Super-Villains (and Heroes) Amalgamated

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.

Note, 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 of Earth-X!"

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 top billing.

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 team.

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 of Super-Pets.

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.