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Friday, March 25, 2016

Cover Story - Top 15 Batman/Superman Covers

Edited by Robert Beach

So, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice comes out today, or at least, I assume it did. I’m actually writing this the Tuesday before its release, so it’s completely possible some random calamity befell the intended release date. Somehow I kind of doubt it. By the time this goes up, I’ll most likely have already seen it. For now, I’m eagerly awaiting its release like the rest of us, so let’s talk about comic books instead, specifically some Batman and Superman comics. 

Because Batman and Superman were DC’s biggest success stories for decades and decades, the two eventually ended up in a long-running comic together entitled World’s Finest. World’s Finest was a weird amalgam of elements owing mainly to the fact that it originally began in the late Golden Age and then continuing through to the early Bronze Age of comics. As such, we’ve got some really crazy comic covers to get through. Now it's time to dive into the shallow end and get the cover story on World’s Finest.

We open in the Bronze Age with Superman and Batman literally at each other’s throats. I haven’t really spoken about Bronze Age covers previously, so this will be an education. There are still heavy elements of the Silver Age set-up here in that this is a crazy cover meant to make the customer stop their shopping in a desperate need to read it. The biggest difference is in the subject matter of the craziness. Here, it emphasizes the clash of characters and unlikely situation. 

The idea of Superman and Batman as being anything other than super friends is actually quite modern. Having them literally try to kill each other was code for “something is wrong here." That big mummy with a sun for a head is also pretty neat. The main reason this cover makes the list though is that hilarious inter-title blurb claiming this is REALLY what happens in the comic because spoilers: that is all lies. I’m pretty accustomed to covers lying to my face. This is the first time I’ve seen one explicitly try and cover up that embarrassing truth. 

Now this right here is straight Silver Age. In fact, the trope of “characters getting shrunk” was one of the most universal and common aspects of the Silver Age. Seriously, there’s nothing about this cover I don’t absolutely love. Firstly, there’s the giant Robin looming in the foreground who, despite his size, is still presented without any form of greater detail or identity. I’m not exactly sure what the foreshortening is meant to be on these depictions of Batman and Superman as they look pretty large for guys who have been shrunken. Maybe “action figure sized” was the intended height their shrinking machine was set for. 

My favorite part of this cover though has to be the juxtaposition of inter-title and characters. The inter-title reads “the dictator of Krypton City!” With Robin’s giant state, I can only assume he’s turned evil and plans to go run Krypton city…whatever that is.  Given the number of covers that are just Superman and Batman treating Robin like hot garbage, it honestly wouldn’t be that surprising. 

I don’t even know where to begin with this cover. One of the weird trends of the Silver Age was a tendency to extend heroic endeavors into the character’s early ages. That’s why, for the longest time, Superboy’s adventures were those of tween Clark Kent. And there was a long-running series of adventures of Wonder Woman as a toddler called Wonder Tot (yes, really). This particular cover is a dip into that well along with the occasional and bizarre instance on linking Superman and Batman together at the familial hip.  Seriously, there’s one old story where Ma and Pa Kent use Kryptonian technology to try and prevent the Wayne murders.

Putting weird history aside, this is actually a pretty great cover just in terms of a unique and striking idea to be executed. You basically know that Batman isn’t a depowered Kryptonian, but him presenting the visual evidence has a weird, authenticity to it that’s eerily compelling. I think part of it has to do with the projector, the stills, and the looming questions of who took those pictures and how did they get off Krypton? I also just absolutely love Batman’s fake Kryptonian name, “Bruce-El,” which clearly took no effort on anyone’s part. 

Also, Superman’s literal gape-mouthed surprise is absolutely beautiful. He’s completely taken in, yet what looks like the most blatant ruse Batman has ever pulled. Other fun fact: this was almost the plot to J.J. Abrams' proposed Superman movie only that would’ve had Lex Luthor as a secret Kryptonian because Abrams is a hack writer. 

This is actually one of the better-remembered Silver Age World’s Finest covers. See, even though most fans tend to disregard the Silver Age as campy nonsense not worth preserving, there are a handful of stories and cover images that’ve been accepted into nerd canon as something worth preserving and referencing. Mostly these are rooted in Batman stories and come with a dollop of self-inflicted irony. But they do make-up the essential canon of covers that matter from that era as far as modern artists are concerned. 

There are a lot of reasons for this cover to be placed among that group. The primary one being it’s just a wonderfully conceived image that features greater depth than most Silver Age covers. I don’t mean that figuratively incidentally. This image is literally composed to imply three levels of depth with the city background, Batman and Superman in the foreground, and Luthor and Joker in the front row. At the same time, this cover features possibly 4 of the most recognizable and well known comic characters of all time. It was always destined to end up in the front of people’s memories, and the situation is pretty delightful owing to how out of character it is for everyone involved. 

Ah the Super-Sons, one of the greatest ideas to never quite crossover into the mainstream. Remember how a few entries ago I discussed how superhero stories in the Silver Age tended to extend into a character’s adolescence? Well, as the Silver Age gave way to the Bronze Age, that idea shifted from young versions of adult heroes to young heroes with the same theme, mainly thanks to the success of the original Teen Titans comics. In the case of the Super-Sons, they were a way to keep telling teen Superman and Batman stories without needing to de-age the characters.

The pitch was the Super-Sons were the respective sons of Batman and Superman in the future who grew up together owing to the closeness of these super families. That’s something that’s always informed a lot of Silver and Bronze age DC superhero stories: family. History aside, this cover is just phenomenal. It's a great example of how weird and wild comics got to preserve their angle while also showcasing the ‘70s emphasis on “teen rebellion” from its younger heroes. I really love that Superman and Batman, even as dads, have giant posters of themselves just plastered all around town like some kind of fascist dictatorship. Also, major points to Bat-Son for having the stripiest pants ever tailored by human hands. 

Another classic cover, this one a bit more memory-holed owing to the fandom rejection of Bat-Mite. Like a lot of well remembered Silver Age covers, a lot of this one’s artist appeal emerges from the construction of the image to showcase 4 central characters with a split between heroes and villains. Incidentally, for folks who’ve only ever known Mxyzptlk from the animated series, this is what he normally looks like. In a lot of ways, this team-up was inevitable, but also pretty groundbreaking in a unique way. 

See, both Mr. Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite are impish pests with God-like powers that developed independent of one another to annoy their respective heroes. Having them crossover here also established the idea that they were both members of the same species: 5th dimensional hyper-imps, an idea that's persisted to the modern age of comics. This kind of continuity represents some of the first steps DC would take to establish a shared universe of characters prior to Marvel’s entrance into the comic book world. 

Another Super-Sons cover that shows they really are their fathers’ children. Incidentally, for those wondering, the super-moms are almost never on hand which has led me to suspect this was some clever writer at DC’s way of getting his Batman/Superman slash-fic published under the radar, crafty devil. In all honesty, this cover is incredibly quintessential to the Silver Age by a whole slew of metrics. I’ve already devoted a full 25 covers to Superman playing cruel practical jokes on his friends and loved ones. By now, it should be clear “heroes acting like jerks” was the bread and butter of this era in comics. 

Extending that activity to their children is a perfect conception, especially given the number of Super Baby stories published at the time (again, this really happened). I do like how much the Super-Sons have inherited their dads’ skewed sense of what a prank is. I mean, Bat-Son is dumping a bunch of poisonous reptiles on his dad, and Superman Jr. is trying to blow his father to kingdom come. Rotten apples stay in the rotten orchard I guess. Also, points for the Batman mask deliberately borrowing the Adam West mask affectation. 

God, this is a beautiful cover. It’s on the lower end of the whole “important classic covers” roster, though it’s still a beautiful rendering and one of the best uses of a comic cover I’ve ever seen.  The whole reason we remember certain classic covers is that they pioneered the use of covers as a visual medium to convey information as well as construct artistic visuals, and this is a perfect example of that fusion. 

Right away, it invests you with everything you need to know about the seriousness of this situation. And the fact that it places Superman and Batman at some kind of rift while also highlighting the pre-existing differences between their worlds. I’m a sucker for that kind of visual contrast. Plus, we even get a cameo appearance from the Bottled City of Kandor, so that’s nice. 

Another brilliant and well-remembered cover, this one features one of the greatest mysteries of all time: what in the hell science is Batman up to right now? Admittedly, “scientist” is one of the more infrequent hats that Batman wears alongside stunt driver and astronaut. He still has done some science in the past, but nothing that would necessitate Robin taking diligent clipboard notes. I guess it’s possible Robin was just doing his own science with that microscope hidden behind his hands. That just raises its own slew of question like is this the boys’ science hour or something? 

Additionally, I absolutely adore the fact that Superman couldn’t just report the bat-cave’s location himself. He had to lead a gaggle of reporters through god know’s how much rock and dirt to tunnel into Batman’s secret hideout. This was originally intended to end up on the “Super Jerk” list, but it got edged out by the other covers with even pettier jack assery from the Man of Steel. Glad that “The Day Superman Betrayed Batman” finally managed to get a spotlight here, it’s certainly earned it. 

Another Bronze Age type cover as evidenced by Batgirl’s presence. She didn’t enter the comic book universe till after her inception in the Adam West Batman show. Like with a lot of other Bronze Age covers I’ve showcased, what makes this cover quintessential of the era is the scope and emphasis of the situation being depicted. As in the Silver Age, the image is deliberately goofy and insane, showcasing a pretty hilarious spin on the older heroes (who were coming up on 30 years at the time) clashing with their young replacements. 

The difference is in how static the composition is, willing to showcase a single well-detailed image rather than the vast, frenetic, and often psychedelic content of most Silver Age covers. What’s more, the weird comedy of the cover comes from the contrast of the characters and their situation rather than just random aliens or crazy murder. I do like how even Supergirl and Batgirl have succumb to the cruel pranking that seems to inform ALL DC superheroes prior to the mid-70s. If your plan is to convince the world’s foremost heroes they’re washed up has-beens just for a larf, that is incredibly cruel. 

Another great example of Bronze Age thinking in superhero adventures. The situation is classic comic book weirdness and has actually happened on numerous occasions. Having the hero throw down with their own alter-ego was so common for a time it was only matched by the hero’s costume gaining sentience and rebelling against them (yes, really). 

This cover is a little cluttered compared to most visualizations of the idea. As far as visual balance goes, it’s not the best of the era, but it’s still pretty great. My favorite part of the cover has to be Robin’s dialogue balloon saying he’s going to beat up the “real” Dick Grayson. I’m honestly not sure if that identifies him as a horrifying copy outing himself to the reader by accident or if he’s just trying to throw us off the scent and really failing at it. 

This is art. I’ve never once seen a more beautiful rendering of not caring than this image. Everything about it is perfection. It’s like a brilliant deconstruction of the classical formation of a joke with Batman and the firemen as the standard set-up, straight-faced and stoic, completely involved in their very serious task of rescuing someone when suddenly BOOM! Then Superman looks so serious in his destruction of their equipment/floor as if he planned his entire day around this one single act of perverse japery. 

I especially like the speed lines around him, just in case you thought the catching apparatus was somehow faulty. Oh no, this is all Superman’s fault. He saw someone else trying to learn how to be useful and save lives, and he was having none of that. Actually, given the exploding ground and the continuing speed lines, I can only assume he kept rushing downward into the Earth’s core only to pop out the other side and never explain his actions. That would certainly fit with the other act of Super dickery we’ve seen.

Can I just say that “Dig Now, Die Later” may be the greatest inter-title I’ve ever read. This image is actually kind of brilliantly predictive of what eventually ended up happening to Jimmy Olsen and Robin in their respective franchises. I mean, Robin has all but disappeared from all Batman adaptations. When he does show up, it’s the weird “hip” version of the character from Arkham Knight.  Conversely, Jimmy Olsen hasn’t mattered to Superman in forever, and we’d probably have forgotten he existed if not for his appearance on Supergirl. 

That aside, my favorite thing about this cover, apart from it featuring Batman and Superman initiating a mob hit on their teen sidekicks, is that the dialogue implies Batman has no code against killing. Superman specifically says he has a code against murder, and Batman’s just like “lol, not me, why do you think I have this tommy gun?” Incidentally, I do like that Batman came totally prepared to machine gun Jimmy and Robin to death in the shallow graves they dug for themselves. Other evidence of Batman’s preplanning: the foresight to have them dig their own graves in this cemetery, the last place people would be surprised to find dead bodies buried in the Earth.  Batman really does plan for everything I guess. 

I know a lot of folks love the Superman/Batman fight from Dark Knight Returns, but those people are all fools who know nothing of excellence: this cover is where it’s at. I think this might be the best rendering of these two going at it outside of Batman: Brave and the Bold’s Battle of the Superheroes episode. 

Additionally, the cover's a nice inverse of the number 3 spot. In case it’s not obvious, this is taking place in the bottle city of Kandor, which exists under a miniature red sun of its own. That’s why the guy in the red and yellow on the left, who is Jimmy Olsen dressed as Kandorian hero Flamebird, is saying Superman doesn’t have any powers here. But yeah, it’s Jimmy Olsen and Robin egging their respective owners on to kill each other in a literal gladiator match inside a tiny city rescued from Superman’s home; that is awesome.

I know, it’s weird that the final cover in this celebration of Batman and Superman are them playing baseball against the reader (I think). It’s weird that this the number 1 spot goes to a Golden Age cover with the most basic visual conception and even fewer details than most other covers. I realize all that, and this is a very strange cover to showcase as the best vision of a Batman/Superman team-up, but hear me out on this one. I’ve always been of the opinion that Superman and Batman should be friends; that they should want to spend time together and actually like each other on a level beyond simply being coworkers. 

Even through the countless cruel practical jokes, fan versus matches, and occasional attempts to conquer the globe, they just make sense as friends. This cover might be goofy and antiquated as all hell. It’s still the best embodiment of that fundamental idea, of Superman and Batman as friends who choose to spend time together outside of stopping crimes and JLA meetings. If superheroes are to have a life outside themselves and exist as three-dimensional characters, our look into their lives can’t be confined to just them fighting. It has to include them being human as well. 

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