In recent decades a lot of comics— be they in the superhero genre or otherwise— have offered tales as sophisticated and thought-provoking as those of any good novel or short story.
But that hasn’t always been the case. Presenting some of what I call World’s Finest’s Wackiest.
World’s Finest, which primarily starred Batman and Superman, ran from 1941 to 1986. The following stories appeared between 1954 and 1957, just on the cusp of the “Silver Age” of comics. These stories are collected in World’s Finest Archives volumes one and two. And like many stories from the Silver Age, they’re pretty wacky by today’s standards.
Brief aside: a few years ago Craig Shutt— “Mr. Silver Age” of Comics Buyer’s Guide’s “Ask Mr. Silver Age” column— published a now out-of-print book about that era called Baby Boomer Comics. Good stuff. Worth seeking out.
In World’s Finest #77, a criminal scientist invents a ray that’ll give an ordinary person super powers for 24 hours. Batman inadvertently steps into the beam. Meanwhile another device has left Superman powerless. Everything gets back to normal at the end; but Lois Lane, ace reporter, who has become convinced that the “Superman” who never does anything super is an imposter, dismisses the story of the ray-machine outright.
“I know that this story of a weird ray-machine is moonshine— and that, really, you two simply exchanged costumes! I’m going to publish it, whether you admit it or not!”
“All the news that’s fit to invent”, is that it, Lois? She associates with an alien who can fly under his own power, yet can’t accept the ray-machine. Ooookay.
You’d recognize your best friend if he donned a turban and a fake (short) white beard, right? Then you’re doing better than Clark Kent in World’s Finest #73. Though maybe there’s some cosmic irony in the guy who fools people with a pair of glasses being taken in by Bruce Wayne, who posed as a carnival fortune teller by donning the above disguise.
(By the way, yes, glasses as a disguise can work, if you follow a few simple rules.
1. Don’t wear a mask. If you do, everyone knows you have another identity.
2. Don’t even hint that you have another identity.
3. DON’T hang out with the same people in both identities. That’s just asking for trouble.)
Speaking of beards, the king of France sported one in World’s Finest #82, in which Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson and Clark Kent travel back in time via Professor Nichols’ Time-Ray to uncover the mystery behind the Man in the Iron Mask. Batman and Robin seek out King Louis XIV on behalf of an innocent man. But the king attacks them and knocks himself out. So Batman uses his skills at disguise to impersonate Lou, putting His Majesty in the Batman costume.
And apparently shaving off his beard as well. Hardly necessary, since no one saw Batman and Robin enter the palace and thus don’t know whether Bats sported a beard; but Lou didn’t even mention it later on. Once shown the proof of one man’s innocence and another’s guilt, he simply said, “…now that you have proved your charges, let us re-exchange clothes, good Batman.” You’d think there would be rules of etiquette about shaving a king after he’s knocked himself out.
O.K. the king’s shaved beard, in and of itself, isn’t too wacky, but seeing Superman, Batman and Robin in period clothes on top of their regular costumes is. Uh, guys? You don’t need the masks and/or capes. No one knows you in 1696. Plus, you need to change back to your regular clothes before you’re pulled back to the present. Save yourself the hassle and don’t bother with the costumes at all.
But wait! Things get even wackier. In #84, a criminal threatens to expose Superman’s secret identity if he doesn’t leave Metropolis for two weeks. Supes tells Bats that he first encountered the criminal in Smallville and that the man had a teenage accomplice. This boy obtained a piece of wood from a building that had Superboy’s charred fingerprints on it (Superboy had moved the building out of the path of a fire). Obviously, the boy had given the piece of wood with the fingerprints to the criminal, Supes concluded.
Not so, Bats assured him, because, “I, Bruce Wayne, was the boy who tried to learn your identity.”
Bats added that Superboy hadn’t heard Bruce’s adamant refusal to help the crook.
Supes also didn’t take into account that someone having his fingerprints means nothing unless Clark Kent’s were also on file somewhere and someone ran a match.
Oh, why was a teenage Bruce Wayne in Smallville? He was on vacation with his parents.
That’d be the parents who were killed when Bruce was younger, yes?
In #89, “Lightning Man” turns out to be Superman in a fugue state. He made his costume, in his confused condition, from Clark Kent’s draperies (Maybe he took a quick trip a few years into the future to see Carol Burnett’s bit as drapery-clad Scarlet O’Hara and decided she had the right idea).
And yet no one seemed to notice the material of his costume. Makes you wonder what other heroes’ costumes were made of.
Thing get wackier still in #90, featuring “The Super Batwoman.” Batwoman gains superpowers thanks to special capsules created by Jor-El, as a temporary fail safe should a Kryptonian lose his or her powers. These first appeared in issue #87, and a label on the box— written in English— explained what they did. Either that or the criminal who obtained it studied Kryptonese in school.
The now-super-powerless criminal escapes jail and goes to retrieve some more capsules. To stop him from taking one, Batwoman swallows it instead.
Batman informs her— with wagging finger, to boot— that “super powers can be dangerous! You must go home and stay safely quiet until your powers have faded away.” Batwoman tells him off and he replies, “it’s only for your own good.” And Batwoman tells him off again.
Good for her.
Once she departs, vowing to find out the true identities of Batman, Robin and Superman (just to prove that she can find out, as Batman learned hers), Batman tells Superman that “crooks might trick the secret of our identities out of her.” Supes agrees.
Say what? Since this was a private conversation between the four of them, what crooks would even suspect Batwoman was seeking— much less knew— her associates’ identities?
Batman’s earlier reminder that since he figured out her identity, crooks could do the same is way up there on the wackiness meter. He’s the world’s greatest detective. Of course he’s going to figure out her identity if he sets his mind to it. Criminals? They’re just a superstitious, cowardly lot.
Sadly, Batwoman ends up being just as much of an embarrassment to her gender as Batman is to his. First, despite having super powers, she freaks out about small mammals:
Didn’t someone ever tell her that bats resemble mice?
And in the end she loses all self respect:
Other general wackiness of that era involved a great deal of expositional dialogue. Take the cover of World’s Finest #91, which showed a woman and an old man examining Robin, Batman and Superman encased in blocks of ice. The woman tells us— and her companion— “this is the year 2957- they’ve been in suspended animation for 1,000 years!”
Right, like the guy doesn’t know what year it is.
The Silver Age had wackiness aplenty (yes, Jimmy Olsen, I’m talking to you). These were just a few examples.
Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating