This graphic novel really brought home to me the power that the businessman post-Crisis Luthor could wield, in the same vein as John Byrne's Superman #2 and Superman #9’s "Metropolis 900 mi.” Special kudos, too, should go to the mid-90s "They Saved Luthor's Brain" storyline, which could have seemed ridiculously far-fetched if it hadn't been handled with such chilling, spooky drama.
The newest volume in the Luthor library is Brian Azzarello’s Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, ostensibly the book which inspired Azzarello to his twelve-issue Superman run (despite its secondary release). In Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, Luthor outlines any of a number of philosophical grudges against Superman: that Superman cannot empathize with humanity because he can't feel pain as we do; that Superman's power is unchecked, and as such any relationship with Superman that seems built on respect is actually built on hidden fear; and most of all, in representing the ideal of human potential, Superman squashes that very ideal -- if mankind is always trying to be Superman, they'll always fail, and therefore never live up to mankind's own potential.
The philosophies of Luthor's argument as presented by Azzarello are interesting, and perhaps even convincing, especially the last; Azzarello parallels Luthor's frustration at Superman's greatness with his assistant Mona's frustration at Lex's love for his creation, Hope, instead of for Mona herself. Whether Luthor himself realizes the irony is unclear, but Azzarello demonstrates the point to the reader well: if you've ever felt spurned because the object of your affection only has eyes for a celebrity instead of you, this is a glimpse of Luthor's fury at Metropolis's divided loyalties.
Unfortunately, the story fails in its promise to demonstrate Superman as the villain and Luthor as the hero. The plot of the story is simple, and mostly it's been done before: to challenge Metropolis's adoration for Superman, Lex Luthor creates a hometown hero that answers, of course, to him. Yet, even though Luthor falls in love with his creation, he doesn't hesitate before he sacrifices her in the end, just to break off some of the sheen on Superman. Luthor cries, and we're meant to feel sorry for him -- but to get to that point in the story, he's already lied, cheated, and murdered, while Superman himself has been largely absent. One is left with the feeling that Luthor's bad consequences have brought on his own bad deed. Even in the Smallville episode "Lexmas," when the young Lex Luthor chooses a dark path, we feel sorry for him because we know he's coming from a place of hurt. Azzarello's Lex Luthor starts and ends as a villain -- it's hard to feel much of anything for him.
One bright spot in this story, however -- and perhaps the only reason I’d recommend a non-continuity Superman story at this point -- is Azzaello’s use of the Toyman. We live, frankly, in a dangerous day and age, and we’re beyond the point where Winslow Schott surrounding himself with small children and having a tea party can still look innocent. Azzarello, late of Vertigo books, meets this head-on -- while the Toyman doesn’t actually do anything untoward (or moreso than your average super-villain), Azzarello portrays him as justly scary. Toyman’s appearance surprised me, giving some screen-time to this underused villain, and helped to make the story more engaging than it might otherwise have been.
If this is your first Lex Luthor story, Man of Steel might just work for you. It’s well-written, well-plotted, with gorgeous art by Lee Bermejo, and no major flaws … except I’ve seen it before, and frankly, don’t try to make Lex Luthor out to be a good hero. It’s so much more fun watching him be a bad villain.
On to a bit more Wonder Woman now, and then some Green Lantern and Adam Strange. Happy Spring!