How did Lex meet that girl Kitty anyway? Or that widow Gertrude? And what exactly was he up to for five years?
Previously, I introduced the Superman Returns prequel comics and examined the first two issues in some detail, paying particular attention to how it changed things from Richard Donner’s 1978 original. This time, we’ll continue on to the third issue, which focuses on Lex Luthor and answers the above questions.
Superman Returns Prequel #3: “Lex Luthor”
story by Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris; script by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti; Rick Leonardi pencils; Nelson inks
In jail, Lex Luthor ponders Superman’s absence with fellow prisoner, Stanford. Lex is brought to the prison doctor, Kitty, whom he seems to have seduced, and he recalls their first meeting. Lex dresses in a suit for his release. Waiting for him is Gertrude, an elderly woman who he pretends to love.
As with the previous issue, much of this issue consists of flashbacks, both new and from the 1978 film. The issue’s real focus is on Lex Luthor’s release from prison and his thoughts on Superman’s absence and how Superman put him in jail in the first place. Along the way, though, we meet Lex’s new cast of assistants, including Gertrude, Kitty, and Stanford.
The scene is Lex Luthor’s prison cell, covered in news clippings. He’s on the top bunk, talking to another prisoner named Stanford. Stanford’s not Lex’s cellmate — Lex’s dialogue makes it clear that Lex has a “private suite” and has arranged to get Stanford “visiting privileges.” The subject of their conversation is none other than Superman, who Lex thinks may someday return. Lex wonders if a man can come back after five years.
Lex’s thoughts about Superman trigger a flashback sequence. In the first page, we see a modified scene from the 1978 film as Superman penetrates Lex’s underground lair in Metropolis. Lex’s crew at the time consisted of Miss Tessmacher and a bumbling assistant named Otis. Though they’re seen here, they’re not named. The comedic dialogue surrounding Superman’s entrance, as well as Lex testing Superman’s powers by shooting and burning him prior to entrance, has been cut for the flashback.
A page of dialogue between Superman and Lex follows, apparently occurring after Superman’s entrance. In the 1978 film, Superman had come to Lex because Lex had triggered a high-frequency message that only Superman could hear. In the message, Lex had promised to kill much of Metropolis using gas canisters positioned around the city. It was a bluff, but it brought Superman to Lex — and a Kryptonite trap. Rather than explaining all this, the flashback has Superman act more proactively, breaking into Luthor’s lair simply because he thinks Luthor’s “up tosomething.”
The third flashback page is rather ambiguous. It shows Lex in a blue outfit, working on some sort of giant mechanical spider with a gatling gun and a separate gun turret. His narration, being voiced in the present to Stanford, says that the prison psychiatrists believe him to be obsessed, wasting his intelligence on Superman. But while Lex might have made the mechanical spider to fight Superman, he couldn’t have done so while in prison, and the scene hasn’t appeared in any Superman film. It seems to have more in common with the mad scientist version of Lex Luthor, shown in the comics from the 1940s until the mid-1980s, than with the film version of Lex Luthor, who doesn’t seem quite as eager to get his hands dirty. We can only guess that these two panels, with their mechanical spider, depict a moment in Lex’s life not shown in the films, probably occurring prior to Lex’s appearance in the 1978 original.
The third and final panel on the flashback’s third page shows Lex looking through binoculars at a large explosion — probably a nuclear one, given that the explosion takes the distinctive shape of the large mushroom cloud. Though Lex stole and later fired nuclear missles in the 1978 film, and one of them did explode, Lex was not in a position to view such an explosion with binoculars. Thus, this flashback panel is also ambiguous and difficult to fit into the character’s timeline.
The fourth page begins with a rather generic flashback panel of Superman flying past Lex, who appears in the foreground. This moment, too, cannot be dated. The next two panels, which complete the page, depict Lex retrieving a piece of Kryptonite from a tundra environment. He has some sort of treaded vehicle nearby, with his footprints coming out of it. Clearly, Lex is retrieving a piece of Kryptonite, but, like the others before it, this scene has not appeared in any film.
Over this last page of ambiguous flashbacks, Lex discusses Superman as an alien, as perhaps a “vanguard for an invasion of super-powered beings.” He talks about obtaining Kryptonite as a defensive, not offensive tactic — a lie, if we are to believe the 1978 film, but certainly suggestive that the scene in the tundra is intended to depict Lex first obtaining Kryptonite. Lex continues to speak of Superman, questioning whether the alien could have brought deadly unknown diseases with him from Krypton, much as the conquistadors did to the new world. Lex adds that history will ultimately come to agree with his view of Superman.
In the two decades before Superman Returns, Lex had increasingly been characterized as fearful of Superman’s alien nature. Rather than simply being jealous of Superman, as the villain often appeared in the comics of the 1950s and 1960s, Lex Luthor has become prone to speeches about humanity needing to rely on itself rather than looking to the skies for an alien savior. Even Lex’s jealousy was modified from the pettiness he exhibited in the 1960s, during which his hatred of Superman was said to go back to Lex’s belief that Superboy caused Lex’s hair to fall out, to the jealousy of a brilliant if unscrupulous man who feels that, no matter his accomplishments, he will never compare with the alien who was simply born with great powers. These aspects of the Lex Luthor character have generally not been seen in the films, though they do appear to a degree in Superman Returns.
As the issue continues, it returns to the present, where Lex is examining news clippings of his attempt, in the 1978 film, to use a nuclear explosion to trigger the San Andreas fault line, sending the Californian coast into the ocean to create new waterfront property owned by Lex himself. Lex says that, in retrospect, this scheme was beneath him — though he seems proud of the scheme itself and reminisces about how he got to “play with nuclear missiles.” As Lex talks about how Superman ruined such a nice plan, we get a flashback panel shoing Luthor under arrest, in a suit before the news photographers.
Lex says that, at his first meeting with Superman, things could have gone differently: the two “could have been allies,” according to Lex. This triggers another flashback sequence, this one entirely retelling scenes from the 1978 film. The first two pages continue the earlier scene in which Superman broke into Lex’s suburban hideout. Lex tells Superman about his Californian real estate scheme. Instead of using a physical display on the floor, here Lex’s assistant (named Otis in the film) projects imagery ofCalifornia onto a screen. The dialogue is much abridged, but these changes do not alter the basic plot.
The next two pages continue the flashback, showing Superman chasing a nuclear missle but failng to stop it from hitting California and triggering the fault. As seen in the film, Superman flies underground and literally lifts the plates back into place. He then drops Lex and Otis off at a prison, asking the prison staff to hold the two until they can stand trial.
While all of this appears in the 1978 film, no mention is made of the second nuclear missile, which Superman stopped but that diverted him from stopping the missile sent to California. Lex does confess that telling his plans to Superman was a mistake “prompted by ego.” Lex adds that he failed because he did nt have “sufficient means” to deal with Superman. In the film, Luthor’s possession of Kryptonite was sufficient means, but he was betrayed by Miss Tessmacher, who made the hero promise to stop the diversionary missile first, since it was headed for a relative of hers. That betrayal is also not depicted, though again the basic plot remains.
As we return to the present, a guard is leading Luthor away from his cell. Luthor tells Stanford that he’ll see him soon. Another prisoner gives Luthor a sign through the bars as Luthor passes. Another prisoner simply watches him. Then a prisoner, who is leaning through the bars, gives Luthor a small wave as he passes. We see a scary clown face tattooed on the back of his bald head, and thus may identify him as Brutus, the henchman who plays the piano with Jason in the film — before Jason kills him. Apparently, Brutus will be paroled or otherwise released between the conclusion of this issue and the opening of Superman Returns.
As he walks, Luthor continues his narration, blaming Superman for taking five years from his life because Superman incarcerated her. Luthor narrates how the hate he has nurtured will serve him well, should Superman ever return. As he’s led to the prison infirmary, his narration reveals that this is his last day in prison and that he refuses to ever return.
The infirmary scene that follows provides great insight into Luthor’s relationship with Kitty, his female sidekick in the film. Kitty, whose full name is Katherine Kowalski, is apparently a prison doctor. When she asks what he’s thinking about and he says Superman, she complains that that’s all he ever thinks about — instead of her. She recounts how he reads, writes journals, lifts weights, and thinks about Superman — a routine without room for her.
As she takes off his orange prison shift for his departing medical exam, there’s more than a hint of sexuality between them: doctors usually let patients take off their own shirts, after all. There’s a tenderness in her administering of the blood pressure test, and she tenderly touches his wrist afterwards — though the image is ambiguous in terms of special depth, and she could just as easily be touching his crotch.
A knock on the door brings a prison guard with a box containing Luthor’s clothing. The guard leaves leaves, assuring Kitty that he’s right outside the door — a protection she’s quick to dismiss. Luthor notes the poor taste in his old lapels, then takes his toupé out of the box and puts it in the infirmary sink, dousing it with some chemical. He uses a match to light if ablaze, saying he’s “clensing” himself — as if shedding his skin like a snake. He asks her if she’s brought the suit she requested, and she has.
As he dresses in the clothes left in the box, Kitty seems disturbed and hesitant. He speaks to her with an authoritarian voice, saying that “this coyness is not one of your more attractive traits, Miss Kowalski.” She asks if he loves her — something she apparently does often. Acting put upon, Luthor recounts one of their early meetings, triggering another flashback.
Luthor is in the prison laundry room, amongst the huge metal vats cleaning clothes, pouring steam onto the scene. Another inmate apparently tried “to extort something” from Luthor — perhaps a reference to an attempt at forced sex. Luthor kills the inmate with a shiv, a handmade knife, but Kitty walks in, observing the scene. Luthor threatened her with his knife, but Kitty quickly said that she wouldn’t tell, adding, “I’m your biggest fan.”
Luthor’s anger is apparent as he holds the knife to Kitty’s throat. He narrates how he had an “unblemished” record in prison, indicating that this was his first prison murder. But Luthor’s anger turns to lust as he smells her hair, accompanied by Luthor’s narration that “it had been a long time.” Kitty seals the deal with her words, telling him that she knows someone on the outside who he should meet — an old-fashioned woman to whom he should write a letter.
It’s a telling scene in terms of what it reveals about Luthor’s situation. Not only does it show how Kitty became Luthor’s confidant, but the “old-fashioned woman” is obviously the widow seen at the beginning of Superman Returns and later in this comic. The fact that Kitty knows her may suggest that she holds two jobs, the other being her role as maid to the widow Gertrude — a role seen briefly in the opening of Superman Returns. The film provided little in terms of background to either Luthor’s crucial relashionship with the widow, nor with Kitty, and so this scene is particularly important for the comic’s role as a prequel.
That Luthor had sex with Kitty after the flashback’s conclusion is made clear enough as we return to the present. Kitty asks about the first day they met, indicating that they had met — obviously in more innocent circumstances — prior to Kitty’s appearance in the flashback. Luthor responds to Kitty by saying that “the laundry memory has so much more… passion.” He calls her Kitty, and she responds by saying that her name is Katherine — apparently, she doesn’t prefer the diminutive, which Luthor uses but which may be seen as objectifying her, not only along the lines of Playboy’s bunnies but also because “kitty” is close to “pussy.”
A guard enters, this time without knocking, to inform Luthor that his ride has arrived. Luthor’s apparently put on his suit (which Kitty brought) while narrating the flashback, and he leaves Kitty, calling her Kitty again — this time consciously against her wishes.
As the suited Luthor walks out of the prison, he narrates again how he’s lost five years in prison because of Superman — a fact he cannot forget. He thinks about how Superman promised people home and then abandoned them. We see Superman hovering in the sky, as if watching Luthor get out of prison, though we’re inclined to believe this Luthor’s imagination because we know that Superman had not returned at this point.
As Luthor nears the exit, the elderly widow — Gertrude — is waiting for him. She has an oxygen mask on, one of her dogs with her, and a man accompanying her. Luthor consciously fakes concern and rushes to her, getting on his knees to speak to her. He says that he’s “dying” without her and asks her to take him “home” — to her mansion, no doubt.
As he wheels her to the limousine waiting outside, he plays up his suffering inside — “the grotesque living conditions” — and thanks her for rescuing him, even as he narrates that she’s an “old bag.” Kitty watches from a window as Luthor narrates that he’s “been rescued by a wrinkled sack of old bones,” something he regards as “pathetic.” But he takes a long view, focusing on seizing opportunity.
On the last page, he wonders if a man can “come back after five years.” Yes, he answers, when that man is Lex Luthor — an obvious dig at Superman. This narration not only plays up how both Luthor and Superman return after five years, but how Luthor considers himself superior.
In Superman comics in the last two decades, Luthor’s sense of superiority has increasingly stemmed from his sense of having struggled, as opposed to the ease Superman experiences due to his powers. Luthor may well feel that his own return came from hard work, even if a good amount of that work involved conning and manipulating people. On the other hand, all Superman had to do to return was fly back.
It’s a good issue, and its relevance as a prequel is increased by the relative absence in the film of information on Luthor’s activities during the five-year gap. Superman Returns doesn’t spend time establishing Luthor’s relationship with Kitty any more than the 1978 original established Luthor’s relationship with his girl sidekick in that film, who similarly ended up sympathizing with Superman. The widow Gertrude is introduced only as she dies, and details about Luthor’s relationship with her are scarce. Thus, this particular prequel chapter does, to some significant degree, fill a hole in the background of the film.
On the other hand, there seems to be a significant gap between this issue and the opening of Superman Returns. Luthor has a wedding ring in the film, and must have wedded Gertrude sometime after this prequel’s conclusion. Similarly, Kitty seems to have quit the prison job shown here, allowing her to spend time with Luthor full time. Whether Kitty held the job as maid to Gertrude all along remains unseen. Likewise, Luthor’s henchmen, some of which are clearly seen in prison in this issue (including Stanford and Brutus), must have been released during this time.
The scripting of this issue, by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, is certainly capable, leaving the action clear and avoiding confusion. We can only speculate that the story provided by Singer, Dougherty, and Harris did not include the scenes missing between this issue and he beginning of Superman Returns.
The artwork, by penciler Rick Leonardi and the inker named Nelson, is a bit more comic-booky than the other issues in the series. Figures are slightly exaggerated, and the overall style is less realistic than past issues. But the artists do a good job of conveying the action, and the story certainly reads well visually.