UPDATE 8/15/16: This article has been updated with comment from Man of Steel writer John Byrne.
The self-destructing vortex of orange-tinted lunacy known as Donald Trump has earned apt comparisons to a cartoon villain since the nascent days of his presidential campaign. Like Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, Trump is known for his business acumen and inflated sense of self-importance. Both are often guided by grudges and bottomless ambition. Both are damaged, shriveled souls lacking in empathy and sound judgment.
And, most strikingly, both have run for president on platforms pandering to paranoia and a fear of “aliens.” There are differences, of course: Luthor, for instance, has never taken to live television to confirm the size of his dick. And for all his unhinged plots, Luthor does have a slightly firmer grasp on reality and the nuances of the English language. Still, both campaigns thrive on xenophobia, militarism, misinformation, and outlandish promises neither can keep. (A big, beautiful wall along the Mexican border! Flying cars for every household!)
Parallels between Trump and Luthor began only incidentally. In 1986, DC Comics rebooted the entire Superman mythos in part to better reflect the anxieties and preoccupations of modern America. Instead of a mad scientist, Luthor was re-envisioned as a rich and powerful businessman, an idea hatched by writer Marv Wolfman and realized in the “comics event of the century,” writer and artist John Byrne’s Man of Steel miniseries.
It was a time when anti-corporate public sentiment against real-life Wall Street villains like Michael Milken and Barry Minkow was on the rise (the film Wall Street, featuring the partly Milken-inspired Gordon Gekko, was released one year later). But unsurprisingly, one wealthy ’80s mogul in particular inspired the new Luthor: "Of course, Donald Trump was our model," Byrne tells The Daily Beast.
As a foil for Superman, no villain now felt more antithetical to truth, justice, and the American way than Luthor, a ruthless criminal capitalist. He was now more sinister than ever, seemingly ready to “walk right off the page and into corporate boardrooms,” the way Bob Batchelor puts it in The Man from Krypton: A Closer Look at Superman.
He had an inflated ego and a penchant for naming every company subsidiary after himself (LexCom, LexTel, Luthor Technologies, Luthor Industries, and on and on). But if the parallels to Trump weren’t clear enough yet, the cover of 1989’s one-shot Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography crystallized them. Seem familiar?
Eric Peterson’s cover art evokes Trump’s Art of the Deal—a tasteful enough title actually, compared to Luthor’s memoir, Simply Brilliant. The graphic novel, written by James Hudnall, detailed Luthor’s new backstory through the eyes of a nosy fictional journalist, Peter Sands. We learn that Luthor’s sociopathy manifested itself early: as a child he was cruel, especially to girls (an egotistical maniac with a lifelong history of misogyny, weird!). And, horrifically, he engineered the deaths of his own parents to use their life insurance as a nest egg for his fortune.
The Smallville fire that killed Luthor’s parents destroyed a vital part of Luthor’s humanity. He never coped with his own pain, instead suppressing it and twisting it into the evil that came to define him. As a soulless adult, he arrives in Metropolis, founds LexCorp, and uses his wealth and power to break into politics.
Of course, these then-new biographical facts are only vaguely similar to the story today of Trump’s rise to power. For starters, Trump hasn’t killed anyone (that we know of) and the humble beginnings he loves bragging about equate to a “small” loan of $1 million (or so he claims) from his father—not a childhood of abuse and neglect, as with Luthor.
Even when Luthor ran for and was elected President of the United States in 2000, few could have imagined his real-life counterpart Trump—Donald Trump, the reality star, the “sentient Caps Lock button”—would also one day clinch a nomination. "Art imitating life becomes life imitating art," Byrne says today.
Having already reached the peak of his powers in the private sector, Luthor decides to become the one person in America to whom Superman must defer: POTUS. 2000 was an infamously fraught election year for real-life America; in the comics, Luthor exploited this to become a viable third-party candidate. As part of his campaign, he promised to bring fantastical leaps in technology (aka flying cars) to every household in Metropolis, turning it truly into the City of Tomorrow.
After being voted into office however, he turns his attention to more sinister ends: turning public opinion against Superman through strident anti-alien rhetoric and underhanded, world-threatening aggression. In Jeph Loeb’s Superman/Batman, Luthor takes to live television to blame the biggest threat facing Metropolis—a world-ending meteor he knew was coming but chose not to prevent—on Superman.
“He is an alien. A curse upon this planet,” he says. “As they say in our great nation’s farmlands, curses are like chickens. They always come home to roost.”
Luthor tempts the world’s supervillains with a $1 billion reward for delivering Superman to federal authorities, to “face charges of crimes against humanity.” (Who wants to bet Trump blames an incoming meteor on Obama before November?)
The story ends as you’d expect: Luthor descends irrevocably into madness, nearly self-destructing in his tunnel-vision quest to destroy a perceived enemy. But in a separate iteration of the President Luthor story, another Trump parallel emerges.
There are those who, in their desperate attempt to make sense of the dystopian mayhem that is the 2016 presidential election, believe that Trump isn’t running for president at all. Instead, they think, he’s running simply for a brand boost, part of the world’s most toxic PR campaign, and he doesn’t want to be president at all.
In the animated DC Comics show Justice League Unlimited, Luthor runs for president with no intention of ever taking office. Detective-hero The Question confronts Luthor, intending to kill him before he gets elected and dooms the Earth (again). Then Luthor makes a chilling revelation:
“My campaign is a farce, a small part of a much larger scheme,” he scoffs at Question. “President. Do you know how much power I’d have to give up to be president?…I spent 75 million on a fake presidential campaign, all just to tick Superman off.”
The idea of Trump summoning enough foresight and restraint to pull off an entire fake presidential campaign is mostly laughable—he can’t apply enough foresight to finish his sentences coherently half the time. Trump seemingly also has no real, deep-held beliefs, not any he upholds consistently, anyway. And if Luthor is one thing, it’s consistent in his undying grudges.
But both Trump and Luthor do have a firm understanding of one ugly truth, that which carries campaigns built on hate so far. “If mankind has one common emotion—it’s fear,” Luthor tells Superman in Superman/Batman #6. “Fear of the unknown. Fear of what they can’t control.”
If there’s one idea that over 80 years of Superman stories have tried to instill in readers, it’s that hope must trump fear for the sake of the future. This isn’t Bizarro world, where everything is backward and upside down; this is 2016, and yet here we are. Let’s try not to let the Man of Steel down.