Rick didn’t say “Play it again, Sam,” and Kirk never said “Beam me up, Scotty.” Darth Vader said “No, I am your father,” and Brody said “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”
Do you feel lucky, punk? Houston, we have a problem. I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille. Top of the world, Ma! Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?
A lot of the phrases that we pick up from pop culture as famous movie quotes are actually slight misquotes, often making them a little shorter and simpler, because on the whole people are not that good at remembering dialogue. Exact wording fades quickly, and so do plot points and character relationships.
But we’re great at remembering a striking visual, and most of the things that we consider “iconic” are compelling images, like Claudette Colbert showing her legs in It Happened One Night, or Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct, or a steam vent blowing up Marilyn Monroe’s skirt to reveal her legs in The Seven Year Itch. A lot of them involve women’s legs, for some reason.
So when Superman: The Movie introduces the new version of Lex Luthor that we talked about yesterday, there are a lot of alterations to the comic book character that for the most part audiences don’t notice. The movie version of Luthor has sidekicks and a sense of humor, which has never really happened before, and he presents himself as an eccentric businessman, rather than a mad scientist — but for movie audiences, those are details that they don’t know about.
The one thing that people do notice is that Lex Luthor is supposed to be bald, because we remember interesting visuals. The details of his characterization don’t really stick in the mind, but even people who’ve never read a Superman comic in their life know that Luthor doesn’t have any hair.
But when Luthor was first introduced, in April 1940’s Action Comics #23, the original design for the villain sported a messy thatch of orange hair. In fact, he was the only person in his organization who wasn’t bald.
The story of how Luthor lost his hair after his first handful of appearances is a nice demonstration of the process of natural selection of story concepts in long-running serialized narrative, and that’s a thing that I’m into, so today I’m going to explain how that change happened, and why the explanation that you’ll find on the internet is obviously entirely wrong.
The real story begins about a year before Luthor was introduced, with the original chrome dome criminal — the Ultra-Humanite, Superman’s first arch-enemy.
I talked about the Ultra-Humanite last week, and his weird connection to the army of evil Lois Lane clones that plagued Superman comics in 1939. Ultra is introduced in Action Comics #13 as the head of a gang of taxicab racketeers, and he brags that he’s a genius who runs a vast ring of evil enterprises. Then he lures Superman to a sawmill and ties him to a piece of wood that’s slowly approaching a huge buzzsaw, like they did in old silent films.
The Ultra-Humanite was Siegel and Shuster’s first draft of using a demented genius as a recurring villain, and it took a few issues to figure out the mad science angle. He was clearly designed to be a recurring foe for Superman; they brought him back right away in issue #14, and again in #17.
His fourth appearance in issue #19 is when he starts fooling around with death rays and rocketships, hitting a vein of productive plot ideas that Luthor is destined to inherit. Unfortunately for Ultra, he’s killed when his science gun blows up in his face, teaching him no lessons at all.
Then, in a deeply lunatic plot twist, the Ultra-Humanite shows up again in the next issue wearing a new stolen body after a successful last-minute brain transplant, and Ultra’s hand-picked new body belongs to glamorous movie star Dolores Winters. There’s no stated rationale for this out-of-left-field choice; it’s just a thing that happens in a Superman comic, and it’s up to us to assimilate it into our understanding of the Ultra-Humanite.
It doesn’t last, of course; nothing truly beautiful ever does. After one more appearance in issue #21, Ultra-Dolores ends up throwing herself into an active volcano, and that’s the last we see of the Ultra-Humanite until the 1970s.
So that particular shooting star burned itself out after six issues, but Siegel and Shuster recognize that they’re onto something hot, and just a couple months later, they introduce another mad inventor supervillain.
It’s Action Comics #23 (April 1940) when we’re introduced to the criminal mastermind Luthor, who’s trying to foment war between the European states of Galonia and Toran. He thinks that if everybody gets dragged into a war, then he can dominate all of the weakened nations of the world, which is hair-brained but not particularly interesting, compared to his later activities.
His big trick in this debut story is that he can project his face onto a cave wall from a distant location and have conversations with people, which is pretty good, and the projection can shoot out green death rays from its eyes to slice bungling henchmen in half, which must cost a fortune but is totally worth it.
In this first story, Luthor’s got a floating headquarters located in what looks like a secret city suspended in the stratosphere, held aloft by a giant dirigible. This is also very cool, although obviously it will meet the same fate of every single huge floating ship in every comic book and every superhero movie that ever has or ever will be made. They never learn, with the helicarriers.
Naturally, Superman can’t help but bust through the wall of one of the stone buildings suspended from the dirigible, as part of his continuing war on architecture. There are three things that Golden Age Superman loves the most, and they’re rescuing Lois, smashing through walls and punching dudes in the face, so this panel is basically the perfect expression of what the Golden Age has to offer.
When Superman comes face to face with Luthor for the first time, not counting the death-ray incident, his question is, “What sort of creature are you?”
“Just an ordinary man,” Luthor replies, “but with th’ brain of a super-genius! With scientific miracles at my fingertips, I’m preparing to make myself supreme master of th’ world!”
And this is what Superman has become, now and forever more. He started out in Action Comics #1 saving an innocent woman from the electric chair and punching an abusive husband, and then he went on to tackle corrupt politicians, gambling racketeers, drunk drivers and urban blight. But as of now, in 1940, Superman fights inflatable geniuses, and his adventures will become more and more oriented to science-fiction themes.
Luthor tries to use his death ray on Superman, but obviously it doesn’t work; our hero breaks free and demolishes the dirigible, killing everybody on board as well as whatever population down below is about to receive a couple tons of mad science falling on their heads. Just imagine being on the receiving end of a plummeting delivery of burning dirigible fragments. That kind of thing could rearrange your whole outlook.
But never mind that, the important thing is that Superman has saved the country of Galonia from participating in a war that probably would have killed fewer citizens than the flaming holocaust that just dropped from the sky. And, as Superman says, “That’s th’ end of Luthor!” so everything turned out okay.
Except guess what, Luthor isn’t dead, obviously; you can’t solve a problem like Luthor with one crashed dirigible. Almost immediately, they published Superman #4 (Spring 1940), with two more stories featuring Luthor.
In the first one, Metropolis is damaged by a newly invented earthquake machine, which “ran wild” during an Army test that I’m not sure what they were hoping to accomplish. While Superman’s looking into it, Luthor drops a missile on him, in order to attract his attention and challenge him to a series of escalating dares.
He’s still doing the face projection gimmick, this time sending his face to appear on the trunk of a tree. He thinks this makes him look cool, and he’s not entirely wrong.
So the fight begins, with Luthor testing Superman’s speed, invulnerability, jumping abilities and resistance to poisonous gas. Superman wins, obviously, but while he’s participating in Luthor’s pissing contest, the villain’s henchmen steal the earthquake machine.
After a lengthy to-do, Superman finds Luthor’s hideout in Satan’s Canyon, and bypasses the security system through the tried-and-true method of punching some wolves in the face.
Once again, our hero’s Pavlovian response to the sight of a stone building is to knock it down, which destroys the machine and maybe Luthor, too.
But of course Luthor survived; they need him in the next story. This time, oil wells have stopped flowing all over the world, and Superman rushes to investigate. The caption reads “Changing into his Superman costume, the reporter races toward Oklahoma with the agility of a startled antelope!” which isn’t particularly germane to our discussion but I wanted to tell you about it anyway.
On the way, Superman is attacked by a remote-control rocket — as startled antelopes so often are — and he grabs it and messes around with it. While he’s playing with it, the image of Luthor’s face is projected onto the rocket, in order to present a fairly toothless threat that does not achieve anything in particular.
They mess around with earthquakes and oil wells for a few pages, but the story doesn’t really start until Superman and Lois discover a glass-enclosed underwater city of ancient, weird design that pops up out of nowhere.
This is always a good idea. I don’t think there’s ever been a story about ancient submerged glass-enclosed cities that didn’t have some kind of goofy entertainment potential, and yes, I am including “The Underwater Menace” from Doctor Who, because that story is hilarious and shut up.
So here it is, Luthor’s first material value-add. We’d already seen rockets and ray guns from the Ultra-Humanite, and so far, Luthor’s only innovation has been projecting his face onto trees, which is fine but it’s not exactly a rocket-sled to adventure.
But now we get it: Luthor is the kind of guy who breeds giant prehistoric monsters in ancient submerged glass-enclosed cities.
Because you can’t back down from this, can you? You can’t have Luthor set up an arena fight between Superman and a fucking dinosaur, and then have a story about a gambling racket in Metropolis. We have now taken a meaningful step away from normal human civilization as we know it, and once you get on this track, the only thing to do is keep on one-upping the previous story, for as long as you can stand it.
Thanks to Luthor, this is now a comic book about a superhero who has boxing matches with dinosaurs. That is what he brings to the table.
Now, when you get to that level of crazy, you need to start considering the character’s brand identity.
Luthor, as an arch-villain, is now capable of whipping up lunatic spectacles halfway through a boring issue, which means that he is a story-productive asset that needs attention and care. And unfortunately, there’s one drawback to giving Luthor a permanent place in the Superman mythos, which is that he looks like crap.
This whole time, Luthor has been dressed in shapeless, single-color robes that don’t make him look like anything in particular. The artists haven’t really invested in any identifiable facial features, so his only hook is a mess of orange hair, which is not going to result in an iconic character, no matter how many dinosaurs he has.
Audiences can easily forget names and dialogue and plot points, but we’re much better with compelling visuals. Luthor needs a visual hook.
And he gets it six months later, in the comic strip. This is from a story called “Pawns of the Master”, which starts in October 1940 and is mostly a pedestrian story about a crime wave and a gang of crooks. The story develops in the ordinary way, but then suddenly in November, Superman finds the gang’s boss — and it’s Luthor, “a sinister ultra-scientist!”
That word is really all the explanation that you need, to answer the question: Why did Luthor lose his hair? It’s because he needed a more compelling character design, so they made him look like the Ultra-Humanite. It’s really that simple.
They don’t actually do that much with Luthor in this story. He only appears in the last seven strips, which go like this:
Strip #1: “So, Superman — our paths cross once again!”
Strip #2: “I’m well prepared for him!”
Strip #3: “I was playing with you, like a cat with a mouse!”
Strip #4: “Superman has met his match!”
Strip #5: “Follow out your orders!”
Strip #6: “You reckoned without the scientific might of Luthor!”
Strip #7: “I’ve failed again!”
And then he doesn’t appear in the comic strip again for years. If the change in Luthor’s design was accidental, as everybody thinks it was, then this would have been a tiny blip that was easily forgotten, as opposed to what it actually was, which is an intentional, permanent change.
So now it’s time for another round of my favorite game, Everybody Is Wrong Except Me.
The stupid thing that people believe is that penciller Les Nowak was drawing Luthor in the strip, and when he wanted a reference for how the character looked, he saw this specific panel from Superman #4, and thought that Luthor was the bald one.
That explanation is obviously not true. They’ve been using Luthor as Superman’s recurring arch-enemy for six months at this point; the whole reason why he appears in the comic strip is because the character is popular. There’s no way that the person pencilling the Superman comic strip wouldn’t be able to get ahold of anyone who knows what the new popular character looks like.
Besides, this is just one panel out of the thirty-eight panels picturing Luthor in Superman #4, an issue where he appears in the first two stories. Even if Nowak needed to look at that issue for reference, why would he get sidetracked by this panel? The first panel in the comic strip sequence shows Luthor’s face appearing on the wall in front of Superman. If Nowak needed a reference, then he would have looked at the four panels in the book when Luthor projects his face onto a tree and a plummeting rocket, as seen above, and he would know that the character has hair.
I get that “somebody made a mistake” is good material for a clickbait headline, but this was not a mistake. It was a decision.
And here’s where I have the receipts.
This picture is a panel from Action Comics #14, the Ultra-Humanite’s second appearance, where a bald villain imprisons Superman in a crystal coffin that obviously he busts out of in a hot second.
And this is a panel from that seven-day sequence from the comic strip, which shows Superman contained in an identical crystal box. If Nowak used anything from the comics for a reference, then it was Action #14, and the Ultra-Humanite.
And that’s why — when they brought Luthor back to the comic, in fall 1941 — he was still growing monsters on a jungle island, but he was bald, and he stayed bald. The Ultra-Humanite was already gone and forgotten by then, and anyway, in the last couple appearances, Ultra looked like a female movie star.
Luthor was free to appropriate Ultra’s character design if he wanted it, and that change obviously worked, because decades later, people in the theater who have never read a Superman comic are looking at Gene Hackman on the screen, and whispering to the person next to them, “Isn’t Lex Luthor supposed to be bald?”
He is, and he was, until his jungle island explodes, as it inevitably does. “The end of Luthor!” Superman predicts, but he’s wrong; Luthor is eternal. He might have more hair this time, and fewer dinosaurs, but yeah, it’s the same guy.
A special extra post with my hot take on Eternals:
Eternals 92.1: The Adventures of Fancy People.
— Danny Horn