I’ve been on a bit of a Superman walkabout. Mostly, I’ve been trying to find the essential components – precisely what makes a Superman story feel “right.”
The brilliance of Lex as Superman’s opposite number isn’t that he’s as EVIL as Superman is GOOD (the dichotomy that makes, say, Captain America vs. Red Skull great): it’s that Superman is all the things we want to be (noble, self-sacrificing, dependable, trustworthy, inspiring), while Lex is all the everyday, human behavior we tend to gravitate towards in our crappier moments (vain, self-centered, arrogant, petty, short-sighted, self-sabotaging…).
(I didn’t come up with this – nor did I come up with the idea that Lex should be the Daffy Duck to Superman’s Bugs Bunny – but sadly, I can’t remember who did, so if that rings a bell for anyone, please chime in.)
Except somehow Lex never picked up that these aren’t admirable traits. He thought being smart and clever and cunning was enough to negate his shortcomings and make everyone see how Great he is.
And if all those things didn’t do the job, hey – being ruthless would surely drive that point home, right?
There’s something so…well, not “sweetly,” exactly, but maybe charmingly?… misguided about that. Like a dog in a pound, Lex isn’t bad…he was just never properly socialized (personal admission: once you own a dog, human psychology seems a lot simpler).
Lex isn’t evil, per se. But he has a blind spot that infects everything else about him, and that blind spot is the (wrong) notion that Superman’s existence makes his own life less meaningful. He panics and takes the exact wrong stance.
“If only you’d use your intellect for good instead of evil.” That’s the standard Superman-line (the one even Jerry Seinfeld quotes when referring to George) – that if Lex would only use his intellect for good instead of personal glory (which is not, in itself, evil), his life, and his mark on the world, would’ve been completely different.
But that’s not quite right.
If Lex had just seen Superman in his first appearance and thought, “My god, we could be that!” instead of “My god – why am I NOT THAT YET?”, would the world be very different? Maaaybe. But…
I think Lex himself knows that, somewhere deep inside. But every act he takes to prove he’s better just makes him hate that part of himself more. And so every act he takes defines himself as “Superman’s arch-enemy” even though he sees himself as so much more.
But through the fortunate fact that he lives in the DC Universe, this attitude actually becomes a boon. Whenever Lex isn’t in conflict with Superman, he’s actually much closer to the hero of the story (see: Paul Cornell’s really fun Lex-centric Action Comics arc). He’s smarter, more disciplined and more goal-focused than anyone around him. And he’s usually surrounded by maniacs and assassins. So he’s always been great at imposing his own, superior will over madness and chaos.
And who doesn’t want to do that in their own lives?
That’s what’s great about Lex, and the reason there should always be a note of sympathy when writing him – even though nobody’s really going to root for Lex, readers might still manage to relate to him (especially comics readers).
Even though they might not always feel good about that.
PS: The major misstep of John Byrne’s “Man of Steel”-era Lex was positioning him as basically a serial rapist. There are too many (meaning: more than none) stories where Lex uses his social status to essentially date-rape employees (one of whom becomes his clone-body “son’s” surrogate mom, EWW), and not only is it not really in keeping with the ideal (and comparatively inoffensive) “Daffy vs. Bugs” power struggle between Lex and Superman, it’s also just a little too “adult” to be ANY aspect of the arch-enemy of Superman, the idol of children everywhere. So…not cool Byrne. Not cool.