Superman/Batman: Greatest Stories Ever Told

Superman/Batman: Greatest Stories Ever Told 

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-433-1

This most inevitable of hero pairings first occurred on the Superman radio show in the 1940s, but for picture purposes that event happened in the pages of Superman’s own bi-monthly comic (issue #76, May/June 1952). Pulp science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton had the task of revealing how the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader first met and accidentally discovered each other’s identities whilst sharing a cabin on an over-booked cruise liner. Although an average crime-stopper yarn in itself, it was the start of a phenomenon. The art for The Mightiest Team in the World was by the superb Curt Swan, with inking by John Fischetti.

As comic book page counts dwindled, World’s Finest Comics, which had featured solo adventures of the heroes, simply combined the two in one story per issue. Many were illustrated by the legendary and unique Dick Sprang. One particularly fine example is Superman and Batman’s Greatest Foes from World’s Finest Comics #88 (1957), with Hamilton again scripting and Stan Kaye inking a team-up of Lex Luthor and the Joker. The Composite Superman (WFC #142, 1964) and the The Cape and Cowl Crooks (WFC #159, 1966) both came courtesy of Hamilton, Swan and George Klein, and dealt with foes with far mightier powers than our heroes – a major concern for young readers of the times. To this day whenever fans gather the cry eventually echoes out, “Who’s stronger/faster/better dressed…?”

1968 brought radical changes to DC, and edgier stories of the Boy Scout heroes began to appear. From World’s Finest Comics #176, comes The Superman-Batman Split by Cary Bates and the iconoclastic Neal Adams. Ostensibly just another alien mystery story, this twisty little gem has a surprise ending for all and a guest stars Supergirl and Batgirl.

A Matter of Light and Death (WFC #207, 1971) is a fine action-mystery romp by Len Wein, Dick Dillin and Joe Giella, and the last of this volume’s tales to feature the long-standing partnership in its traditional form. After the Crisis on Infinite Earths series rewrote the DC universe in 1985, everything was shaken up and the retooling of Superman by John Byrne the following year in the Man of Steel miniseries re-examined all the Caped Kryptonian’s close relationships in a darker, more cynical light. From the third issue comes a new first meeting with Batman in One Night in Gotham City, written and drawn by Byrne, inked by Dick Giordano.

The venerated title “World’s Finest” has resurfaced a number of times since its cancellation during the 1980s. In 2000 a twelve issue maxi-series re-interpreted the growing friendship of the two characters. A Better World (Superman & Batman: World’s Finest #7) by Karl Kesel, Peter Doherty and Robert Campanella is an introspective and very human discourse of motivation and achievement from the pair. This is followed by a magnificent two-pager from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale first seen in Superman/Batman Secret Files 2003. When Clark Met Bruce posits a road not taken with telling force and subtle wonder.

We come full circle with a retelling of The Mightiest Team in the World from Joe Kelly and a veritable army of artists (Ed McGuinness, Ryan Ottley, Sean Murphy, Carlo Barberi, Dexter Vines, Cliff Rathburn, Don Hillsman II, Bob Petracca, Andy Owens and Rodney Ramos – if you’re keeping score). Originally published in Superman/Batman Annual #1 (2006), Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One… is a retelling of that landmark tale in a thoroughly modern context, with super-villains replacing gangsters, and heavily slanted towards an audience accustomed to action/comedy movie blockbusters, which ends this volume on a very frenetic high note.

These ‘Greatest Stories’ volumes are a smart outreach idea for an industry desperately in need of new and returning consumers. If you accept the premise that everybody has read comics at some time in their life, and that new kids are being born quite a lot, then re-packaging good stories featuring characters that have ‘broken’ on the world stage can only bring new business. For us fanboy vets however, what defines ‘good’ is still a cause for debate. Good thing we’re not the target market then isn’t it?

© 1952, 1957, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1986, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007 DC Comics.
All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Secrets

Batman: Secrets

By Sam Kieth

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-425-0

Fan favourite Sam Kieth returns to the caped crusader for an exploration of media tactics and exploitation in this dark, daft and slightly overblown psycho-drama. Somehow the Joker has convinced a parole–board to release him (and no, there’s no explanation as to how such a body can rule on someone under psychiatric detention, so just let it go) and is doing the chat show rounds, plugging his new book.

He hasn’t actually reformed though: Having seduced and enthralled the truly disturbed assistant D.A. handling his case, Joker plans more mischief — beginning with the murder of her boss. When Batman intervenes, two bystanders photograph the fight and a picture that seems to show our hero torturing the villain gets picked up by all the news services.

This is the spark for a media-storm as the jackals of the fourth estate smell a scoop. One of the news-barons, a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne (they share a bloody youthful secret), is blackmailed by the Joker to lead a witch-hunt to harass Batman whilst the mad clown fuels the media frenzy with fraud and slaughter in semi-successful attempts to frame the Dark Knight.

Batman must conquer his own secret past, save lives, and turn the tables on his manic foe’s most insidious scheme under the corrupt glare of a biased media that no longer has the will to assess or the time to judge the facts and actions it purports to report…

This is an oddly dissatisfying concoction. Kieth is a talented creator, and has some good points to make regarding the “if it bleeds, it leads, one picture is worth a thousand thoughts” mentality behind modern news-gathering. He should also be admired for attempting a slightly different style of story, but hasn’t quite pulled it off here. There are plot holes you could drive the Batmobile through, far too many manic head shots and too few backgrounds, establishing shots or even mid-, medium- and full-body long-shots. Visually, it’s as if he’s fallen for the very philosophical and aesthetic trap he decries in newsmen. Is a dramatic picture more worthy than context or narrative? You decide, obviously, but I’ll stick to style AND substance, if you don’t mind.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol Two

Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told Vol Two 

By Bob Kane & various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-427-7

If you buy into the myth, then there are actually many great Batman stories. Over the decades lots of very talented creators have excelled themselves within Gotham City. Often the real problem is one of context, as many adventures worry reprint editors in terms of Sell-By Date, as if nearly seven decades of creativity can avoid looking dated to some modern consumers. Guys, who cares? They’re the ones who want to remake The Ladykillers and never read any book written before 1989. If they can’t understand history unless it’s got an American accent then they’re not worth the effort.

This selection has opted for a more open-minded interpretation and there is probably something that will appeal to every disparate sub-section of Bat-fan, from Dark Knight to Alien-Busting Boy Scout, since one of the big secrets of the Caped Crusader’s success has been his adaptability. There really is a Batman-for-all-seasons, and I’m sure someone, somewhere has written a thesis on his social mirroring of each popular societal trend.

For us though, there’s a charming and rewarding blend of Dark and Light as we walk the streets of Gotham from the late 1930’s to today.

One smart move is opening with a modern(ish) retelling of the origin and first case by reprinting Roy Thomas and Marshall Rogers’ excellent tale of the Golden Age Batman from Secret Origins #6 (1986) and following with Hugo Strange and the Monsters (Batman #1, 1940), Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson’s pulp masterpiece that was recently reworked by Matt Wagner as Batman and the Monstermen.

From the idyllic 1950s period comes The Career of Batman Jones (Batman #108, 1957), a tale of a boy who wants to be a crime-fighter, by Finger, Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris. And the same team produced Prisoners of Three Worlds, a trans-dimensional sci-fi drama featuring Batwoman and the very first of many Batgirls (Batman #153, 1963). How Many Ways can a Robin Die? (Batman #246, 1972) comes from that edgier period when Batman first regained his grim mystique, and has the hero hunting for his missing partner and an axe-wielding psycho-killer, courtesy of Frank Robbins, Irv Novick, Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano.

The Batman’s Last Christmas comes from Brave and the Bold #184 (1982), a potentially confusing tale for some, as the daughter of the deceased Earth II Batman crosses the dimensional divide to spend the holidays with our hero. Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo keep the scorecards there. Detective #526 (1983) gave us All My Enemies Against Me! an anniversary tale featuring a huge punch-up against nearly two dozen bat-foes and the origin of a new Robin, written by Gerry Conway, drawn by the shamefully neglected and much missed Don Newton, and inked by Alfredo Alcala.

The more-or-less modern Batman is represented by Of Mice and Men (The Batman Chronicles #5, 1996) by Alan Grant, Scott McDaniel and Ray McCarthy and Cave Dwellers by Scott Beatty, Chuck Dixon, Marcos Martin and Alvaro Lopez (Batgirl: Year One #4, 2003), both reinterpreting the early days of the characters for a modern and ostensibly more sophisticated audience, and both doing a good job of it. The volume closes with a stylish pastiche of black and white movie classics with the decidedly odd but engaging Citizen Wayne by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos from The Batman Chronicles #21, 2000.

With judicious selection, there’s probably a good few more tales that could appear in successive volumes, but I’m still a little hesitant with that ‘Greatest Ever’ tag. Surely they can’t all be … No wait, I actually think they can.

© 1940, 1957, 1963, 1972, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Birds of Prey: The Battle Within

Birds of Prey: The Battle Within 

By Simone, & various

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-352-1

Dyed-in-the-wool superhero fans and neophytes alike would be well advised to follow this series. It features a more-or-less rotating team of DC’s female crime-busters, led and co-ordinated by the mysterious ‘Oracle’ (wheelchair-bound Barbara Gordon, formerly known as Batgirl), as they target the less flashy and more insidious threats to the DC universe.

This volume (collecting issues #76-85 of the monthly comic series) begins with the Birds living in a hi-tech jetliner, proactively seeking out villains and vigilantes across America. First call is Dayton, Ohio, where a traumatised high school girl discovers she can pay everyone back using her ability to steal the powers of any magical force in the DC universe. Then they hit Peo Ridge, Kansas to stop a ghostly serial killer called Harvest who can literally suck the life out of her victims, usually men who abuse women. Metropolis gets a visit next, and a guest shot from the Thorn, whose one woman war on crime brings her to the attention of Oracle, Black Canary, Huntress and Co. A major sub-plot throughout these tales is Oracle’s increasing fascination with the virtual technology of the Brainiac computer that previously took her over.

The remainder of the volume is taken up with an extended storyline featuring Wildcat, a World War II hero who latterly trained most of the female fighters in the DCU. In a sting operation lead by Black Canary, the team tries to dry up the drug trade in Gotham by “buying” all the merchandise from the big boss supplier in Singapore. Naturally things don’t go quite according to plan, with spectacular results for not just crime buffs but any fan of martial arts mayhem.

Gail Simone once shows her mastery of action adventure and capable women, aided and abetted by a fine selection of very talented artists such as Joe Bennett, Ed Benes, Tom Derenick, Joe Prado, Eddy Barrows, Jack Jackson, Bob Petrecca and Robin Riggs. These romps are hard to beat and impossible to put down.

© 2004, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Batman:Year One Deluxe Edition

Batman:Year One Deluxe Edition 

By Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-158-8

The latest repackaging of this classic tale is finally available as a paperback. Year One is a joy to read and its particular reinterpretation of the origin literally changed the way Batman was produced — much more so than the apocalyptic ‘Imaginary story’ The Dark Knight Returns. Its effects can still be seen echoing through the contemporary Bat titles.

This extras-added edition includes a wonderful four-page comic strip afterword by Mazzucchelli; lots of promotional art and a large selection of script pages, thumbnail sketches and layouts as a fascinating entrée into the artistic process.

Batman: Year One is a story every comic fan should own, and if you are and you don’t this is a pretty spiffy version to get, especially as its available now, Now, NOW!

© 1986, 1987, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Under the Hood, Vol 2

Batman: Under the Hood, Vol 2 

By Judd Winick & various

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-277-0

The tale continues (as originally printed in Batman #645-650 and Batman Annual #25) and, no matter how I pitch it, forces me to contravene my self-imposed rule of not spoiling any surprise plot twists.

The Red Hood seems to be the adult version of Batman’s dead partner Jason Todd, who was the second Robin before being murdered by the Joker. What is his agenda? Is he just carrying as before his demise – albeit in a pretty harsh manner, or does he have a deeper game to play?

Despite the intrinsic silliness of the plot and the crushing, chronic comic book inability to let any character go, this still delivers plenty of angst-y action, melodrama and pathos. If you can suspend your narrative disbelief and just go with it, there’s guilty fun to be had here, especially if you think of this stuff as soap-opera, not literature. For that we’ve got Shakespeare and Stan Lee.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Batman: War Crimes

Batman: War Crimes

By various

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-246-0

One last hurrah from the braided mega-event that occupied all the Batman titles during 2005, and as collected in War Drums and War Games: Outbreak, Tides and Endgame. As the dust settles Batman needs to find out how his own hypothetical training scenario led to the catastrophic gang war in Gotham and the death of two of his crime-fighting team. More moody and introspective, this dark tale of repercussions leads to the loss of yet another long-time Bat-ally.

Written by Andersen Gabrych, Devin Grayson, Bill Willingham, Bruce Jones and Will Pfeifer and no less than eleven artists, this slim volume reprints Batman #643-644, Batman Allies Secret Files & Origins 2005, Batman Villains Secret Files & Origins 2005, and Detective Comics #809-810.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman-Batman: Vengeance

By Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinness & Dexter Vines

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-4012-0921-1

Here’s another triumph of style over substance as our heroes are targeted by a strangely familiar – not to say almost dangerously copyright-infringing – team of super heroes from another reality – another? again? – bent on obtaining vengeance for the murder of a team-mate at the hands of – surely not? – Superman and Batman!

This further interdimensional foofaraw follows on from Superman-Batman: Absolute Power with a graphically astounding package of rollercoaster twaddle with lots of branded guest-stars but very little sense. Ooh, Shiny!

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Batman: Gotham County Line

Batman:Gotham County Line

By Steve Niles & Scott Hampton, with Jose Villarrubia

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-401-3

Eerie and evocative thriller as Batman investigates a serial killing spree in the sleepy suburbs of the big, bad city that only really kicks into high gear after the death of the perpetrator. Batman is one of the few heroic icons who has always been equally at home with super-science and the supernatural and the Dark Knight’s arena is here extended to beyond the veil of tears and deep into nightmare territory.

Rife with zombies, ritual killers, early life revelations and the odd guest-star, this still manages to be a crime thriller and a detective mystery that Bat-fans will enjoy and cross-over readers – especially horror aficionados – will revel in.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman-Batman: Absolute Power

Superman-Batman: Absolute Power

By Jeph Loeb, Carlos Pacheco & Jesus Merino

(DC Comics)

Hardcover ISBN 1-4012-0447-3 Paperback ISBN 1-84576-144-8

This most reductionist, iconic version of the World’s Finest team returns in a bewildering romp that is an aging fan-boy’s dream, as the time-travelling Legion of Super Villains co-opt history by raising Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne to be the conquerors of Earth, thus provoking universal doom and a plethora of DC guest stars from all histories and genres dying heroically before our consensus of reality is restored.

Although there is a vast amount of razzle-dazzle from Jeph Loeb and spectacular art from Pacheco and Merino, it still fails to really satisfy, and even the most desperate of continuity freaks know that everything’s going to come out right eventually.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved