Friday, November 18, 2005

Fantasy Presidents: Superman comics

Moving away from the explicitly political, the DC Comics universe made a rather interesting decision in a story thread intended to parallel the 2000 Presidential election. They made Lex Luthor president.

Yes, you read that right. For several years, Superman's arch-enemy was President of the United States.

And he didn't have to "fix" the election results or get a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court, either. He was actually voted into office during a legitimate election by the people of the DC Comics universe.

Now, in case the only "Lex Luthor" you know is the mad scientist of the pre-1985 era, some explanations are in order.

Back in 1985, DC celebrated their 50th anniversary by publishing a crossover story entitled Crisis on Infinite Earths. While a more detailed explanation of what happened can be found by clicking the link, suffice it to say that, when it was all over, DC was able to "reinvent" a number of their characters. Pretty much all the Superman-related characters were redefined in this manner. Lex Luthor, for example, changed from a "mad scientist" into a "Machiavellian business tycoon." His motive for opposing Superman was two-fold: 1) Luthor aimed to be the most powerful person on the planet, and Superman was an obvious threat to that goal. 2) At their first meeting, Superman humiliated Luthor by jailing him for reckless endangerment. For this indignity, Luthor swore revenge.

Over the years since his reintroduction, Luthor has been a master of manipulation, able to pull corporate strings and call in dark favors, always in control of events while never leaving enough evidence for anyone to link crimes to him. Superman has always, of course, been aware of the threat Luthor poses, but has never been able to bring Luthor to account for his crimes. As far as the rest of the world knows, Lex Luthor is a philanthropist and a humanitarian. (The TV series Smallville is actually closer to the current comics on this point, but it's about the only thing that Smallville gets right, so we'll say no more about that insipid program.)

Most of you will remember the fears around the coming of the year 2000, when the "Y2K bug" threatened to cause chaos in any part of the world that depended on computers. The writers of the Superman comics chose to parallel that situation with a New Year's storyline in which Brainiac (also heavily redefined since the Crisis) took advantage of the computer crisis, resulting in the arrival of a future version of himself (called "Brainiac 13") in the present, and also causing Metropolis to mutate into a literal "City of Tomorrow." Lex Luthor was able to make a deal with Brainiac 13 to leave Earth, but allow Metropolis' futuristic technology to remain, with Luthor able to control it at will.

Shortly after that, Luthor decided to run for President, promising to share his access to futuristic technology with the nation. Between his generous campaign and some particularly bad decisions by the previous administration during a time of emergency (Gotham City had been all but destroyed in an earthquake the year previously), Luthor won the election easily.

Among the highlights of Luthor's presidency was his part in resisting an alien invasion that would have destroyed the earth (in part due to his connection to Brainiac 13, who was instrumental in the invasion). He also discovered Superman's secret identity of Clark Kent, although he surprisingly did little with the information before having it taken away from him by a telepathic criminal. Luthor also used his power as President to frame Bruce Wayne (who opposed Luthor's plans in Gotham City outside of his superheroic guise of Batman) for murder.

Unfortunately, as President Luthor's failure to capitalize on Superman's secret identity demonstrates, DC Comics really didn't seem to know what to do with the idea of the foremost villain in their line-up as President of the United States, and so Luthor was eventually exposed and deposed in a recent storyarc of the Superman/Batman comic by openly attacking Superman (he was likely somewhat insane at the time, due to a drug he was taking to boost his strength). Luthor was replaced by his Vice-President, Pete Ross, who had been a friend of Clark Kent's from Smallville.

Pete Ross' own presidency was short-lived, as he resigned after uncovering a shadowy organization that sought to manipulate whoever held the Oval Office. Although not seen since, it is probable that they are still at work in the DC Comics universe. What this means about DC's opinion of our real-life president is anyone's guess.

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