DC and MARVEL present
The Greatest Superhero Team-up of all time!
The Battle of the Century
Writer: Gerry Conway
Artists: Ross Andru, Dick Giordano, Jerry Serpe
Editors: every big name at Marvel and DC
The industry giants had collaborated once before, on an adaptation of MGM's adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, but that comic had not involved their characters. Wizard was the trial run; for the American bicentennial, their best-selling heroes would meet.
Some comic-book crossovers present their characters as inhabitants of alternate universes; most DC/Marvel team-ups since have taken that approach. But for their first such comic (and a sizable number since), the characters simply share the same world, but have never met before.
What makes this approach interesting is the vast difference between Marvel and DC Comics at the time. In 1976, Marvel still retained most of its angsty, quasi-realistic 1960s tone (indeed, its characters were just starting to prolong their ages unrealistically), while DC's ethos remained stubbornly in comicdom's Silver Age.
Prologue 1: Superman
The first chapter concerns Superman and Lex Luthor. Luthor needs a computer component being manufactured by S.T.A.R. Labs in Metropolis for some nefarious scheme, about which we shall hear more later. With all of the options available to him, he builds a giant robot and stomps across the city. Of course, there's a method to his madness: he wants to draw out Superman (which a really big robot stomping through buildings in Metropolis might reasonably do) because he plans to kill him.
Superman, of course, takes time to solve mysteries which are aimed at the youngest readers; it doesn't occur to him (or, apparently, anyone else in Metropolis) until some time later to just follow the robot's tracks to see whence it came. This leads him to Luthor's undersea base, where he handily escapes a death trap and nabs Lex, but only after the evil scientist has spirited away the computer component.
Yes, this is the Lex Luthor of the 1970s. He's the outright criminal whom DC retconned from existence in the 1980s, and to which they then returned in 2004. He has abandoned his earlier wardrobe of prison grays and lab coats, but he has not yet adapted the infamous powered-up space-suit. At this point, he wears a long underwear-esque purple and green ensemble, with jet-boots, laser gloves, and a Batman-style utility belt.
In any case, Luthor's presence in this historic comic was assured. In all of his incarnations, he has been Superman's #1 foe.
Prologue 2: Spider-man
With Spider-man, it's not so clear whether the title of "Arch-enemy" belongs to the Green Goblin or Otto Octavius, aka Dr. Octopus. The latter, however, clearly works better with Luthor, and so it is he whom Spider-man encounters while stopping a break-in at a museum and photographing the fact for The Daily Bugle.
Octopus not only has a gang of thugs with him, he has created his own super-villain vehicle, the "Flying Octopus."
"And I thought the Spider-mobile was a fiasco," opines the webslinger. Ock gets away, this first time and, in keeping with his flawed life, Spidey runs out of web-fluid at the worst possible moment. He plants a spidey-tracer on Octavius, however, and later intercepts him when the Flying Octopus, disguised as the Goodyear Blimp, passes the Empire State Building. So Ock finds himself in custody, and in a typical fashion, Peter Parker is on the outs with his girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson, because he had to run out on a date in order to capture the criminal.
Prologue 3: Lex Luthor and Dr. Octopus
"Several miles southwest of Deming, New Mexico," opens Prologue 3, "there stands a strange sight, rising from the desert like a great gray mirage." It is "Federal Maximum-X Security Penitentiary Number One," used to detain "super" criminals.
It is here that Luthor and Octavius first meet.
In a bizarre scene which would be directly referenced in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Luthor peels from his arm a false epidermis, apparently so realistic that his strip-search did not reveal it, nor the many technological marvels beneath. Somehow, he's managed to store enough material to build an escape kit, and one which apparently required that Dr. Octopus be present. He quickly slaps together a sonic generator whose pulses drive people to sleep, a power cel which recharges Octavius's neutralized arms, and earplugs for both.
The pair escape, "and all across the earth, even in their ignorance-- people tremble just a bit tonight."
Chapter 1: A Duel of Titans
New York City hosts the World News Conference, which brings Clark Kent, Peter Parker, and their supporting casts together. As an interesting footnote, the chapter features a gag which would be repeated in 1978's Superman: The Movie; a frantic hero goes to the phone booths to change, only to find they've been replaced with phone stalls.
The title misleads; the heroes do not actually duel until Chapter 2.
Chapter 2: When Heroes Clash!
The chapter's premise, thanks to Marvel, had already become a cliché. In comics, whenever a pair of superheroes team up, they inevitably mistake each other's motives, duke it out for awhile, realize they've been tricked, and then shake hands before heading out after the real villains.
So, how to make that work when one of the characters so entirely overpowers the other?
Luthor and Octopus grab Lois Lane as a gratuitous hostage and frame Superman. Inadvertantly, they also capture Mary Jane, a move which sets Spidey against Supes. Seeing the confrontation about to happen, the villains shoot the webslinger with a dose of red sun radiation. Since Superman loses his invulnerability when bathed with such radiation, this means that Spidey can knock around Superman. Thus enhanced, Spider-man proves temporarily able to match blows with the Man of Steel.
See the first paragraph of this section if you've forgotten what happens next. Or read nearly any first-time crossover comic and substitute Supes and Spidey for its heroes.
Chapter 3: The Call of Battle!
The chase leads our heroes to a boobytrapped warehouse (Luthor and Ock have been busy since escaping one night earlier), and then to Africa, where they find a hidden base, guarded by an altered man. They arrive too late; the villains have headed into space, to the abandoned satellite headquarters of DC's Injustice Gang.
Chapter 4: The Doomsday Decision
The shuttle Lex and Ock borrows is a two-seater. How they got Mary-Jane and Lois Lane on board the satellite remains somewhat unclear. Not far off orbits Comlab, a technological marvel which has been launched to coincide with the news conference.
The mix of comic-book and real-world technology is odd, to say the least. Comlab (clearly modelled on Skylab) is no more sophisticated than anything NASA might have actually built, save for an onboard super-laser. Luthor and Octavius, meanwhile, hide out on the defunct Injustice Gang's satellite headquarters, a very high-tech marvel of the sort we were supposed to have by the late twentieth century. As always, in comic books, it's unclear how such things coexist, with the technology so often used by heroes and villains having minimal impact on the rest of the world.
Superman flies to the satellite; Spidey gets to borrow a space shuttle. Apparently, being a brilliant science student and ace photographer means you can pilot spacecraft. The villains' plan is to take over Comlab, using the component Luthor stole in Prologue 1, and use its laser to wreak havoc on the world, unless the world pays them ten billion dollars!-- an amount which might even cover Luthor's expenses at this point. As a bonus, Luthor has planned to use Lois to lure Superman to his death. This raises a conundrum. Superman uses his dual identity to protect those close to him; what good is that, when everyone knows the name of Superman's girlfriend?
Luthor, however, goes overboard, and decides to destroy the world, anyway, by using the laser to create super-tsunamis (What? No one has filled the "How to make a super-tsunami with one laser" node?), in "the final culmination" of his "black ambition!"
The two heroes' varied abilities are put to the test. Spidey has to punch out Luthor and switch off the laser, with the help of Doc Ock, who doesn't, in fact, want the world destroyed. Superman, meanwhile, has to stop a 200-mile tidal wave from destroying the eastern seaboard.
Will they succeed? Will they???
At the story's conclusion, the heroes shake hands again, the villains are incarcerated until next time, and Clark Kent and Peter Parker get great footage of their alter-egos returning to New York. Apparently being kidnapped by villains and taken into outer space to watch the near-destruction of the earth is as ordinary an experience to Mary Jane as it must by now be for Lois, and the two couples head out, arms happily linked, as though nothing untoward has happened.
The comic features no advertisements, but boasts an assortment of extra features, including comments from head honchos Stan Lee and Carmine Infantino, one-page origins of Superman, Spider-man, Lex Luthor, and Doc Ock, and alternate cover concepts. The Superman origin is noteworthy because it refers to the Man of Steel's fight for "truth, justice, and the Terran way."
A second treasury-size team-up appeared in 1981; it references this one. Later Marvel/DC team-ups would incline towards pairing Spider-man and Superman with characters more within their respective weight classes, and generally disregard this historic adventure.