World’s Finest Comics #157 (May, 1966)

This comic book features an “Imaginary Story”.  (And if your response to that phrase is “but aren’t they all imaginary?”, rest assured that famed British comics author Alan Moore agrees with you.)  “Imaginary Stories”, also known as “Imaginary Tales” or even (as in this very issue) “Imaginary Novels“, were a fixture of editor Mort Weisinger’s “Superman family” comics of the 1960s.  They allowed the creators to explore “what if?” scenarios in which Krypton never exploded, or Jimmy Olsen married Supergirl, or Superman was murdered by Lex Luthor (sounds like a bummer, I know, but it made for a classic story) — in other words, scenarios that wouldn’t or couldn’t fit into the “real” ongoing continuity of the comics.     

“The Abominable Brats” was written by Edmond Hamilton and pencilled by Curt Swan, with the tale’s first and second chapters inked by George Klein and Sheldon Moldoff, respectively (credits courtesy of the Grand Comics Database).  It was a sequel to World’s Finest #154’s “The Sons of Superman and Batman” — a fact I didn’t realize until I read the letters page in this issue — but you didn’t need to have read that story to appreciate this one, as the first couple of panels told you pretty much everything you needed to know going in:

wf157-married

Kathy Kane, the original Batwoman, had been a frequently-appearing character in Batman and Detective prior to an editorial reshuffling in 1964 which brought those series under the stewardship of Julius Schwartz — and at the same time transferred responsibility for World’s Finest from the previous Bat-books editor, Jack Schiff, to Mort Weisinger, effectively making it part of the “Superman family” of comics.  Schwartz’ new, streamlined approach to the Caped Crusader’s adventures didn’t have a place for such accouterments as Batwoman, Bat-Mite, or Ace the Bat-Hound — but these were the sort of elements that Weisinger’s rich and complex Superman mythos thrived on, and so these characters continued to find a place in World’s Finest, at least for awhile.

Having established the basic set-up, the story’s location shifts to downtown Gotham City, where we see Bruce, Jr. and some friends joyriding in their “hover-cars”.  Their reckless driving is about to result in a serious accident, but luckily, Bruce, Jr. isn’t the only super-son on the scene:

wf157-hoverbus

(Interestingly, although the story’s first panel assured readers that its setting is “the very near future”, the technology on view (not to mention the fashions) aren’t very far off the mark from those depicted in Superman #181’s “The Superman of 2965!”, written and drawn by the same team of Hamilton and Swan.  At this point, one might assume that whether it’s a thousand years away or right around the corner, the “future” in Weisinger’s Superman books looks pretty much the same.)

Kal-El, Jr. confronts Bruce, Jr. about his uncharacteristic behavior, but is rebuffed by his pal, who warns him that if he keeps acting so square, he’s going to “miss all the kicks in life!”  Later, back at the Batcave, a returning Bruce, Jr. is confronted by his parents, who saw his downtown hover-rodding on TV.  Bruce, Jr. protests his innocence, however, and over the next few days he behaves like his normal, respectful self.  Still, a concerned Batman asks Superman to help keep an eye on the boy, and the Dad of Steel is happy to oblige:

wf157-meteors

Uh-oh — it looks like Kal, Jr. has taken his friend’s warning about missing out on life’s kicks to heart!  However, when he’s challenged by his father, Kal denies any wrongdoing, just like Bruce did before him.  Things continue to progress along this line for several more pages, as the boys get into one kind of mischief or another, and then claim not to be responsible.  After catching Kal riding a whale cowboy-style, however, Superman has had enough:

wf157-bars

(Boy, when Superman grounds his kid, he doesn’t mess around, does he?  By analogy, one has to assume that if Kal, Jr. wasn’t super, his dad would have opted to lock him up behind regular ol’ iron bars.)

Eventually, Kal, Sr. does let his progeny out of his poisonous-radiation-tinged prison, and once again both super-sons appear to go back onto the straight and narrow.  Their fathers take them on a camping trip to celebrate, leading to the scene depicted on the issue’s cover.  (And yes, the four of them dress out in full costume — capes, cowls, the works — while they’re alone out in the woods.  What, you think that’s weird?  Maybe so, but as far as I recall, my eight-year-old self didn’t think twice about it.)  Following this “firecrackers and frogs” incident, the super-dads give their sons yet another chance to shape up by letting the boys accompany them on their missions — but the kids keep making a mess of things.  However, what Batman and Superman don’t realize is that Bruce, Jr., and Kal, Jr. are making critical mistakes on purpose:

wf157-batarang

This sinister turn of events culminates when the foursome responds together to foil a prison break.  The armored vehicle being used in the prison break has a suspicious green glow, but Kal, Jr. scouts ahead and reports it’s not Kryptonite, and so Superman and Batman hurl themselves into action:

wf157-surprise

At this point, the truth is finally revealed — the mischief-makers are imposters!  Luckily, the real Kal and Bruce hear about their fathers’ dire situation on the radio, and fly to the scene just in time to save them.  But once all four boys are together, the adult heroes aren’t sure how to tell the real sons from the fake ones.  Then Bruce, Jr. announces that he’s written his middle name, which he never uses, on a slip of paper he’s hidden in his utility belt.  The real Kal, Jr. will of course be able to read the name using his X-ray vision:

wf157-backwards

My eight-year-old self had already met Mr. Mxyzptlk, Sr. in Lois Lane #62, but this was my first encounter with any member of the Bat-Mite family.  Bat-Mite, Sr. had debuted in 1959, in the pages of Detective Comics #267.  Like Mxyzptlk, Bat-Mite is a magical imp from another dimension; unlike Mxy, however, Bat-Mite idolizes the superheroic subject of his attentions, and only inadvertently causes problems for the Caped Crusader and his allies.  As noted earlier, the character had been banished from the Batman books around 1964, in line with editor Julius Schwartz’s more realistic, back-to-basics approach to the hero and his adventures; however, he still fit right in with the more whimsical and fanciful tone of Weisinger’s Superman line.

Returning to our tale — as Bat-Mite, Jr. proceeds to explain to the two pairs of super-fathers and sons, he too has been a victim of the young Mxyzptlk, who brainwashed him into posing as Bruce, Jr. while the other imp took on the role of Kal, Jr..  Now that Mxy, Jr. has been sent back to the 5th Dimension, Bat-Mite is no longer under his control, and so he, too, returns home.  Superman and Batman decide to show their appreciation to their exonerated sons by resuming their interrupted camping trip.  No mischief this time — just delicious, heat-vision-roasted hot dogs!

That’s the end of “The Abominable Brats!”, though not quite the end of the comic book.  For reasons unknown (at least to me), Weisinger used the back-quarter of World’s Finest as a showcase for reprints from DC’s library of published material (which was pretty substantial, even in 1966).  This particular issue features “The Secret of Cell 16”, written by Jack Miller and drawn by Howard Purcell, which had originally been published iin 1956, in the first issue of the anthology title Tales of the Unexpected.  It’s a competent historical suspense story, with a twist ending that’s effective enough for me to have immediately remembered it as soon as I started re-reading the tale for this post, probably at least 4 1/2 decades since the last time I’d looked at it.  But it stands out rather oddly in a comic primarily devoted to the adventures of the world’s finest superhero team.


World’s Finest #157 was the last appearance of the sons of Superman and Batman.  And yet, it wasn’t.

wf215-coverYears later, in the mid-1970s, I wasn’t picking up World’s Finest on any kind of frequent basis, but I still saw new issues on the stands, and I can remember seeing covers like this one, featuring the “Super-Sons”.  At the time, I assumed these stories were sequels to the one I’d read back in 1966.  Why wouldn’t they be?  The concept (and characters) appeared to be exactly the same, after all.

It wasn’t until much, much later that I learned that these stories represented a new take on the idea, independent of the Hamilton-Swan tales of the mid-’60s (save, perhaps, for inspiration).  On the surface, there wasn’t a lot of difference.  The sons were each named after their respective dads (though the son of Superman went by Clark, Jr. rather than Kal) and looked like younger duplicates of their sires (though, this being the Seventies, both of the college-age sons rocked some serious sideburns).  But whereas the Weisinger-era Super-Sons had been brought into the world by Lois Lane and Kathy Kane, the new versions’ moms were never named, and their faces never seen.  What was more, maverick writer Bob Haney claimed that these stories weren’t “imaginary” at all — but “real, the way it happened” (as he stated in the letters column of World’s Finest #215)!

The_Multiversity_The_Just_Vol_1_1Eventually, a later writer revealed that while this Clark, Jr. and Bruce, Jr. weren’t imaginary, per se, they weren’t exactly “real”, either; rather, they were digital simulations, running as a computer program in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.  The saga of the ’70s Super-Sons was thus brought to an end, in World’s Finest #263 (June-July, 1980) — but that still wasn’t the last gasp of the concept.  The idea of Batman and Superman being succeeded by their sons has continued to inspire DC’s storytellers in succeeding decades, with the most recently published take being offered by writer Grant Morrison in The Multiversity: The Just #1 (December, 2014).  Here, on “Earth-16”, Chris Kent and Damian Wayne carry on their famous fathers’ legacies, but largely as emblems of a celebrity culture in a world that’s been mostly ridden of crime, and thus doesn’t have much real need for super-sonssuperheroes anymore.  And even more up-to-the-minute  — as of this writing, comics fans are anticipating a line-wide relaunch of DC’s superhero line later in 2016, via an event branded “Rebirth”– and one of the brand-new titles making its debut in the fall will be Super-Sons, featuring the adventures of Damian Wayne and Jonathan White.  Which just goes to show once again that in the world of comics, no good idea is ever too old to be dusted off and used again.  (And again.)

Updated March 27, 2016.

 

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