WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Justice League #17 by Scott Snyder, Jim Cheung, Mark Morales, Walden Wong, Tomeu Morey and Tom Napolitano, on sale now!
It’s easy to complain about the constant barrage of reboots and relaunches in comic books. For longtime fans, suddenly seeing a new Issue #1 on the shelf can feel like a slap in the face. And when these new debuts don’t do anything to streamline the narrative, or are nothing more than marketing gimmicks, they can be insulting to new readers, too.
But even the most discerning (or cynical) comic fans have to appreciate some of the retcons that come along with reboots, relaunches and proposed jumping on points. Now, not every retcon is going to please fans (hell, some downright infuriate them) but when comics history is being rewritten with broad strokes, some finer points are often underappreciated by readers. Connective tissue that did not exist before can be strung together, binding characters to one another in unique ways.
In the pages of Justice League #17, we discover a unique bond that overhauls the origin of one of the most recognizable villains in pop culture in heartbreaking fashion. Lex Luthor's origins have been intertwined with Martian Manhunter by way of a shared childhood experience that feels like a cross between E.T. the Extraterrestrial and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (don't worry, it's not that traumatic).
It's a connection that may feel a bit out of place at first glance, but actually helps develop both characters in a wonderful way. Their new history is told through a series of flashbacks as they try to survive a literal eruption of space dragons (look, it's Justice League -- just go with it).
Lex follows J'onn to a holy site in the Sh'anne Valley on Mars, where Martian Manhunter reflects on the memories of his past, both good and ill. The majority of J'onn's flashbacks are centered on his time being held captive by the Legionnaires Club. During this time, a young boy named Albie befriends the martian. Young J'onn and Albie communicate under the noses of the adults, who keep the little green man locked up in a glass cell, by passing infrared notes only J'onn can see.
When adults aren't around, they communicate freely and experience fantastical adventures in their minds. Their friendship flourishes organically and, when it comes time for the folks running things to terminate their Martian prisoner, Albie not only warns J'onn of his impending doom, but explains how he can avoid it. Albie, you see, is not just J'onn's friend, he's also J'onn's savior. And the true name of that savior is Alexander, or Lex for short.
That's right, Lex Luthor was Martian Manhunter's first human friend, which would be far more endearing if Lex's trajectory unfolded differently in the greater DC Universe. But that might be the point. Altering the history of a character's childhood can further contextualize their decisions as an adult. If someone who is often seen as truly evil (not that Lex is, necessarily) does something noble seemingly out of left field, digging into their psyche when they were young can help make a case for the actions.
Writer Scott Snyder has employed this storytelling tactic before (but maybe not to as great effect) in All-Star Batman's first story arc, "My Own Worst Enemy," in which Bruce Wayne was even more closely connected to the life of Harvey Dent. Not only were they involved in Gotham City's politics as adults, they were best buds as kids.
This makes Batman's decision to hand-deliver Harvey to a hospital where he could get treatment (all the while battling swarms of villains trying to claim the bounty on Two-Face's head) have much more emotional weight. Without that context, the story would otherwise be the plot of Midnight Run... but with superheroes.
Being able to dip back into the shared history of characters who have been prevalent for decades without having to stay beholden to the context that came before can build emotional bonds. The history of Lex and J'onn is one of these cases. While this realization doesn't absolve Lex of his past transgressions (post-New 52, Rebirth or otherwise), it does add depth and dimension to a villain we thought we knew so well.