It’s been a while since I’ve done so, but I’m getting a hankering to write about superheroes. At first I was going to write a defense of that most unlovable of heroes, Marvel’s Ant-Man, but if I’m going to write about superheroes, I should write about the best superhero. Since I can do that and write about the best comic at the same time, I decided to write about Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman. Specifically All-Star Superman #5, my personal favorite comic book ever.
As everyone should know, the only superheroes that actually matter are Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. Sure, lots of the others are great–I like Guy Gardner and Thor– but the three I mentioned are the ones that set the standards for the rest. Spider-Man is the perfect teenage superhero, with a simple reading being the spider powers stand in for puberty. Batman is the man who makes himself a myth, with one of the greatest fictional locales to run around. But Superman is the original and best superhero. He represents the best that humanity–and in some ways America– can hope to be, an ideal to strive to. No story better illustrates this than All-Star Superman.
All-Star Superman #5 is a story titled “The Gospel According to Lex Luthor.” On the surface, it is a simple comic; Lex Luthor, condemned to death, allows Clark Kent to interview him in prison, to give the world his side of the story of his war on Superman. The irony immediately obvious to every reader is that Clark Kent is Superman, which despite being the smartest man on Earth Luthor has not figured out. However, there is much more going on here than that. While this comic is about Luthor’s side of the story, is as perfectly contrasts the values and principles of Superman and his greatest enemy.
First, a brief explanation of Lex Luthor. Whether in his original identity of a standard mad scientist or his revised (Post Crisis on Infinite Earths) power-mad CEO, Luthor has generally been Superman’s foremost adversary. He has appeared in every modern Superman movie. Luthor is, simply, Superman’s opposite in most ways. Luthor is smart, rich and powerful as well as completely self-centered. While his is undeniably intelligent, Luthor’s real defining trait is his narcissism. If not for Superman, Luthor would be the most powerful person on Earth. Superman’s superiority, instead of being an example to follow, makes Luthor insanely jealous. While he is smart enough to gain any accolade he desires, he cannot accept Superman’s supreme physical advantage over him. Luthor is easily one of, if not the, best comic book villains.
The Gospel According to Lex Luthor starts with Lex being sentenced to death for his recent (Issue 1) attack on the first manned mission to the Sun. His defense?
He is so blinded by his personal war with Superman that he believes he needs no defense for his actions. Before his execution, he allows one reporter to interview him: Clark Kent.
The Clark Kent of All-Star Superman is not the competent figure that he has been since John Byrne’s reboot in the 80’s. Morrison’s Kent takes the mild mannered reporter shtick much further than just mild-mannered he is a complete pantywaist. While I prefer the version of Superman where Clark Kent is who he is and Superman is the disguise, in order to really believe no one suspects he is Superman the other way actually works a little better. I can see why no one suspects, or even believes when confronted with it point blank, that Clark Kent is Superman. But one of the most amazing things about All-Star Superman is how Kent’s clumsiness is just another tool in his crime-fighting arsenal. Case and point page 4:
This also illustrates one of the fundamental differences between Superman and Lex Luthor: Luthor spends all of his time trying to destroy his enemy; Superman goes out of his way to save him.
The next few pages really show how Luthor thinks, both about himself and about Superman. He calls his guards “fat girls” and asks Clark if he feels “diminished by [Superman’s] very presence.” While in the midst of a strenuous work our routine, Luthor focuses on questioning Clark’s masculinity. He displays his own insecurities about Superman’s physical prowess, with the focus on Clark’s masculinity and his own hard exercise regimen. There is some validity to Luthor’s anger here; there is no way that any person could match Superman’s strength. But he is so focused on it that he can’t even begin to fathom that Superman could be posing as a man that appears as feeble as Clark Kent does.
We then move on to the communal area of the prison, where Lex outlines his utopian vision of society, which he calls “survival of the smartest”, while being completely oblivious to the angry stares he is getting from every other inmate. He has no fear; even of the occasionally super powered Parasite (he sucks the power out of other people, including Superman). “Brain beats Brawn every time,” Luthor says, which he believes makes his victory inevitable, though it proves to be the opposite.
Parasite starts to absorb Superman’s powers and breaks free from his restraints, which starts a riot. While pretending to blunder into the fray, Clark manages not only to save Lex’s life again; he also saves all the guards caught up in the riot. All while not breaking his cover as Clark Kent. While Lex and Clark make their escape to Luthor’s cell, they are pursued by the increasingly immense Parasite. Superman causes a convenient earthquake, and Lex:
Note how quickly Luthor abandons brains for brawn. He doesn’t even question the earthquake, he doesn’t try to think of an escape from the Parasite, he hopes for a miracle. Then as soon as his enemy is down, he starts kicking him. Once they get to Lex’s cell, he simple continues on his tirade against Superman. His petty grudge has completely consumed him. He gloats about how he’s turned the newspaper and the prison against Superman, and then shows Clark his escape route. Lex has no intention of escaping; he merely wants to show how little power the law has over him. Here Clark almost loses it. He does not understand how Luthor can focus only on his personal war with Superman, when together they could do so much to help the world. But Luthor is determined to throw his life away in his maniacal quest to destroy Superman.
He also drops his final bomb: Superman is dying. The readers already know this, but they did not know that it was an intended part of Luthor’s plan.
While this comic defines Lex Luthor, it also defines Superman. While incredibly intelligent, Luthor thinks only of his own quest for power. Superman on the other hand, despite having no reason to feel anything but hate for a man who has spent his life trying to kill him, does everything he can to save Luthor from himself. Superman’s faith in humanity is such that he thinks even the worst of us are worth saving.