Today Ashley and I went to the mall so I could read comic books and she could shop. Our first stop was Waldenbooks, where she got me the first volume of Showcase Presents Superman to look at while she went to Old Navy and the Gap. The Showcase Presents series is DC’s answer to Marvel’s indispensable Essential line of cheap black and white reprints of classic issues from days gone by. It’s what allowed me to catch up on the early Lee/Ditko/Romita days of Amazing Spider-Man for a very reasonable price. Being a little slow on the trigger, DC has only been publishing Showcase Presents editions for the last few years. Better late than never, I guess.
As the title suggests, the Showcase Presents series focuses mainly on Silver Age stuff. Volume One of Superman starts with issue #241 of Action Comics, June 1958. The writing is goofy and primitive when compared to something like Superman For All Seasons or Alan Moore’s classic “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” from twenty years ago, but the old shit has overpowering nostalgic charm. The very first story reprinted, the feature from Action 241, is classic Silver Age Supes.
It’s “The Super-Key to Fort Superman,” the first appearance of the Fortress of Solitude, complete with gigantic key which only Superman can lift to open the door, and packed with evidence of how lonely, isolated, and totally fucked-up weird the Man of Steel’s private life is. The story opens with a brief tour, showing us Supes’s intergalactic zoo, the robot “playmate” he plays chess with, and the succession of profoundly creepy souvenir rooms dedicated to his closest friends — Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Batman.
Plot finally trickles in when Superman discovers that someone has been breaking into his fortress and leaving him ominous messages, threatening to reveal his secret identity to the world. Superman is so preoccupied with his stalker’s identity that he nearly dumps an ocean liner he’s rescuing back into the sea upside down. After another visit to the fortress, he announces via a thought balloon that he has solved the mystery. An earthquake causes a cave-in, trapping Superman, de-powered by a chunk of kryptonite, in a chamber with the intruder — Batman!
See, it turns out that it’s the anniversary of Superman’s landing on Earth. Unable to think of a proper gift, Batman decided to give Superman a puzzle to solve. So he concealed himself inside the giant key used to get inside the fortress, and hid out for a few days, wreaking havoc and terrorizing his great friend Superman, while totally neglecting his duties as protector of Gotham City (not that it was such a big deal back then, what with Robin, Bat-Woman, and Bat-Girl around to pick up the slack, and nobody ever killed anybody, anyway).
Once Batman comes clean, Superman reveals that he’s been playing possum this whole time, tosses the fake piece of kryptonite aside and breaks them out of the caved-in cavern. The two greatest heroes in the DC Universe, flagships of the company and idols to millions, laugh off the sadistic pranks they have just played on each other, and go back to the Batcave for a piece of gigantic birthday cake.
Seeing Batman behave this way wasn’t such a shock. Even back in the Golden and Silver Ages, when he was basically a civics teacher in a Halloween costume, Batman wasn’t above humiliating Robin in public or smacking a woman around. It’s a stretch to say that Frank Miller invented the whole “asshole Batman” persona. Batman’s been an asshole since day one; Miller’s innovation was to stop asserting the contrary.
But Superman? Don’t we expect better than this from him? To see the mighty Man of Tomorrow behaving like a frat brother is a little dispiriting. Thank God he’s back to his old self in the next story, where the aliens from the future hypnotize him into collecting artifacts from throughout the solar system to place in a time capsule so all of them in the 50th Century can see how great of a guy Superman was.