Bizarro Back Issues: Batman v. Superman In A Space Jail Full Of Subtext (1964)
Batman and Superman are hitting the big screen this week with the promise that they'll v each other harder than anyone has ever been v-ed before. But if you're looking for a comic that features some of the best examples of those two heroes going at it, I can highly recommend digging through a back issue bin to find yourself a copy of World's Finest Comics #197. It's an extra-sized issue that's crammed full of one story after another where Superman and Batman find themselves fighting against each other.
But even though all three of the stories in that issue are basically stone-cold classics, the best one by far is the one where Batman --- a grim, gritty, ruthless Batman --- lures Superman out to another planet so that he can lock him up in a jail cell and beat him with a laser whip whenever he doesn't obey. And it might just be the weirdest story about those two characters fighting that I've ever seen.
Okay, admittedly, it's not quite as strange as the time they went back in time and Superman attempted to have Batman burned at the stake as a witch before joining the British forces in the Revolutionary War --- World's Finest #186, if you're curious --- but it's not for lack of trying. It's called "Prison For Heroes," and it comes courtesy of Edmond Hamilton and Curt Swan, originally published in World's Finest #145.
And it opens, as all great stories do, with a weird glowing sphere that shows up in Batman's basement and starts talking to him about outer space. According to the sphere --- which Batman agrees to just straight up follow into outer space after about 20 seconds of conversation --- the Caped Crusader is needed for a very special mission: Becoming the warden of a prison full of interplanetary heroes.
While Batman would admittedly make a pretty good warden for a super-powered space prison, the question is why he'd agree to the job if he's jailing heroes instead of villains. It's not an issue for long, though --- as is so often the case with glowing space orbs that show up in one's basement, Batman is quickly subject to super-hypnosis, which causes him to change, "becoming ruthless... merciless!"
With Batman fully compliant, the next step is to get Superman involved, and that's pretty simple --- Batman just sends a radio message back to Earth using their secret code phrase, "CKBW," and oh my God their secret code phrase is made up of each other's initials. Like, seriously, Lois and Jimmy are standing right there when this message comes in, right next to Clark Kent. It is not exactly the world's most secure code.
But it's enough to get Superman out to the space prison, and as soon as he lands, Batman moves a filter in front of the planet's yellow sun to turn its light red and rob Superman of his powers:
If that seems like a very specific 1% of Superman's powers to somehow remain active when things like super-strength and invulnerability are nowhere to be found, well, there's a reason for that, and it's called "plot contrivance." But we'll get to that part.
With Superman sufficiently cowed by a laser-whip, Batman leads him into the jail and locks him up with the other prisoners that he's in charge of, who turn out to be the greatest heroes of a quartet of alien worlds:
Earth's really coming out ahead in the whole superhero thing, huh?
Before long, Batman turns out to be even more of a harsh warden than you might expect. The prisoners are served bread and water once a day, and when he puts them to work breaking rocks, he has no regard for their safety, to the point where Superman ends up buried in rubble as a warning to the others. With no way to break through his conditioning, not even the sight of his best friend being buried under a ton of rocks, it seems that Batman's friendship with Superman is ended forever, and Superman... learns to hate.
At this point, you are probably expecting a prison break to jump off, and if that's the case --- or if you just want to read a comic where Superman and Batman take turns laser-whipping each other --- the very next page will not disappoint you.
That's right, y'all. Tonight, there's gonna be a jailbreak, somewhere in this comic. As Batman is relaxing in his office after a long day of abusing his prisoners, Superman suddenly crashes through the door, shattering a metal bar that's keeping it shut. He seems to have regained his super-powers, and the ensuing fight with Batman bears that out --- he can barely even lift a finger against the seemingly rejuvenated Man of Steel:
But rather than simply putting taking Batman back to Earth and trying to straighten this whole mess out, Superman goes for revenge. His time in Batman's space prison has made him crave vengeance, and so he quickly sets about putting Batman through the same hellish treatment that Batman did to him --- only without the benefits of the other prisoners helping him out. He's sent to break rocks, chained down to a massive iron ball, and starved as even the other prisoners think that Superman might've gone too far.
It's at this point, though, that we finally figure out what's going on here. Remember that glowing sphere from page one? Well, that weird experience --- and this whole thing with the prison, in fact --- was engineered by a pair of aliens with designs on galactic conquest. They're smart enough to realize that attacking Earth --- or Balloon Man's home planet, I guess --- is pointless as long as there are incredibly powerful superheroes running around trying to defend everyone from exactly that sort of interstellar annexation. That's why they built the prison and recruited Batman to run it, but with Superman back in action, the whole plan has been thrown off.
Naturally, they need to head down to the prison to check things out for themselves, and when they do, it's revealed that everything since Superman's "escape" has been an elaborate ruse. He never got his powers back, he just used that 1% of his super-breath that was left to pull down fresh air from the stratosphere so that all of the other imprisoned heroes could use theirs. The bar across the metal door was weakened by heat, Batman was numb and slow to react from the cold, and the flying was, of course, Balloon Man.
As for Batman, he was well under the sway of the super-hypnosis until Superman showed up and hugged him into unconsciousness. Once that was done, it was a simple matter to break the conditioning --- and by "simple matter," I mean that it happens in one panel with the help of ancient Kryptonian science devices.
And with that, the aliens' scheme is thwarted. Batman programs their rocket to smash the red sun filter and give Superman back his powers for real, and after finding some spacesuits somewhere, Superman flies his pals back home, and leaves the would-be conquerors marooned on the prison planet forever, where they presumably die.
No, really. That's how it ends. Prison changed you, Clark.