Lex Luthor: The Unsympathetic Protagonist
I buy one comic a week. Twice every month, the means an issue of The Incredible Hulks, which, much to my delight, is currently a bimonthly book. As of late, the other half of the time has been spent catching up on Action Comics, which currently stars Lex Luthor and is written by Paul Cornell. It’s an excellent comic and quite fascinating because Lex Luthor violates everything I’ve learned about writing a protagonist. Namely, there’s nothing really likable about Lex, but the story is great anyway.
As a writer, I’ve always been taught that a likable protagonist is key to a story. Even if he’s not a good guy, if he can be funny or charming, the story can be successful. But Lex Luthor is neither funny nor charming. Really, he’s a total train wreck. He’s currently traveling the globe in a plot to conquer the world using residual energy left behind by Black Lanterns in the recent Blackest Night event. His first action in the story was to fire an employee for telling him that his demands are unreasonable. The employee flipped out and attacked him, so Lex had the employee executed later on. He’s also running around with a Lois Lane sexbot. No, there’s no ambiguity about it – he calls her Lois, she’s designed with some of Lois Lane’s DNA, and there is a scene where they’re lying naked in bed together. Moreover, the issue I read most recently involved Lex speaking with Death after he took a nasty fall, in which Death reveals one of his greatest sexual fantasies…which apparently involves some pretty kinky Lex-on-Loisbot action. And this isn’t Lex secretly lusting after Lois Lane – his fantasies all involve the robot version, even if the real Lois was made available to him.
I think one of the draws to Action Comics is just how messed up Luthor is. He’s an unlikable protagonist, but viewing his psyche and what he does when Superman isn’t around is like watching a train wreck. The other draw is definitely the Lois robot. For an android, she’s a fascinating character with a hidden agenda all her own. She’s got style, she’s got charm, and she’s got chain guns in her arms.
I can’t put my finger on exactly why Action Comics is a great read right now, although the psycho Lex and sexy Lois action-bot are definitely the two big draws. One thing is for sure, though – Paul Cornell is doing a heck of a job demonstrating that you don’t necessarily need a likable protagonist to tell a really good story.