Mark Russell and Steve Pugh bring readers a clever, biting satire in Future State: Superman vs Imperious Lex #2. The star team from 2016’s The Flintstones cast Lex Luthor in the familiar role of the DC Universe’s Donald Trump, updated to reflect the rise of Trumpism and the so-called “Make America Great Again movement.”
Make Lexor Great Again?
Grant Morrison, writer of All-Star Superman, once said, “Superman has the same problems we do, but on a Paul Bunyan scale.” In this vein, there might be no better writer for Superman than Russell. His satirical writing style lends itself perfectly to the type of stories Superman works best in, and to the type of issues most topical to his character.
In the story Future State: Superman vs Imperious Lex, Superman is dealing with the same issues that many individuals in this country find themselves confronting, that of a dishonest authority figure and a network of individuals and organizations supporting him. For readers it’s Donald Trump as president of the United States, but for Superman it’s Lex Luthor as the world-ruling Benefactor of the planet Lexor. It is a recipe for success under the right writer, and Russell is the perfect writer for this story.
While the story is presented in the guise of a golden-age Superman adventure, the metaphor rears its head at all the right moments. Having the classically comical scenario of Lex Luthor trying to weasel his way into the United Planets, only for it to be turned on its head when Lex realizes his benefits will come in the form of social services and not through personal profits, brilliantly reflects what many opponents of Trumpism saw as his crippling greed.
The real stars of this portrayal though are the citizens of Lexor, specifically X-99, Lex Luthor’s personal robot servant. These are the characters that reflect Trump’s followers, and those that Russell is most interested in trying to convey to the readers. Their moments are often the most heartbreaking as they’re depicted in blatant denial of the truth, and what’s in their own best interest. Often they even side with Lex Luthor, whose governmental policies keep them in slums, rather than Superman, Lois Lane and the United Planets who offer them futuristic social programs to raise their standard of living.
It’s most succinctly shown though in a conversation between Lois Lane and X-99, in which X-99 defends Luthor as a “genius,” who has “what’s best for all at heart,” as the two clean up a recently murdered victim of Luthor’s. It’s a chilling, Paul Bunyan-sized representation of the conversation many Americans had in their homes following the Capitol riots on January 6th.
Outside of the satirical conversation Russell is trying to have, he does a lot of basic things right as well. His Clark and Lois are cute together. His Lex Luthor sports a mask of his own younger face wish is the appropriate melding of creepy, tacky and vain. He captures Superman’s voice as good as any writer working today, consistently kind and eternally optimistic.
Sadly, I wonder if the ending quite hits the note that Russell was intending. While it’s fun seeing Clark cleverly outsmarting Luthor, it’s an ending that seems to contradict the very point Clark and Lois work so hard to mark in this issue and issue #1. It seems that at the end of the day it’s still the citizens of Lexor bearing the consequences of Lex Luthor, and Clark and Lois’s decisions.
Lois Lane connects with a robot, and you will too!
Pugh’s art complements Russell’s work exceptionally well here, just as it did during their work together on The Flintstones. His artistic choices give the book a retro-golden age feel, which helps accentuate the ridiculousness present in Russell’s script. His sci-fi pulp-style is reflected in the designs of the citizens of Lexor, the United Planets’ mining robots, the architecture and automation of Lexor and Lois Lane’s space suit.
Consistently, Pugh is focusing on characters’ facial expressions and body language over the bombast of action and violence. It’s a choice which forces readers to consider plainly the intentions of characters, and the ideas they’re presenting over what they’re doing. This consistently underlines the intentions and emotions of characters throughout the book. It’s one thing to read a character fawning over Lex Luthor, it’s an entirely other thing to see the admiration in their eyes and know it’s real. That authenticity is something that flows throughout the entire work and helps it connect with readers.
It’s ironic that where this authenticity does its most work is in the character of X-99. While he’s a robot, the earnestness and consternation portrayed in his facial expressions as he tries to reason out why it’s right for them to worship Lex Luthor gives readers a case for empathy. While many readers may be far from agreeing with X-99’s point of view, it should be easy to feel that childlike desire for the world to be right, and that fear that it might not be. It’s not ok, but it’s honest.
Russell and Pugh aren’t making a timeless work in Future State: Superman vs Imperious Lex #2, but they’re making a work for this time. It delves deep into a conversation many Americans are wanting to have, and it wears its opinion on its sleeve earnestly. In many ways it’s about that third value of Superman, the American Way, and why that will always be an important part of what defines Superman and Lex Luthor.
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