They’re his greatest foes, and they’re getting an upgrade, just in time for Superman’s 45th anniversary! Your Major Spoilers (Retro) Review of Action Comics #544 awaits!
Writer: Cary Bates/Marv Wolfman/Jerry Siegel
Penciler: Curt Swan/Gil Kane/Joe Shuster/George Perez/Ed Hannigan
Inker: Murphy Anderson/Gil Kane/Dick Giordano
Colorist: Tony Tollin/Gene D’Angelo
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: $1.50
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $18.00
Previously in Action Comics: Since being rocketed from his home planet by his desperate father, Kal-El has made a name for himself, not only on Earth but across the universe. As such, he’s also made a few enemies, with names like Metallo, The Parasite, Mongul and the dreaded palindromic menace known as Karb-Brak! But the role of ‘Superman’s Top Enemy’ has really been a two-man (or two thing, since one of them is a robot) race between childhood pal-turned-bittter-enemy Lex Luthor and Brainiac, Colu’s worst nightmare. By 1983, each of these villains has clashed with our hero dozens of times, always with the same results, illustrated by this issue’s splash page.
After years of defeat piled upon defeat (both in-universe, where they’ve been at odds since their teens and metatextually, since this is the big 45th anniversary celebration), Lex Luthor has finally been pushed too far. Though badly injured, Lex manages to press a particular panic button before he collapses, summoning one of his robots to load him into a spacecraft, rocketing him away… to Lexor! Though seldom seen, Lexor is a world which renamed itself in honor of Luthor, the hero who saved them from certain death with his genius and where his wife Ardora lives. Having gone to ground, Lex spends an undetermined amount of time healing, rebuilding his life and even fathering a child with Ardora, working every day to improve the lives of the Lexorians and finally giving up his vengeful ways… mostly. He also discovers a lost scientific base, left over from the days before he saved the world, and builds his greatest creation, a scienfic battlesuit that he uses to anonymously terrorize the very people who worship him. Superman eventually finds him, though, and Lex dons his new powersuit to battle his old foe, having been unsuccessful in purging the hate from his being.
But their battle damages one of his experiments, designed to draw power from the very core of the planet, setting off a deadly chain reaction.
Lexor dies, finally having seen their greatest hero as the petty, destructive monster he’s always been, and Lex barely fails in saving his wife and son from annihilation and Swan really delivers on the visuals, not only massive explosions, but he rage and pain in Luthor’s face. Failing to realize that the entire situation is of his own making, Lex gives in a whole new level of anger and resentment, swearing that he has only just begun to hate! It’s… kind of terrifying. It also explains why the Super-Powers figure of Lex comes in that freaky-deaky armor, designed by George Perez, who in 1983 was probably DC’s biggest star. Because it’s a milestone issue, there’s a text piece from Jerry Siegel himself, explaining the genesis of the super-hero, of Superman and his history, excitedly giving us the history of the character while avoiding the topic of how Superman was wrested from his creators, who were later shafted by the corporation. That doesn’t make for good celebratory talk, after all. And Joe Shuster gets in on things as well, with a little tribute of his own.
The second half of this issue focuses on Brainiac, the artificial intelligence whose mind can pull off trillions of simultaneous calculations and who can draw upon his computer mind to create complex plans for universal domination, but still somehow wanders the universe in a pink polo shirt and tennis shorts. Worrying that the people of Metropolis don’t trust him because of his powers, Superman takes off for a short jaunt into space to clear his head, encountering a dormant computerized world where he last fought (and seemingly defeated) the menace called Brainiac, once and for all!
Well, I say “dormant”, but…
Having destroyed a sun (!!) to power his latest transformation, Brainiac somehow converts his essence and intellect into an energy pulse, sending it out across the universe to absorb even more information on how to better destroy the last son of Krypton. Over the course of months (though, like Luthor’s story, it’s not entirely clear how many), he gestates within the “computerized coffin” of his artificial world, until he emerges, bent on conquest. Brainiac sets out to destroy world after world, with news of his return finally making its way back to Earth, setting the Kryptonian out to face his old foe once more. Instead, he finds a terrible beat-down, his powers negated and a trimphant monologue from a computerized voice unlike that of his polo-shirted old foe.
The new Brainiac design also brings with it the terrifying “floating skull” mothership, which would become an iconic part of the Brainiac experience, as fans of Justice League Unlimited will no doubt tell you. In the summer of ’83, these redesigns were incredibly exciting to my teenage self, promising a darker, more terrifying look at both villains, but I’m not sure they ever lived up to their potential. Action Comics #544 serves as one of those issues where you can point and say “That all started here”, and even though there are some issues with the storytelling (Lex and Ardora seem to have a three-year old child in the space of a few weeks?) it works both as a big celebration and in terms of story, delivering revamps that make Luthor and Brainiac more dangerous than ever without negating their pasts, earning a well-deserved 3.5 out of 5 stars overall. The timing of this issue is unfortunate, especially given that the John Byrne Luthor Retcon is right around the corner, but judged entirely on its own merits, it’s a packed issue, well worth the price tag.
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ACTION COMICS #544
In hindsight, knowing that 'Crisis On Infinite Earths' is only a couple of years away makes both of these facelifts a case of "What Might Have Been", but both stories deliver a solid dramatic punch, as well as terrifying upgrades for Superman's biggest foes.