Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1, June 1938. He was the first superhero, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Batman came around a year later, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in Detective Comics #27, May 1939. By then, newsstands were becoming crowded with costumed crime fighters of all stripes. After Superman premiered, it took a few months for the first few imitators to sneak onto shelves. But when those first imitators sold, it was obvious that, far from being a single novelty character, Superman represented a burgeoning genre. Batman was among the first wave of Superman copycats. Detective was a sister magazine to Action, both owned by Detective Comics, Inc. (soon to be known as National Comics, then much later as DC again). If Batman was a knockoff, he was at least an authorized knockoff.
The first super-team, the Justice Society Of America, premiered in All-Star Comics #3, at the end of 1940. All-Star was another National magazine but—despite their status as the most popular characters in comics—Superman and Batman were considered only honorary JSA members. Not because they weren’t popular enough—on the contrary, they were too popular to be bothered.
Superman and Batman wouldn’t actually team up for many years. The first time they rubbed elbows on-panel was in All-Star Comics #7, when they briefly appeared alongside fellow honorary member the Flash to help out with a charity drive for war orphans. Whereas now the most popular comic book characters are routinely press-ganged into performing guest appearances in other heroes’ titles and on multiple teams, Superman and Batman’s success allowed them to remain insulated from the indignity of sharing magazine space with the likes of Johnny Thunder and Dr. Fate. In terms of success, their only peers at National were each other. Accordingly, beginning in 1941 Batman and Superman shared the lead of World’s Finest Comics. But although they appeared together on the magazine’s cover, they did not actually share a story until 1952, when Batman guest-starred in Superman #76. Two years later, as a result of shrinking page count, the Batman and Superman features in World’s Finest were consolidated, and the characters officially began a decades-long tradition of team-ups.
Their brief cameo in the pages of All-Star Comics was forgotten by the time of their first “official” meeting in Superman #76, when Edmond Hamilton and Curt Swan introduced readers to “The Mightiest Team On Earth.” As was par for the course for 1952, the circumstances of their meeting were less than earth-shattering. Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent both happened to be embarking on a pleasure cruise right as a diamond theft was being committed next to the still-moored ocean liner. Despite the fact that they had been forced to share a cabin, Wayne and Kent both sprang into action, hoping to disguise their secret identity from their bunkmate by changing clothes in darkness. That didn’t last long. A stray beam of light revealed each others’ disguises. Neither seemed particularly upset at having given up their secret identities, however. They wasted no time in putting the knowledge to good use, tracking down the stowaway diamond thief while also foiling one of Lois Lane’s attempts to deduce Superman’s secret identity. It just so happened that Bruce Wayne was a dead ringer for Clark Kent, enabling the two heroes to cover for each other. Quite a fortuitous coincidence, and one they would exploit many times over the coming years.
While Superman and Batman continued to live completely separate lives in their own series, World’s Finest became a weird bubble where both the Superman and Batman families could interact and mingle. Lex Luthor and the Joker, for instance, got in on the team-up act themselves in World’s Finest #88. Mind you, this was years before anyone had the barest inkling of anything resembling a “superhero universe.” Even though the many heroes of the Justice Society had ostensibly shared the same world, none of them interacted outside the confines of their bimonthly club meetings. Superman and Batman actually sharing regular adventures was a big deal.
Superheroes fell out of popularity in the years immediately following World War II. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were the only characters to survive the postwar period with their own titles intact. Then success of an updated Flash in 1956 led to further character revivals, until there were enough revamped characters to give the super-team another try. The Justice League Of America premiered in The Brave And The Bold #28, at the beginning of 1960. Again, Superman and Batman hovered on the outskirts. They were considered members, but they rarely showed up for adventures. Just as it had 20 years earlier, Batman and Superman’s popularity kept them largely independent. But that isolation did not last.
The success of DC’s refurbished superhero titles—particularly the bestselling Justice League—soon caught the attention of DC’s competitors. Marvel Comics was almost defunct when the first issue of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four hit shelves in August 1961. It was an immediate hit, and Marvel took immediate steps to reenter the superhero market.
One of Lee’s odd refinements to the superhero formula—in an early example of Lee’s marketing genius—was the gradual interconnection of his new family of superhero titles. The first new title launched after Fantastic Four was The Incredible Hulk. Rather than simply mentioning the premiere of the new magazine in the letters page or in a house ad, the Human Torch was seen reading a copy of the Hulk’s new comic in issue #5 of Fantastic Four. Just a few months later, in Fantastic Four #12, the Hulk himself showed up for a big fight. That was the same month that the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man hit shelves… featuring Spidey in a brief battle with the Fantastic Four.
Whereas team-ups had previously been special events segregated from the regular run of individual characters’ solo books, Marvel made the team-up the cornerstone of its new family of books. While it would be a grievous mistake to state that Lee had it all meticulously planned from the beginning, he eagerly embraced the new gimmick after it became obvious that fans really, really liked the idea of all their heroes interacting on a regular basis. What began as little more than a transparent marketing ploy had taken on a life of its own.
DC was slow to realize just how seriously the ground had shifted under its feet. For years the company dismissed Marvel, complaining that the books were ugly, poorly written, and belittled the company’s success as a fad. As the decade wore on, however, DC made gradual overtures in the direction of adopting some of its rival’s style for its own books. One of the more obvious elements of Marvel’s success to replicate was the “universe” model pioneered by Lee. The month-to-month continuity that had become a hallmark over at Marvel slowly crept into DC. The myriad different titles that composed the DC line made for an ungainly “universe,” sharing little in the way of stylistic or thematic cohesion. The actual construction of connective tissue entailed many ad hoc compromises and complications, but universes were what readers wanted, so a universe (or, more precisely, a multiverse) was what they got.
In 1970, World’s Finest switched from a monthly Superman/Batman team-up book to a monthly Superman team-up book, with a rotating cast of guest stars appearing alongside the Man Of Steel. Batman would return to World’s Finest within a couple years, but was also soon headlining his own team-up book in The Brave And The Bold, beginning his tenure in 1967 and running through to 1983. Superman and Batman had become a part of the “DC Universe” whether they wanted it or not. In the post-Marvel world, their success, rather than ensuring their autonomy, meant that the characters were now obligated to participate in constant team-ups.
Given this, the relationship between Batman and Superman had remained remarkably stable for three and a half decades. Naturally, they were friends. From the moment of their first meeting in Superman #76, they recognized in each other an instinctive ally in the fight against evil and injustice. Although their demeanors may have been dissimilar, there was very little daylight between them in terms of goals and tactics.
This changed in 1986. Frank Miller had made his mark over the previous decade with a seminal run on Marvel third-stringer Daredevil (that Daredevil is no longer a third-stringer is due to Miller’s influence). He followed that run with a switch to DC, where he produced the well-received creator-owned series Ronin. Although he was already one of the most lauded talents in comics, few could have anticipated just how important his next project would be.
The Dark Knight Returns hit the industry with the force of the famous lightning bolt on the first issue’s cover. The idea of aging superheroes struggling against mortality in a vaguely dystopian near-future wasn’t completely novel. But this was Batman. Miller’s Batman was old, cranky, and mean. He came out of retirement to deal hard justice in a Gotham City overrun by vicious gangs, a state of affairs enabled by misguided bleeding-heart liberals. Superman remained the only legally sanctioned superhero, President Reagan’s personal lapdog, and America’s great deterrent against nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Soviet Union. (The Dark Knight Returns is, for all its popularity and acknowledged power, political gibberish.) Miller’s Superman was a government lackey, a stooge for the forces of The Man dedicated to keeping a lid on superheroes in the name of authoritarian control. Batman, in the context of the story, is the last great individual, a wild hero who returns from the barbaric past to save Gotham in the city’s moment of greatest need.
Before Frank Miller, it never occurred to anyone that Superman and Batman should fight. Why would they? They were best friends. Sure, there were old standbys like mind control or Red Kryptonite that could be used to occasionally spice things up. But genuine, heartfelt conflict, with former friends pushed to the brink and past the point of reason? That was Marvel stuff. Marvel heroes were—and remain—essentially adolescent figures, alternating between extreme bouts of self-pity and self-righteousness, willing to take principled stands against dearest friends at a moment’s notice. Iron Man and Captain America have spent decades at each other’s throats over matters both moral and personal. Batman and Superman, though, didn’t used to do that. They weren’t metaphors for adolescence, they were avatars of adulthood, different models of your dad. Dads don’t fight.
Until, of course, they do. Underpinning the conflict in The Dark Knight Returns was the nascent conviction that, on some profound level, Batman was simply cooler than Superman. It had taken Batman decades to outgrow the taint of his 1960s television show, with its self-consciously camp aesthetic. But he was, once again, the Dark Knight, teeth-gritted, a bloody-minded vigilante who fit right into the action movie narratives of the 1980s. Comics weren’t for kids anymore, and books like The Dark Knight Returns were part of the reason why.
There’s really no reason why the battle between Superman and Batman at the end of The Dark Knight Returns should make sense. According to comic-book logic, there’s no way a fight between the two characters should last longer than a few seconds—Superman is Superman, after all. But that same logic says that it’s possible for a human like Batman, with all the time in the world to prepare and all the resources of a billionaire, to construct a Rube Goldberg-esque sequence of events that would leave Superman weak enough to be clobbered by a middle-aged Batman in a suit of armor. It took the help of a Soviet nuke, Green Arrow armed with a synthetic kryptonite-tipped arrow, and every volt of electricity in Gotham City, but Batman won. And he’s been winning ever since.
The Dark Knight Returns codified that Batman had conclusively surpassed Superman as the most popular DC superhero, and could thereafter make a claim to being the most popular superhero in the world. Superman, despite retaining pride of place as the first superhero, would never be cool again. Although it took a while for Miller’s characterization to be completely assimilated into the regular line, by the mid-’90s Batman had permanently become the kind of unreconstructed hardass who spent his spare time making plans to take down each of his Justice League allies… you know, in case they turned evil, or he needed to prove a point. He didn’t smile much anymore. He became every 13-year-old boy’s fantasy of being awesome.
How can Superman, with his corny spit-curl, compete with that? Superman’s still your dad, and no one older than 9 thinks their dad is cool, right?
Longtime comic book readers know that DC has the habit of rebooting its comic book universe every so often. With its new universes, DC invariably tries to insert conflict into the Superman/Batman relationship. It never really takes; even given the changes each character has seen over the last few decades, most writers recognize that it doesn’t make a lot of sense for Superman and Batman to be at each others’ throats.
On the most basic level, any conflict between the two can only be framed as problematic. Superman’s overriding character traits are compassion and a dedication to fairness. Batman is perceptive and unerring. They’re also both investigators: Superman as award-winning reporter Clark Kent, and Batman as the supposed World’s Greatest Detective. You can certainly imagine circumstances where they would work against each other—and creators such as Miller have done so. But the conflict, however ingeniously devised, is always forced. Batman and Superman are ultimately too smart to fight one another. Manufacturing conflict between the two characters says a lot more about the creators involved than the characters themselves. At most, you can have an early meeting with the two heroes initially distrustful of each other as each gradually learns to respect the other’s methods and motivations. Any more and you rapidly approach a point where the characters begin to act, well, out of character.
Of course, the criticism goes, it’s not 1952 anymore. It’s a different world, and it’s silly to imagine Batman and Superman teaming up to foil a diamond heist while making time to gaslight Lois Lane on the side. But is it really so silly to imagine that the two greatest superheroes would be able to find common ground without first butting heads like teenagers? There’s enough dispiriting internecine conflict in the real world in 2016; is it too much to hope that even Superman might be able to rise above it all?
Once again, DC has caved to market pressure and chosen to follow Marvel’s lead in crafting a tight continuity for their characters to inhabit—this time, in the movies. Inevitably Batman V Superman will follow the old Marvel template: Our heroes will meet, lock horns, and go a few rounds before coming to their senses and joining forces against a common foe. All the levels of distrust, deception, and rancor through which they will inevitably pass—promised in excruciating detail in the trailer—seem exhaustively besides the point. Superman and Batman are best friends, the World’s Finest team, and no amount of creative legerdemain can obscure this.
Teaming the Man Of Steel with the Dark Knight detective, two seeming opposites united by common ideals, will never lose its appeal. But if the best and brightest of our fictional worlds can’t see through the machinations of a sinister billionaire bent on world domination and determined to tear us apart by appealing to our baser instincts, what hope do the rest of us have in the real world?