The Evolution of the World’s Finest: Best Superman/Batman Team-Ups by Decade
Many of comics’ most popular characters have been around for decades, and in the case of the big names from the publisher now known as DC Comics, some have been around for a sizable chunk of a century. As these characters passed through the different historical eras known in comics as the Golden Age (the late 1930s through the early 1950s), the Silver Age (the mid 1950s through the late 1960s), the Bronze Age (the early 1970s through the mid 1980s) and on into modern times, they have experienced considerable changes in tone and portrayal that reflect the zeitgeist of the time.
With this feature we’ll help you navigate the very best stories of DC Comics’ most significant characters decade by decade. This week, with the release of Zack Snyder's Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice just six months away, we’re taking a look at the best Superman/Batman team-up comics.
1940s: “5 Drowned Men!”
All-Star Comics vol 1 #36, by Gardner Fox and Irwin Hasen
By 1940, Superman and Batman were firmly established as DC's most popular superheroes, so when DC put together a 96-page special for the World's Fair, it was natural to feature them both inside the book, but the real revelation was putting them both on the cover. That cover, featuring Superman, Batman, and Robin just being bros, was such a sensation that it inspired an identically formatted anthology book, originally titled World's Best, but renamed World's Finest with issue #2. The bad news is, while each 96-page quarterly issue featured a Superman and Batman story, they were separate features and the characters only appeared together on covers. The good news is, these covers are awesome, showcasing Superman and Batman just chilling, playing volleyball, eating hot dogs, or whatever.
Superman and Batman only ever appeared in three actual stories together in the 1940s. Two of them were Justice Society adventures, where the two heroes were reserve members (in a move that seems counter to modern logic, editors were worried about diluting the brands of Superman and Batman if they appeared in too many comics); the third was a humor story by Sheldon Meyer in which comics characters come to life to plague a beleaguered comics editor.
The selection here is one of those Justice Society stories, featuring art by the great Irwin Hasen, in which five men are washed in mystical waters that wipe away their consciences, meaning the Justice Society must face five brand new master criminals.
Best of the rest: “$1,000,000 for War Orphans!” (All-Star Comics vol 1 #7), “The Pink Eyebrow” (All Funny Comics #16), New York World's Fair Comics 1940, World's Best Comics #1
1950s: “The Mightiest Team in the World!”
Superman vol 1 #76, by Edmond Hamilton and Curt Swan
After twelve years appearing on covers together playing tennis or pelting Mussolini with baseballs, Superman and Batman finally met in an actual story in the pages of Superman. A few years later, with the superhero genre declining in popularity, DC editorial found themselves having to reduce the page count of World's Finest. Faced with the dilemma of having to cut either the Superman or Batman feature, they instead decided to combine the two strips, with each issue now boasting, “Your two favorite heroes in one adventure — together!” World's Finest would go on to be a Superman/Batman team-up book for most of the rest of its publication history, and the term “World's Finest” would come to be synonymous with the two characters (as will become obvious by the number of times that title is used for stories featuring this team-up).
“The Mightiest Team in the World” is that first, pre-World's Finest team-up. There would go on to be many different stories that purported to be the true first meeting of Batman and Superman (there are at least five or six on this list), but this one is perhaps the best remembered. The event that brings the two greatest heroes in the world together is not a threat from Darkseid or alien invasion; no, it's a simple jewel thief on a cruise ship. Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent find themselves double-booked into a single room on a cruise ship and accidentally discover each other's identities when light shines in through the portholes while they change clothes to catch the thief.
The earliest team-ups between Superman and Batman can be found in this hardcover that was conveniently just solicited.
Best of the rest: “Batman—Double for Superman!” (World's Finest vol 1 #71), “Origin of the Superman-Batman Team!” (World's Finest vol 1 #94), “Superman and Batman's Greatest Foes” (World's Finest vol 1 #88), “The Super-Key to Fort Superman!” (Action Comics vol 1 #241), “The Club of Heroes” (World's Finest vol 1 #90), “The Battle of the Super-Heroes!” (World's Finest vol 1 #95)
1960s: “The Composite Superman”
World's Finest vol 1 #142, by Edmond Hamilton and Curt Swan
As the Silver Age continued, World's Finest would feature Superman and Batman in fairly typical, and at times formulaic, tales in which the two heroes would battle gangsters or aliens, or swap powers, or one of them would turn evil temporarily. As time went on, the stories would increasingly meld elements from the two heroes' personal worlds, with Robin and Jimmy Olsen becoming friends, or a Superman villain and a Batman villain teaming up, or even Bat-Mite and Mr Mxyzptlk joining forces to plague the World's Finest.
The ultimate melding, however, would come in World's Finest #142, in which Batman and Superman face a foe unlike any other, but eerily like themselves: the Composite Superman. One of the best concepts in the history of comics, the Composite Superman is a villain who looks like a green-skinned half-Superman, half-Batman with all the super-powers of the Legion of Super-Heroes, who was really a janitor who stood too close to a bunch of Legion statuettes that got struck by lightning. It's a pretty crazy story, you guys. You should read it.
Best of the rest: “The Infinite Evolutions of Batman and Superman” (World's Finest vol 1 #151), “The Sons of Superman and Batman” (World's Finest vol 1 #154), “The Origin of the Superman-Batman Team!” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #275), “The Superman-Batman Revenge Squads” (World's Finest vol 1 #175), “Bat-Mite Meets Mr Mxyzptlk” (World's Finest vol 1 #113), “The Mirror Batman” (World's Finest vol 1 #121), “The Negative Superman” (World's Finest vol 1 #126), “The 1,000 Tricks of Clayface and Brainiac” (World's Finest vol 1 #144)
1970s: “Today Gotham...Tomorrow, the World!”
After nearly two decades of adventures together, Superman and Batman would briefly part ways within the pages of World's Finest, as the book became one in which Superman would team up with non-Batman heroes, such as the Flash, Dr Fate, or the Vigilante. Nothing as puny as editorial could keep the world's finest team down, however, and the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight Detective were soon in one adventure — together! — again after less than two years apart.
(The Superman/Batman team-ups would resume with one of the crazier concepts of the era: the Super-Sons, who were teenaged sons of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne — presumably with women, not with each other — identical to their fathers in basically every way except that they had sideburns. Writer Bob Haney insisted these stories were canonical. This was later gotten around by revealing they were simply computer simulations.)
The selection for this decade is actually not a World's Finest story, but one from the Batman-centric team-up book, The Brave and the Bold. In fact, by telling you it's a team-up with Superman, I've kind of spoiled the surprise of the story. But, you know, you've had 36 years to read it, so it's your own fault. In this anniversary issue, Batman must take down a terrorist organization that is blackmailing Gotham's most prominent citizens. Fortunately, he has a mysterious ally that has infiltrated the group.
Best of the rest: “Fugitive from the Stars!” (World's Finest vol 1 #211), “Heroes With Dirty Hands” (World's Finest vol 1 #217), “How Do You Kill a Superman?” (World's Finest vol 1 #240), “The Werewolf of Krypton” (World's Finest vol 1 #256), “Saga of the Super-Sons” (World's Finest vol 1 #215-216, 221-222, 224, 228, 230, 231, 233, 238, 242, and 263), “Dig Now, Die Later” (World's Finest vol 1 #195)
1980s: “One Night in Gotham City...”
Following Crisis on Infinite Earths, the World's Finest team was on shaky legs. Gone was the best friendship that saw them pranking each other on the talking scale, and the trust that meant that each was the only one who knew the other's secret identity. For a world that had just clamored for Batman to stomp on Superman with a spiky boot in Dark Knight Returns, the Byrne New World following Crisis showed a Superman who distrusted a masked vigilante, and a Batman paranoid that an absolutely powered alien would absolutely corrupt.
“One Night” is, courtesy of Crisis, yet another chance for a first meeting between Superman and Batman. When Superman interferes with Batman's pursuit of a villain, Batman staves him off with the threat of a hidden bomb that will go off if Superman touches him. This gives Batman time to size the Kryptonian up and wonder — and perhaps worry — if the two could ever be friends.
Best of the rest: “Skeeter” (Action Comics Annual #1), “The Hurrieder I Go” (Adventures of Superman #440), “For the Man Who Has Everything” (Superman Annual #11), “A Death in the Family” (Batman vol 1 #426-429), “The Kryll Way of Dying” (World's Finest vol 1 #289)
1990s: “World's Finest”
The late '80s and early '90s saw the connection between Superman and Batman slowly increasing, as Superman helps Batman get over the death of Jason Todd and entrusts Batman with a kryptonite ring recovered from Lex Luthor. Many of the stories of this era that focused on the two teaming up tended to be retro-style stories, non-canonical “Elseworlds,” or both.
One such story with retro stylings is the three issue World's Finest mini-series by Gibbons and Rude, focusing on an early team-up where Superman and Batman join forces after their greatest villains — Luthor and the Joker — trade cities in order to throw the heroes off their game. The story focuses on the contrast in methods and styles of the two heroes in juxtaposition, and the art by Rude is second-to-none.
Best of the rest: Superman & Batman: Generations #1-4, Kingdom Come #1-4, Batman and Superman Adventures: World's Finest, “Dark Knight Over Metropolis” (Superman vol 2 #44, Adventures of Superman vol 1 #467, Action Comics vol 1 #654), “Execution 2001” (Superman vol 2 Annual #3), “Year Seven: A Better World” (World's Finest vol 3 #7), Legends of the World's Finest #1-3
2000s: “Stop Me If You've Heard This One...”
Superman/Batman Annual #1, by Joe Kelly, Ed McGuinness, Ryan Ottley, et al.
The year 2003 saw the return of a Superman/Batman team-up book for the first time in almost twenty years, this time titled, somewhat straightforwardly, Superman/Batman. The most prominent stories of the series were written by Jeph Loeb, with art by a bevy of big-name artists, most notably Ed McGuinness. While this series continued to focus on just how different the two title characters are, at least they seemed to be friends again. Fortunately, the New 52 came along and made them suspicious of each other again.
The best of the stories of the Superman/Batman era were the annuals, especially the first two by Joe Kelly, which retold classic team-up tales with a post-modern twist. The best of all was this first annual, which expanded the original twelve-page tale of “The Mightiest Team in the World” into a thirty-eight-page extravaganza, full of multiple earths and wicked humor.
Best of the rest: “The Unexamined Life” (Superman/Batman Annual #2), Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman: Trinity #1-3, “When Clark Met Bruce: A Tale from the Days of Smallville” (Superman/Batman Secret Files), “Public Enemies” (Superman/Batman #1-6), “With a Vengeance” (Superman/Batman #19-25), Superman and Batman versus Aliens and Predator #1-2, Superman and Batman: World's Funnest, “With This Ring…” (Superman vol 2 #168/Detective Comics vol 1 #756)
And that's it for the decades we've experienced so far! The 2010s are halfway over; we'll have to see who comes out on top in five years! Will anything top Worlds' Finest or Cross World? Let's find out together, shall we?