Review by Frank Plowright
Behind a cleverly constructed cover pastiche of a 1940s horror film poster, this collection of stories spans several years of actual comics. The content starts with John Byrne’s work from 1987 shortly after he rebooted the entire Superman mythos, and ends in 1991, roughly a decade before this graphic novel publication. Byrne transformed Lex Luthor from a dangerous and obsessed scientific genius to a powerful businessman grown wealthy from his patents. To the world at large he possesses the pros and cons of any successful industrialist, but Superman knows the public persona is just a facade.
Byrne’s opener sees Luthor determined to deduce Superman’s civilian identity, using inhumane methods to do so, and nailing his character. That’s followed by a single page by Byrne in which Luthor learns his casual handling of Kryptonite has given him incurable cancer. It’s a shame the preceding seven pages were omitted, as the entire story is a clever retributive piece as Luthor, as is usual, has over the earlier pages been resolutely unpleasant (the entirety is found in Superman in the Eighties). Extracting single pages from subsequent stories that had otherwise nothing to do with Luthor is fair enough.
From that point the writing is all the work of Roger Stern, and he crafts a slick plot by first setting up a seemingly certain fate. Ironically, given the next collection in this early 1990s Superman run is The Death of Superman, the main continuity begins with what’s seemingly Luthor’s certain death. A clever follow-up offers a different portrait of Luthor, of a man whose Lexcorp factories and offices employed so many people who now face an uncertain future.
Luthor reappears in the guise of the long lost son he had with Doctor Kelly, young, Australian and with a full head of bright red hair. At face value this is a cheap novelty of a plot device, but Stern makes it work as more than a homage to the ridiculous Superman contrivances of the 1950s and 1960s. Lex Luthor II is an enthusiastic man, determined to do good and despite his seeming inexperience he’s able to outwit the old hands on Lexcorp’s board. Can we really believe Luthor is dead and that his son will erase the tarnished legacy? Well, while the story might sometimes become bogged down in unnecessary detail, Stern’s plot winds out well, with surprises along the way, not least the return of a very popular character whose relationship with Luthor is depicted in a great sleazy manner.
The art is efficient DC house style of the 1980s, a little behind the times, but prioritising storytelling clarity at the cost of individuality. Bob McLeod (sample page), and Jackson Guice are both fine, good with action and the character moments.
They Saved Luthor’s Brain isn’t a masterpiece, but even allowing for the vast amount of words, and characters explaining themselves via thought balloons it’s more enjoyable than far more acclaimed and successful Superman material of the era. Don’t believe the hype and give this a look.