The Best Lex Luthor Appearances in Comics

The 2005 cover of "Lex Luthor: Man of Steel" featuring Luthor's menacing gaze

DC Comics 

Lex Luthor is the greatest of Superman's villains and a comic book icon for generations. His brain is more than a match for Superman's brawn, and he's crossed paths with every superhero in the DC universe.

Luthor has been many things over the years, growing and evolving just like his archenemy. He's been a mad scientist, a philanthropist, a businessman, a mass murderer, and the President of the United States. A timeline of Luthor's greatest comic book issues gives readers an understanding of this classic character.

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Action Comics #23 (1940)

Comic panel from "Action Comics #23" depicting a verbal clash between Luthor and Superman
DC Comics

Lex Luthor is arguably the most famous supervillain ever, but his beginnings were very humble. At first, he was just a generic mad scientist with plans to take over the world. "Action Comics #23" has the first appearance of Lex Luthor. Clark Kent and Lois Lane are doing some reporting in Eastern Europe. Suddenly, while investigating a European war, one of the peace negotiators is blown up and it turns out a mad genius named "Luthor" is trying to kill the peace negotiations. 

The story presents a very different version of Lex Luthor than we would later see, but the core of the character is here. Besides his full head of curly red hair, he's still Lex Luthor. His plan is nothing less than world domination to fuel his own massive ego. He describes himself as an ordinary man, but with the brain of a super-genius. He has scientific marvels. It's funny that he has a Bronx accent, though. It's a short story, but filled with the seeds of greatness.

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Adventure Comics #271 (1960)

Panel from "Adventure Comics #271" shows Luthor delivering an evil genius monologue
DC Comics

Until "Adventure Comics #271," the super-villain was only known as Luthor. This comic changed all that, and gives him a first name. A lot of characters in the early days of comic books have names with alliteration, so it's no surprise that both names start with the same letter.

In Smallville, a young Lex Luthor idolizes Superboy, but a freak lab accident leaves Luthor bald with an abiding hatred for Superman. The greatest thing about this story is that it feels so improbable. Lex and Superboy are best friends? The weakest part is the number of coincidences that drive the story.

Luthor's a new boy in town and happens to be driving a bulldozer. Just then a meteor of Kryptonite drops right in front of Superboy. Superboy says he's going to die, so Luthor pushes it into some quicksand which just happens to be a few feet away. The irony is that Luthor saves his greatest enemy!

In gratitude, Superboy builds him a lab. In gratitude for the lab, Lex makes a Kryptonite cure. When a fire starts, Superboy blows it out and accidentally blows acid on Lex. The most unrealistic thing is that after the accident, he transforms into Luthor. He uses his genius for evil immediately. His unreasonable and paranoid hatred of Superboy starts automatically. After that, his attempts to help the town almost destroy it thanks to his “carelessness." The irony of it all is great, so it's worth reading.

In the last sentence, Superboy wonders to himself if Luthor will be a “great scientist...or a criminal”. 

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Superman #149 (1961)

Four panels from "Superman #149," “The Death of Superman,” where Luthor bastes Supes with rays of Krypton
DC Comics

When Luthor develops a cure for cancer, it looks like he’s turned over a new leaf. But is it all a ruse to kill Superman? Even though the title of #149 is “The Death of Superman,” Clark Kent obviously isn't killed in this issue. It's classic comic book hyperbole to sell comics. This issue, written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Curt Swan,​ does say a lot about Luthor though.

First, he's a genius who casually cures cancer as part of a plot to kill Superman. Luthor has always been shown as a man with massive brain power. It's that intellect that makes him a challenge for Superman. He's always making complex plans against his enemy and is two steps ahead.

Second, he's willing to do anything. He'll even cure cancer for a chance to kill Superman. It's that drive to do evil that makes Lex Luthor so dangerous. He can't help going down the path of evil, no matter what he's doing. This is one of the greatest "Pre-Crisis" Lex Luthor stories, and should be read before any other. It perfectly sets the tone for the character.

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Superman #164 (1963)

Panel from "Superman #164" features a fist fight between the two enemies
DC Comics

Written by the great science-fiction writer Edmond Hamilton, penciled by Curt Swan and inked by George Klein, this comic is listed in "Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Volume 1, Superman vs. Lex Luthor." Here, Lex Luthor challenges Superman to a one-on-one fight without his superpowers on a planet with a red sun. When the people see Luthor in a positive light for bringing them lost technology, he becomes an unlikely hero.

While there are a number of stories where superman and Luthor fight, this is the most poignant. Luthor's scientific genius is in full force as he builds an escape vehicle from a prison stamp machine, and uses various ancient weapons with ease. This is one of the first stories to show that Luthor has a good side, as he begins to enjoy the praise that comes to him.

The final panel is the most touching as Luthor enjoys going back to prison for the first time.

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Superman #416 (1985)

Comic panel from "Superman #416" depicts Luthor in tears
DC Comics

Writer Elliot S. Maggin is a huge fan of physicist Albert Einstein, and "Superman #416" (penciled by Curt Swan, inked by Al Williamson, colored by Gene D'Angelo) is one of many stories that puts the genius at center stage.

Superman notices Lex Luthor breaks out of jail, and visits inexplicable locations every year on March 14, only to discover that even an evil mind like Luthor has a hero in Albert Einstein. The brilliant Maggin writes a wonderful cat and mouse game as Superman is forced to get inside the mind of Luthor. Once again we get to see that Luthor isn't a stereotypical villain as he sheds a tear for the only mind he's ever respected.

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Man of Steel #4 (1986)

Panel from "Man of Steel #4" depicts a swiftly-balding Luthor issuing threats to the Man of Steel

 DC Comics

While most of John Byrne’s retelling of the Superman mythos is long gone, his portrayal of Lex Luthor as a corrupt businessman has stood the test of time. The idea is credited to Marv Wolfman, who suggested Luthor become “the world’s richest man.”

In "Man of Steel #4," after Superman stops a hostage attempt on Lex Luthor’s yacht, he humiliates Luthor by arresting him for orchestrating it to lure him there. This single issue tells you everything you need to know about the new Luthor. He organizes a complicated scheme to publically buy Superman’s loyalty, showing his misunderstanding of the nature of heroism. Even though Superman has arrested Luthor hundreds of times in the comics, this time he promised it would the last time.

Luthor is no longer the mad scientist, but the power mad billionaire. That theme has set the standard for Luthor decades later. Luthor's final speech to Superman is one of the all-time greatest, and perfectly sets up their new rivalry.

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Man of Steel #5 (1986)

In two panels from Man of Steel #5, Luthor shows off his ability to speak multiple languages
DC Comics

When Lex Luthor tries to clone Superman in "Man of Steel #5," the result is an imperfect and bizarre clone that wreaks havoc across the city.

The story opens with a wonderful homage to Luthor's classic purple and green battle suit. The opening of the story sets up why Superman can’t just arrest this Luthor. He’s too smart and covers his tracks. While the new Luthor isn’t a scientific genius, he has a ton of mad scientists working for him.

While Bizarro in the comics is often bad by accident, the touching end of the story makes you wonder if the clone is that far off from Superman. While Luthor intended to create a villain, does Bizarro fit the bill?

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Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography (1989)

Panels from Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography (1989) portray Luthor deep in shadow
DC Comics

In the '80s, a book came out about a power-mad billionaire Lex Luthor. Coincidentally, the book cover is styled after Donald Trump's "The Art of the Deal." In "Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography," Clark Kent gets arrested when the body of a down and out alcoholic reporter named Peter Sands is discovered. It turns out the reporter was researching the philanthropic Lex Luthor, and uncovers the shockingly evil secrets of the man.

Written by James D. Hudnall, this is more of a crime story than a superhero story. Superman only shows up in one panel. But it's a wonderful exploration of the good old Lex. It's controversial. While many have written Luthor as a sympathetic and misunderstood character, this book does none of that. In fact, it says that Lex Luthor has always been cruel, even as a child. It's an uncompromising look at Superman's greatest villain.

Wizard Magazine named this book #33 on their list of "100 Best Single Issue Comics Since You Were Born." It stands as one of the greatest explorations of evil in comics, and is worth tracking down.

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Superman: Lex Luthor 2000 (2001)

A panel from the "Superman: Lex 2000" comics features a Superman with particularly impossible muscles
DC Comics

There are a few comics where Lex Luthor becomes President of the United States. Why? Because it's an insane idea. The idea that anyone would vote the world's most evil man into the highest position of power in America is bizarre. But, if you don't know Luthor is evil, it makes sense. He's just a rich billionaire who's running for office. 

The four short stories in "Luthor 2000" were written by Jeph Loeb and Greg Rucka and are very compelling. Perhaps the greatest of these tell the story of a Superman who is enraged that Luthor would run for President, but is powerless to prevent it. Even Superman isn't greater than the American political process. 

What makes this comic so powerful is considering the ultimate power to vote as something that could work against the most powerful superhero.

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Superman: Red Son (2003)

Comic panels from "Superman: Red Son" feature Lex Luthor, imperious as ever
DC Comics

Alternate reality stories about Superman are common, but "Superman: Red Son" takes it in a whole new direction. 

Mark Millar tells an amazing tale about an alternate reality where Superman lands in Russia and becomes the defender of Socialism. As the Soviet Union takes over the world, Lex Luthor works to defend the U.S. until his thirst for power drives him down the path of evil

The great thing about this version of Luthor is that, at first, it seems like he's a do-gooder. The roles seem reversed, and Luthor is the defender of the American way. He's a young scientist working at Star Labs.

As time goes on, he uses his scientific genius to create some of Superman's greatest villains, like Parasite and Bizzaro. The message behind this story is that Luthor would be evil no matter where he was or how he started. By the end, he achieves his dream with surprising consequences. 

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Superman: Birthright #5 (2004)

In "Superman: Birthright #5," Luthor cowers before Supes
DC Comics

"Superman: Birthright" is a 12 issue comic book limited series written by Mark Waid and drawn by Leinil Francis Yu.

On Clark Kent’s first day in Metropolis, he has his first confrontation with Lex Luthor as Superman. When several WayneTech helicopters go crazy and start killing people, Superman tracks the signals to LexCorp and confronts him. Superman embarrasses the “city-leader” on the front page of the Daily Planet.

Superman’s first (adult) meeting with Luthor is perfect. Waid is a huge fan of the original Superman movie. The best part is the 1978 "Superman" reference when he calls Luthor a “diseased maniac” just like in the film. Luthor’s still the savvy businessman willing to do anything to make a buck, but in this interpretation, he’s an astrobiologist and a scientist. It merges two different interpretations of Luthor.

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Superman: Birthright #8 (2004)

A panel from "Superman: Birthright #8" shows Luthor with his long gone orange hair
DC Comics

Clark talks with his father about Smallville High School, attended by a young Lex Luthor. Luthor is shunned by everyone, and his wormhole experiment with Kryptonite leaves him bald and tortured.

Luthor is shown to be a genius, but also a social misfit who engenders fear in everyone around him. His parents were greedy and distant, and his isolation is the perfect explanation for his consistent narcissism. There are also some wonderful nods to the original Superboy origin in "Adventure Comics #271," like Clark's friendship with Luthor and the Kryptonite experiment that leaves him the president of the "Hair Club for Men."

In the end of the story, Clark worries Lex might recognize him. His father reminds him why the smartest man in the world would never think someone from Smallville is Superman. This comic is a marvelous update to the Superman origin, but still captures what makes the original great.

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Superman: Birthright #12 (2004)

Luthor, empowered by Kryptonite, takes on the Man of Steel in a comic panel from "Superman: Birthright"
DC Comics

Luthor always has a grand master plan, and "Birthright #12" is no different. Luthor's plans to use Kryptonian technology to fake a war against Earth. His ruse is exposed by Lois, and Superman saves the city. In a last, desperate move, Lex tries to get weapons from Krypton through a wormhole before Superman intervenes.

This is an amazing comic, as the pity we feel for Luthor is stripped away by his ruthlessness and greed. Even Superman is forced to admit that Luthor's loneliness is his own doing.

The final punch is one of the most satisfying in comic book history. Plus, the comic gives closure to a story that's been told for decades.

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Lex Luthor: Man of Steel (2005)

Another particularly tense panel for Superman and Luthor, in "Lex Luthor: Man of Steel"

DC Comics

Lex Luthor is nearing completion of a large skyscraper called the “Science Spire” which will be a testimony to the power of the human spirit. At the opening, he reveals a LexCorp sponsored superhero named Hope who tries to replace Superman.

Luthor has always had motivation to destroy Superman. This novel explores his complicated psychology and fear of an alien with superpowers. Luthor feels that fighting Superman is fighting for humanity. In the end, all of Luthor's noble ambitions are made hollow by the fact that he's evil, but it's a fun roller coaster ride.

The graphic novel "Lex Luthor: Man of Steel" (or Luthor) was so popular that DC Comics hired the team of Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo to do a 2008 novel about Batman's greatest villain, Joker.

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All-Star Superman #5 (2005)

In "All-Star Superman" Lex Luthor has a back and forth with Clark kent

DC Comics

In this series written by Grant Morrison, Clark Kent goes to prison to interview Lex Luthor. They’re both trapped in prison when the energy-absorbing villain Parasite goes berserk. He senses Superman's power and it's a meal he just can't resist.

During the escape, Luthor and Kent talk about Superman. He gives a fascinating argument that Superman is making a mockery of the human race. It gives a great view of Luthor’s sympathetic reasoning behind destroying Superman.

In the end, his hatred for Superman goes beyond all understanding. But, by the end of the mini-series, he comes to understand Superman better than ever.

While this story doesn’t fall within the continuity of the comics, it fits perfectly with Luthor’s mindset. "All-Star Superman" won several awards including an Eisner Award, Harvey Awards, and Eagle Award. So, that in itself makes it a must-read.