Author: Jeph Loeb
Illustrator(s): Ed McGuinness, Dexter Vines.
The Silver Age of superhero comics began in the 1950s, and while it effectively ended before the 1980s, the finale came to the DC Universe with Crisis on Infinite Earths, a comic-book mini-series which wiped out the universe, allowing DC Comics to start again with a new reality, populated by their most marketable heroes, and free of the clutter of past continuity. Crisis was further retconned by Zero Hour and then again by The Kingdom, leaving certain aspects of continuity in doubt.
Despite a maturing of sorts that occured in most comics, the Silver Age had trapped Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the others in a continuity that did not suit the emerging comic-reading culture. The post-Crisis universe tried to solidify trends that had been emerging in comic-books since the 1960s. Generally, the artwork and plotting were taken more seriously. Under the influence of early Marvel Comics characters became, if not exactly realistic, at least more like real people than they'd been, with flawed judgment, personal problems, and quirky personalities. While super-hero comics retained the fantastic as a key genre element, writers and editors put vague limits on how fantastic a given comic-book could be, so that it would retain some connection to the world an increasingly older readership inhabited.
Despite disputes among creators and fans, the post-Crisis DC proved generally popular; many of its early efforts represent the best of twentieth-century super-hero comic-books. The better titles struck a balance between the deliberately juvenile escapist appeal of the characters and their adventures, and the desire to place those characters and adventures in a more mature world.
Then, over the course of the 1990s, DC started undoing those changes. While elements of sophisticated characterization and higher production remain, the DC Universe slowly took on a cartoonier, more-Silver Age sensibility. The changes did not happen all at once. One storyline, however, best embodies and solidifies the transformation: the first six issues of Superman/Batman, the current incarnation of World's Finest, a title which has a long history.
In 1939, DC/National released World's Fair #1, in which Superman, Batman, and Robin stop evil-doings at, not surprisingly, the 1939 World's Fair. They had a second issue in 1940, and then changed the title to World's Best and, an issue later, to World's Finest. It ran for more than forty years, chronicling the adventures of Superman and Batman. Although they usually appeared together on the cover, they did not share adventures within until the 1950s. At that point, shared adventures became typical fare for the comic. In 1983, with Crisis, World's Finest ceased publication. Batman and Superman's friendship was no longer a given. They had differing methods, and only gradually grew to respect and like each other.
Superman/Batman #1 appeared in 2003.
A fragment of Superman's home planet, Krypton, has somehow made it to our solar system, on a collision course with earth. A maddeningly non-specific warning from Superman's future self (the gratuitous and dubious use of time-travel was typical of the Silver Age) informs some heroes that the meteor will succeed; the plan to stop it has a fatal flaw.
Meanwhile, President Lex Luthor announces that Superman himself has arranged this event to destroy the world, though his proof cannot be released to the public for reasons of national security (Luthor even mentions the Homeland Security Act in #5). Heroes are conscripted to bring in the Man of Steel; less pure-hearted metahumans rush in to collect a billion-dollar bounty.
Superman turns to the Batman for help. Much of issue #4 consists of the World's Finest team cutting a path through their would-be captors. Of course they do-- but we're left wondering how anyone manages to challenge these guys in their regular comics. Meanwhile, that meteor is still on its way.
While Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman retain their iconic purity, other metahumans do not come off so well as our principal heroes. Many of them work for Luthor even though they know he's not the philanthropist he pretends to be, even believes that he is. Some, of course, turn out to be working for Luthor to keep tabs on him, and some refuse to cooperate; many, however, follow him willingly and willfully.
As has become tradition in many of DC's post-Crisis series, the peachy-keen Captain Marvel comes off looking bad. For someone with the Wisdom of Solomon, the good Captain demonstrates poor judgment. Perhaps this is inevitable. DC originally sued the character out of existence because he was a blatant rip-off of Supes, Pepsi to their Kryptonian Coke. By the time they acquired the rights to the character, they were in rivalry with a company which bore his name. Within the reality of the series, he remains the most black and white of heroes in his moral views, the most conservative and law-abiding, and this perhaps explains why he puts himself at President Luthor's beck and call.
Of course, Batman and Superman retain some very strong allies among the super-folk.
Post-Crisis, the Silver Age Superman and Batman "Families" had been eliminated. Superman had no previous Superboy career; there were no super-pets, no other Kryptonian survivors. Supergirl, who had died in Crisis, retroactively never existed. Batgirl was put out of commission, and Batwoman, Ace the Bathound, and Bat-mite simply never were. Batman, initially, had no batmobile; he drove an unmarked dark car. Only when thirteen-year-old Dick Grayson became the first Robin did the trademark vehicle finally appear, the suggestion of a child. Post-Crisis, DC felt it had to justify such "silly" elements.
Over the years, however, a few new Supergirls have (re)appeared, along with a Superboy, Krypto the superdog, and a new Batgirl. They all make appearances in this series, and while the Pooch of Steel's cameo is amusing1, they prove pretty much irrelevant to the plot. As in the Silver Age, wonders and imitations of wonders get dragged out like parade floats to amuse the kiddies. Funnybook spectacle triumphs over character and plot. As in the Silver Age, these elements are simply accepted, with the apparent feeling that more is better.
While tighter plotting has been demanded by comic fans in the last thirty years, Superman/Batman contains holes that you could fly the Legion of Superheroes through. Most notable is the unexplained origin of the disguise adopted by the World's Finest team between #4 and #5, and a depiction of what passes when Powergirl and Katanna find the Toyman. These things are integral to the plot; we're expected to just accept that stuff happened offstage, and read on, in the easy-going hack manner of older school comics.
Once again, we get the inherent silliness of costumed heroes bleeding over into all aspects of the world, so that the Toyman not only rapidly builds a rocket ship to help Superman and Batman, he makes it look like an anime battle-bot, a sort of mecha-Superman-Batman with a spitcurl that recalls Harry Potter's scar. "I guess we were expecting something a little more conservative," says a startled Man of Steel. Most notably, however, the super-silliness occurs with President Lex Luthor's transformation into a cartoony super-villain.
President Lex Luthor?
As Jet-Poop says, "damn those butterfly ballots!" Pre-Crisis, Luthor had been an obsessed evil genius who eventually took to wearing battle armour with enough power to challenge the Man of Steel. Post-Crisis, he became a genius billionaire industrialist who hid behind the respectable facade of Lexcorp. This makes a lot more sense than living in dingy hideaways, struggling to keep one step ahead of the law. The post-Crisis Lex also did not see himself as evil; he believed in his own motives, and saw his actions as morally justified.
Eventually, he became President, a position he holds at the start of this series.
However, Superman/Batman reveals that Lex has been taking a variation of the injections used by Batman's foe, Bane, and modifying them with green kryptonite. This has enhanced his abilities, but also warped his mind. An already ethically-challenged man with a synthetically warped mind is a dangerous character indeed, especially in a universe where such people can contact, say, extraterrestrials like the demonic Darkseid, who has provided Lex with alien technology. At the end of issue #5, Lex dons a variation of his early 1980s battle armour. Here we see the leap from post-Crisis sensibility to a modified Silver Age one; Lex Luthor goes from corrupt elected official with a grudge against Superman to hystrionic evil-doer in high-tech purple and green threads.
A single-panel shot wherein the staff of the Daily Planet react to the president's battle-armour presents a high point, and shows one of the differences between the old Silver Age and the current Silver-Agesque; the characters recognize how ridiculous their world is.
What would we do, after all, if the President of the United States suddenly presented himself as the pulp-hero saviour of the world? It would be too ludicrous for words.
The sloppy plot develops, becoming tighter towards its climax. Lex Luthor, in true super-villain fashion, talks candidly throughout his battle with Superman, exposing his own evil for all the world to see. He also loses all of his money in a swift plot development; Bruce Wayne ends up with some of these assets. Superman throws punches and clears his own name. Then, the Lexcorp Towers collapse, a bit of ponderous symbolism which needlessly recalls the destruction of the World Trade Center. Lex, standing battered at ground zero, survives, but only the readers see that this has happened, and only the writers know how. He is once more the Silver Age arch-criminal. I wonder about this decision. Business Class Lex made more sense, and proved a nastier foe than his earlier incarnation. Superman operates openly and honestly, and could not simply engage in battle an enemy who hid behind the law and corporate privilege. In any case, obsessed super-maniacs are far too commonplace in comics, and I'm not certain DC needs Luthor to become another.
As for that kryptonite meteor, Captain Atom sacrifices his life-- ambiguously, however-- to stop it, using advice from the future Superman and help from the usually-terrible Toyman. Of course, the meteor shatters, and fragments land all over the world, meaning that, as in the Silver Age (and on the Smallville tv show) the green rocks will once again be available whenever a writer cannot think of a good way to keep Superman in check.2
The artwork is better than what one finds in the average superhero title, and the story features a few good moments, including parallel narration by the principal characters. Overall, however, these first issues of Superman/Batman have far-reaching implications for DC's immediate future, but not a whole lot else to recommend them.
1. White House Security vs an invulnerable flying dog with heat vision.
2. Even petty thieves routinely carried kryptonite back in the Silver Age; one was left to conclude that kryptonite and lead-lined masks were sold by convenience stores in disreputable parts of town.
Portions of this node appear in reviews written for http://www.bureau42.com and at at a now-defunct website
by this writer.