Ask Chris #295: The Walking Complication That Is Composite Superman
Q: Composite Superman: good idea or great idea? -- @aleams
A: I've written before that I don't normally like the kind of Ask Chris questions that pre-suppose their own answer, but when I saw this one, I realized that I'd never really written about the Composite Superman. Now, almost three hundred installments into this column, that feels like an oversight I should probably correct.
So here's the thing: There's a certain kind of brilliance in comics that comes from simplicity. It's the kind of brilliance that you see in a character like Superman, where you know what he's about just by looking at him, where you only need to explain the minor details that make up his personality, because the broad strokes of who he is and what he does are right there from the very first time you see him. Composite Superman, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of that. He's counterintuitive, weirdly designed and completely ridiculous --- and somehow, some way, that's exactly what makes him great.
I mean, just look at him. If this is your first time seeing him, I want you to just take a moment and try to imagine what his deal is --- and if it's not, then try to imagine when you first encountered him and had to make that connection for yourself. If you're anything like me, then you probably thought something along the lines of, "Okay, well, his name is Composite Superman and he's clearly half-Superman, Half-Batman, so I guess he's probably a combination of the two, with Superman's powers and, I dunno, Batman's car?"
A good guess. A sensible guess, even, based on that implicitly simple visual that we've been given, green skin notwithstanding. But wrong.
To be fair, he does have Superman's powers. But instead of having anything at all to do with Batman, he also has the powers of thirty other completely unrelated people that are also teenagers from the future that Superman used to hang out with when he was a kid, which by all rights means that he should probably be called the Composite Legionnaire.
Even the way that he got his powers is kind of mystifyingly counterintuitive: Joe Meach was an out-of-work high diver who tried to drum up business by jumping off a building into a pool, only to have Superman interrupt the stunt and save his life because his leaky tank would've killed him on impact. Since Meach has fallen on hard times, Superman decides to get him a job as caretaker (read: janitor) at the Superman Museum. This, I think we can all agree, is the action of a pretty solid dude, but Meach is so furious about being given a job that doesn't involve faceplanting into an empty swimming pool that he ends up filled with murderous rage against Superman and his pals.
So when he's struck by lightning in front of a display of statues of the Legion of Super-Heroes --- which actually aren't statues, they're tiny copies of the Legionnaires made with a Duplicator Ray, thus explaining why they have traces of super-powers in them --- and gets the powers of the entire Legion, he decides to use those powers to destroy Superman. And also Batman. For some reason.
Oh and he also lives in a Composite Castle and wants to dominate the Earth, for certain extremely suspect definitions of "dominate."
Honestly, as great as that visual is, I do feel like Ed Hamilton and Curt Swan dropped the ball a little on that headquarters. I mean, shouldn't he be living in a secret underground cave that's also hidden at the North Pole?
Anyway, imagine trying to explain that to someone who wasn't just unfamiliar with the character, but with the entire superhero genre. The Composite Superman is a product of 1964, that era where the reigning axiom was that every comic was someone's first. For all the changes to the status quo and the strict adherence to the weird rules that governed the universe, there was an emphasis on telling simple stories that explained everything right up front and always returned to some kind of status quo at the end of each issue.
And here, right in the middle of that, is Composite Superman, who's so ridiculously complicated that you have to explain the Legion of Super-Heroes and Brainiac 5's duplicator ray just to get through his origin story. And I kind of love that.
Especially since that cover makes it look like "Flying Disguise" is one power.
I love superhero comics. As much as the medium of comic books can contain multitudes, and as much genuinely great work is out there that goes well beyond capes and tights and battles against cosmic evil in the form of bank-robbing murder clowns, that's where my heart is. I love how they work, the way they build on each other, and the way that shared universes are formed around them --- and I love how all of the pieces of those shared universes don't quite match up, and how you can see the seams in them from trying to Frankenstein a dozen different genres together into a genre that can contain everything.
That's why I tend to gravitate to characters like Jimmy Olsen, someone who could not exist in the form that made him work best without an entire universe first being built for him to inhabit. Heck, it's why I like Batman, because he's a character who takes these very serious, very realistic, and very relatable ideas and fears and turns them into something that fits in a world where dressing up in a costume that, to be quite honest, is only sort of vaguely bat-themed and driving around in a rocket car to stop crimes isn't just a rational choice, it's a necessary choice that has a measurable positive impact on the world.
If you take that idea, the one that sits at the core of superheroes like Batman, and extrapolate it out to its logical conclusion --- well, "logical" in the strictest sense, I mean --- then you end up with something like Composite Superman. Someone who, even in the context of that world, seems weird and ridiculous, who doesn't quite make sense even there, but still has to abide by the structure of everything around him. He still has to be treated like a serious threat, because he is one --- and more than that, he should, by all rights, be the single most powerful threat that the superheroes have ever faced.
But he gets his powers in such a weird way, and he's put together --- both figuratively and literally, if you think of him as just being a smushed-up version of Batman and Superman that turned green to give him a more distinct visual --- in a way that seems so haphazard that there's no real way for him to work. But there he is, causing trouble for Your Two Favorite Super-Heroes, trying to hug the world to death, and sitting on a throne that is also a planetarium.
And that, in turn, makes it impossible for me to not love him. As much as I love the genre and the tropes that make it up, there's always that thrill of storytelling free-fall that comes from just throwing it all out the window and doing something that might not make sense in the traditional sense, but works in the context of a story that itself is just holding onto a narrative thread for dear life. And Composite Superman, more than just about any other character I can think of, embodies that idea.
He exists within the rules but in defiance of rationality, which, in superhero comics anyway, is where the magic tends to happen.
Ask Chris art by Erica Henderson. If you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris.