Superman Vs. Spider-Man

Way back in 1976, it was already old hat to tout that this or that new comic as the "most important" or "amazing" or "greatest" thing in the history of the medium, but even the most jaded of readers must have dropped their jaws at this one; the two most famous characters of the two biggest rivals in the business, ready to duke it out on the cover of a single, giant-size book. It doesn't get much bigger than that.

"They said it couldn't be done!" crows Stan Lee on the inside cover to Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man. Whether it could or not, I was pretty sure it wouldn't. Everyone knew DC and Marvel were oil and water, chalk and cheese, night and day. No way could they mix. Surely a crossover between those two oppositely-charged universes would be like mingling matter and anti-matter; end of the world stuff, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.

And yet, there they were, right there on that wonderful cover; Supes and Spidey sharing the limelight, DC and Marvel sharing a box in the corner. For me, the cover remains the coolest part of the whole project: iconic in its very simplicity, vibrantly colorful, fairly crackling with potential energy and yet in its own way understated, with no blurbs, no word balloons and just those two hyperbolic lines above the title: "The Greatest Superhero Team-Up Of All Time! The Battle of the Century!"

Our story opens in Metropolis, where Superman smashes a giant robot and delivers Lex Luthor to jail, but not before the evil genius stashes away a computer chip stolen from STAR Labs. Cut to New York City, where Spider-Man defeats Doctor Octopus, soaring over the city in a flying octopus ship hidden inside the Goodyear blimp (yes, we had product placements in 1976, too).

In prison, Otto and Lex recognize each other by reputation, and when Luthor breaks out using an old Doc Savage trick (escape tools hidden under a false layer of skin), he takes Doc Ock with him.

Meanwhile, Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Morgan Edge attend an international conference for journalists and cross paths with Peter Parker, Mary Jane Watson and J.Jonah Jameson. As Lois and M.J. exchange catty digs over "cute" Pete, "Superman" suddenly swoops in and zaps both women with his heat vision, apparently disintegrating them. Then he flies off again.

Peter makes off to change into his Spider-Man togs, but not before giving us a fun sight gag that will be brazenly stolen two years later for Superman: The Movie.

Dashing to the roof, Spidey spots Superman, and the fun begins. Superman assumes that "given his reputation" Spider-Man must somehow be connected to the impostor who attacked the girls. Spider-Man meanwhile knows what he's seen -- or thinks he does -- and so lights into Superman. We learn the fake Superman was actually Luthor, who along with Doc Ock is gleefully anticipating the imminent battle between the two heroes. Luthor aims an energy ray at Spider-Man and temporarily boosts his power levels to the point where he can give Superman a run for his money. Giant-size mayhem ensues.

The fight runs on for several pages, which is fine as this is the part most fans paid to see. Everyone gets their money's worth as a whole page is devoted to a giant panel of Spider-Man knocking Superman for a loop, then a few pages later Superman gets equal time, clobbering Spidey (although he doesn't actually hit him; he stops an inch short and the resulting shockwave sends the wall-crawler flying).

Realizing he came close to killing Spider-Man, Superman quickly cools off. Spidey doesn't, but as the effects of Luthor's ray wear off, he returns to his normal power levels, with predictable results:

Cooler heads prevail and the heroes team up to fight the villains. They trace the villains to Africa, then to outer space (and the abandoned satellite of the "Injustice Gang of the World"), where we at last find the kidnapped Lois and Mary Jane (remember them?). Luthor takes control of the just-launched "ComLab" satellite using that computer chip he stole from STAR Labs. His plan is to control the Earth's weather, creating hurricanes and tidal waves that will destroy the human race in retaliation for never appreciating his genius (I guess he's planning to relocate to Lexor).

Doctor Octopus decides that evil plans are cool and everything, but all his favorite restaurants are on the Earth, so he turns against Luthor to aid the heroes. Spidey mops up the baddies while Superman races to Earth to stop a massive tidal wave headed for the East Coast. The good guys win, Clark Kent and Peter Parker produce film and photos of the action to the delight of their respective bosses, and then take Lois and Mary Jane out to dinner. The End.

So there you have it. The book ends and the world is still spinning, dogs and cats are not living together and tomorrow I still have to go to school. It is, in the end, a fairly pedestrian comic story, despite the boundless potential of that cover. Gerry Conway writes the tale in a "user-friendly" style no doubt in hopes of attracting an audience who normally wouldn't bother with comics, but knew the heroes from their various media incarnations. There are some fun moments for the side characters, notably Morgan Edge and J. Jonah Jameson, who share a drink and complain about their employees. Spidey gets in his trademark one-liners, notably in the scene where Superman asks, "Can you hold down the fort?" and Spidey answers, "Does Warner Brothers make movies?"

The weird part, of course, is that everyone seems so unamazed to meet each other. There's no attempt to explain things away with multiple Earths or alternate dimensions: Superman and Spider-Man live on the same world, they just haven't gotten around to meeting each other yet. It can't be reconciled with established continuity at either company, but again it's written for a more general audience.

Seeing as how he was (in 1976) one of the very few writers to have worked on both characters, Conway was the logical choice for this book, as was artist Ross Andru, a Superman veteran and Spidey's official artist at the time this book came out. Dick Giordano's inks add polish (though I swear some of the backgrounds look like the work of Terry Austin) and as has been revealed in various places, an uncredited Neal Adams redrew many of Andru's Superman figures and heads throughout the book.

The ultimate result is a "generic"-feeling book -- neither DC nor Marvel, just a standard superhero story, like one of those Power Records books or the "Giant Comics to Color." It's harmless fun, but hardly the epochal, life-changing tale my younger self expected.

The cover still rocks, though.