There is an anonymous proverb that states the only three things that are certain in life are birth, death, and change. Within the realm of ongoing comic book narratives, these take the form of retcons, resurrections, and reboots. For the purposes of this weekly feature, retcons are elements added into a character’s history after the fact, resurrections are characters returning from death or some state of limbo, and reboots are wholesale changes to a character or characters canon (history, supporting casts, origin story, etc).
These changes, just like all stories, range from those that add definitive things that still stand with the characters to those that sometimes should best be forgotten. Except, they won’t be in this feature. Each week we’ll explore the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Retcons, Resurrections, and Reboots.
Lex Luthor and Superman. They’ve butted heads, been begrudging allies, and more within the decades that the characters have existed and been played off one another. They have a few things in common but are mostly very complete opposites in all respects. One thing they do share though is they’ve both cheated death and both did it around the same time in the ’90s.
While it’s very much remembered that Superman met his perceived end at the hands of Doomsday in the aptly named Death of Superman storyline in the 90s, Luthor himself had already escaped death itself at that point. It’s a pretty comic book-like tale that revolves around Kryptonite, cancer, clones, and an eventual deal with a demon/devil.
At this point, it’s an iconic scene or moment to see Lex Luthor gripping a hunk of Kryptonite or wearing a Kryptonite-infused ring, weakening Superman to the state of a normal human being. In the post Crisis on Infinite Earths semi-reboot, it was established that Luthor was inspired by the Kryptonite heart of Metallo and created his Kryptonite ring to make Superman weak in his presence. In Superman #19 (second volume) from John Byrne and John Beatty, it was established that prolonged exposure to Kryptonite causes cancer in humans. For Luthor, this led to cancer growing in his hand from the aforementioned ring he wore regularly, and even amputating the hand wasn’t enough as it had already spread through his body.
Here enters the clone, as Luthor has a brilliant idea to save his own life. In Action Comics #670 from Roger Stern and Bob McLeod, Luthor fakes his own death in a plane crash and then has his brain transferred to a new body. This isn’t an exact copy of his current older and heavier body (as he was redesigned for Byrne’s Man of Steel era), it’s a thinner and taller and much younger (and harrier) version of himself which leads to him returning to Metropolis and claiming to be his own previously unknown illegitimate son from Australia.
Still as duplicitous as always, Luthor arrives with the pretense that he’s a son just trying to do better than his father and wants to help. Because of his resemblance to the alternate reality Luthor that created her, he wins over the new protoplasmic Supergirl who falls in love with him. Still enamored with cloning, Luthor works with Cadmus labs to create a clone of Superman after the hero falls to Doomsday. Thus was born Kon-El/Connor Kent the ’90s Superboy who was ultimately revealed to have mixed Superman and Lex Luthor DNA.
To make a long story short, Luthor begins to have an issue where his clone body is deteriorating leading to hair loss and rapid aging, caused by a disease affecting clones. Lois Lane and Superman discover his clones and his true nature and expose him, which causes Luthor to unleash dormant Brainiac technology which destroys parts of the city. Eventually, he becomes a prisoner of his own body, full of rage and desires for vengeance. Here enters the demon lord Neron.
Offering various heroes and villains all kinds of things in exchange for their souls, as Neron was trying to claim a stake as a new Hell ruler (in Underworld Unleashed from Mark Waid and Howard Porter), Neron comes to Luthor with the same deal. Not believing in souls, Luthor easily takes the deal and is returned to a physical state similar to his cloned youth body but at his actual relative age and without hair again. The not-believed in soul that Luthor sold was returned to him once Neron was defeated, not that it changed him or his behavior much either way.
As for the previously mentioned attack on Metropolis, Luthor got to weasel his way out of punishment for that too. In Action Comics #737 Luthor submits to a trial and claims that all those actions were actually caused by a violent clone created by rogue scientists at Cadmus Labs who held the real Luthor hostage. Because he’s a rich powerful white man, Luthor of course is acquitted of all charges and returns to running his company with a new healthier lease on life that he uses to keep doing the same old Luthor-like stuff.
This one is interesting because it’s not fully a resurrection, but it counts in a way because Luthor was dying in his original body and was basically left for dead when the clone body also began to fail. We’ll call it a self-resurrection. As a concept, it’s very solidly a Luthor thing to do and in a way allowed creators a chance to reinvent the character to fit more in line with some of his media depictions and lean more away from the Donald Trump-esque route that Byrne had been shooting for with the Man of Steel reboot. That being said, the whole Supergirl manipulation thing is definitely some pretty skeevy gross stuff.
Hint For Next Week: Making deals with the devil definitely isn’t very responsible.