Friday, June 21, 2013
Superman (vol. 2) 2: "The Secret Revealed!"
Before I get into the meat of it, I want to thank Chris Meaux for his kind words about our blog on his podcast Superman Lives! and implore you to check that podcast out because he's absolutely doing an outstanding job. Here's a link.
"May you find what you're looking for."
- Chinese curse
Lex Luthor is one of the five or so essential super-villains in American comics. Frighteningly intelligent and continually dangerous, he is, to steal from Raymond Chandler, "not so much a character as a state of mind." He is so confident, dangerous, and prepared that we suspect that he has chosen evil simply because he will not accept second place for anything. If Superman is THE friend to humanity, he will be THE enemy, because in whatever course he takes he must be the definite article. John Byrne understood this implicitly, and while lesser writers wrote he and Marv Wolfman's rebooted "tycoon" iteration of the character as a rich man's Kingpin, Byrne recognized exactly what he was to be: Satan, in a three piece. Perhaps no story demonstrates just who and what the new Luthor was to be than the second issue of the revamped Superman title, "The Secret Revealed."
The story opens with Luthor sifting through videotape of Superman sightings and noticing a distraught redhead (who we recognize as Lana Lang) in the crowd every time Superman shows up, until six months ago. Luthor orders his organization to identify the woman and track her down, and intimidates his project manager, Amanda McCoy, into joining him for dinner that evening. Then he joins scientists who are trying to extract the Kryptonite heart from the freshly retooled Metallo, ignoring their warnings about possible K radiation poisoning, and asks about their delay. The scientist informs Luthor that Metallo possesses a human brain, and removing the Kryptonite will kill him. After Metallo confronts Luthor for interfering in his fight with Superman in the previous issue, Luthor informs him that "the killing of Superman is a pleasure reserved for [Luthor]". With that, Luthor coldly rips the Kryptonite from Metallo's chest, apparently killing him.
We continue by following a pair of Luthor's thugs in Smallville. Luthor is digging for any information he can on Superman, and he's reasoned that Clark Kent, the reporter who broke the big scoop about who he is, might have some connection to him. The tough-guys tranq Ma and Pa Kent (!), ransack the place, find Ma Kent's Superman scrapbook, and kidnap Lana Lang on the way out. When Luthor, at dinner with Amanda, is horrified by the news that his goons have brought a random woman back to LexCorp, until he recognizes Lana from her photo. Luthor authorizes Lana's torture to discover her connection to Superman.
In six pages, this new Luthor is introduced in bravura fashion: he attacks Superman's closest friends and family, gains the means to Superman's physical destruction, and is well on his way to discovering Superman's secret identity. He's come precariously close to checkmating the Man of Steel, and our hero isn't even aware of the game. He's shown to be an expert at intimidation, and utterly apathetic to the lives of others. How could a mere human threaten Superman? A better question is how could this one NOT?
The second act is given over to Superman's response to this attack which is ultimately ill-considered and emotional, as he believes his parents to be dead. Lex debuts the Kryptonite ring, which would become such an important element of the character in the Roger Stern/Dan Jurgens years, and mocks Superman to his face. Lex is absolutely rolling, here and it's rare to see any comic book hero so completely outclassed by his arch-nemesis that it's a little disconcerting. Superman returns home to find his parents okay, and lick his wounds from his first real defeat.
The final pages are the punchline of this fantastic issue: Lex is convinced that there is a relationship between Clark Kent and Superman. He feeds all the known data into the giant computer that Amanda McCoy has invented, right down to the fact that Clark Kent never missed a single day of school from sickness. The computer comes back with the obvious answer...
CLARK KENT IS SUPERMAN
McCoy is blown away by the machine's "flawlessly logical" conclusion, but Lex remains unimpressed. The next piece of dialogue is so expressive of Lex's character and so perfect for the situation that I have to just quote it in full for you...
"Logical? Is it? To a machine, perhaps. Yes...a soulless machine might make that deduction. But not Lex Luthor! I know better! I know that no man with the power of Superman would ever pretend to be a mere human! Such power is to be constantly exploited. Such power is to be used! [...] You have failed me, Amanda. This conclusion is utterly useless. Remove it from my computers at once! And then, remove yourself!
I have no place in my organization for people who can't see the obvious!"
And what has been a relentlessly bleak episode in the life of Superman, ends with a note of hope. If Luthor cannot conceive of what Superman truly is, he's vulnerable to the point where he cannot see the truth when it's staring him in the face. Luthor's strength is formidable, but he is weakness is equally large-- hubris. He literally cannot imagine motivations and behavior beyond his own sociopathic musings. This Luthor, unlike the Pre-Crisis version, cannot be redeemed-- but one day, he will be defeated, even if Luthor is the one who defeats himself.
This is not at that top rank of Superman stories, which speak directly to our human condition, but accepting it as a building block of the internal world of the comic which develops an essential piece of the mythos? It's a brilliant piece of superhero construction, filled with masterful art and writing by John Byrne.