Ask Chris #331: The Imaginary Story Cake Brunch That Sadly Never Happened
Q: Can you please explain this picture? — @settlechaos
A: I actually can! But I'll warn you right now, friend, the actual answer does not involve a bunch of superheroes hanging out on a patio eating chocolate cake while ignoring Jimmy Olsen's cries for mercy in the background.
The image in question was Brian Bolland's cover for DC's Greatest Imaginary Stories, a 2005 paperback that was --- as you might imagine from the title --- collected some of the more notable "Imaginary Story" tales from DC's long history of doing stories with premises like "What if this dude was two dudes" or "what if the kid-friendly Captain Marvel was forced to confront the actual horrors of nuclear war in a terrifying hoax?"
It's worth noting, however, that the image you posted along with your question was Bolland's original version, and not only does it lack the trade dress that would've made it pretty easy to identify, there's also a subtle change from the final version.
Either way, it's a pretty fantastic image. Not only is Bolland doing an homage to Curt Swan --- and, in the case of Lois, Jimmy, and Supergirl, lifting pretty directly from the original stories --- but arranging them at an outdoor cake party is the kind of delightful image that I wish we saw more of in comics.
I mean, it's not the best cover featuring superheroes having a meal together outside, because it's not Ty Templeton's cover to Who's Who Update '88 #4, where all the supporting characters show up for a pool party at Ma and Pa Kent's house.
Seriously, click through for the full-sized image on that one, if only to see Maxwell Lord just straight not having it with creep-ass Terry Long.
Anyway, I suspect that the answer you're going for here is less "oh, Brian Bolland drew it for a paperback" and more wanting to know where all these characters came from, so let's get into it. Each one is drawn from a specific story, and while it's worth noting that not every story in the collection is represented on the cover, it does feature some of the best.
I have always been partial to the Jimmy Olsen/Supergirl 'ship, and this story is actually one of the big reasons why. I read it not too long after I started getting really into Silver Age Jimmy, and along with the story where Kara has to secretly smooch him in order to cure Jimmy of being a werewolf (that one's not an imaginary story, it was full-on canon), this one presents their relationship as really cute.
Of course, it also does it in the most Silver Age way possible, with Supergirl getting accidentally zapped with Red Kryptonite, forgetting she has any identity other than Linda Lee, and then immediately getting married to Jimmy while she's still suffering from her partial radioactive space rock amnesia.
And naturally, this leads to Linda trying to make Jimmy fall in love with her other identity rather than just telling her husband what was happening.
In retrospect, when I said it was "cute," I should've probably specified that I meant "by Silver Age Jimmy Olsen standards." In any other context, it's actually kind of horrifying on a personal relationship level.
Moving down to the left, we've got Captain Marvel from the previously mentioned, extremely depressing "The Atomic War" (Captain Marvel Adventures #66), in which Billy Batson gets on the mic at the radio station to pull a War of the Worlds hoax about nuclear annihilation. It is not quite as fun as, say, literally any other Captain Marvel Adventures story.
Next to him, of course, are Superman-Red and Superman-Blue, from what is arguably the most famous "Imaginary Story" ever printed, from Leo Dorfman and Curt Swan's Superman #162:
This story would, of course, prove to be pretty influential, even making a bizarre comeback during the Electric Blue Year, and it's a really fun one in its own right. Even if it does wrap things up a little too neatly --- the two Supermen also have their intelligence increased so that they can solve literally every problem in the world, including inventing an "Anti-Evil Ray" that cures their Brainiac and Luthor of their villainous ways, and just happen to each prefer Lois Lane and Lana Lang, respectively, which sadly leaves Lori Lemaris in the dust --- I really love how it plays with the idea at its premise.
I mean, if one Superman can save the world from complete destruction three or four times a month, then it actually makes sense that two would fix everything.
Superman-Blue's quick "Welp, the story checks out!" is maybe the best panel in the whole story.
Speaking of Lori Lemaris, Lois Lane, and getting married, their appearance here might look pretty generic, but it's actually a specific reference to a couple of different tales of super-powered matriomony. Lois here is lifted almost directly from Curt Swan's cover to Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane #19:
Sure enough, Otto Binder and Kurt Schaffenberger's "Mr. and Mrs. Clark (Superman) Kent" does in fact appear in the collection. Honestly, though, it's not their best work, and mainly involves Lois being extremely petty to her neighbors and wearing a dress that turns green when she gets jealous of all the women who get to brag about their husbands' accomplishments. It does, however, feature Lois covering for Clark's absences when he has to go into action as Superman by pretending to lock him in an airtight vault and telling Perry White that he's probably going to suffocate, because Lois is "Ride Or Die For Life."
Lori Lemaris being on the cover, however, indicates a far more interesting "Superman Gets Married" story --- a trilogy, in fact, from Lois Lane #51:
The story is "The Three Wives of Superman," also illustrated by Kurt Schaffenberger, and it is buck wild.
For one thing, all three stories take place in an imaginary continuity, one right after the other, where Superman marries Lois, is almost immediately widowed, then quickly marries Lana, is almost immediately widowed again, and then finally heads under the sea to marry Lori, who also immediately dies.
Not only is it a weirdly dark premise for a comic from 1964, and not only does it triple down on Dead Wife plots, but honestly, how crappy do you think Lori Lemaris knowing that she is literally and incontrovertibly a third-place love interest? Lana may have been in second place, but at least she beat somebody --- you have to imagine the ghost of Lori just hovering around hoping that Lyla Lerrol shows up so that she's not dead friggin' last.
Even beyond that, though, the events of the story are completely bonkers.
At one point, after Lois dies and Superman says that he'll never marry again, Lana is set to marry a reformed Lex Luthor when Superman just smooth busts into the wedding day of and ruins pretty much everything:
And then at the end, he finds out that he could've saved them all, and is left in the final panel of the story with the unanswered question of who he loved enough to save from death.
Compared to that, the story where the Flash wonders what would happen if he didn't have a secret identity and does a story that answers that question with "People would know who you were and probably bug you at work," doesn't really stack up.
"But Chris!" you may be saying , "You skipped over Batman, and that is completely unlike you given the previous 330 installments of this column! What gives?!"
Well, dear reader, I skipped Batman because he makes for a special case. There are a couple of Batman stories in this collection --- one about Batman's parents not dying where he fights a crook called the Blue Bat who just happens to wear Batman's exact costume, and one where Superman and Batman were raised as brothers --- but neither one is the one that's indicated by the cover.
If you go back and look at the image I used for the header, you'll notice that it has a small difference from the one that was actually used in the published version: That big ol' Roman numeral "II" on Batman's chest.
Judging by that, I'm guessing that originally, this collection was meant to feature at least one of the Imaginary Stories --- actually some non-erotic friend fiction written by Alfred in the continuity of the story --- about Bruce Wayne marrying Kathy Kane and retiring from crime-fighting to raise his son, passing the mantle down to Dick Grayson.
It's one of the weirdest and most prominent "Imaginary" universes, too. In one of the strangest moments, Batman goes on TV to announce his retirement and Robin's promotion --- something that you think he might not have wanted to broadcast to the underworld --- and Dick ends up wearing that giant "II" as part of his uniform, under the official name of "Batman II." Or maybe "Batman the Second?" Is it like an imperial dynasty sort of thing? Is "Batman" his papal name?!
Either way, there are a ton of stories about it, including one where Batman and Robin II --- Bruce Wayne's son, Bruce Jr. --- fight the son of the Joker:
Needless to say, it's a Grant Morrison favorite. He referenced this story as early as JLA #8, with Catwoman swapped in for Kathy Kane, and as you might remember, Dick taking over for Batman and fighting crime alongside Bruce Wayne's son as Robin was a pretty big part of his run.
But it doesn't show up in this book. Somewhere between commissioning the cover and publishing the collection, they decided to do a second volume of DC's Greatest Imaginary Stories that was entirely focused on Batman and Robin:
It just took them five full years to get around to publishing it.