Alexander Joseph Luthor is a self-made man. His father was an abusive alcoholic who often took out his anger on young Lex and his sister Lena. Unlike his father who had trouble holding down a job, Lex was cunning, with a natural talent for manipulation and a scientific mind years ahead of his age. Lex felt stifled by those around him, angry that they were unable to keep up with his science or understand his desperate desire to leave Smallville and be part of a larger world. Only Clark Kent, a boy who was a few years younger, seemed to ever understand Lex and occasionally offer him any kind of friendship.
After arranging for his father to die, he used the man’s life insurance policy to leave Smallville and travel. Luthor’s life led him to many vile teachers. He studied under the centuries old terrorist Ra’s al Ghul, the same man who would become one of the Batman’s arch-enemies. For a time, he worked under Bruno Manheim, the mobster in charge of Intergang. Briefly, Lex worked on the planet Apokolips, studying the advanced technology of the New Gods before attempting to kill his “master”, the demonic and nearly-immortal Darkseid. After being thrown off of Apokolips and returned to Earth, the alien technology he copied, added with his own ingenious inventions, gave Lex a small fortune and he began a company in Metropolis that would become LexCorp.
As an adult, Lex was hailed as one of the richest men in the world and the most powerful man in Metropolis. And then “the alien” came. Superman’s appearance caused people to be inspired by someone else. What’s worse, Superman disrupted many of Luthor’s criminal operations and refused to be threatened, defeated or bought off. Envy and hatred mixed in Luthor and he convinced himself that he needed to destroy the Last Son of Krypton, that people needed to be inspired by a self-made man whose greatest power was his intellect and that hero-worshiping an alien actually hindered human progress. Over the years, he’s dedicated many operations to try and destroy Superman, while also making sure to acquire greater power by any means necessary.
For a time, Luthor served as the President of the United States. But newspaper articles by Clark Kent and Lois Lane proved to the world that he was a criminal not to be trusted and a hostile takeover by Wayne Enterprises took away much of his fortune and influence. After attempts to win back public trust, Luthor dropped the facade and now openly operates as a would-be world conqueror. Whether he’s fighting superheroes directly with his high-tech “warsuit” or whether he’s manipulating people and events from behind the scenes, Lex Luthor is one of the most dangerous people alive.
So that’s the basics. Here are the different styles he’s employed over the years. As usual, we’re sticking with mainstream DC Comics continuity for the most part here. No Earth-3, Anti-Matter Earth, Elseworlds or “imaginary stories.” Those can get their own theme columns later.
GOLDEN AGE LUTHOR
When our villain first appeared in Action Comics #23 in April, 1940, he called himself simply “Luthor” but whether this was his first name or last was not revealed. He was clearly a brilliant man, adept at manipulating people on a large scale and also at creating incredibly advanced technology. In this first adventure, his initial goal was to manipulate major countries of the world to war with each other and then pick up the pieces. Since World War II had just started, this didn’t seem like too far out an idea, making our boy much scarier.
When they first met, Superman found Luthor dressed in robes and seated on a throne, surrounded by loyal followers and agents. This definitely let us know his intentions, while also associating him with the image of someone who commands a cult or secret society. It’s simple but effective. Luthor wasn’t married to one outfit, though. He quickly ditched the robes and strutted about in a purple jumpsuit.
And so it went on. The two would meet and the redheaded mad scientist and would-be conqueror would either wear a suit and tie or an all-purpose jumpsuit. The colors would alter but usually it was one solid theme. Luthor was becoming one of Superman’s greatest enemies, but he was not a super-villain per se. And his lack of a costume put him in contrast to the colorful champion he had decided was his enemy.
It’s not necessary for villains to be dressed in direct contrast to the heroes they fight, but it definitely works with arch-enemies and personal enemies and Luthor was becoming both. Along with his repeated attacks on Superman, he now seemed to have a new goal of proving that his intellect could defeat any alien powers the Kryptonian possessed. Starting with their second encounter, he openly met Superman and challenged him to different, deadly competitions, determined to prove his superiority before making new efforts to conquer Earth. And at times, he was able to effectively create devices that could actually hurt Superman, not an easy thing to do. In his desire to humiliate the super-power alien and show that all he needed was human intellect, it makes sense that Luthor would dress like just another human being.
A couple of months after his debut, Luthor then appeared in the Superman daily newspaper comic strip, but was depicted as an overweight, bald man rather than a thin, middle-aged man with red hair. This was a screw up by the newspaper strip artist, either because he confused one of Luthor’s bald henchmen for being the scientist or because he confused the villain with the Ultra-Humanite, another mad scientist Superman had faced in the comics who, indeed had been bald.
Back in the comics, Luthor had another couple adventures as a red-haired guy, but by 1941 he was depicted the heavier, bald man that many more people had become familiar with via the newspapers. Despite this change in physical appearance, Luthor continued his dressing habit of switching between jumpsuits, lab coats or simple suits and ties, with the latter style becoming more and more popular.
In one adventure, this new bald version of Luthor decided to go back to the robed look, appearing more like a super-villain. This actually worked in the context of the story, since Luthor temporarily gained superhuman abilities in Action Comics #47. By treating his body with electricity, he gained superhuman strength and the ability to discharge electrical force powerful enough to stun even Superman. Being the greedy guy that he is, this wasn’t enough for Luthor and he attempted to force the Man of Steel into bringing him the Powerstone, an object that would make him an equal to the Kryptonian. But Superman tricked him and took the villain down.
During the late 1940s and the 1950s, Luthor seemed less like a mad scientist and more like a con-man constantly after money and power who happened to be quite clever with making wild machines and creations from time to time. On several occasions, he teamed-up with the Prankster and the Toyman, even the 5th-dimensional imp Mxyzptlk, all of whom were mischief-makers rather than true villains.
This depiction carried into his first live-action interpretation in the theatrical release Atom Man Vs. Superman. There, he sported a black business suit and, occasionally, a lab coat. So as far as TV viewers and newspaper readers were concerned now, Luthor was and always had been a slightly overweight bald guy. In fact, in one time travel adventure during the 1950s, a teenage Clark Kent and Robin encountered a “young Luthor” who had dark hair and was already balding.
CALL HIM “LEX”
In 1960, twenty years after his first appearance, Luthor finally got a first name. Alexander or “Lex” for short. In that same story, we learned that he had grown up in Smallville and had Clark Kent, who was apparently a few years younger than him. Teenage Lex Luthor was depicted with light brown hair and we discovered that he lost it due to a tragic lab accident that also destroyed a successful creation of artificial life.
Luthor blamed both the loss of his hair and the loss of this one-of-a-kind experiment on the teenage Kryptonian, despite the fact that young Kal-El had acted to save the teen genius’s life. When they depicted this event in later comics, artists gave Lex red hair again just like his Golden Age incarnation.
When depicted as a younger criminal in Smallville, Lex tended to wear a simple shirt and slacks. But the adult Luthor (who was slimmed down to a man of fair to athletic build) now most often appeared in a prison uniform, usually one that was gray in color. Sometimes it was colored purple.
Superman would always defeat him and he would always go to jail, but then he would figure out a way to escape and as soon as that happened he never wasted time on a wardrobe change. He’d go directly from the prison walls to a hidden lab or some other new base of operations where he could begin anew. That makes some sense, but it gave Luthor a very drab look and seemed to make him a little too common in his appearance.
If he were just a con-artist, this wouldn’t be as big a deal, but in the 1960s there was a much stronger emphasis again on Luthor being a scientist of incredible ability. And personally, it seemed very odd to me that Luthor seemed to not wear socks often when he was in his prison outfit. Wasn’t he afraid of sweaty foot smell in his shoes?
BRING ON THE COSTUMES!
Sometimes, Luthor wound up wearing a funky outfit for one reason or another. One time, he wore this bizarre robotic suit to help him take down Superman. And another time, Luthor took on the identity of a costumed hero similar to his greatest enemy.
During an adventure in space, Luthor had wound up protecting a race of people who resembled humans but had much greater technology. Seeing Lex as their savior, these people renamed their world Lexor. During a later trip to Lexor, our boy decided to use the planet’s advanced technology to become a superhero himself, one who would then challenge Superman (who was hated by the Lexorians).
In this identity, Luthor called himself “the Defender.” But this outfit is just further proof that Lex didn’t have the best fashion sense. The red and purple colors don’t work too well together in this arrangement. Unlike Superman’s famous S-shield, there’s no graphic impact with a simple letter D in a white circle. The black area that grows from the chest and expands into shorts just seems odd. And the black areas around the eyes on the headpiece give him a strange, villainous look. Which would be fine, except that he’s trying to play the part of a hero rather than trying to intimidate the public.
Eventually, Luthor got himself a regular super-villain outfit. And man, what a doozy. Okay, first what does it do right? Well, purple and green are classic super-villain colors, especially when your enemy is dressed in red and blue. So that’s understandable. We’ve got lots of miniaturized, high-tech gear hidden away in the gloves, the boots and on those shirt straps. And the belt and straps can also be used to carry weapons, so that’s handy. This outfit definitely has a lot of utilitarian value and the fact that it has so much high-tech weaponry is visual proof of Luthor’s intelligence.
But that collar. Wow. That is definitely a sign of the times that does not hold up just a few years later. It really gives off the sense that Luthor is some swinging party guy or is in charge of a great super-villain dance club. And the fact that many artists drew it as having green shorts fitted over green pants, what’s that about? If they’re the same color, why bother having them as separate pieces?
And then there are the boots. I really think this would look better if the boots were black rather than matching the shirt. By doing that, and removing the collar, you could make this a snazzy all-purpose outfit rather than a super-villain costume that looks like it’s missing a mask or cape. This outfit also works better if you tone done the shirt and make sure it’s a dark or even dull purple rather than lavender or fuchsia. Color tone is very important!
After repeated defeats by Superman, Luthor decided maybe it was time to reassess his life. He went back to his wife on the planet Lexor, finding out he had a son too. Lex, his wife Ardora and little Lex, Jr. began to live a peaceful life. During this time, Luthor sported a few fashionable and purple outfits, such as this purple robe and green suit he wore regularly. It’s not a bad outfit actually, a mix between his super-villain jumpsuit and his initial world conqueror threads. Shrink the shoulder padding and tweak the cut of the suit and this could be a cool look.
But despite the adoration of the entire planet, Luthor was obsessed with the fact that he had never defeated or killed Superman. How could he enjoy happiness when he knew that light-years away, Superman was also enjoying life? The solution came when he discovered a hidden lab filled with technology left by an ancient, highly advanced civilization of Lexor that had disappeared. And with this super-technology, he built himself a high-tech warsuit that debuted in Action Comics #544 in 1983.
The idea at this time was to totally revamp Superman’s two arch-enemies to make them more fearsome in appearance and add to their firepower so they could truly have hand-to-hand combat with the Kryptonian. So in the same issue, Brainiac got a serious upgrade. This armor of Luthor’s allowed him greater flight, interplanetary travel, was resistant to Superman’s strength, and had incredible destructive weaponry that could level a city.
On the whole, this armor is pretty cool. It’s bulky but that implies power. It’s high tech but also resembles old world armor in a way, emphasizing that this isn’t some life-support suit or space suit, this is a WARsuit. The chest symbol seems a bit strange. Some alien design? The one major weakness of this armor is when it comes to the neck and head. Luthor look as if he’d be unable to turn his head in this thing. And even if he could, he wouldn’t be able to see anything to the side or behind him. Even if you have high-tech sensors and radar, seems like a bad idea to cut down peripheral vision.
Along with the new look came a darker attitude. Luthor tested out his new armor’s abilities by committing terrorist acts on Lexor. After luring Superman to the planet for a final showdown, Luthor revealed this to the population, losing their adoration in the process. But then, during his fight with the Man of Steel, Luthor accidentally set off a machine that he’d been using to stabilize the planet’s core. As a result, Lexor blew up just like Krypton had decades before. Losing his wife and child, Lex blamed the entire tragedy on Superman and renewed his quest to destroy the hero.
In the mid-1980’s, DC Comic had a huge crossover to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The story was called Crisis on Infinite Earths and the ending involved the history of reality being rearranged and altered. DC used this as an excuse to revise some of its continuity and reinterpret certain characters that writers felt needed to be overhauled in order to remain relevant. Lex Luthor was a target of this and so we got a reimagined version of him starting in 1986 in the mini-series Man of Steel.
As reinterpreted by writers Marv Wolfman and John Byrne, Lex Luthor was now not a mad scientist who repeatedly found himself in prison only to escape again. Nor did he have a warsuit to help him fight Superman toe-to-toe. Now he was what the 1980s saw as one of the ultimate evils of American society: the corrupt businessman. Unlike previous stories and interpretations when he was really a con-man pretending to be an entrepreneur, Luthor was now one of the richest men in the world and didn’t invent stuff himself. He had lots of highly paid scientists to do that for him. Along with being an international businessman, Luthor secretly orchestrated many criminal operations, occasionally allowing certain people to know he was responsible but always ensuring that no one could prove his involvement in a court of law.
As such, we see resembles his later Golden Age incarnation, but now with far more expensive power suits. It’s simple and effective. He was also aged again, now depicted to be about 15 years Superman’s senior. Many fans applauded this, while others felt that his appearance and new role made him resemble Marvel’s famous Kingpin of Crime, a constant enemy of Daredevil and Spider-Man.
On occasion, we saw that some of Luthor’s operatives used armored exo-skeletons similar to the Pre-Crisis warsuit. Luthor didn’t wear these suits himself, of course. He didn’t want to get his hands dirty.
To keep Superman at bay, Luthor wore a Kryptonite ring, unaware that prolonged exposure to its radiation would affect a human being. Too late, Luthor realized the ring had caused cancer to develop in his body. Rather than accept death, Luthor set up a whole new life for himself. He faked his death and then had his brain transplanted into a new body cloned from his own cells, a body that would be younger, taller, more athletic, and with a full head of hair.
In this new form, Lex pretended to be his own illegitimate son Lex Luthor II. Thus, he was no longer directly connected to any of his former crimes and had a new air of innocence in the public eye. He even armored up once or twice to work with his high-tech security force Team Luthor. Not bad armor, but also nothing particularly interesting about it.
Sadly, the clone body began to degenerate. Luthor found himself aging, losing his hair. Thanks to making a deal with the demon lord Neron, he regained his full health, but alas, was bald again. The world now knew that this was Lex Luthor the first and only and he went back to his old power suits. But now that we had a bald Luthor who was also athletic and younger looking, it made him just a bit more fearsome.
He seemed now like someone who definitely had the energy and drive to take on Superman rather than an overweight man who was past his prime. But again, we had him back to wearing business suits and occasionally a lab coat when he was experimenting. Nothing particularly interesting or cool about his fashion. Just a bald rich guy.
THE NEW WARSUIT
Luthor was riding high. He beat any and all criminal charges that came his way. He gained the office of President of the United States. But this still wasn’t enough for him. Once Kryptonite had given him cancer but Luthor was determined to conquer it and prove himself master of the radioactive ore. Diluting it into a liquid form and mixing it with the super-strength drug called Venom (which had empowered Batman’s enemy Bane), Luthor created a new chemical substance that enhanced his physicality. He then used technology from Apokolips to aid him in creating a high-tech warsuit to finally take on Superman by himself. With the chemical lowering his inhibitions, he’d decided he was sick of sending weapons, robots, cyborgs and super-villains after the alien. He’d finish the job himself.
So, we got our re-imagined warsuit in 2004, presented in the pages of the new Superman/Batman comic book series. This takes a lot from the old suit, but has noticeably difference. We’ve lost the form of the old suit and the sash. So there’s no longer an influence of old battle armor, this is now very much a product of modern times. The way Ed McGuinness first drew it in Superman/Batman, the suit is so large and bulky it emphasizes that this is a technological exo-frame more than armor. It’s rather like a mecha on a small scale.
And while that collar is a bit large for my tastes, the “L” designs on it are a cute thing. Lex Luthor is exactly the kind of ego-maniac who would stamp his initials on his armor just in case you confused him with some other bald maniac wearing a high-tech warsuit with Kryptonite weaponry.
I also dig the new power gauntlet. Each finger holds a sample of different types of Kryptonite. Green, Red, Blue, Gold, Black. A truly deadly connection. If you didn’t know there were different types of Kryptonite, it’s actually quite simple. Green-K is radioactive but only extreme or prolonged exposure will affect human, whereas a Kryptonian will immediately began to be poisoned, suffering great pain and slowly losing their powers as the minutes go on. Red causes unpredictable physical and/or psychological transformations for 24-48 hours. Blue affects Superman’s imperfect duplicate Bizarro and all related creatures. Black causes your dark side and base desires to be given physical form (and this version of Kryptonite was evidently created by Darkseid, who loves corrupting people). And Gold-K immediately shuts down a Kryptonian’s superpowers for 15 seconds.
When Luthor later showed up with this armor in other comics, some artists made the arms and leg pieces more form-fitting but otherwise it was still a suit that said “weight” and “power” just by looking at it. The collar was also altered to cut down any vision blockage that might occur.
The warsuit wasn’t the only Pre-Crisis element that returned into Lex Luthor’s life. By the time the warsuit came along, different writers had been bringing back the idea that Luthor was an incredible scientist in his own right, not just someone who left the high-tech R&D to his employees. Then, Mark Waid’s epic story Superman: Birthright re-established that Luthor was only about four or five years older than Clark Kent and that they had met when they’d both lived in Smallville. Waid showed that the two had shared a strange friendship, both feeling like strangers in a strange land, both looking to the stars for answers and feeling that they had a higher purpose in life.
Luthor’s armor got pretty messed up during the crossover Infinite Crisis. When he showed up again in the pages of Justice League of America, now part of a new gang of villains jokingly called Injustice League Unlimited, he had developed a new suit. This armor was sleeker, with smooth, rounded parts everywhere. It indicates an update to the technology. Lex may not look as powerful or as strong as he did in the bulkier suit, but he definitely seems more maneuverable now. It’s a bit similar to the evolution of Iron Man, where his armor has often gotten sleeker and more form-fitting over the years as he enhances the tech and figures out how to miniaturize what he needs.
During the story Blackest Night, Lex Luthor was given an orange power ring, able to access the universal energies of avarice. Just as Green Lantern rings and other power rings immediately give their bearers a new suit, Luthor found his armor altered by the orange ring. This is a fun version of the armor. The orange lantern chest symbol seems to extend over the whole suit with the line work. And we’ve gotten a return of the Pre-Crisis armor sash.
Most recently, Luthor has sported yet another version of his warsuit. This is a nice mixture of bulk and maneuverability. We can buy that Lex can move in this thing without knocking over any and all objects around him, but he also looks hefty enough and weighed down by enough pieces and utilities that we can believe this would let him fight Superman and other super-powered enemies. And the redesigned chest plate now truly looks like a power source rather than just a simple decoration. Very nice.
And that brings us to a close. But join us next time as we look at how Luthor’s been interpreted in other media! And we’ll take a look at a certain heroic version of Luthor from another reality. Until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off.
Alan Kistler writes the comic book history/fashion column Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. He is an actor and freelance writer living in New York who has been recognized by Warner Bros. Films and major media/news outlets as a comic book historian. He is also the creator/host of the web-show “Crazy Sexy Geeks: The Series.” He knows entirely too much about the history of comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who, time travel, and vampires that don’t sparkle.