I guess you had to be there. Comic-reading kids of today, "sophisticated" party-poopers that they are, would take one look at the Composite Superman and declare him the dumbest villain ever created. And yet when kids in the mid-60s saw this same figure streaking across the cover of World's Finest Comics No. 142, they knew immediately he'd be one of the greatest.

The funny thing is, both judgements are based on the same thing: the unforgettably weird image of a green-skinned man wearing a costume literally split down the middle; Superman on the left side, Batman on the right. Just the sort of thing guaranteed to generate sales in the 60s, and laughter today.

Whatever you may have thought of Compy's sartorial sense, however, there was nothing remotely funny about the guy himself. Wrapped up in that oddball outfit was a being of godlike power who dedicated his near-omnipotence to venal, selfish malevolence. In short, he was our heroes' worst nightmare come to life.

The Composite Superman was, in reality, Joe Meach, an embittered nobody with a grudge against the world in general and superheroes in particular. Through a freak accident, he finds himself embued with the powers of (what was then) the entire Legion of Super-Heroes, and able at last to take out his resentment against humanity.

After years of watching the World's Finest team mop up the floor with two-bit gangsters and mad scientists and the occasional alien monster, the Composite Superman was a revelation: an enemy who presented a genuine challenge, and then some. The burning question on the minds of young readers was how...how could Superman and Batman possibly defeat a villain with the strength of Supergirl, Ultra-Boy and Mon-El, any one of them a near-match for Superman? Not to mention an adversary who, aside from that super strength and speed, could also grow to giant size, hurl lightning bolts and fireballs, turn invisible, walk through walls, change the elements with a mere gesture, read our heroes' minds or disguise himself as any being or object? And as an ultimate "ace in the hole," he could always multiply himself from one man into three, each as powerful as the others.

The answer was even more of a shocker...our heroes couldn't defeat him! In the Composite Superman, the invincible team of Superman and Batman met defeat not once, but twice. A first battle left our heroes with a character-building taste of humility. The second found them no better off, though it ultimately ended in one of those wonderful Silver Age re-affirmations of the basic decency that can lurk in even the darkest hearts.

As a kid, these stories had a profound impact on me. Among my earliest doodlings are images of a strange fellow with a Superman spit curl and a singe Bat-ear. Even now I sometimes find myself absent-mindedly drawing the guy. And I'm probably not the only fan who's considered collecting the entire line of DC Direct "Legion" action figures, just in case a stray lightning bolt might come along to grant me incalculable power.

Below I've provided links to the first and second appearances of the Composite Superman, so you can meet the guy for yourself. Corny? Sure. Goofy-looking? Maybe. But definitely unforgettable. And for the record, the one baddie who came the closest to cashing in Superman's chips.

"The Composite Superman!"

World's Finest No. 142
Cover Date: June 1964
Written By: Edmund Hamilton
Pencils: Curt Swan
Inks: Sheldon Moldoff

One of the recurring themes in DC's Silver Age was that character is ultimately more important than power. Even in stories where Superman's powers were taken away, his courage and resourcefulness still ensured his victory. Yet as we often saw, if a man was evil, even gaining powers far beyond those of ordinary men wouldn't help him prevail; ultimately his weakness of character guaranteed his defeat.

Joe Meach is a perfect example. A perennial loser intent on blaming anyone but himself for his many failures, Joe is accidentally transformed into the most powerful being in the Universe and immediately starts to squander his powers seeking glory and vengeance. Even as a revenge-driven marauder he proves a failure, since his powers have a time limit and he wastes that time humiliating the World's Finest team rather than simply killing them outright. The Composite Superman may stand as the most powerful character in comics' history, but he's undone by the man within...childish, petulant Joe Meach.

A persistent complaint among critics of World's Finest Comics was that Batman was hopelessly outclassed by Superman in terms of power. Why, they ask, would the most powerful hero on Earth ever need the help of the one "superhero" who has no powers at all? This story brings that issue to the forefront: a fight between the Caped Crusader and the Composite Superman is roughly equivalent to one between George Foreman and an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. But in a way, this story may also answer the age-old questioning of Batman's worth. For all his abilities, Superman in this story is every bit as ineffectual as Batman, so the playing field is levelled to some extent. In keeping with the story's theme that a man's character is paramount, here Batman's keen mind and undaunted courage make him a match for Superman in every way that counts.

Some may read this story and wonder how it made my "greatest" list. After all, Superman is thwarted at every turn and does not enjoy a decisive victory. In fact at best you might say he merely survives. But I think in its own way this near-defeat says more about our hero than all his triumphs. "Doing the right thing" is relatively easy when the odds are on your side, but facing overwhelming odds with no guarantee of success takes true courage. As many mere mortals of history have shown, a true hero will continue the good fight even when all hope of victory is gone.

"The Return of the Composite Superman!"

World's Finest No. 168
Cover Date: Aug. 1967
Written By: Cary Bates
Pencils: Curt Swan
Inks: George Klein

Several years after the Composite Superman's memorable debut, young writer Cary Bates resurrected the villain for this follow-up tale. We see that Joe Meach's time spent in honest hard work at the Superman Museum have had a wonderful effect on the guy...now he's a decent fellow with a fond respect for our heroes. Unfortunately, fickle fate isn't finished with poor old Joe and before long he finds himself taken over again by his less charming alter-ego.

This time out a mysterious third party is pulling the strings, though for most of the story it makes little difference. Just as before, Superman and Batman find themselves out-powered, out-maneuvered and outdone by the half-and-half villain, and once again it takes a miracle of luck to save their bacon. Again character proves vital as help comes from the most unexpected source of all, and the saga of the Composite Superman comes full circle with a reaffirmation that good will always win out over evil.

Years later, the alien character in this story would himself become a new version of the Composite Superman, but for all intents and purposes it is these two appearances by the Joe Meach model that really count. The only lingering question is why would the Superman Museum even have statues of the Legion of Super-Heroes? What museum commemorates adventures that haven't even happened yet, as far as history is concerned? No one in our century should even know who the Legionnaires are. And if they do, wouldn't the wide-spread foreknowledge of future events endanger Legion history from unfolding as it should?

As a final note, you'll see that in the years between the two stories, the Batman TV show has gone on the air. Dead give-aways here include a reference to the Bat-phone, Robin's exclamation of "Holy Triple Vision!" and a lecture from Batman on the importance of wearing seat belts.