Thursday, January 14, 2010

Review: Adventure Comics #6

Adventure Comics #6

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Francis Manapul
Colorist: Brian Buccellato
Released: January 13, 2009

The dynamic between Superman and Lex Luthor is one of Good vs. Evil. For their relationship to be this black and white, both characters would have to fit these molds perfectly. Superman seems to be the epitome of truth and justice, always operating from a perspective of fairness. From his beginnings Superman was the avenger and protector of the working-class, the poor and down-trodden, pummeling away at the rich fat-cat white collars, corrupt bankers, and bought politicians. As the comics medium grew, and so too, his powers, Superman's enemies became intergalactic and universal threats, foes seemingly worthy of his almighty powers. Superman became a god walking on Earth and needed adversaries that could match or even exceed him. Enter Brainiac, Darkseid, Mongul, and the like. But the top of this list, the very peak of this villainous mountain-top remains one being; the man known as Lex Luthor.

So, if Superman is the Good of our equation, and he fits that half of the act seamlessly, then Lex must fit the Evil half as readily, as well. There must be no gray area with Luthor, no moment where we feel empathy for him, potentially even understand his motives. He must be evil, incarnate. Adventure Comics #6 goes a long way to proving this theory. We are treated to a Luthor who is the epitome of arrogance, who subscribes to his own sense of superiority so wholeheartedly, that it allows him to act with unimpeded cruelty. He can place a loaded gun against the head of his own niece as easily as take a sip of tea, and never will he feel unjustified in any and all of his actions. He is completely Superman's opposite. Superman is the God who walks with man, who seeks to understand humanity, who lives as a man with a nine-to-five job and a wife. He seeks not to subjugate, never to rule, never to lord, never to be seen as a God, only a light of hope. Lex Luthor is a man who sees himself as a God, with the power to heal, to save, to cure, and to also do none of those things if he feels slighted. He is a man playing the role of the malevolent and fickle God who plays with life out of sheer spectacle and force of his own power.

Like any god, Luthor wishes to be the people's only God, and so his hatred of Superman is simple; he hates him because he exists. All dictators and rulers throughout history have destroyed those they saw as threats to their power. Zeus killed all of the sons that were bore to him for fear they would grow to overthrow their father. Luthor claims to want to save humanity, to cure hunger and disease, and to bring peace to the world, but the price must be absolute worship. Humanity must accept him as their one and only true savior. There is no room on the mountaintop for anyone else. Only one cross can hang in everyone's living room.

What allows Lex Luthor to stand out as the absolute high-water mark of villainy in the Superman Universe is his humanity. Lex is a man, not some Fourth World god or intergalactic demon or brain interactive concept floating around space. He is a man and a villain we, unfortunately, recognize, because we see Lex Luthor everyday in our world, in our history books and in our newspapers. From the tyrannical leaders of the ancient worlds, such as the Ceasars of Rome or Khans of the East, to the modern empire builders of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, and on up to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, history is scattered with the men who saw themselves as ultimate rulers who held the key to peace and prosperity, if only they could be allowed to rule absolutely. If warfare and genocide were part of the package, so be it, for that was the cost of doing business if humanity was to see its way towards true order. There is nothing Luthor will not do to bring himself to absolute power. Murder is nothing. Pain, cruelty, the destruction of lives, the crushing of hopes. The cost of doing business.

This issue displays Luthor for the horrific man he truly is. When faced with the opportunity to use his intellectual gifts to cure his own sister from a severely debilitating ailment that has escaped proper diagnosis and therefore left medical science with only shots in the dark, he does so. He produces a cure from a long list of rare ingredients that he forces Superboy to procure for him. He cure his sister, allowing her to walk once more, to talk once more, to hold her daughter in her arms. Then, he takes it away. He destroys his own work, and leaves his sister once again crippled and ill. The demonstration of power, of superior intellect was all that mattered. It was never his intention to cure his sister, to end her suffering. She was merely the rabbit he pulled out of his top hat to show the audience that it could be done. Trick over, the rabbit is useless.

This is a surprisingly sad story to be wrapped in such a bright and colorful package, complete with whimsical cover of Superboy and Krypto the Super-Dog being chased by a Tyrannosaurus Rex, Superboy yelling out "Wait for me!" in retro-cover word balloon. This is Adventure Comics, after all, and yet the bulk of the story takes place in a broken-down kitchen in a small family home. Geoff Johns manages to bring the adventure in small moments, single panels of playfulness where we see Superboy in Atlantis or Paradise Island collecting ingredients for this secret cure. He balances this with the stronger moments of the book, the intimate moments back in the family kitchen where we are shown glimpses of Luthors compassion, glimpses that turn out to be false ghosts. Key to all of this is Francis Manapul who provides stunning art and layouts for this issue. There are no trapezoidal panels, no overlapping oblong shapes, only simple squares and rectangles laid out in a careful sequence, bordered by clean white. The action and emotion is allowed room to breathe, and we are allowed to be carried along with it, without the distractions of confusing panel flow. Manapul's choices are all spot-on as he shows us the pregnant stillness of the moment through leaves being crushed into hot water; the unbridled joy of a daughter's love for her newly cured mother in her bright, expressive eyes; and the smugness in the furrowed brow of a megalomanic who wields the power to save like it's a weapon.

It has long been alluded to in the comics that Lex Luthor could do just this very thing, that he could cure disease and truly save humanity, if only he would put aside his petty jealousy, his anger, his incredibly inflated ego, and stop wasting his talents on the goal of destroying Superman. In Adventure Comics #6, we are shown explicitly that this is, in fact, true, and it becomes all the more heartbreaking. All these years, all the suffering that could have been alleviated, all the death that could have been avoided, all the pain that could have been healed, is shown to us in one small intimate story. He has held the power to save and has chosen not to use it. To hold the cure for a disease and to not share that with a suffering world, is to participate in genocide as explicitly as any maniacal ruler in history. This is what makes Luthor the most horrifying villain of all, more so than Brainiac or Mongul. Those characters are aliens, figments of imagination, products of sci-fi hallucinations. Luthor is Pol Pot is Saddam Hussein is Genghis Khan. He is pure Evil, and only pure Good will defeat him.

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