Fifty years ago, in August of 1966, I picked up my first “80 Page Giant” issue of World’s Finest — a collection of reprinted stories featuring “Your Two Favorite Heroes — Superman and Batman with Robin the Boy Wonder (wait, isn’t that three heroes? oh, never mind) — in One Adventure Together!” It wasn’t my very first issue of the World’s Finest comic itself, however, and if you’d asked me what the main difference was between the then-new stories regularly appearing in that book and these vintage tales, I would have said that the new stories looked like the ones in the other new comics featuring the “Superman family” (Action, Adventure, and Superboy, as well as the Man of Steel’s eponymous book), while these reprinted stories looked much more like the old Batman stories I’d been reading in paperback as well as comic book reprints.
And, of course, there were good reasons for me to think that. In 1966, World’s Finest was under the editorship of Mort Weisinger, who also edited those other Superman books, and the regular penciller on the series was Curt Swan, probably the leading light of Weisinger’s stable of artists. The reprints in World’s Finest #161, on the other hand, came from issues that had originally been published from 1957 to 1960, when the book had been overseen by Jack Schiff, who was also the editor of Batman and Detective at the time. And the penciller of every one of these reprinted tales was the artist that comics historian Les Daniels has called the “supreme stylist” among the numerous illustrators who “ghosted” for Batman’s supposed single artist, Bob Kane, from the character’s 1939 debut through the mid-Sixties: Dick Sprang.
Of course, in 1966 I didn’t know any of these guys’ names — neither Weisinger nor Schiff were big on including creator credits on the stories in their books (besides which, only Bob Kane’s name was contractually allowed to appear on Batman stories) — and I probably couldn’t have distinguished between the work of Sprang and that of Kane’s other pre-1964 ghosts, such as Sheldon Moldoff, whose work had dominated the last 80-Page Giant I’d picked up, Batman #185. But I could certainly tell the difference between Sprang and Swan; and I could also decide that, as nice as the drawing in the current World’s Finest issues was, I liked the art in the reprints better. There was a vitality to those stories that I found extremely appealing as a nine-year-old (and still do as a fifty-nine-year-old, for that matter).
As its cover copy promised, World’s Finest #161 included not four, not five, but six “thrilling adventures!”, leading off with “The Caveman From Krypton” — which, as you can probably tell from the title, played more on the tropes of Superman’s mythos than on Batman’s — even though, interestingly enough, this tale from World’s Finest #102 (June, 1959) was scripted by none other than the co-creator of Batman, Bill Finger. In the story, a meteor crashes to Earth on the outskirts of Metropolis, and a caveman is found in its shattered remains. Superman and the Batman-Robin team show up at the scene to investigate, more-or-less simultaneously (something that happens so routinely in World’s Finest stories that it begs the question of why it doesn’t occur more often in the heroes’ other titles), and are surprised to discover that the caveman is not only alive, but super-powerful:
The caveman escapes, after which our heroes discover that the meteor fragments contain elements found only on Krypton. Superman theorizes that the caveman was somehow trapped in a state of suspended animation after falling into a lava pit on Krypton, and remained that way for ages until Krypton exploded — after which the rock containing his still-living body hurtled through space for years until finally, like apparently everything else from that doomed planet, it fell to Earth. The caveman is probably not really evil, of course, but simply due to the combination of his primitive nature and incredible powers he presents a threat, and our heroes set out to track him down.
Things soon become more complicated, however, as the super-caveman falls in with some criminals who manipulate him into helping them rob a bank. Eventually, Superman manages to get the caveman’s attention by altering a landscape to appear like ancient Krypton. The crooks then attempt to use kryptonite against both their enemy and their erstwhile ally (that stuff is everywhere), but are foiled with the help of Batman and Robin. Of course, this still leaves the caveman himself to deal with:
Poor feller! Seriously, though, the story’s conclusion is genuinely emotional and affecting, even if probably driven by the need to resolve the plot in a way that didn’t leave the Man of Steel with yet one more Kryptonian survivor to deal with, particularly in the wake of the recently arrived Kandorians and Supergirl.
The second story of the issue, “The Super-Foes From Planet X” (from World’s Finest #96 [September, 1958]), was written by Edmond Hamilton — an old hand from the science fiction pulps, as well as a longtime writer for both Batman and Superman (and a writer who was still contributing enjoyable new stories to Mort Weisinger’s World’s Finest in 1966, although I didn’t and couldn’t know this at the time; his final such script had in fact appeared just a couple of months earlier, in World’s Finest #159, according to the Grand Comics Database.) Like “The Caveman From Krypton”, it involved a visit from outer space, but in a way that gave Sprang more opportunity to exercise his imagination in the design of alien creatures and other phenomena.
In the story, a mysterious disembodied voice summons Superman, Batman, and Robin into action against a succession of strange menaces, including the Solar Sponge, the Storm Top, and (my favorite) the Crawler:
As the panel above demonstrates, Sprang’s alien designs tended towards the sort often described as “cartoony” by modern fans. His extraterrestrials were likely to be a little goofy-looking, or even cute — although he could also create more unsettling designs when called upon to do so, as we’ll see a little further on.
“The Super-Foes From Planet X” are eventually revealed to be a simulation of sorts, devised by the long-idle sentient beings of Planet X to help themselves re-learn survival skills by observing how our heroes overcome danger. Refreshingly, there aren’t any real villains in this tale, which concludes with the friendly little purple men’s peaceful departure for their home world.
The next story features more integration with Batman’s milieu than any of the other tales in the collection, though it draws from Superman’s mythos as well. “The Super-Batwoman” (World’s Finest #90 [Sept.-Oct., 1957]) was, I believe, my first encounter with Kathy Kane’s costumed alter-ego, although I’d met an “imaginary” future version of her a few months previously, in World’s Finest #157. This story, which was only Batwoman’s third appearance to date when it first came out, was, like “The Super-Foes From Planet X”, written by Edmond Hamilton — who also just happened to have been the scripter for Batwoman’s 1956 debut, in Detective #233.
The panel introducing Kathy Kane handily fills in any reader who (like my nine-year-old self in 1966) hasn’t read much, if anything, about her before:
The emergency referenced by Kathy involves a pill that will grant anyone powers like Superman’s for a 24-hour period, created by Superman’s dad Jor-El as a backup plan in case son Kal ever lost his powers. A box of the pills survived Krypton’s destruction and (of course) eventually found its way to Earth, where it was found by a thief named Elton Craig, in World’s Finest #87 (March-April, 1957). In that earlier tale, Superman, Batman, and Robin managed to nab Craig and recover the pills; but now he’s escaped prison, and it seems he’d hidden one pill on the outside prior to his capture.
So, Kathy suits up and rides her Bat-cycle off to offer her help to our heroes. But, of course, their exclusive crime-fighting club is “boys only” — emergency or no, it doesn’t have room for any stinky ol’ girls:
But, as luck would have it, on the way back to her mansion Batwoman discovers the super-pill’s hiding place and interrupts Craig just as he’s recovering it. In the altercation that follows, she swallows the pill to keep it from the thief, then uses her newfound powers to capture him and return him to prison. Wow, Batman and Superman are going to be pretty happy about this, right?
Wrong. The condescension and paternalism just keep on comin’:
The lady’s got a point. And to prove it, she decides she’s going to spend her 24 super-powered hours uncovering not only Batman’s and Robin’s secret identities, but Superman’s!
The rest of the story is taken up with Batwoman’s attempts to ferret out this information, which are (of course) stymied at every turn by the guys. Still, Batwoman at least gets one opportunity to use her powers for good along the way, as she helps Superman save a town from a terrible avalanche:
Just a couple of pages later, however, Superman contrives to scare Batwoman off his trail, in just the manner you’d expect if you’d been paying attention to the attitude towards women displayed throughout this story:
By the story’s end, a dejected Batwoman is forced to admit defeat. She tells the boys she’s ready to go home and hang up her cape without making a fuss — but wait!
Yes, what “darlings”! You kind of want to slap all four of them, don’t you? But don’t hate on Kathy Kane too much, modern fans. Maybe she didn’t exhibit a lot of self-respect, and let her male peers treat her like a doormat, but she could hardly help it; that’s simply the way she was written.
Story number four, “The Alien Who Doomed Robin” (World’s Finest #110 [June, 1960]) called for Sprang to design a more menacing-looking alien visitor than those depicted in “The Super-Foes From Planet X”, and he came through with this guy, who if he doesn’t quite reach the level of scary, at least has a pretty solid lock on creepy:
The alien, never named in writer Jerry Coleman’s script, plans to shrink and steal buildings from Earth, then enlarge them on a faraway asteroid as part of an exhibit. As nefarious plans go, this one isn’t all that impressive — but the alien collector ups the ante when he steals a portion of Robin’s life force, and implants it into his own body:
Batman and Superman can’t attack the alien without harming Robin, but if they don’t return Robin’s life force to his own body, the Boy Wonder will die anyway. (A scene where Batman keeps silent vigil for the unconscious Robin in the Batcave, wondering if this crisis means “the end of our wonderful life together!”, probably had echoes for me of “Robin Dies At Dawn” in August of ’66, since I first read that classic story at around the same time.) Fortunately, the adult heroes eventually discover that the alien’s connection to Robin can be blocked by simple gasoline fumes (who’d have thought it?), and are therebyable to foil his plans before it’s too late.
The next story, “The Menace of the Atom-Master” (World’s Finest #101, [May, 1959]), is probably the least memorable in the issue (well, one of them had to be, right?). The script (another Bill Finger contribution) puts our heroes up against a criminal genius who’s invented a machine that generates lifelike illusions. This tale does at least provide a good example of how World’s Finest’s writers tended to play up Batman’s superlative deductive skills to help keep him (and Robin) from being completely overshadowed by the much more physically powerful Superman:
The sixth and final story, “The Alien Superman” (World’s Finest #105 [November, 1959]) is also by Finger — and if the title sounds redundant, that issue is addressed by the writer in the tale’s opening caption: “Though Superman comes from a faraway planet, which was destroyed many years ago, his appearance resembles that of Earthmen in every respect! But now, a startling new change comes over the Man of Steel…”
The change in question occurs (or seems to) after Superman is exposed to a weird meteor, and then begins acting very strangely:
When Superman emerges, he no longer resembles an Earthman — also, he has different powers, and no memory of his former life:
Of course, it’s all a very elaborate con, performed by a gang of Earth crooks allied with an alien super-criminal named Khalex — the natural bearer of Sprang’s wild alien character design. Interestingly, while Batman sees through the ruse, it’s ultimately Superman who outsmarts Khalex and his human allies, and gets the end-of-case bragging rights:
And that’s that for World’s Finest #161 — my first glimpse at an earlier, and perhaps livelier, era of Superman-Batman adventures.
Having said that, however, I don’t want to over-emphasize the differences between Jack Schiff’s World’s Finest and Mort Weisinger’s. After all, Edmond Hamilton continued writing scripts for the book under the new regime, as we’ve already noted. And the regular penciller of the series during the Weisinger era, Curt Swan, had drawn several Superman-Batman stories for World’s Finest prior to Sprang’s advent on the book. It’s entitely possible that the main difference some fans noticed upon picking up Weisinger’s first issue, #141 (May, 1964), wasn’t a change in art style (the artist on the last few Schiff issues had in fact been Jim Mooney, rather than Sprang), but rather a new featured role for Superman’s pal, Jimmy Olsen, who took up a spot in the team dynamic roughly parallel to Robin’s.
Most significantly, Jack Schiff’s later years on the Batman titles had been strongly influenced by Weisinger’s editorial approach to the Superman books — and even after his departure, more whimsical concepts such as Batwoman and Bat-Mite, though banned from Julius Schwartz’s Bat-books, would continue to find a place in Weisinger’s World’s Finest. It’s one example of how, in 1966 — the year of Batmania — there was room at DC for several different and distinct editorial approaches to the portrayal of the Caped Crusader. But that’s a topic that we’ll explore in more depth in our very next post.