So Good at Being So Bad: A Celebration of Lex Luthor
He wasn't Superman's first super-villain, nor was he the first super-scientist the Man of Steel encountered. Heck, he wasn't even Superman's first bald super-scientist super-villain. But ask anyone who Superman's greatest foe is, and nine times out of ten, they would answer Lex Luthor.
Created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Luthor made his debut in Superman #4, which hit newsstands on February 15, 1940. This was actually intended to be his second appearance, but his official first appearance, in Action Comics #23, shipped one week later. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Superman villains have debuted since that time --- but what was it about Luthor that gave him a staying power not found in characters like J. Wilbur Wolfingham, the Gargoyle, or the Master Jailer?
There are a lot of possible answers to that question, but perhaps the most compelling is that the core concept of Luthor is strong, while allowing for the versatility necessary to keep up with ever-changing trends in superhero comics. While Superman can change the course of mighty rivers and bend steel in his bare hands, Luthor has an intellect that can split an atom, and a hatred that would see everything burn just to have its satisfaction.
The longest-running and most successful characters work this way: a strong core around which the details can be shifted to fit modern sensibilities. A Dick Sprang Batman has relatively little in common with a Kelley Jones Batman, but both are recognizable as Batman.
The same is true for Luthor: bald head (though this doesn't materialize immediately), genius intellect, hates Superman; that's Luthor. The rest is more or less window dressing.
The 1940s Luthor is a typical evil scientist straight out of the pulps: dressed in a bib front white lab coat, he lives in a flying city hanging from a dirigible, building death rays, holding countries for ransom, raising lost continents from the ocean depths, resurrecting dinosaurs, and so on. By the early '50s, Luthor and Superman's other costumed villains disappeared in favor of generic alien and gangster plots, not to see the light of day until Superman's Silver Age begins in the late '50s.
By the 1960s, Luthor was without a doubt established as Superman's main foe, as is evident from the sheer number of stories in which he appears, and the extent to which his personal back story is expanded. In this decade, Luthor gains a first name for the first time, an origin, a decades-long history with Superman, parents, a sister, a niece, a flying dog, a partner in the form of Brainiac, a planet that worshiped him, and even a wife and child. Even the Joker couldn't boast of this much world-building at this point in time.
The 1970s saw Luthor's characterization built upon by softening his character somewhat: Luthor is now the kind of man who would weep openly at the thought of his hero, Albert Einstein, and who, we come to understand, might actually do some good in the world if it weren't for that pesky Superman.
Following Crisis on Infinite Earths in the mid 1980s, Luthor experienced perhaps his greatest change as he shifted from being a criminal scientist to a multi-millionaire industrialist. This development proved so popular that it has survived the ensuing three decades and multiple other media adaptations in a way that very few story elements have. This legitimacy adds yet another layer of danger to Luthor, as it grants him the protection of the public trust and allows him access to greater power, perhaps most notably the US presidency.
But whether he's a prisoner or President, wearing a battlesuit or a business suit, Luthor's undying jealously and hatred of Superman keep him an alluring character who will undoubtedly continue to evolve and remain popular in the years and decades to come.