Bizarro Back Issues: Batman And Superman Team Up With Merlin To Fight Gnomes (1980)
With the release of Batman v Superman hovering just over the horizon, I know that a lot of people are going back and reading some of their favorite stories about those two characters, and I, my friends, am no exception. The thing is, I'm not all that into seeing them fighting. I mean, yeah, it's good for a change of pace every now and then, but most of the time, I want to see the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight putting aside their differences to fight against a threat too great to deal with individually.
Like, say, an army of garden gnomes that are trying to convert science into magic so that a wizard can take over the world.
Believe it or not --- and I'll tell you right now that even as someone who is very familiar with the excesses of DC's Bronze Age titles, this one was pretty hard to believe --- that is the premise of World's Finest Comics #265, in which Cary Burkett, Ric Estrada and Dick Giordano bring us "Magic Menace This Way Comes." And seriously? If you ever see this one in a dollar box, I can highly recommend that you pick it up. It's one of those rare comics that opens with Batman wrestling a skeleton, and somehow manages to get weirder and weirder on every single page.
But we begin in Gotham City as Batman, and his perfect hair, dream of Robin being buried alive:
It's worth noting that according to Burkett's dialogue, this version of Batman almost never has nightmares, as opposed to the more psychologically tortured takes on the character that would come later on. That's actually something that I like a lot. I mean, really, when you get right down to it, Batman's reality is already full of murderous clowns, giant pennies, and a little man who looks like a penguin and has an umbrella that's also a gun. When that's what you're dealing with while you're awake, you have to think that eventually your subconscious mind would just throw its hands up and decide to stop working nights.
But Batman's nightmare isn't the only unusual occurrence of the day. Later, in Metropolis, wishes start coming true as soon as they're made --- and unfortunately, it's specifically the wishes of a pair of criminals who are also my new favorite DC characters:
I honestly can't decide if my favorite part is the "Cripes!" or the blunt, resigned assertion of "You're wasting your time, stupid."
More important than that mysterious lightning bolt, though, is a reflection of Robin that suddenly appears in the water of a nearby fountain, begging for help. It soon vanishes, but it's enough to get Superman worried enough to fly to Gotham to check on his young pal. And when he arrives that night --- distracted by an earthquake in China, a genuinely great way of explaining why it's suddenly night-time in Gotham, a city where it's always friggin' night time --- he manages to arrive right after Batman has yet another strange vision:
Also, shout out to the world's greatest footnote there in panel one.
Since even Bronze Age Batman rarely hits people so hard that their heads burst into flames and form the faces of his loved ones --- and since Batman saw clouds forming a big R on the flight over --- the two heroes finally decide that they should probably head up to Hudson University and check on the Teen Wonder themselves. And that's when we find out that the next three pages of this fifteen-page story are going to be taken up with an extended flashback that finally tells us what's going on.
Well, if you call this telling us what's going on.
Yeah, that's going to require some additional explanation.
Okay, so it seems that Hudson University has a pretty strange memorial dedicated to graduates who died in the Vietnam War. There's an eternal flame, which seems normal enough, but for some reason, they have decided to put the whole thing inside a cave. When Dick, in his capacity as a writer for the Hudson Herald, is assigned to go figure out why the flame keeps going out, he's immediately attacked (and knocked out) by a gang of gnomes.
As for why that happened, well, it turns out it's all this guy's doing:
That, friends and neighbors, is Simon Magus, an obscure supervillain who previously tangled with Batman and Superman back in Justice League of America #2, and he's here now to tell you all about how the world works.
See, he's from Asgard, a realm where all of the natural laws are based on magic, as opposed to Earth, where everything is based on science. This is a key difference, and is, in fact, the centerpiece of his plan, but to be honest, it is dubious at best. This is, after all, the DC Universe Earth that we're talking about, and even if magic wasn't an actual going concern on that planet, I'm pretty sure that we can all agree that they play fast and loose enough with "science" that it might as well be. But that's beside the point.
Basically, Magus wants to take over the world(s) by using a magical crystal to replace Earth's "science energies" with Asgard's "magic energies," and then channel the power of both realms into himself to become all-powerful. To that end, he's been screwing around with the Hudson University memorial, because --- since it's an eternal flame in a cave that also features an underground stream --- it represents all of the classical four elements that he needs for the spell. And also, Robin has to be there. No, I'm not sure why either.
But since he has to keep him around, Magus ends up tossing Robin into an underground jail cell with two extremely intimidating guards --- and that's where he figures out how to turn things to his advantage:
Of course, since Robin isn't a practiced wizard, his psychic message to Batman and Superman gets a little garbled. All that comes through is the fact that he's in dire peril, but the set dressing of each vision leads the heroes to the Four Elements Memorial.
At this point, you might think that we've hit the part of the story where Batman and Superman show up and trounce the villain, but you are wrong. Things are going to get a whole lot weirder before we're done here, and it starts with the arrival of this issue's special guest star: Merlin.
Merlin reminds Batman and Superman that in their last encounter, they discovered that Magus had three citadels --- one each for air, water, and earth --- and so they split up to check them out. Merlin takes the underwater citadel, which the comic does not show us because, unlike the people who make video games, comics knew back in 1980 that nobody liked underwater stages.
Instead, we get to see Superman fighting the Balrog.
"It looks like it leapt out of the pages of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings!"
--- Superman, a huge nerd.
Since he's less powerful in a magical realm, Superman struggles with dealing with the Balrog, eventually having to outsmart it and fly it into a magical waterfall. Batman, on the other hand, finds himself faced with an army of reanimated skeletons, and he solves that problem the way he solves all problems: By kicking it until it isn't a problem anymore.
Eventually, they realize that Magus has moved to a fourth location, and together, Merlin, Superman and Batman storm his fortress, with Superman handling the army of gnomes a whole lot easier than he handled the Balrog. And that, as they say, is that.
There is, of course, a little bit of extra tension. At one point, Magus grabs Robin and pulls out a gun to hold him hostage --- and really, a wizard busting out a gun seems an awful lot like cheating --- but with Superman, Batman, Robin and Merlin all arrayed against him, Magus doesn't really stand a chance. Thus, the crystal is shattered, and the rule of science is restored to Earth, just in time for the flying man and his pal who drives a rocket car to go head back home.