World’s Finest Comics #176 (June, 1968)

Back in 1967, when DC Comics’ newly-promoted Art Director, Carmine Infantino, discovered Neal Adams toiling away in a production room on one of the company’s “third-string” (Infantino’s words) titles — The Adventures of Jerry Lewis, perhaps — and determined that the young artist’s talents could and should be put to better use, one of the first better uses he put them to was to produce covers for DC’s “Superman family” books.  These comics had been under the editorship of Mort Weisinger for a long, long time — decades, in some cases — and their covers all had a particular “look”, typified by the style of artist Curt Swan.  The advent of Adams’ more dynamic style represented a sea-change for the Superman books, and, by extension — given the Man of Steel’s flagship status — the rest of DC’s line, as well. 

Adams’ first cover for World’s Finest Comics — a title which, though it co-featured Superman and Batman (and had even given the latter top billing for a time, beginning at the height of the mid-Sixties’ TV-fueled “Batmania”), had been edited by Weisinger since 1964, and thus was definitely a “Superman family” book — appeared on the #174th issue, cover-dated March, 1968.  His second adorned the following issue, which also featured Adams’ art on the story’s interiors — the first time he’d yet illustrated a complete tale of either the Man of Steel or the Caped Crusader.

Unfortunately, I missed out on that book when it came out in March, 1968 — and whether I passed on it in favor of something else on the spinner rack that appealed to my ten-year-old self, or I simply never saw it, I can’t tell you.  But I did pick up the very next issue, which, like its immediate predecessor, included Adams’ art on the inside as well as the outside of the book.  Again, I don’t recall exactly what sparked my decision to buy #176 — though I expect the fact that the book featured Supergirl and Batgirl in addition to the two regular co-stars probably had a lot to do with it.  As I’ve mentioned numerous other times on this blog, my younger self seems to have always been keen to double the number of superheroes he could get for his twelve cents.  It’s probably not a coincidence that the very last issue of World’s Finest I’d purchased had been the previous year’s #169 — the first time that the Maid of Might and the Dominoed Dare-Doll had guest-starred in the book.

About the cover for #176 — it’s drawn by Neal Adams, obviously, but the idea for the cover seems to have come from the story’s writer, Cary Bates.  Years later, in an interview with Michael Eury for The Krypton Companion (2006), Adams indicated that he, himself, wasn’t crazy about the concept, stating “it was a boring cover to draw.  I hated it.”  Editor Mort Weisinger, on the other hand, “was deliriously happy” with it.  “In his mind, that was the greatest cover ever, because it asked a question and made you buy the book.”  Adams gave Weisinger credit for an editorial approach that valued what sold comic books, suggesting that his own boredom with the job was perhaps beside the point.  He also noted that Weisinger “loved Cary Bates” because Bates “had ideas that were his [Weisinger’s] kind of ideas.”

So who was Cary Bates?  Born in 1948, he was one of the youngest writers working for DC Comics at the time this issue was published.  Like another wunderkind “discovered” by Weisinger, Jim Shooter, Bates had started his professional career at the age of thirteen*, first selling cover ideas (what else?) to the veteran editor, then eventually moving on to stories.  His first World’s Finest plot had appeared in issue #153, an imaginary story featuring Batman and Superman as arch-enemies.  He’d had four more stories published in the title since then — including the first Supergirl-Batgirl team-up, mentioned above.

The first page of #176’s “The Superman-Batman Split!” doesn’t bear Bates’ byline, any more than it does Adams’, as Weisinger generally eschewed giving creator credits in his books.  For that same reason, the page doesn’t tell us who inked Adams’ penciled art for the story, though other sources (including Mike’s Amazing World) identify the embellisher as Dick Giordano.  Giordano’s “day job” at this time was, of course, as an editor at DC (where his titles included Strange Adventures, for which Adams wrote as well as illustrated the lead feature, “Deadman”), but his deal with the publisher allowed him to take on freelance assignments as well.

It’s difficult to imagine, today, when the Adams-Giordano collaboration is all but synonymous with Adams’ well-renowned work for DC, but neither artist was happy with the results of their initial pairing, on World’s Finest #175’s “The Superman-Batman Revenge Squads!”.  In Eury’s Dick Giordano: Changing Comics, One Day at a Time (2003), Giordano said that Adams’ pencils for that story “were the best pages I’d ever gotten to handle.  And it was the weakest job I ever did with Neal.”  For his part, Adams acknowledged (in the same book) that when Giordano first inked his work, he “hated it.  But I didn’t hate it as much as I hated other peoples’ inks over my work.”  The same attitudes appear to have still been in place when they collaborated on the next issue of World’s Finest, the subject of this post.

Obviously, the two men eventually did learn to work well together.  And I’ll have more to say about that a little later — but for now, let’s set aside the story behind the story, and get on with the, er, story:

Dur goes on to explain how, fearing he too might be assassinated before he could be sworn in to office, he teleported himself to Earth to seek asylum.  While posing as Ronald Jason, however, he’s learned that he’s been followed by the same “enemy agents” that took out the Tontor-1.  Dur asks Superman for help, and Kal-El, being the great guy he is, immediately whisks him off to his arctic Fortress of Solitude — then leaves him there on his own, while he attends to a crisis in another galaxy.

The story now moves forward a few hours, as the scene shifts to the Batcave.  There, Batman returns from wrapping up a case to find that he has an unexpected visitor — who, like Dur, is an alien:

Dang!  “Which alien is telling the truth?”  That is the question (though, you’ll notice, not quite the same question as that posed by the silhouetted mystery villain on the book’s Bates-conceived cover.  Hmmm…).  After all, both aliens seem equally convincing — or should that be, rather, that both heroes seem equally gullible?

In any event, since the matter does involve aliens, Batman naturally thinks of contacting Superman for help — but then Tiron explains that Dur, that clever criminal, has already tricked Superman into helping him

The new Supergirl-Batman team gets to the Fortress in record time, thanks to Kara giving the Batplane a super-speedy push:

While Batman prepares to apprehend Dur, Superman grabs his cousin by the ankles, spins her around, and sends her sailing far into the distance.  He then speeds into the Fortress, where he manages to trap Batman within a spare (?) cage from the Fortress’ interplanetary zoo:

A couple of things are striking about this scene.  One is how certain each hero is that the other guy is dead wrong, when neither Dur nor Tiron has provided a shred of tangible proof to back up their stories; you just have to assume that both members of the World’s Finest team believe they’re a better judge of character than their buddy is.  The second thing is that both heroes still are, well, buddies.  They’re both apologetic about having to go up against their old chum in this one instance, but you don’t feel like they’re going to have any real problems when the case is over — their grimacing faces on the cover notwithstanding.

I was all prepared to make some snarky comment about how silly it is that Superman figures the very best way for him to get in touch with Batgirl is to masquerade as a living statue — but then, after I started considering the matter, I realized — how else is he going to do it?  He doesn’t know her secret identity of Barbara Gordon, and it wouldn’t exactly make sense for him to contact Commissioner James Gordon for help — not if he’s trying to stay off Batman’s radar.  The Commish has his very own signal for getting in touch with the Caped Crusader, for cryin’ out loud.  Still — there’s something so very Silver-to-Bronze-Age DC about Superman dressing up like a walking statue…

OK, so now we have a new Batgirl-Superman team, in opposition to the Supergirl-Batman team.  It’s a perfect mirror image of the situation in Bates’ earlier tale in WF #169, where the gals teamed up against the guys, and a natural sequel to that story.

But hey, what’s this about “A Tale of 3 Teams”?  Who’s on Team no. 3?

I can’t tell you how much I love the concept of the Eyrie.  Not only do Robin and Jimmy have their own secret clubhouse where there are No Grown-Up Heroes Allowed, but they even have secret surveillance equipment installed in both the Batcave and the Fortress (that last must have taken some doing) so they can spy undetected on their older friends/mentors!  It’s almost enough to make me respect the (pre-Jack Kirby) Jimmy Olsen just a little bit, even though I assume the Boy Wonder must have done most of the work.

Oh, well.  Team no. 3, we hardly knew ye.

At the cave, Supergirl goes around the back, while Batman makes a frontal assault:

OK, so Zack Snyder wasn’t the first person to think having Batman and Superman fight each other was a good idea.  Neither was Frank Miller, for that matter.  Way back in the Silver Age, Cary Bates used the idea at least twice — including in his first World’s Finest story, as well as tin this one.  But give Bates credit for understanding in both cases that the only way that the Masked Manhunter could take down the Last Son of Krypton, short of acquiring magical powers, would be to use kryptonite — in his gloves, in his batarangs, whatever.  High-tech armor and weaponry would be beside the point, right?

Something else to note here — that remark Bats makes to Supes in the next to last panel above, when he’s landing the punch, is about as close as either hero gets to trash-talking the other one in this story.

Now, let’s see what Batgirl and Supergirl are getting up to…

Whaaaaat?  Tiron’s been Ronald Jason all along?  But the revelations don’t stop there — for, as Jason tells our heroes on the next page, he’s been Dur all along as well.  To explain why he’s done all this, the dying actor first has to tell them about his already-late brother, the scientist Desmond Jason:

Unfortunately, immediately after Desmond Jason shared this discovery with brother Ronald, that “extremely unstable” element of his exploded.  Desmond, closest to the blast, succumbed almost instantly — but not before telling Ronald that the radiation would kill him as well, within a few short weeks.  Ronald decided to use the time remaining to put on the greatest performance of his acting career — one that would fool even Superman and Batman.  Already a whiz at makeup and disguise, all he needed was a way to get from one place to another super-fast — and his brother’s new jetpack filled that bill.

And that’s that.  The revelation that Supes knew “Dur” was lying because of his erroneous statement about the Sirius system is, perhaps, a little too pat; but the fact that he and Bats were in on the con all along lets them off the hook for being as gullible as they appeared to be for most of the story.  (No such out provided for Kara and Babs, however.)  And sure, there are a few loose ends (e.g., what would “Dur” have done if Superman hadn’t had [or invented] a crisis that made him have to leave the Fortress?  How would he have managed to show up at the Batcave as “Tiron”?) — but all in all, it’s a nifty little tale that proves you can tell a reasonably entertaining (if inconsequential) story in the superhero genre without even needing to have an actual “bad guy”.  Or, at least you could in 1968.

One last thing, though — after you read the story, the answer to the cover’s “question” is quite clear — but, in a way, that indication that a single figure is responsible for the rift between the heroes seems to give almost too much away.  Did any attentive readers manage to figure out the story’s main twist before the actual big reveal on page 15?  Whatever the truth may be, I can tell you with absolutely certainty that this ten-year-old reader never saw it coming.


For reasons I don’t quite understand (maybe there’s a Silver Age scholar out there reading this with more info?), Mort Weisinger featured reprints in the backup slot in virtually every issue of World’s Finest he edited.  Sometimes these were short adventures of the headliners (Superman, Batman, or Robin); other times they were non-series tales out of one of DC’s science fiction or “mystery” anthology titles; and at still other times, they were short stories of another series character — usually, one not currently appearing in his own title.  Such was the case with WF #176, which featured… well, I’ll let the story’s first page lay it out for you:

Reprint or not, this was actually pretty interesting to my ten-year-old self, who up to this point had only seen J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, in the pages of Justice League of America.  J’onn had been appearing regularly in House of Mystery in recent years, but I’d yet to pick up any issues of that title; and in any case, J’onn’s series there had recently come to an end (very recently, in fact, with issue #173, cover dated March-April, 1968) — leaving JLA his only home.  And in that title, J’onn J’onzz was generally portrayed as a bald, green-skinned version of Superman, with almost identical powers, and a kryptonite-like weakness (fire, in J’onn’s case).  “The Case of the Magic Baseball” — uncredited by Weisinger, of course, but written by either Jack Miller or Joe Samachson (according to Mike’s Amazing World and the Grand Comics Database, respectively) and drawn by Joe Certa (according to both of the aforementioned sources) — would provide me with a very different take on the Martian Manhunter’s powers and modus operandi.

In the story, our hero — in his human guise of John Jones, Police Detective — is assigned to keep an eye on Big Bob Michaels, an ex-con who’s become a star pitcher in baseball’s minor leagues since getting out of stir, and who’s just been signed to a major league team, the Flamingos.  Big Bob’s jailbird past is generally unknown, and Jones’ lieutenant is concerned that some of the ballplayer’s former associates of a criminal persuasion might use that information to try to blackmail him into fixing games.  Detective Jones goes to Michaels’ place, and, by using his Martian super-senses to eavesdrop through the closed door, learns that this is indeed what’s happening:

Whoa, J’onn J’onzz can see into the future?  That sure seems like it would have come in handy on some of those Justice League cases.

Pleased that Michaels intends to do the right thing, but concerned that his anxiety over the blackmail attempt witl affect his performance, Detective Jones decides to lend a helping hand.  The next day, the would-be blackmailers/game fixers are, of course, in the stands…

“Martian molecular hypnosis”?  My ten-year-old self didn’t remember ever seeing that in JLA, either.  Nor was I familiar with the “Martian mind-over-matter” that Det. Jones subsequently uses to manipulate the ball to the Flamingos’ advantage.  Which sure seems a lot like fixing the game, at least as much as the crooks’ attempted blackmail attempt did — but I guess that it’s OK, since our hero is just helping the “right” future he’s already glimpsed come to pass.   Or something like that, anyway.

I can recall my younger self being amazed that outside of one panel on the first page, we never see J’onn in his superhero costume in this story — or even appearing as a Martian, save for the view given by Certa’s artistic device of superimposing the detective’s “true” face and form over his human aspect (and speaking of that face — I couldn’t help but notice that J’onn’s physiognomy looked considerably craggier in this story than ii did as rendered by Mike Sekowsky in JLA.)  And what was more, almost all of the powers the Martian Manhunter demonstrates in this story — including, in a flashback sequence I haven’t shown here, the ability to walk through walls — have nothing in common with Superman’s.  It was a revelation.

Unfortunately, that was the last “old school” Martian Manhunter story I would get to read for a while.  The next one Weisinger selected for reprinting in World’s Finest, “John Jones’ Farewell to Earth”, would appear in the 184th issue, which I didn’t buy.  Coincidentally (or perhaps not), on the same day that that story (in which our hero did not leave Earth for good, despite the title) was published — March 13, 1969 — J’onn J’onzz also departed from the pages of Justice League of America, in a tale that did, indeed, have him say farewell to earth.  Of course, he’d eventually be back — and then, thankfully, would at least on occasion, find himself handled by writers and artists who could better capitalize on his full potential, rather than simply portraying him either as a plainclothes detective with weird powers or as a green Superman.


World’s Finest Comics #776 turned out to be the last (mostly) non-reprint issue of the title I would buy for a couple of years — by the time I picked up my next one, in the fall of 1970, Mort Weisinger had retired from DC Comics.  That latter event, transpiring just a few months earlier, is, in retrospect, obviously one of the signposts of the end of the Silver Age of Comics, though my younger self paid no attention to it at the time.  Weisinger’s successor as editor on World’s Finest, Julius Schwartz, immediately changed the title’s format, keeping Superman as the anchor, but replacing Batman with a rotating roster of co-stars — in other words, making it the “Superman family” analogue to the Batman-featuring Brave and the Bold.  That change I did notice, and I would go on to buy a number of the books in that run; eventually, however, the book returned to featuring the Superman-Batman team and, under Murray Boltinoff’s editorship, puttered on along with that format until DC pulled the plug on the book in 1986, just in time for John Byrne’s revamp of the Man of Steel.

Cary Bates, of course, went on to have a good long run as a writer for DC, scripting loads of stories for the Superman family of books — though only a relative few for World’s Finest, and none for that title after Weisinger’s departure — as well as for Flash, Captain Atom, and many other titles.  While he’d never become one of my very favorite comics writers, I still maintain great fondness for his stories featuring his creation of “Earth-Prime” — the Earth in DC’s multiverse where the superheroes are just fictional characters in comic books, published by DC and read by you and me (our Earth, in other words).

Neal Adams would not draw another story for World’s Finest; he was out as the interior artist, after just two issues, although he continued to contribute the occasional cover — including this one for #179, the last reprint issue of WF I bought before #199, in 1970.  (Of course, he drew that cover too, as you could probably tell by a glance at the reproduction shown above.)  It’s likely that the artist had simply overextended himself, as John Wells and Keith Dallas suggest in their American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-1969 — after all, at this time he was writing as well as drawing The Spectre and “Deadman” in Strange Adventures, plus doing covers for all the Superman family titles, as well.  But it also appears to be true that Adams was experiencing some professional frustration at this time, which included dissatisfaction with his own work.  “You know, I really wasn’t doing the characters well,” Adams told Michael Eury for The Krypton Companion, “and I really wasn’t enthusiastic about it… I was still in the throes of wanting to go off and be an illustrator, and I really wasn’t enjoying comic books that much.”  If Adams already felt this sort of negativity towards his own work, perhaps it’s not surprising that he wasn’t happy with how that work looked when someone else inked it, either — whether that inker was Dick Giordano, or somebody (anybody) else.

Something seems to have clicked for Neal Adams in these months, however.  As he wrote in his introduction to Batman: Illustrated by Neal Adams Vol I (2003):

Somewhere between World’s Finest and The Brave and the Bold… something had changed.

I had fallen in love with doing comic books.

…I realized I was drawing Batman and Superman and doing a lousy job of it.  Here was a missed opportunity that I would no longer overlook.  The trouble was that now I wanted to get into Batman (and maybe Superman), but I was busy doing the Spectre and Deadman and a ton of other stuff.  How to get back to doing Batman?

Adams approached Julius Schwartz, the editor of Batman and Detective Comics, about working on those books — and was apparently rebuffed, for whatever reason.  (Adams has opined that Schwartz was ticked because Adams chose to stop doing The Spectre, which Schwartz also edited, but who knows for sure?)  So Adams turned to Murray Boltinoff, editor of the one comic book besides Batman, Detective, and World’s Finest that featured Batman in every single issue — The Brave and the Bold.  Boltinoff told Adams that if he wanted to draw that book, he could.  And so he did, for the next eight issues — a run of classic stories that would help revitalize the Darknight Detective, and redefine him, for generations to come.

And Dick Giordano would be along for that ride.  After their mutually unsatisfactory experience collaborating on their two issues of World’s Finest, the artists talked.  According to Michael Eury’s book on Giordano, Adams explained what he was trying to accomplish artistically, and made some technical recommendations.  Soon, the artists’ styles was meshing to create a look that Adams said “essentially became my comic book style, unless I inked it myself.”

The rest is history — and, of course, the stuff of future blog posts.

*Shooter began communicating with Weisinger at age 13, but didn’t actually make his first sale until he was 14 — so Bates edges him out by one year in the “DC’s youngest writer” competition.

 

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