Through a series full of unexpected twists from the death of its purported lead in the very first issue, Phil Jimenez and Emanuela Lupacchino once again present a new take on familiar characters and themes as Lex’s sister Lena Luthor rises as the Superwoman’s primary villain, adopting a classic villain’s name and a different baddie’s costume in “Superwoman” #3 from DC Comics. Meanwhile, Lana Lang finds herself struggling with the concept of truth and justice as she discovers what it means to be a hero.
Lena’s Bizarro clones, first seen in “Superwoman” #1 murdering the superpowered New 52 Lois Lane, wear a costume reminiscent of the Earth-3 villain Superwoman, who, in this continuity, is also a Lois, although an evil one. With that name taken by the electric Lana Lang, Lena takes on another evil alternate Earth monicker, donning her brother Lex’s old green Kryptonian battle armor to become Ultrawoman.
The Luthor siblings’ intellectual rivalry has reached a deadly level, as Lena accuses Lex of keeping her prisoner even as he failed to cure her paralyzing illness. Lena shows him up on every level, perfecting the Bizarro cloning technology, splicing her own DNA with Earth-3 Superwoman, and healing herself. She adds that her “mind is evolving at a rate your ‘super intellect’ can’t even imagine.” This, combined with her description of Lex as a “sixth-level intelligence,” suggests Braniac’s hand in her rise to power — way back in the 2001 Superman arc “Our Worlds at War,” Lena was in fact fused with a version of Brainiac, and perhaps that reality is reasserting itself post-“Rebirth.” There’s also the matter of her glitchy Mother Box, a piece of tech that might either be corrupted by Brainiac or malicious in its own right.
The Luthor storyline is currently running mostly in parallel to Lana’s adventures, but it’s clear Lena is being set up as the series’ central villain. As yet, Lena does not have any specific conflict with Superwoman, but the reverse is not true — Lois’ death has been at the heart of Lana’s evolution as Superwoman.
Meanwhile, Lana’s heroic exploits are interesting in a wholly different way — one that allows Jimenez and Lupacchino to tackle contemporary cultural problems. First, while Lana has questioned her heroic path from the beginning, here she indicates that she’s been on some sort of prescription medication since the death of New 52 Superman — her best friend, Clark — which has “kept me focused. Clear.” She hides this fact from her boyfriend John Henry Irons, aka Steel, outright lying to him about her continued use.
Comics have addressed illicit drug use for decades — notably in “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” #85, revealing Speedy’s addiction to heroin — but it’s rare for superhero adventures to address the prescription drug abuse epidemic, particularly in a plot featuring the series’ central protagonist.
Jimenez and Lupacchino also dive head first into the real-world controversies surrounding abuses at private prisons. Michigan and Ohio correctional facilities administered by private contractors have been harshly criticized for serving food contaminated with maggots and for incidents of staff sexually abusing inmates; these issues have previously been dramatized in the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” but again it’s extraordinarily rare to see them confronted in comics. In “Superwoman,” a power failure at Stryker’s Island gives the Atomic Skull the opportunity to blow the whistle on the inhuman treatment at the hands of Lexcorp contractors.
At first, Lana refuses to even listen to the nuclear-powered villain, and even after the battle is over, she essentially takes the position that he and the other inmates deserve what they got — a fairly common view in the real world, and one that makes it difficult for true reform to gain traction. While the creative team could have tried to drive their point home more cleanly by making the Skull entirely a victim of circumstance, they smartly avoid this route — the Atomic Skull’s excuse for murdering a man, that he was flirting with his fiance, does nothing to lessen his guilt. Still, his depiction in this issue is entirely humanizing, and in the end he joins his power with Superwoman’s to restore Metropolis’s electrical grid, bringing life back to the city and saving countless lives in the process.
Lana began as the reluctant junior partner in the Superwoman team, and her story fits very well into the classic hero’s journey mold. The aspects the creative team has chosen to emphasize, though — overcoming self-doubt and addiction, challenging views of right and wrong and of who she is — have led to some genuine surprises, and how these converge into conflict with Ultrawoman should provide plenty more.
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