[NOTES: Okay, so I swear to god, this started out just as a way for me to work out my frustrations with feeling like I'm on call for work 24/7 through Lena Luthor. And then it slowly spiraled out of control and now it's filled with easter eggs like actual comic book villain Dana Dearden and fun facts about Tim McVeigh that no one but me cares to know and this is where we are now.
Huge debts of gratitude go to AO3 users guileheroine (writer of Inside the Minds of Republic City's Most Influential) and copperbadge (of the MCU's Magazineverse). Both of those stories were massive inspirations for this. Shout out as well to wtfoctagon, for coming up with the last name Hoang for Jess the Receptionist.]
Her Brother's Keeper
A CatCo Magazine exclusive by Kara Danvers
Photos by James Olsen
IT IS 9:07 PM on a Thursday night, and Lena Luthor is answering e-mails.
"I promise I'll be with you in just a moment," Ms. Luthor says, before adding—as though she can read my shorthand as I take notes—"and please, I think we'll all be more comfortable if you just call me Lena."
The comment, like Ms. Luthor herself ("Lena!" she insists with a laugh when I read a quote back to her for clarity), can be read on multiple levels. There is, of course, the obvious: since her brother Lex's conviction and imprisonment, Lena has done much to separate herself from the Luthor surname—starting with rebranding the family company to 'L-Corp' last year, and ending with her choice to take the stand against her mother, Lillian Luthor, in the Project Cadmus criminal trials this past week.
But perhaps the first-name-only policy is just as much for Lena's comfort as it is for the public's. Adopted at the age of four, Lena does not hold many memories of her birth parents—but is now left responsible for the legacy of a family of which she did not always feel she was truly a part of. Even before their political and moral views splintered irrevocably, Lena says she struggled to "be a Luthor."
And finally, there is history here. This is not my first interview with Lena; we've been professionally acquainted ever since her arrival in National City. But while Lena has always made time to give statements or answer questions, she has famously never conceded to an in-depth profile… until now. Following her testimony on Monday, I reached out to her off the record, as a friend—only to find myself invited to have unrestricted press access to her for the remainder of the week.
Perhaps predictably, Lena offering up her time does not actually guarantee she has any free to give. Between her appearances in court, the continuing operation of her company, and the constant queries from the media, there is little that doesn't require Lena's attention these days. It is not until late in the evening that I gain her undivided focus.
"Now," Lena says, physically pushing her keyboard away on her desk, as though trying to distance herself from the temptation to keep working. "What can I do for you?"
Anyone who has met Lena is familiar with these words. They are her go-to greeting; practiced, polite, and most importantly, meant in earnest. A thesis statement: Lena Luthor wants to help.
"I don't know that I've ever thought of it that way," she says when I point this out. "I actually started saying it in boarding school, when I was thrown in with the children of my parents' friends. It became clear early on that most people who interacted with me didn't want to get to know me beyond the Luthor name—but rather, that they wanted something from me. Asking them what it was, up front, seemed an efficient way to cut to the chase."
If this seems a paranoid way of thinking, consider her classmates. Also in Lena's year were Veronica Sinclair, who was recently arrested for running an illegal alien fighting ring under the alias 'Roulette'—though the charges were later dropped—and Dana Dearden, who is awaiting parole after being convicted for stalking James Olsen (then Daily Planet photographer and current acting Editor in Chief of CatCo Magazine) in an attempt to get to Superman.
Whether you'd call her attitude caution or cynicism, there is no arguing with the results. Lena graduated at the top of her class in every academic institution she's attended, only to go on to become the mind behind some of L-Corp's most popular, ubiquitous products. Even in the midst of assassination attempts and her family's trouble with the law, since taking over L-Corp she's experienced a meteoric rise—eclipsing Maxwell Lord as the face of the National City tech industry.
"Would you believe me if I said I never intended to have a high profile when I moved here?" Lena asks. "Leaving Metropolis was a matter of necessity, but I had actually hoped to perform most of L-Corp's rehabilitation out of the limelight. Perhaps that was naïve of me; my family has never been very good at staying out of the news. For better or worse."
And things have been better. Though it is hard to remember now, the Luthor name was not always synonymous with crime and xenophobia. For many years, they were the American elite—notable for their brilliance, which set them apart from many of their 'famous for being famous' counterparts. Indeed, for some time, the Luthors were actually the literal poster children for acceptance, making headlines when Lex and Lena posed for a #NoH8 campaign shoot together (pictured, left) when Lena came out in 2010. Even as recently as two years ago, there had been favorable buzz that Lex might run for President.
Does Lena hope to return her surname to that former esteem?
"I don't think there's such a thing as going back—but I'd like to think that we can move forward," she says.
WE HAVE only been talking for about ten minutes when the chime of an incoming e-mail interrupts the conversation. With apologies, she begs for five minutes to reply. Five minutes become ten, and then fifteen, as more and more requests for her time and attention come in.
While running a multinational corporation is obviously a full time job, this seems excessive—even for someone with a plate currently as full as Lena Luthor's.
Haltingly, Lena explains. There is not a single business transaction that goes on at L-Corp without getting her personal seal of approval. And this goes far beyond the signing of contracts: no design is okayed, no consultant is hired, no memo is drafted and no business expense is charged without her explicit say-so.
This is the price, she says, of fixing what her family broke. The daunting amount of undelegated work—and even larger amount of paperwork—this policy requires of her doesn't seem to faze Lena.
"The eyes of the world are on me, and rightly so. There's no way of telling how deep into this company the poison of my family's prejudice has spread—so everything must be examined with the greatest scrutiny. If I'm to be audited and investigated annually, the least I can do is be confident that I have nothing to hide."
If there's any suspicion of Cadmus loyalists, wouldn't the safer thing be to fire everyone and start over?
Lena looks deeply troubled at the suggestion. "Then I'd be accusing everyone who works for me of exactly the same thing the world's accused of me—being guilty by association. We employ tens of thousands at L-Corp, all over the nation and even abroad; I won't let them be punished for mistakes my brother and mother made. I won't tell you they're all innocent. There have been multiple occasions where I've had to let people go, or even contact the authorities, based on discoveries I made through my screening process. But that's how I know the system works."
By making sure everything goes through her, though, isn't Lena putting an awful lot of faith in her own moral compass? Acting as a monolith, a single voice meting out her own brand of justice?
"Isn't that what all CEOs do?" Lena asks. Her thoughtful look transforms into a smirk. "Isn't that what Supergirl does?"
"It took a long time for me to be able to trust my own decisions," Lena admits after a moment. "I understand that it will take longer still for the public to. But that fear isn't an excuse not to do the right thing."
There is, of course, another option—Lena could have sold the company, and hoped it would do better in the hands of someone else. Few would have blamed her for trying to move on entirely.
Lena considers it. "It honestly never occurred to me," she says, chuckling. "I suppose that makes me a Luthor after all."
When Lena finally concedes to leaving the office, it is past midnight. For the first time all week, her inbox is empty.
Her phone buzzes with a new e-mail before we reach the elevator.
FRIDAY MORNING, I meet Lena for breakfast at a café by the office.
"I've never done this before," she admits with a small smile as we sit down.
"Gone out to a restaurant like this, before work. Business lunches, sure, but—I don't know. It feels like playing hooky."
For the record, it is 6:15 AM. The L-Corp security guards won't even open the doors to the building for another 45 minutes.
She asks me if I've read any good books lately. Before I can bring up that I'm the one meant to be asking the questions, she takes no less than three books out of her purse. She explains that she likes to have a few in rotation—of various sizes and genres, as well as one on her tablet for emergencies—and that she's in need of good fiction recommendations.
I notice the book at the bottom of the pile. Unlike the others, which are pristine, this one is well-worn around the edges and shaggy with tape flags. Noticing my eye, she pulls it out sheepishly: The Catcher in the Rye. It looks like a favorite.
"Oh, not mine," she says, her nose wrinkling in distaste. "Lex's. He lent me this copy once and I threw it at his head, I thought it was so pretentious. But now…"
Before Lena can tell me what "now" entails, her phone interrupts our discussion, as is starting to become a theme—but for once, it's not work related at all. Rather, it is a text from a friend, Winn Schott, Jr., begging Lena to take him as her team partner in Wayne Industries' upcoming Trivia for Charity competition. The press release announcing Lena's participation went live last night, and he appears to have just woken up to the news.
Schott, a former CatCo Worldwide Media employee, is the son of Winslow Schott, also known colloquially as 'the Toyman:' the bomber who killed six bystanders in an attempt on the life of Chester Dunholtz in the early 90s. Lena met Schott under the stage at an L-Corp gala during a hold-up last fall; the two collaborated on a makeshift device that neutralized the thieves' technology, and have maintained a friendship ever since.
"It's nice to talk to someone who can understand your fears without you needing to explain them," Lena says, in as dignified a manner as one can when one's phone keeps lighting up with additional texts. "We've both seen darkness in our families up close—and we've both dedicated our lives to trying to shine light instead. It's been… very validating, getting to know Winn."
Does that mean she'll take him on as her trivia buddy?
"I'm not sure. Clark Kent is last year's reigning champion, isn't he? I'll need someone who can hold their own against him." She beams at me, guileless. "Know anyone like that?"
No one in this restaurant knows that Clark Kent is my cousin, but Lena still wins in the end—I'm sure one of you will find her joke funny.
AFTER BREAKFAST, we head down in the L-Corp labs.
She moves with ease between the workstations, the safety goggles strapped to her face removing some of the impenetrable air of professionalism she projects—making her look more like the twenty-nine year old she actually is. There is not a single scientist, tech or intern in this room Lena does not know by name. Each of their projects is familiar to her on sight; she asks questions so detailed and specific, I'd have thought she had studied up on the blueprints before we arrived. Only before we arrived, Lena was having a frittata across the street.
But then, her ease with the scientific division of L-Corp makes sense with her background. Suprisingly, Lena has not always seen herself as a businesswoman. For many years, it was taken as a given that running LuthorCorp would be Lex's birthright—and that Lena would stay behind the scenes.
"Three years ago, these labs—or rather, their equivalents in our Metropolis office—were my home. I miss it, which is why I try to get down here at least twice a week. I always preferred research and development to corporate maneuvering. My graduate degree is in electronic engineering."
Three years ago, of course, the vast majority of what was coming out of LuthorCorp's labs were paramilitary anti-alien technology that Lex used in his vendetta against the Man of Tomorrow.
"It's funny you should call Superman that," Lena says, though she sounds anything but amused. "Lex could never tolerate that name… I think Lois Lane coined it?" (She did.) "Man of Steel, he could understand. Steel is unfeeling, it's cold. It's the opposite of human. So Lex called him that constantly. But to be the man of tomorrow… I think my brother always wanted that title for himself. I think he felt he deserved it."
In bringing up her brother, she has nearly talked around my implied question: did she ever design weapons?
"No. Never," she insists.
Some have said that it is hard to believe that Lena had no idea what was going on right under her nose for all of that time. That even if she wasn't complicit, at the very least she turned a blind eye.
"Am I my brother's keeper?" Lena quips, then deflates. "Looking back, I suppose there were signs. Lex always kept me exclusively on our smaller, more domestic products. But remember: that's what my academic background was. Outside of a class or two, I'd never touched weapons engineering, or anything like it. I thought… I thought he was just trying to make sure I'd shine, by putting me in the best position to succeed."
Throughout the second half of her answer, Lena's assistant—Jessica Hoang—has been trying to get her attention. Lena excuses herself; as she and Ms. Hoang exchange apparently intense words in the corner of the room, I take the opportunity to take in the atmosphere of the lab. You would never know, from stepping into this room, that the wife of the company's founder is on trial for crimes against humanity, or that its previous CEO is serving thirty-two consecutive life sentences; despite all odds, the L-Corp offices are filled with a pervasive sense of unmistakable optimism.
I ask one of the senior engineers, who prefers to remain anonymous, what it's like having Lena as a boss.
"I used to come into board meetings to find Lionel had brought her with him—this little thing, scabby at the knees, sitting in the corner coloring in her coloring book. And every once in a while, he'd ask her to do a calculation and she would—just like that. Never even looked up from her crayons. You can't teach smarts like that. I knew then that I'd follow her anywhere… because she'd clearly know where she was going."
It seems that everyone at L-Corp has a story like this. Longtime staff members talk about watching Lena grow up, about legacies, about her brilliance. New hires talk about how she put them at ease during interviews, about how good the health plan is, about how they know that if they're at work, then Lena's at work, too. Several women, over the course of my time shadowing Lena, approach me separately to explain how when Lena heard what they were making at their last jobs, or even under her brother, she doubled their salary on the spot. One intern tells me about the time Lena fetched a screwdriver from a supply closet and helped him dismantle a vending machine when it ate his dollar, trapping his Bugles against the glass.
"There is nothing I wouldn't do for Lena Luthor," he vows, and I believe him.
Before long, Lena returns with apologies—something had needed her attention, and it simply couldn't wait.
Another work crisis?
Lena shakes her head. "Death threat," she says, as casually as you or I might say lunchtime or weather report.
WE TOUR the lab a little longer, Lena showing off designs so cutting edge that descriptions cannot be included in this article without violating my NDA. As of now, L-Corp has several patent applications on public record—including a voice-activated home security system, software apps for drones, and, as previously reported, a device that is said to be able to detect non-humans—but Lena says the future of the company lies somewhere beyond what they currently call 'self-defense technology.'
"I think that there's a lot of fear out there about what technology can do—how it's responsible for weakening interpersonal communities and how it can't be trusted. Nobody likes to feel surveilled. But for me, technology—science, engineering—these were the things that gave me the tools I needed to understand my world. To actually connect with it. In the coming years, you can expect to see L-Corp's attentions shift more toward making STEM accessible and relatable."
And in the meantime, she's putting the company's money where her mouth is. In the past month alone, L-Corp's largest charitable donations have been to the county public schools—funding initiatives to build new science labs, replace outdated textbooks, and give laptops to low-income students.
"My brother's actions were unforgivably violent and ignorant, but… at the core of it, he thought he was fulfilling the company's purpose: contributing to the advancement of the human race. I'd like to think that we're finally returning to that original mission statement."
We're about to part ways when it happens—for once, Lena isn't the hottest story in town, death threats notwithstanding. Supergirl is due to take the stand today in the Cadmus trial, and I can't be in two places at once.
As Lena is in the middle of offering me the use of her company driver, an explosion rocks the lab floor.
(There are some that have criticized the fact that Lena has not attended every day of the trial's proceedings. Watching as she charges through the smoke, stepping on the wreckage of one of her own designs to make sure her employees are okay, it seems more surprising to me that she's been able to attend at all.)
I stay long enough to confirm that everyone is safe, and that this was a typical lab accident—not the promised attempt on Lena's life. "Just a miscalculation," Lena promises. "And since all the math went through me, it was probably my mistake."
When I leave, Lena is taking apart a smoldering piece of machinery with her bare hands; her manicured fingers becoming blackened with soot and oil, tangled in wire and twisted clockwork gears.
BY SOME twist of fate, I return to Lena's office that night just in time to see Supergirl touch down on her balcony. It seems we both wanted to check in with her after a long day at the courthouse.
We find Lena asleep at her desk—the parts of the device that exploded that morning spread out before her. I make to tell Supergirl about the death threat, but there's no need: the letter itself is open on Lena's desk right next to the broken device, the collage of magazine cut-outs spelling out a litany of hate. This particular missive expresses doubt that Lena has truly turned her back on her mother—insinuates that Lena is playing both sides, and that she'll pay for it.
("Frankly," Lena says later, "getting death threats from non-family members is something of a refreshing change.")
Supergirl clears her throat, gently but crystal clear, and Lena jerks awake.
It feels like I'm not even here, for all that seems to silently pass between them. Supergirl asks if she can speak with "Ms. Luthor" privately, only to then take Lena out on the balcony—letting me have the office to myself. They converse in front of a fully transparent but regretfully sound-proof window.
Looking at these two women, framed against the night sky, it is almost hard to remember that they are two of the most powerful people in the country. Going by body language, they don't come off as titans or leaders—just friends, catching up after a rough week.
Ironically, it's not the wailing of some distant siren calling Supergirl away that brings their conversation to an end; it's the ringing of Lena's office telephone. Lena seems mortified when she finds me still sitting on her couch, showering me in apologies for wasting the evening. I assure her it's still been productive—not a stretch.
As I walk out, I hear her pick up.
"Lena Luthor. What can I do for you?"
SUPERGIRL OFFERS to fly me home, "so I can avoid the cab fare"—as if I'd turn her down. As we lift off, I gain a newfound respect for the staff at the Daily Planet; maintaining editorial distance while being cradled in the arms of a preternaturally strong alien requires every ounce of professionalism I have.
I ask if she'd like to give a statement about Lena for this profile.
"Of course! People never believe me when I say this, but Lena and I have become very close. I trust her completely."
Complete trust means something a little different when you're being held fifty stories up without any scientific explanation as to why you're not falling. It's an affecting statement.
But the Luthor name—it really doesn't bother her?
"No more than… well. When I first got here, I struggled with the fact that people constantly compared me to my cousin. And I was lucky—I was only asked to uphold his good reputation. Lena's under all of those same pressures, but with the expectation doubled and reversed. You'd think with the bar set low, it would mean it's easy to get over, but instead it's built to trip her up. I think expecting that not to be hard on her is unfair. We understand that about each other. What it's like to carry a name."
Not all of us in National City are privileged enough to have terraces that act as landing platforms, so it's a bit awkward as Supergirl shoves me gently through my own bedroom window to drop me off. Still, I press one more time. Surely there must be some underlying conflict between the Girl of Steel and the Luthor heiress. How similar could they be?
Supergirl shakes her head, smiling in a way that reminds me that she's not of Earth. She gestures to the insignia on her chest.
"Do you know what this stands for?"
Now that she's asked, it feels like a trick question, but I venture everyone's best guess: an S, for super.
"It's not an S. Not on my planet. In my language, this letter—it means L. The House of El. My family."
Over Supergirl's shoulder, the neon glow of the L on the L-Corp building is visible in the distance. Shining in the dark.
"Do you see?" she asks.
TWO DAYS later, I'm standing with Lena Luthor at the edge of her family's property in Napa Valley, drenched in sunshine.
She's kicked her heels off to do some stretching, cramped after the last few hours in the car. Famously afraid of flying—a phobia that has only gotten worse since her helicopter crash last year—but reluctant to drag her chauffeur out on such a long excursion over a weekend, Lena suggested we make the drive ourselves. For those wondering, Lena Luthor makes a surprisingly pleasant road trip buddy, provided you prefer podcasts to singalongs.
Despite the fact that we made the trip out specifically to tour the estate, Lena seems a little surprised when her key works.
"Home sweet home," she says, with a grimace that could almost pass for a smile.
The Luthor compound is everything you would imagine it to be: austere, remote, and impressive. Even with most of the furniture under dust sheets, giving the place a half-finished, ghostly air, it's hard not to be intimidated by the luxury.
Lena feels it, too. For her, the memories in this house are complex, and often conflicting. Though she felt she lived under constant scrutiny, this is nevertheless where she was raised by the only family she's ever really known—and where, she still maintains, she was loved by them.
"They were always explaining things to me. Not—that sounds condescending, when I say it like that, and that isn't it. Rather… there was never any doubt as to my intelligence. If Father was up late in his office working on a merger, he'd sit me on his lap and tell me how the acquisition worked. If Mother was planning an event, she would ask me for my opinions on the colors, the food, the space. And Lex… Lex opened the world up."
It takes her a moment to formulate an answer when I ask her to elaborate.
"Making ginger bread houses for Christmas became lessons in architecture and structural engineering. Jumping rope was physics; Go Fish was statistics and probability. Even when I was very small, he'd make these little jokes—'Mother just canceled an order of forty cakes for this party. That's as many as four tens, and that's terrible.' He sat with me and edited every English essay I ever turned in—even did it over the phone, once I went away to school, though I'm sure he had better things to do than help his kid sister with her homework. He was always available, always challenging me. 'Why do you like this? What makes it worthwhile?' He taught me to articulate my thoughts, rather than just state my opinions. He was the first person I came out to. He made me feel… limitless. Like he was."
Her smile goes sour. "But I suppose that's another way of saying he never felt the rules applied to him."
Does she miss him?
"I don't know how to answer that question. I've never visited him in prison, if that's what you mean. But I still… I'll always love him. For what he was. What he could have been."
She takes us back outside through a rear patio door, into the sunshine. The backyard, once a meticulously landscaped garden, has become overgrown and wild.
"During the trial—this is long before I met Winn, remember—I did a lot of reading, about… about other people in my position. There's quite a few of us. The left-behinds. Timothy McVeigh—the Oklahoma City bomber—he had a sister six years his junior. Jennifer. And they were incredibly close; they adored each other. So when her brother—a war veteran, her idol—recommended her books to read, she gave them a try. When he told her the American government was targeting innocent citizens, she believed him. When he asked her to lie on the phone if people came looking for him, she did. And when he asked her to mail things to him—rounds of ammunition that he couldn't buy himself—she did that, too. And why wouldn't she? He was her brother."
Here, Lena pauses, overcome. She picks at her fingernails as she collects herself. "I tried calling her, once. To see if she had any wisdom to impart, any advice. Or maybe just to see if she found peace."
"She never picked up. I don't know that I can blame her. In her position… maybe I'd do the same."
Three minutes later, Lena gets a call from an unknown number. Belying her statement, she answers it on the first ring.
THOUGH THE Luthor mansion has been empty since Lionel Luthor's death in 2011—Lex preferring a penthouse suite in Metropolis and Lillian (it is now known) going underground to create Project Cadmus—it only recently occurred to Lena that the property could be repurposed.
"For the longest time, I wanted nothing to do with it. But after moving to National City, and meeting several new friends… I realized that just because this place is haunted for me doesn't mean it can't do good for others. Of course, then I had to fight for it."
She walks me through the many steps it took for her to procure the land in her own name. All of the Luthor family's assets were frozen in response to the constant litigation, and since Lionel left the estate to Lex in his will, it had become property of the state after the massive seizure of Lex's holdings. A half-dozen government agencies, both local and federal, did full investigations on the property before they allowed it to be returned to Lena's hands.
I had to ask—did they find anything? Any secret villainous lairs, hidden passageways, or dungeons full of torture devices?
Lena smirks. "The most ominous thing they found was a cask of amontillado in the wine cellar—but that's Lex's sense of humor for you."
But soon the wine cellar, and the rest of the house with it, will be nothing but memories. Lena has scheduled a full demolition of her childhood home for next month, though she's planning on keeping the gardens, swimming pool, tennis courts and helipad. In place of the mansion, Lena is supervising construction on California's first privately-run alien safe haven. A part of President Marsdin's Alien Amnesty Act, safe havens are still rare and under-funded; only three are fully operational, with one each in Metropolis, New York, and Orlando.
She's calling it the Luthor Exclusive House for Metahumans and Extraterrestrials—or, the LEX HOME.
Her very own House of El.
"I admit, that's an act of ego on my part—naming it after him. Some have said, perhaps rightly, that invoking his name may scare off some of the people for whom we're hoping to provide safe haven. I know some are offended. But I assure you," she says with a smirk, "nobody is more offended about it than him, and that makes it feel worth it to me."
By the time this goes to print, the news about the LEX HOME will have already broken. It is easy to guess at the conversations on the horizon: not just the criticisms Lena foresees, but the whole gamut of discourse, from those skeptical of a change of heart from any Luthor to those worried that putting a safe haven in a place so famous as a Luthor mansion will only make it a target.
But right now—as we stand at the heart of the Luthor property, Lena pointing out where various LEX HOME facilities and features are to be built, I find myself stuck on her previous remark. On wanting to spite her brother so badly (or is it play a joke on him?) that she'd be willing to face so much scrutiny, just to know his response.
I ask Lena to imagine that Lex will read this profile. Is there anything she wants to say to him?
She thinks a long while before answering.
"I suppose… I suppose I'd ask him…" She smiles—helpless, perhaps, and sad, but not defeated. "Why do you like this? What makes it worthwhile?"
And what about the other Lena Luthors of the world? The Winn Schotts, the Jennifer McVeighs?
This time, there's no hesitation.
"Trust yourself," she says, "trust in your own good judgment. The world won't always hand you the safety and kindness you deserve, but you can work for it. But you'll never feel like you've found it if you can't let yourself trust that your own feet got you there."
I spend the rest of the day getting the premier tour of a building that exists, as of now, only in Lena Luthor's brain.
"Do you see?" she asks.
ON OUR way back down the meandering driveway, Lena's phone buzzes. We wait, staring each other down in good-humored suspense—e-mail, or phone call?
It buzzes again, then three times. A phone call.
She puts on a smile and gives me a wink as she answers:
"Lena Luthor. What can I do for you?"
KARA DANVERS is a staff writer at CatCo Magazine. You can find her on Twitter at CatCo_Kara.