Batman vs Superman battle a long time in the making
“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” which premieres Friday, may confuse those who have thought of the Dark Knight and The Man of Steel as best friends. The strange thing is, the pair have been BFFs for much of their published history — which hasn’t prevented them from coming to blows an embarrassing number of times.
How did these Spandex superstars become the best of frenemies? Weirdly, it began with the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
When the fair opened 77 years ago, National Periodical Publications — the publisher known today as DC Comics — issued a 96-page anthology for the whopping price of 15 cents, a nickel more than usual. Superman, introduced a year earlier and leaping sales figures in a single bound, was an obvious choice for a story therein, and his mighty presence on the cover.
By 1940, DC had another superstar, the mysterious Batman. In the second issue of “World’s Fair Comics,” the Dark Knight joined the Man of Steel on the cover. Both characters had a solo story.
They didn’t meet in the pages of “World’s Fair” #2, but they were pretty chummy on the cover. Which became routine as “World’s Fair” morphed into “World’s Finest Comics.” The cover of each issue of WFC featured Superman, Batman and Robin playing baseball, selling war bonds, going on picnics and otherwise hanging together like the best of buds.
But outside of a couple of cameos with the Justice Society in “All-Star Comics,” the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight never shared a comic book story in those early days (although they did meet on radio). That didn’t happen until “The Mightiest Team in the World” in a 1952 issue of “Superman,” where Batman and Superman not only meet, but exchange secret identities and together play a prank on Lois Lane. Male bonding, I suppose.
That precedent came in handy two years later, when shrinking page counts forced National to drop either the Superman or Batman strip in “World’s Finest Comics.” But the publisher chose a more Solomon-like solution, combining the strips to give the two stars (and Robin) an ongoing team-up. “The World’s Finest Team” — and the superhero world’s most famous friendship — was born.
No doubt this collision of opposites was a challenge for writers, and certain tropes began to repeat. Batman would get super-powers for an issue, and/or Superman would lose them. Lois would snoop around, so the duo would switch identities to throw her off the trail. And, for one reason or another, the two would have to fight.
Those reasons were the usual suspects — well, as far as comics go. They included aliens, sorcerers, robots, cases of mistaken identity, time travel, synthetic kryptonite radio waves, bizarre transformations, imposters, hypnosis, amnesia, evil twins, mind control, hostages, imaginary stories, shapeshifters, dreams, parallel worlds, alternate dimensions and the tried-and-true “hoax,” where one or more characters pull off an elaborate gag (but only with the best of intentions).
Did I mention “rays”? Super-scientific rays were capable of anything in those days. In 1958, aliens from the planet Xylm used a super-powers ray on Batman and a hate-ray on both heroes, resulting in “The Battle of the Super Heroes!” In 1965, a Kryptonian artifact shot rays that evolved Batman 800,000 years into a cruel, big-headed genius, while de-evolving Superman into a dopey, but still super-powered, caveman in “The Infinite Evolutions of Batman and Superman!”
Magic was another go-to for “World’s Finest” writers, because it could affect both heroes equally. Sometimes it was a hoax or some other dodge to get the heroes to fight. But real or not, the supernatural was good for enticing titles like “The Bewitched Batman,” “The Curse that Doomed Superman,” “The Bat Witch,” “The Demon Superman” and “The Fatal Forecasts of Dr. Zodiac!” The stories usually failed to live up to those titles, but there was usually a pretty spiffy cover.
But for all the silliness of the ’60s, some stories took the outlandish status quo of superhero comics to write tales of the human heart. In “The Game of Secret Identities” (“World’s Finest Comics” #149, 1965) Superman’s concern about the safety of his secret identity leads him to brainwash the Dynamic Duo into forgetting his secret ID to see if they can figure out he’s Clark Kent. They do so easily, so Superman — his pride stung — reverses the hypnosis so he can ferret out Batman’s ID. He’s not near the detective Batman is, so the Caped Crusader secretly helps Superman, leaving his pride intact. Why? Because that’s what friends do.
The script was flipped in “The Feud Between Batman and Superman” (“World’s Finest” #143, 1964), where the Dark Knight develops an inferiority complex and quits the team. “I’m not in your league, Clark,” a distraught Bruce Wayne says. “You’re super — I’m not! I’ll be a handicap to you because I’m just an ordinary person!” Fortunately, there’s an emergency in the Bottle City of Kandor, where Superman has no powers. Batman and Robin solve the problem with their time-honored combat and detective skills, while Superman essentially gets punched a lot (once by Batman). Why? Because that’s what friends do.
But comics, like people, grew up over time. By the 1980s the stories in “World’s Finest” had gotten a lot more serious, and sometimes it seemed like Batman and Superman were fighting for real. It all came to a head in 1986, with the publication of two series that would change the World’s Finest Team — and DC Comics — forever.
The first was “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” This 12-issue maxiseries eliminated all of DC’s parallel earths, cramming them all into one universe, and re-launching DC’s major heroes.
And in the new DC Universe, the polar opposites of Batman and Superman didn’t get along. Batman thought Superman too much of a Boy Scout. Superman thought Batman’s modus operandi was borderline criminal.
So, naturally, they came to blows. (Some things never change!) In “Man of Steel” #3 (also 1986) Superman decides to bring this bat-eared outlaw he’s heard about to justice. Batman uses a bluff to keep from becoming Bat-jelly, and the two separate with grudging respect.
The other major book was “Dark Knight Returns,” by Frank Miller (“Daredevil,” “Sin City”). Miller’s story was set in a dystopic near future where Superman is a tool of the government sent to stop an aging Batman, who is making one last crusade to save his city. This is the story that will likely influence “Batman v Superman,” in that the Dark Knight shows up for the Super-rumble in an armored suit powered by kryptonite and Gotham City’s power grid. No spoilers; you have to read the book to find out how that ends.
Miller’s story seems to have influenced every Superman/Batman story since, with writers itching to do their own stories about Son of Krypton vs. Bat of Gotham. Some others include:
■“Red Son,” an “Elseworlds” tale in which Superman’s baby rocket lands in the Soviet Union. The Soviet-trained Superman grows up to succeed Josef Stalin and try to impose a workers’ paradise on Earth. But he keeps getting harassed by an underground terrorist witnesses say looks like a giant bat.
■“Batman: Hush,” is a story that incorporates most of Batman’s friends and foes, including Superman, who ends up being both when Poison Ivy controls his mind.
■“Justice League: Origin” is the result of yet another reboot of the DC Universe, with Batman and Superman meeting again for the first time. This time the Dark Knight isn’t prepared for a Kryptonian, and neither he nor Green Lantern can slow the Man of Tomorrow down for long.
And if those stories and the movie don’t quench your thirst for Batman vs. Superman stories, don’t worry — there are plenty more!
‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’
Running time: 153 minutes