I considered taking a look at the final issue of Super Sons this week – it was pretty good! – but some thoughts I didn’t fit into last week’s post and a conversation at the comic shop mean taking a dip into the archives, with spoilers, I guess, ahead for…
DC Comics Presents Annual #1
Writer: Marv Wolfman
Artist: Rich Buckler
Cover: Rich Buckler and Dick Giordano
“This time, Luthor shall win!”
I was in a bit of a rush when I wrote last week’s entry, as I had some plans for the day, so I didn’t get to to mention everything I had intended to mention.
I did mention that in the days of my long-ago youth there were several team-up books on the stands, with the book that serves as the namesake for last week’s entry being one of them, and DC Comics Presents being another.
Whereas The Brave and The Bold featured Batman teaming up with some other hero, DCP featured Superman as the hero who would partner up with someone new every month.
The various short-lived attempts at reviving team-up books have demonstrated that there is no apparent appetite for the genre among modern readers, and even some of the current revival attempts tweak the format a bit, with Brave and Bold being a mini-series that features an extended story featuring a specific pairing (Batman and Wonder Woman), and, on the Marvel side, the suggestively-titled Marvel Two-In-One currently on the stands similarly restricts itself to pairing two specific heroes – the Thing, who was the star of the old title, and the Human Torch.
In light of that modern approach, one of the thoughts I had on the topic of team-up books is that it might be sensible move to do limited-run revivals of the team-up titles as special events similar to the Batman and Wonder Woman pairing, featuring top-tier talents producing the stories, and digging deep into the catalog of characters DC and Marvel have at their disposal.
Just a thought; my thumb is probably miles away from the pulse of fandom, but I believe that while a monthly team-up book of the Bronze Age type can’t thrive, something like what I suggest could do quite well.
Beyond wanting to mention my humble suggestion, the reason I opted for the comic in the Spotlight this week is a conversation I had in the comic shop about an issue of the original Brave and Bold. Specifically, the last issue, which featured Batman teaming up with…Batman?
(That issue also contained a preview of the comic that was taking the place of B&B: Batman and the Outsiders.)
To say that Batman teamed up with himself isn’t quite correct – in essence, the Earth-One Batman fights a villain that Earth-Two’s Batman had defeated nearly thirty years earlier – but it was thematically similar to a story that ran the prior year in the comic we’re here to talk about today.
For the uninitiated, the reason it was possible – theoretically, in the case of Batman – to team up with themselves is that for years the DC Universe was part of an infinite multiverse, with multiple known Earths that shared many similarities, but had many differences as well.
The primary difference between Earth-One and Earth-Two was timing; on Earth-Two, certain events happened a bit earlier than they did on Earth-One, such as the birth of Bruce Wayne, or the arrival of Kal-L (as the Earth-Two version was known) from Krypton, with the two heroes starting their careers before their namesakes on Earth-One were even born.
(The reason that modern-day, Earth-One Batman couldn’t actually team up with Earth-Two Batman is that by that time Earth-Two’s Batman had died.)
Of course, the concept of the multiverse was introduced in large part to provide an explanation for the new versions of old heroes that started appearing on the stands, starting with the introduction of the Barry Allen version of the Flash in 1955.
This concept – that there was more than one Earth on which DC’s heroes appeared – created a lot of narrative possibilities and provided a lot of opportunities to clear up some of the messes that had occurred in terms of continuity over the years.
Many writers and editors pieced together a semi-coherent explanation of the history of the two worlds – including Roy Thomas who had done a lot of work with retroactive continuity when he worked at Marvel – that at least provided broad strokes explanations for many inconsistencies stemming from sloppy editing or the influence of other media.
For example, when he was first introduced, Superman, in his guise as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, worked at a newspaper called The Daily Star, where his boss was a man named George Taylor.
In time, in the comics, for various reasons, things changed up a bit, and it wasn’t long until Clark worked at The Daily Planet under the leadership of Perry White. (Perry was introduced on the Superman radio show, and then later brought into the comics.)
But the idea that there was another world on which the early adventures of characters like the Jay Garrick version of the Flash took place created an opportunity to build separate histories, drawing from some of those elements that had long-since been forgotten (or never known about by newer readers).
Thus, those initial stories featuring Superman were said to have taken place on Earth-Two, whereas the modern adventures of Superman occurred on Earth-One.
Eventually, after the initial crossover event that started it all when Barry Allen broke through the vibrational barrier separating Earth-One from Earth-Two and met his older counterpart, crossovers between the two Earths started happening more frequently, and the team-up of the Justice League of America with their Earth-Two counterparts the Justice Society of America became an annual event, and they often involved the introduction of yet another Earth, an Earth that was usually in crisis.
Characters from Earth-Two, and some of the other alternate Earths, popped up in various books, such as the Huntress, who was the daughter of the Earth-Two Batman and Catwoman, who appeared for a time in Batman Family, and then later as a back-up feature in Wonder Woman, and even the Earth-Two Superman, who appeared in a featured called Mr. and Mrs. Superman in the pages of Superman Family (though those stories mostly took place in the late forties and early fifties).
That was another advantage to the existence of other Earths – the status quo didn’t have to be maintained. Thus, on Earth-Two, Batman could marry Catwoman, and Superman could marry Lois.
(The introduction of Barry Allen is largely considered to have ushered in what’s known as the Silver Age of comics, with its predecessor being referred to as the Golden Age. Thus, the Superman from Earth-Two is often also referred to as the Golden Age Superman, whereas the Earth-One Superman is called the Silver Age Superman, and so it goes for all the other characters with shared names, such as Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Hawkman.)
In a similar vein, and relevant to this comic, there had been an early appearance of Luthor in which he had a full head of red hair, and, since the Golden Age Superman had, in this newly-established history, never been Superboy, didn’t have the same motivations as the Silver Age Luthor, and so the Golden Age Luthor that was created as part of this delineation was presented as being that redheaded mad scientist who had once made an appearance, and was dubbed Alexei Luthor.
And that basically brings us up to speed as we dive into this issue, in a story entitled “Crisis on Three Earths!”
Our story opens with Luthor – Lex Luthor, the bald, Silver Age one – pulling a bank heist with a super-advanced tank. Naturally, Superman (Kal-El), who is returning to Metropolis with Lois after taking her to have lunch in Paris, soon puts an end to Luthor’s rampage and puts the evil scientist back where he belongs: behind bars.
After attending to that, he returns to Lois to apologize for having to cut their date short, but Lois isn’t having it; she thinks that sometimes he looks for trouble as an excuse to get away from her and from his feelings for her. Superman maintains that while he does love her, he can’t shirk his responsibilities.
Meanwhile, on Earth-Two, Alexei Luthor has fired off some missiles at The Daily Star, mostly out of spite. After all, that’s where all of Superman’s (Kal-L) pals work.
The Golden Age Superman isn’t as young – or as powerful – as he used to be, but he’s still able to make quick work of Luthor’s missiles and track down Luthor’s location and put the evil scientist back where he belongs: behind bars.
Lex, however, was prepared for winding up back in prison, and once there tracks down an associate he’d planted in the prison, one equipped with some special circuitry hidden underneath a covering of false skin.
The purpose of said circuitry is, of course, sinister, and is something that young Jon thought was a damned clever idea. The device Lex builds with it allows him to transport himself to Earth-Two, where he appears in Alexei’s cell, and, without offering any explanation, exhorts him to take his hand. With that done, Alexei is transported to Earth-One, while Lex remains on Earth-Two.
Removed from their native worlds, and with their dissimilar appearance, neither man is recognized by the prison guards, and on both worlds the assumption is that their Luthor has engaged in some super-scientific perfidy that allowed them to transpose themselves with some innocent bystanders, and thus each of them is released.
On Earth-One, Alexei is greeted by one of Lex’s employees, and the plan suddenly becomes clear. Each man wants to kill his own Superman, but each one has failed time and time again, but what if they switched things up?
They both make the attempt, and they both come close, but a stroke of luck saves Kal-El from Alexei’s death trap, and a swift kick from Lois Kent, who jumps in as soon as she sees her hubby in trouble, saves Kal-L from Lex’s.
On Earth-One, Kal-El arrives just in time to save Lois Lane from Alexei – who confuses the hell out of her by calling her Lois Kent and claiming that they’ve met before – and, just as Kal-L did, Kal-El figures out at who his mysterious assailant is.
The two Supermen confer via an inter-Earth communication system and decide that they’re both sick of their respective Luthors’ shit and decide, for the time being, to imprison the two baddies in the formless limbo of the emptiness between worlds.
Lex was prepared for that, too – albeit not that specifically – and the two Luthor’s join hands again and are transported to yet another Earth.
Said Earth is Earth-Three, a world that has no super-heroes, only supervillains, with an evil version of the Justice League of America known as the Crime Syndicate of America. The Crime Syndicate, like the two Luthors, is supposed to be imprisoned in limbo, but, in some fashion that isn’t explained, one member of the Syndicate is present on Earth-Three, an evil version of Superman known as Ultraman. Ultraman is something of a meathead, and Lex and Alexei are soon able to convince him to join forces with them in an effort to destroy the two Supermen, whom Ultraman also hates.
Unbeknownst to any of them, a certain familiar-looking someone overhears their plans…
Initially, Lex ignores the comment Alexei makes about wanting to destroy Earths 1 and 2, but soon he finds Alexei – with Ultraman’s assistance – building a device to accomplish just that.
The person who overheard their initial discussion turns out to be the Lois Lane of Earth-Three, who rushes to get help from the smartest man in the world, a scientist by the name of…Luthor!
Specifically, Alexander Luthor, who kind of splits the difference between Alexei and Lex by being bald and having a red beard. Because things are somewhat topsy-turvy on Earth-Three, this Luthor is a good guy, and his instruments show that the three no-goodniks that Lois encountered are up to something, and so he decides he needs to do something about it.
Kal-El, meanwhile, takes up Kal-L’s invitation (it was Lois – Lois Kent – who suggested it) to pop by Earth-Two for a visit, and the two Supermen have a bit of a heart-to-heart in which Kal-L tells the younger Kal-El about how much better his life has been – and not just because she just saved his bacon, for what is far from the first time – since the day he decided to stop setting aside his feelings and marry Lois.
Their discussion is interrupted by a message from Alexander Luthor, who transports them to Earth-Three.
With the two Supermen there to help, Alexander – after prodding from Lois – decides that he will become their world’s first super-hero, donning a powersuit that’s even gaudier than Lex’s, and the three of them head out to take on the bad guys, leaving Lois to ponder the significance of the fear she has for the safety of the smart, kind, and handsome Alexander Luthor…
Lex and Alexei, however, are not quite so unified, as Lex has no interest in destroying any world, particularly not one on which his beloved sister lives, but Alexei has set his plan, and the device that will make it possible – a tractor beam that will cause Earth-One and Earth-Two to materialize in the same space at the same vibrational frequency – into motion, and reveals that he wasn’t as unaware of the existence of other Earths as Lex had assumed him to be, and had been planning and preparing for this for quite some time.
While they argue, Ultraman manages to beat the stuffing out of the two Supermen but meets his match in Alexander Luthor, who uses a device to turn Ultraman intangible.
With him out of the way, the two Supermen move in to collar the two Luthors. After receiving an assurance from Alexei that he’ll find a way to save Lex’s sister Lena, the Luthors agree that they need to deal with the more pressing concern of the two Kryptonians.
Kal-El comes up with a plan to save the two Earths, leaving Kal-L to deal with the two Luthors.
Flying to limbo with the device that Alexander used to make Ultraman intangible, Kal-El positions himself between the tractor beam and the Earths and turns them intangible so that they will harmlessly pass through each other, while Kal-L, despite being weaker than his younger counterpart, is able to overcome adversity and defeat the two evil geniuses.
With the problem dealt with, Alexander prepares to return Ultraman to his prison, and to send Superman – and their respective Luthors – back home.
After dropping Alexei off in prison, Kal-L is warmly greeted by his loving wife, while Kal-El, after dropping Lex off in prison, lands in the store room of The Daily Planet and, spotting Lois, thinks that maybe he should take Kal-L’s advice, only to hang his head in sadness after overhearing her accepting an assignment in Europe.
This story has always been a personal favorite of mine for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it was just kind of cool seeing Superman teaming up with Superman, and Luthor teaming up with Luthor, and Superman and Superman teaming up with Luthor, and Luthor and Luthor kinda-sorta teaming up with Superman (in the form of Ultraman).
In particular, I liked seeing the ways in which they were similar, but different. Kal-L was older, and wiser, Alexei was more vicious and destructive, and Alexander was the hero that his counterparts could have been if they weren’t so consumed by hatred.
Beyond that, I always liked seeing Superman and Lois actually together; the Mr. and Mrs. Superman stories were one of my favorite aspects of Superman Family, and it made me angry that Kal-El was too stupid to take Kal-L’s advice. (Like you can’t be in Europe within seconds, Clark. Come on!)
Underlying it all, in some ways that were less obvious than others, was a sort of testament to the power of love. Love had made Kal-L a happier, better person, and, to a certain extent, it had made Lex a better person than Alexei. Lex, at least, had the love of his sister to soften some of his edges, whereas Alexei had nothing, and was much more of a monster than Lex.
And it was clear that love had found its way to Alexander, drawing him out of his isolation, and, rather than causing him to turn his back on his responsibilities to the world, love led Alexander to turn and face them.
That’s the lesson here, kids: love is the power that makes all the infinite worlds go ‘round!
Or maybe not, but the point is, love or the lack of it is a central aspect of the story.
Beyond having a nostalgic appeal, this comic is an essential part of the history of DC. As mentioned, DC had various similar crises on various Earths throughout the years, and a few years after the “Crisis on Three Earths!” DC would launch a twelve-issue maxi-series entitled Crisis on Infinite Earths, which would change everything.
While having an infinite number of Earths to choose from created infinite narrative possibilities, it also led to some laziness in storytelling – if there was ever any kind of screw-up someone could always say, “Uhh…that happened on, let’s say…Earth-Twelve, or something.” – and even with the distinctions created to delineate them, it could get confusing when you talked about Golden Age versions of characters and Silver Age versions.
DC decided to scrap the multiverse, consolidating different elements from some of the known Earths into one, single Earth. Some of the Golden Age heroes stuck around, but the Golden Age versions of characters who weren’t completely different people than their Silver Age versions – most notably Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman – were wiped out of continuity, their very existences retroactively erased.
Beyond being the type of story – and story title – to which Crisis on Infinite Earths was an homage, the events of this issue were key, as in the first issue of CoIE we learn that Alexander Luthor and Lois Lane got married, and they had a son, whom they named Alexander Luthor II. As their world was destroyed, they sent young Alexander out through the vibrational barrier to save his life. He was intercepted along the way, gained strange powers, aged at an accelerated rate, and played a vital role in the resolution of the Crisis.
It’s also worth noting that it was in an issue of DC Comics Presents that tied in to Crisis that Superman met and teamed up – much like Kal-L – with a younger version of himself from another Earth, an Earth known as Earth-Prime.
Earth-Prime was one Earth which, while having plenty of the regular variety, had neither super-heroes nor supervillains, where no one – well, virtually no one – had any super powers to speak of, and science and technology were a bit behind where they were on some of the other Earths.
What it had going for it, though, were people who were attuned, on some unconscious level, to what was happening on the other Earths, and they wrote down and drew some of the stories that they saw in their minds.
That Superboy from Earth-Prime – our Earth – also played an important role in the Crisis, and, twenty years later, as part of an effort to restore the multiverse after realizing that in condensing things down to one Earth they had created an even bigger mess, he and Alexander Luthor II, along with Kal-L and Lois Kent, who had managed to avoid being completely erased from history, popped up once again in Infinite Crisis, which was written by someone my age who obviously had a fondness for this particular comic as well.
The art chores on this issue were capably handled by the late Rich Buckler, who was the sort of artist who would never be considered a “star” – to the extent that anyone in comics can be – but was a solid and constant presence back in the days of my youth.
In any case, this trip into the archives wasn’t entirely a frivolous effort driven by a lack of interest in writing anything about my recently-purchased comics. I do legitimately think that my idea for a limited run of team-up books could be a winner, if positioned as something like what the “All Star” line of comics had been, or the current “Earth One” books are. Get on this, DC!
Beyond that, like I said, this rather unassuming little Dollar Comic had an impact that went beyond young Jon thinking it was cool, so it seemed like something worth talking about.
I’m sure that next week will find us back in the usual routine.