Lex Luthor continues to hold dominion over DC’s most venerable ongoing series, Action Comics. The decision to spotlight Luthor was an inspired one. Superman continues to be mired in J. Michael Straczynski’s “Grounded” and his absence made way for one of the title’s most memorable runs in many moons, a run filled with expert character work, witty dialogue and finely tuned pacing. All of this has been expertly crafted by writer Paul Cornell and artist Pete Woods. Now several issue into their run, begun in #890, what makes this particular one stand out?
Well, the gist of the entire arc is that Lex Luthor is on a quest for a source of mysterious energy, holdovers from Blackest Night dubbed “black spheres”. With these foci of power, Luthor intends to secure his spot as the baddest of the bad. Along the way, however, he must contend with a veritable who’s who or rogue’s gallery if you will, of DC villains looking to either help, hinder or hurt the machinations of Lex. Nevertheless, this issue features a clash, light on action but big on tension, between two of comics’ most iconic villains of all time, Lex Luthor and the Joker.
Both characters have long and storied histories, providing depth through their multiple interpretations. Luthor has evolved from a simple mad scientist, to an unscrupulous businessman and into the ultimate villainous powerbroker. Along the way he has had acting greats, such as Gene Hackman, Clancy Brown, Michael Rosenbaum and Kevin Spacey, portray him on screens both large and small in different forms of conception.
Joker, too, has a long progression from gimmicky clown thug, then laughing trickster, towards becoming something akin to the boogeyman. Performances of this character range from the quirky, Jack Nicholson, to the unhinged, Mark Hamill, to the laughable, Cesar Romero, and finally to the chilling Heath Ledger.
These two arguably are the most recognizable villains in all comics, known worldwide to even non-comicbook aficionados. However, despite prior team-ups and a long association of reciprocal villainy, complete with backstabs and double crosses, these two stand as complete opposites. Cornell does an excellent job of showcasing this trait in Action Comics #897 through an interrogation scene that demonstrates who truly stands in opposition to each other.
Saying Batman has his Joker and Superman his Lex Luthor is surmising that each force has an equal and opposite reaction. This is true to an extent. But I wager that these two oppositions are not the polar opposites that people usually view them as. Batman is a coolly logical being in contrast to the Joker’s cackling mania. However, both are creatures that thrive on fear. The Joker’s schemes point towards a latent genius and Batman’s own mental health often casts doubt on whether he should be running around the streets or locked up in Arkham.
Superman and Lex Luthor also display a certain similarity. Despite the egalitarian and altruistic nature of Superman, both he and Luthor are convinced that they exist in a rational world. Superman has an unwavering belief in reason and logic, detesting insensible wastes of life and violence. Lex Luthor abides by this belief in a rational world despite his ambitions to rule due to his devotion towards scientific pursuits. Their personas, too, are highly visible. Luthor’s hubris often demands he receives due attention while Superman garners headlines through his sheer presence.
I postulate that Lex Luthor and the Joker, as Cornell highlights, are more fitting adversaries because they operate on opposite ends of the spectrum. The interrogation between the pair is a game of cat and mouse, Luthor pumping his opposite for information while the Joker, in turn, toys with his “guest”. The reader never truly knows who is examining who. Tables are turned and revelations are procured.
The end result is a scintillating look at the avatar of cold science and hard logic in contrast to madness, misery and capriciousness incarnate. This boils down to one of the best exchanges in the issue and one of my all time favorites between the two.
Luthor: “Tell me what you know, and you can have what you want. Your freedom? I can arrange that.”
Joker: “My ‘freedom’?!—My only ‘freedom’ – would be to feel like you. Like the world could be made right.”
Luthor: “The world can be made right. I’m nearly there.”
Joker: “Like chaos never happened. What a Renaissance man you are.”
If you’re looking for each character’s polar opposite, don’t turn towards their arch nemesis, look at their erstwhile partner in the world of super villainy.