I was thinking again about the Composite Superman,
as I often do,
and I realized that while there seems to be a consensus that
he's somehow "goofy" and the sort of old-school
character comics have "moved beyond," the fact is
he's actually a sort of progenitor to numerous popular and
long-lived characters in the medium. Indeed, for all the grief
heaped on him, he has a habit of coming back again and again
in various forms right up to the present day, which proves
there must be something cool about him, right?
While the Composite Superman himself didn't debut until 1964,
writer Bill Finger presented us with a prototype
way back in 1955, when in World's Finest #74 a hero-worshiping
alien, unable to decide whether he prefers emulating Batman
or Superman, decides to split the difference
and make himself into an amalgam of both characters.
Except for having both hero's emblems fully reproduced (in
miniature form and on either side of his chest) and having
his sides flipped (Batman on the right, Superman on the left),
this "Super-Batman" is, at least in terms of design,
about 90% of the way to being the Composite Superman we'll
eventually come to know. So despite his long association with
artist Curt Swan, Compy seems to have been
mostly designed by Dick Sprang.
this early prototype "two-for-one" character is
still a hero. Makes sense, right? If one hero is "good,"
then a double-hero must be doubly-good. It would take another
nine years for Edmond Hamilton to hit upon
the idea of making a
villain who looks like two heroes in World's Finest
#142 (June 1964). Whether he was picturing that Sprang creation
when he wrote the tale we'll never know, but when it comes
to "all in one" villains, another possible inspiration
might have been Marvel's Super-Skrull, who
debuted a year earlier in Fantastic Four #18 (Sept.
1963) with the combined powers of the entire quartet. The
Super-Skrull may in turn have been influenced by Amazo, an
evil android created by Professor Ivo with
the combined powers of the Justice League
in Brave and the Bold #30 (June 1960).
The Composite Superman upped the ante even further by assuming
the powers not only of the World's Finest team but also the
entire Legion of Super-Heroes, making him
easily one of the most powerful beings in DC's Pre-Crisis
Multiverse. Whether by intent or coincidence, Curt Swan's
design for the character closely resembled Dick Sprang's alien
"Super-Batman," with a few refinements. Now the
hero's emblems were split down the middle and fused into one
logo. Superman switched to the right side, Batman the left,
and the weird look was topped off with green skin, presumably
to reflect the link to the Legion, whose membership included
the emerald-hued Brainiac 5.
The Composite Superman would achieve the rare feat of handing
Superman and Batman a complete and utter defeat, but before
he could kill them, fate robbed him of both his powers and
all memory of his super-life. He returned to his humdrum existence
as Joe Meach, custodian at the Superman Museum.
And so his story seemed to end.
But not the "combined heroes" concept, because
the very next month, Action Comics #314 (July 1964)
featured a story in which Jor-El reveals
what would have happened if his son arrived on Earth to become
The Flash. And if you think the Composite
Superman had a crazy outfit, you ain't seen nuthin', yet.
Come on, Curt, now you're not even trying.
Two years later, in April 1966, Marvel Comics would throw
their hat in the ring with The Mimic, a villain
(later hero) who battles the original X-Men
(in issue #19 of their book) with the power to...well, mimic...the
skills, knowledge and, if any, super-powers of anyone close
to him. Aside from the "M" (for obvious reasons),
his look is a mix of elements borrowed from The Angel,
Cyclops and the Beast.
Pretty fashion-challenged, that guy, but the "Super-Flash"
outfit still takes the top spot as the most garish and ill-conceived
costume in comics. However, when it comes to looking ridiculous,
never let it be said that Jimmy Olsen went
down without a fight. In June of 1966, our favorite cub reporter
gets in on the "mix and match" act when he becomes
Steel Man, a.k.a. "The Batman-Superman
Technically, I'm not sure if this one even qualifies as an
"amalgam" character. In the story, Jimmy finds himself
in a parallel universe where he has all the powers of Superman,
and even a year earlier, this would have been a story about
"Super-Jimmy." But the year is 1966, and TV-inspired
"Batmania" is sweeping the nation,. Thus, the costume
Jimmy makes for himself is about 80% "Batman"-centric,
and the cover blurb and story title give the Caped Crusader
As nutty as the costume looks on the cover, Curt Swan's version
is almost dignified compared to what we get from interior
artist Pete Costanza, who adds insult to injury by giving
Jimmy a crudely-drawn "S" and droopy bat-ears.
Come on, officer, obviously he'd be called "Steel Man."
Nothing says "steel" like red trunks and a blue
pillow case over your head.
In October 1966 (in Tales of Suspense #82), Marvel
re-enters the fray with the Super-Adaptoid,
a character who mirrors both Amazo and the Composite Superman.
Like Amazo, he's an android created by an evil mastermind
to mimic the powers of super-heroes, and like the Composite
Superman, his costume is a hodge-podge of elements borrowed
from his foes. If anything, he looks even kookier than Compy.
With all this new competition, it was perhaps inevitable
that the Composite
Superman would return soon after, this time courtesy of
a young Cary Bates in World's Finest #168 (Aug. 1967). Here,
an alien foe of Superman and Batman restores Joe Meach's super-abilities,
giving him a second chance at polishing off the World's Finest
Luckily, while the alien has re-powered Joe Meach, he's failed
to return him to "full evil," so after he roundly
defeats our heroes a record second time in
his Composite Superman mode, the de-powered Meach sacrifices
his own life to save them.
So now we're done, right? Not quite. In September
1978, the "composite villain" theme is revisited
by Denny O'Neil and Mike Grell
in the pages of Green Lantern/Green Arrow #108. In
this issue (and the next), we get Replikon,
an alien who battles
the emerald duo after shaping itself like a cross between
Batman, Wonder Woman and the Flash. And yes,
that looks as horrible as you'd expect.
The Composite Superman is not about to leave this challenge
unanswered, even if he is dead, so "he" returns
in World's Finest #283 (Sept 1982) in the form of
Xan, the alien who facilitated Joe Meach's
second turn in the role and has now assumed it himself. This
time, Compy gets to actually fight the Legion of Super-Heroes
he took his powers from, though on the downside he gets picked
on a lot for his appearance, and later admits it's "ridiculous"
even to him.
Xan is beaten and never appears again. And so the character
at last reaches the end of his road. Four years later we get
the Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Composite Superman
is swept into the dustbin of history with other embarrassments
like Bat-Mite, Snapper Carr and the Legion
Well...not quite. In time a new generation of creators comes
along, one raised on the stories of the Silver Age, and the
powerful appeal of the Composite Superman makes him too irresistible
to leave in limbo forever. In Superman/Batman #6
(Mar. 2004), Jeph Loeb and Ed McGinnis
unveil a giant robot that just might save the world, and it
has a familiar look...
Even so, Loeb hedges his bets. The robot/ship is awesomely
powerful, but it was built by a 13-year-old kid, which accounts
for the "ridiculous" design. In other words, they
try to have their cake and eat it too by trading on the character's
coolness even as they apologize for his "lameness."
Even more recently, I see another version of the Composite
Superman has been introduced. I gather this one is supposed
to be taken seriously, so they got Bernie Wrightson
to draw him all scary-looking, complete with "stitches"
down the middle to give him a "Frankenstein" feel.
Whether to support the "horror" vibe or merely to
reflect the Dark Knight's current status as DC Icon #1, you'll
note Batman has re-assumed the right side, bringing the character
full circle to his roots in that Dick Sprang prototype.
I have no idea what the story is about (I've heard new Compy's
powers include those of Elongated Man, Firestorm,
The Atom and Red Tornado), but whatever
form he takes, it's good to know the character's still around
to shake things up and strike a little terror into the hearts
of good guys. It just goes to show that one man's "goofy"
is another man's "cool," and that one way or another,
the good stuff has a way of coming back, again and again.