Review: Superman/Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Superman/Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

Say what you want about DC's Trinity or the Big 7, but for my money the superhero team-up tradition that started with the Justice Society of America reached its logical apex when Superman finally met Batman nearly fifteen years after they debuted on the scene. Though their relationship has changed significantly since the Silver Age, this partnership is enough to make your average comics fan say, "Avengers, schmavengers."

Published in the midst of the highly popular team-up series that began with Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness's "Public Enemies" arc, Superman/Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told seeks to gather the best of the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight. And perhaps fittingly for a book centered around the World's Finest, this trade is one of the best in the series, hitting all the important notes and serving as a strong primer for what this partnership has looked like over the last 60 years. While some of the stories haven't aged very well, each justifies its own inclusion beyond the one-page introduction, and none is a wasted reading experience.

The sum of the parts being more than the whole in this series, let's take a look at what's inside this volume.

"The Mightiest Team in the World" (Superman #76, May/June 1952): Where better to begin than at the beginning? It's hard to believe it took almost fifteen years for Superman and Batman to cross paths in a shared universe, but Edmond Hamilton's script doesn't worry about why they've never met before. Indeed, the story doesn't worry much about how they meet; the gimmick with an illuminated porthole revealing secret identities is a stretch, but it lets the story focus on the working relationship that forms quickly between the two. The story's iconic nature is aided by the always-capable pencils of Curt Swan, and the wonderful concept is executed so well that it's telling to see the story paid homage fifty years later at the end of this collection (more on that in a bit).

"Superman's and Batman's Greatest Foes" (World's Finest Comics #88, May/June 1957): After the World's Finest teamed up, it was only a matter of time until the World's Foulest -- Lex Luthor and The Joker -- did so as well. Hamilton's back on story duty, and this one is a bit more paint-by-numbers than its predecessor: Lex Luthor and The Joker wreak nefarious mischief by pooling their resources, confounding the World's Finest by seemingly going legitimate and inventing cybernetic Mechano-Men. Though the story doesn't break new ground like its predecessor, kudos to Hamilton for keeping me guessing on what the two were actually up to. Dick Sprang's artwork is more cartoony than Swan's, especially his Joker's elongated face and brutally high shoulders. Ultimately it's an important story, and a well-told one, at that.

"The Composite Superman" (World's Finest Comics #142, June 1964): Hamilton and Swan (the World's Finest in this collection?) reunite to create the foe who is most recognizably a Superman/Batman rogue, The Composite Superman -- half Superman, half Batman, and with all the powers of the entire Legion of Super-Heroes. Coming from a reader who was only aware of the Composite Superman as the large rocket built by Hiro Okamura in Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, finding out the "secret origin" (as it were) of this character was a real treat. The story isn't entirely successful, relying a bit too much on keeping the audience in the dark in a ham-fisted kind of way, and while the conclusion falls a bit flat, the introduction of the character is iconic in its own right and serves as required reading for any Superman/Batman aficionado.

"The Cape and Cowl Crooks" (World's Finest Comics #159, August 1966): I imagine one of the hardest challenges in a superhero team-up is finding a foe worthy of a combined effort; The Avengers had to go intergalactic with Loki and the Skrulls Chitauri, but in this story Hamilton and Swan go for the hat trick with the Anti-Batman and Anti-Superman collaborating to . . . well, it's not really clear what they're after. They deliver toys to the prisons of Metropolis and Gotham, and they lead the World's Finest on a merry chase, but they're not a major threat. The visual gimmick of wearing modified costumes of their opponents probably locked them into this collection, but the ending is, like most Silver Age stories, extremely predictable and more than slightly gimmicky. This is really the only story that doesn't work on at least some level, and one wonders if there's more potential in these two characters than is employed in this one-off.

"The Superman-Batman Split" (World's Finest Comics #176, June 1968): I've no doubt that this story is in the collection because it's illustrated by Neal Adams, arguably the artistic master of the post-Silver Age DC Universe. It's unfortunate, then, that the editors chose not to reprint the original artwork but opted instead for Adams's more recent altered versions, which are inked more heavily and with less grace than the originals (there are, interestingly enough, entire sites dedicated to scanning unaltered Adams artwork). The story by Cary Bates, in which multiple aliens split the allegiances of Superman and Batman, isn't entirely engaging; its major twist is a touch predictable, but it's great to see Batgirl and Supergirl joining the World's Finest with Robin and Jimmy Olsen for a regular Justice League of Awesome. The story is infectiously fun and multiplies the action -- a trend I've noticed throughout this volume -- but I can't help but feel that the original inks by Dick Giordano have been distractingly overwritten to the detriment of the reader.

"A Matter of Light and Death" (World's Finest Comics #207, November 1971): This story posits an interesting question -- can Batman stop Clark Kent from taking out a hit on Superman? It's a head-scratching premise by Len Wein, who pitches an incredibly original concept in this story, and even though the execution is a bit too protracted to be truly exciting, the central mystery will likely keep readers engaged. (Pay very close attention, though; the answer of why Clark Kent wants Superman dead is delivered in one quick panel in the midst of a long monologue.) Dick Dillin's artwork is effective but didn't distinguish itself to my eye the way that Adams or Swan did earlier (or Byrne and Sale, later). While the master villain is difficult to take seriously in a post-mindwipe world, the threat posed to Superman is tangible enough that Batman's involvement feels invaluable.

"One Night in Gotham City" (Man of Steel #3, November 1986): Now this is what I'm talking about. When I started reading comics, this was my first Batman/Superman team-up, and its inclusion here is practically a given. As an older reader, I realize now just how hard John Byrne is working to distance the post-Crisis World's Finest from the Silver Age's "super best friends" approach (including a cute wink at being friends "in a different reality"), but Byrne's efforts pay off in this creation of a new and starkly original take on the world's greatest partnership. Superman is, if it can be believed, more earnest than ever, and Batman is shady and suspicious without being the distrustful caricature that appeared in most post-No Man's Land tales. The art, too, is elegant, bespeaking just how influential Byrne's Superman reboot was to the pre-Flashpoint DC Universe. Heads up, Warner: if there's to be a Superman/Batman film after Man of Steel, "One Night in Gotham City" is the perfect place to start.

"A Better World" (Batman & Superman: World's Finest #7, October 1999): This story, written by Karl Kesel and illustrated by Peter Doherty, was part of a maxiseries (I still remember the in-house ads from monthlies at the time) which placed the post-Crisis World's Finest at important moments in DC continuity; here we check in just after Superman returns from Exile and while Batman mourns the death of Jason Todd. It's a time of quiet and reflective transition for both heroes, with each pondering the nature of their "no killing" rule, and Kesel nails the tense dynamic between two men who are too strong to admit how wounded they are but who know they can rely on each other for support without asking. The art by Doherty is a little weird; Bruce and Clark's faces look too similar out of costume, and a panel with The Joker looks like a bizarre comical anticipation of Lee Bermejo's Joker. But Kesel's script is the draw, finding compelling dialogue between the two with nary a super-crisis in sight. After reading this story, I'm sorry to see it's so hard to find; hopefully it's in the reprint rotation over at DC, especially after the Dave Gibbons miniseries of the same name was recently reprinted.

"When Clark Met Bruce" (Superman/Batman Secret Files 2003): It'd be blasphemy not to include anything from Jeph Loeb's run, and this one-off two-pager introduces Loeb's narration style over a story about how young Clark Kent almost met young Bruce Wayne. It's a storyline comics have always flirted with -- Jor-El met Thomas Wayne in a later issue of Superman/Batman, while Clark met Bruce after winning some kind of 1920s contest in Generations -- but this story, illustrated by Tim Sale in top Superman for All Seasons mode, demonstrates just how far apart these two men began life; it's sold by some great coloring by Mark Chiarello. While it might be a bit of a surprise pick, considering how important much of Loeb's Superman/Batman work was to continuity, it's a small treat which puts a different spin on the World's Finest.

"Stop Me If You've Heard This One . . ." (Superman/Batman Annual #1, December 2006): The book closes with a retelling of "The Mightiest Team," recasting Superman and Batman's first meeting aboard that cruise ship as a high-stakes multiversal assassination scheme, with the Crime Syndicate, Deathstroke, and . . . Deadpool? Joe Kelly and a jam session of artists spend so much time winking at continuity and company crossovers that it's difficult not to have a little bit of fun, and having just read the story on which this is riffing the reader gets even more out of the experience. While the story is almost assuredly out of continuity, the tone Kelly sets never lets that be troubling; in fact, the revelation of just how this story "happened" is a real crowd-pleaser. In short, it's a fun way to end the book and show us just how far these two have come since their "first meeting."

If there's one thing true about comics fans, it's that we can always find something to complain about. With that in mind, there are a few stories that might have been included here -- or which could comprise a second volume. Segments from The Dark Knight Returns or Kingdom Come could prove interesting in relation to Byrne's "One Night in Gotham City." I'm partial to the team-up from The Batman Adventures #25, in which the "Super Friends" take down Maxie Zeus and ginger clone Lex Luthor, and the precedent set by the Shazam! collection makes it not unfeasible. And even though I knocked the Trinity in my introduction, there's probably room for a Trinity story in here showing how Wonder Woman's presence affects the dynamic between the two.

But if my biggest complaint about the volume is that there's more good stuff out there, the editors have done a rather fine job, particularly because it makes me want to read more rather than just complain about what I don't have; indeed, I'll be first on the pre-order list if DC decides to release a second volume. Unlike many of the collections in this series, Superman/Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told benefits from a strong historical focus and hits all the major iconic moments. It's a great read for fans old and new, especially in light of the success of that other superhero team-up from last summer.

Next time around, justice takes a holiday as the Clown Prince of Crime steals the stage in The Joker: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. Stay tuned!

More Greatest Stories reviews: Superman Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Batman Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Justice League, Shazam, and Batgirl.
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  1. Composite Superman--half Superman, half Batman! So naturally he has the powers of the Legion of Super-Heroes.

    I mean, I know they explain why it works that way in his origin, which involves lightning, a pissed-off janitor/former diver and lifeless clones of the Legion. But still, it's like the Composite Wolverine-Spider-Man having the powers of the Slingers.

  2. I have to admit, I've started reading these Greatest Stories reviews simply to experience the author's continually exasperated impressions. Yet this one was a pleasant surprise, and does by all counts sound every bit as awesome as represented.

  3. Tony - "Continually exasperated" is a good way to describe it. I don't want to say the editors did a rubbish job here, but I have to imagine these volumes would have been more successful if they had been subject to some kind of fan poll... especially volumes like Batgirl and Green Lantern.

    Doug - All I can say is, "Comics, man..."