What if Superman’s much vaunted love for humanity were only a front? What if he went bad? What if being an alien, he had a weird alien agenda that required being good for now, but which might have a much less beneficial purpose? These are among the fears that are confronted head on by Lex Luthor in this story. Now, an optimist might say that Superman has been pretty good thus far, but Luthor is no optimist. He is convinced that Superman is not all good, simply because he is alien, and hence unknowable. Moreover, he poses a greater threat, in that his sheer excellence and superiority tells humanity that they can aspire no further: Superman will always be above them. Thus Luthor sets out to create an environment in which people will be encouraged to develop to exceed even Superman, and to need no man in red and blue to protect them.
This, at least, is what Luthor would like us to believe, and for the first three quarters of this story you might almost believe him. And then it turns around, and we see that his true purpose in all this is not to make humankind surpass itself, but simple to make more people, just one will do, hate Superman just as much as he does. And if, in the process, he has to kill people – lots of people – trample on people’s desires, love and aspirations, betray people who have trusted him, and create mayhem on a massive scale, well that’s all justified by the goal of making people hate Superman.
But here’s the interesting thing. Luthor accuses Superman of seeing us as mere ants, but what of Luthor? He protects people when he needs them, only to have them killed when he doesn’t. He happily sacrifices the lives of hundreds to make a point. That suggests that he doesn’t like or value people all that much either. But most damning is his treatment of the two women in his life. Mona, his assistant, who is clearly in love with him, he treats as if she were a machine, only to abruptly confront her with her love and inform her, with maximal hurtfulness, that it will never be returned. The other woman is (mild spoiler) not fully human, but he treats her as a human, eventually making love with her. And this, which should be the full revelation of her humanity, for what is more humanising than love, precedes immediately his coldly sending her to her death. For it isn’t death, you see: she is a thing to be controlled with a mouse-click. Philip K Dick always argued that humanity lay in actions not the body: in his story Human Is he contrasts a caring, empathic alien with a monstrous, egomaniacal human, and concludes that the alien is the truly human one. Luthor, it seems, would disagree. Then, Philip K Dick would no doubt see Luthor as the monstrous egomaniac. At the end, Luthor hopes that he is at least fully human. I doubt it.
So, a disturbing and powerful story which packs far more punch than its short length would suggest. It’s aided by a dark, almost noir art-style, with nearly everything seen in half-light, and in particular by the careful way that everything, even scenes with Superman where Luthor is not present, being seen from Luthor’s point-of-view.