The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Authors: Edmond Hamilton, Joe Kelly and others
Artists: Curt Swan, George Klein and others
Titan Books
RRP: 9.99, US $19.99
ISBN-13: 978 1 84576 437 1
ISBN-10: 1 84576 437 4
Available 25 May 2007

They are two of the world's biggest icons, and yet they couldn't be any more different. One is the most powerful being on the planet, wielding an array of superpowers - a shining symbol of hope, embodying truth, justice and the American way. The other has no powers but has trained his mind and body to the peak of human perfection - a dark vigilante determined to strike fear into the hearts of evildoers. Together, this popular and unlikely pair has starred in numerous team-ups over the decades, facing evil duplicates, a collaboration between Lex Luthor and the Joker, Doctor Light and other menaces...

An unlikely pair indeed. The comedians Mitchell and Webb probably had Superman and Batman in mind when they devised their hilarious sketches about the mismatched duo Angel Summoner and the BMX Bandit. Imagine the following exchange... Batman: "Right, here's what we'll do. I'll ride over there in my Batmobile, spin my back wheels really fast to get some mud on their faces, then I'll throw my batarang and knock the guns out of their hands while you fly in and rescue the hostage." Superman: "Yes... or I could just use my awesome superpowers."

I'm joking, of course, but there are genuine instances of dialogue that come very close to the above, highlighting the absurd disparity between these two heroes' abilities. "Go ahead, Superman - we'll follow!" shout Batman and Robin from the Batmobile in "Superman's and Batman's Greatest Foes!" (originally presented in World's Finest Comics #88, 1957), as Superman zooms away to stop Lex Luthor's latest scheme. "Doc Light's image left a photonic trail," declares the Man of Steel in "A Matter of Light and Death!" (World's Finest Comics #207, 1971), "the kind of trail only I can follow! You're gonna have to sit this one out! Keep the home fires burning! I should be back soon!"

To be fair, though, the Caped Crusader's unique powers of detection come in useful during the same strip. They also do in other stories, such as the very first partnership, "The Mightiest Team in the World!" (Superman #76, 1952), in which Batman's gift for disguise also gets Clark out of a tight spot.

You may notice a distinct lack of material from Batman-related titles such as Detective Comics and Batman in this collection. Two strips come from the pages of Superman-related comics, the rest from the team-up series World's Finest and Superman/Batman. I believe this to be an indication of the fact that Batman can inhabit Superman's fictional landscape more comfortably than Superman can occupy Batman's. To put it another way, it's easier for fans of the Man of Steel's adventures to believe in a costumed detective than it is for the Dark Knight's fans to accept the presence of a superpowered alien from the planet Krypton.

As if to prove my point, the earlier strips in this volume are very silly indeed. "The Mightiest Team" is a frivolous affair, more concerned with mundane issues such as which hero Lois Lane fancies the most than with any serious threats to life and liberty. "Superman's and Batman's Greatest Foes!" includes some unlikely mechanical men. "The Composite Superman!" (World's Finest Comics #142, 1964), "The Cape and Cowl Crooks!" (World's Finest Comics #159, 1966) and "The Superman-Batman Split!" (World's Finest Comics #176, 1968) all revolve around super (or apparently super) villains with bizarre secret identities. At least "The Superman-Batman Split!", which also ropes in Supergirl, Batgirl, Robin and Jimmy Olsen, boasts dynamic art by penciller Neal Adams and inker Dick Giordano, and subtle colour and shading work that is truly ahead of its time.

Things get more character-driven in "One Night in Gotham City..." (Superman: Man of Steel #3, 1986) and "A Better World" (Batman & Superman: World's Finest #7, 2000). The timeline also gets potentially confusing from this point. "One Night" hails from the John Byrne "reboot" era, and puts a fresh spin on the first meeting between the two costumed heroes. "A Better World" turns the clock back in a different way. It is set shortly after the death of Jason Todd, and before Clark has revealed his secret to Lois, though in the compressed timeline of DC Comics, this is just "Four years ago."

Rounding off the anthology in style, "Stop Me if You've Heard This One..." (Superman/Batman Annual #1, 2006) harks back to earlier and more frivolous times. Combining the shipboard setting of "The Mightiest Team in the World!" with the "evil doppelganger" elements of "The Composite Superman!" and "The Cape and Cowl Crooks!", this cheekily witty tale retells the heroes' discovery of each other's secret identity. Writer Joe Kelly also has fun with some petty rivalry between Clark Kent/Superman and Bruce Wayne/Batman.

This is an impressive collection, if you don't mind a bit - well, a lot - of silliness.

Richard McGinlay

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