew up to become Superman's arch-enemy, and one of the most dastardly criminals in the history of crime!

Now you know the origin of Superman's most enduring foe and the basis of his irrational hatred of the Man of Steel.  It kind of makes you wonder if a good Rogaine treatment would have any effect on matters.  Of course as time and frustration wore on, one would presume Luthor's original motivation faded a bit.

Lex Luthor has undergone some interesting bits of change over the years, from the bald, dumpy version to one who seemed to be perpetually in an all-gray, Dickies-like set of clothing, to latter incarnations where he seemed to have become fit and was more often than not wearing his battle suit that afforded scientific gizmos and jet boots for flight.  In JLU episodes he seems to enjoy the same cut physique as everyone else, and has somehow evolved into a semi-respectable citizen if that can genuinely be said of anyone with political ambitions.  Through it all, however, Lex Luthor remains diabolical, brilliant and truly lethal.  Certainly not a man to be underestimated.  His origin tale was pretty good, but it has long seemed to me that Mort kept the Superboy adventures a bit on the lighter side and sometimes it didn't seem like they gave you much to sink your teeth into.  The subject of Lex was interesting, but Superboy's talents weren't taxed much.  I'll rate this story with a 7.

Remember to make your return to this location in another couple of weeks for the latest effort toward our exploration of the mightiest age in comics.  I'd be delighted to hear from you as well, so drop me an e-mail at professor_the@hotmail.com.

See you next time and…

Long live the Silver Age!

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