by KC Carlson
The next animated DC comic movie will be an adaptation of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, due on DVD September 29. With that just around the corner, I thought a look back at the original source material was in order.
Public Enemies (actually titled The World’s Finest in the original comics) was the opening storyline in DC’s then-new Superman/Batman monthly title (which launched in 2003), a modern updating of DC’s classic World’s Finest Comics. That comic was best known as the home for regular pairings of Superman and Batman (and frequently Robin) going back to the Golden Age of Comics. Back then, the two heroes were depicted as the best of friends. But times changed, and in the modern era, the two characters were often uneasy allies – with great respect for each other, but often not agreeing with the other’s methodology. This new relationship was first depicted in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and John Byrne’s Superman: The Man of Steel, both published in 1986.
The prime creative force behind Superman/Batman was writer Jeph Loeb, then known in comics for his acclaimed long-form Batman stories, including Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: Dark Victory, and Batman: Hush. Loeb also scripted Superman in the lyrical Superman For All Seasons graphic novel, as well as during a lengthy run writing the Superman title (v.2, #151-183).
Superman/Batman was initially structured to consist of mostly six-part story arcs. Loeb wrote four of these, with three different artistic collaborators. The artist for the Public Enemies storyline (as well as the fourth story arc) was Ed McGuinness, best known for his early work on Deadpool for Marvel and for Loeb’s Superman run. Loeb and McGuinness currently chronicle the adventures of the Red Hulk for Marvel Comics.
In his comics work, Loeb frequently gets into his character’s heads with lengthy caption monologues expressing their inner thoughts. In Superman/Batman, he takes this to new heights, as the stories are primarily told through a sort of ongoing point/counterpoint “inner dialogue” from the two leads, with very little actual conversation between the two. Here we learn of the deep respect and admiration the two have for each other and their truly deep friendship, even though it is seldom ever outwardly expressed – as it is in most male friendships. I hope that the DVD adaptation will find a way to incorporate this captivating storytelling technique.
Loeb nails both characters in the first two panels of the story, in the opening captions of each character, where both are reflecting on the key (origin) moment of each of their young lives. Superman: “The dream always begins the same.” Batman: “The nightmare always begins the same.” Superman dreams. Batman is haunted by nightmares.
When I first read Public Enemies in its serialized, monthly form during 2004, I initially thought it was a story that was totally out of control, like a beaten-down old carnival ride that you have to be talked into riding, and next thing you know you’re flying through the air! It seemed like there were too many characters (there are! but only later do you learn that’s part of the story’s charm), and it was difficult to read in monthly chunks because it felt like the individual issues weren’t always part of the same story. There was so much going on, and things were moving so fast, that there never seemed time to catch your breath. By the time you’re ready to settle in for a big battle with dozens of super-villains in issue #3, the fight is over (much of it depicted in one giant dynamic McGuinness panel) and we’re faced with a new problem: other heroes arrive, not to help with the villains, but to arrest Superman after President Luthor charges him with crimes against humanity! No decompressed storytelling here – everything is actually super-compressed!
Re-reading it again recently, it was amazing to recall exactly how important it was to the DC mythos at the time. Public Enemies is the culmination of the entire President Luthor storyline that had affected much of the DC line at the time, especially the Superman titles. It also included major motivations for Luthor’s involvement in some key Batman storylines, including both No Man’s Land and Bruce Wayne: Murderer? A major story point here – the Kryptonite Meteor – isn’t followed up until the following Superman/Batman story arc, where we discover it’s instrumental in the origin of the new Supergirl. It also sends Captain Atom off on a series of adventures in the WildStorm Universe, which ultimately had much bigger ramifications for the DCU that wouldn’t be dealt with for years (largely in 52 and Countdown with their revelations about the Multiverse).
But perhaps most important of all – and we really didn’t find this out until much later – Public Enemies served as the pivotal turning point for the entire DCU by wrapping up many of DC’s ongoing major storylines and sewing seeds for what would become Infinite Crisis (which Luthor confirms in the last panel of the story). It also launched some of the slowly growing “darkness” that began to blanket the DCU and its characters with the “death” of Captain Atom, as well as Superman coming very close to breaking his code against killing, with Batman’s seeming encouragement. Batman’s line in issue #5 – “I will not stop you. There are ways that we could make it look like an accident.” – still chills. Public Enemies has come to represent the early beginnings of Dan DiDio’s masterplan for the DC Universe – for better or worse.
And yet, there are moments of great levity as well, especially the revelation of the new Toyman’s Secret Weapon – an anime-inspired giant robot actually called the Composite Superman/Batman Rocket Ship. That not only momentarily broke the tension in the story but was an excellent callback to exactly just how silly many of those original World’s Finest team-ups could be. I was a little sad that the giant robot didn’t actually have the combined powers of the Legion of Super-Heroes (as did the original Composite Superman), but I suppose that would have been just pushing it too far.
McGunniess’ work shines throughout the series, especially with the excellent embellishment of his frequent inking partner, the equally talented Dexter Vines. There are a lot of artistic triumphs here, from the sequence of Metallo firing the gun with the Kryptonite bullet to the Superman vs. Superman battle (culminating with that panel of the future Superman attempting to crush Batman with the TV Batmobile!) to the battle sequence with Hawkman and Captain Marvel to the moody assault of the Bat-family on Luthor’s White House to the return of Luthor in his classic green and purple battle armor.
The collected edition also includes a small portfolio of McGuinness artwork and a two-page story, When Clark Met Bruce, by Loeb and his other longtime artistic collaborator, Tim Sale, originally published in 2003’s Superman/Batman Secret Files.
Like many of you, I’m counting down the days until the release of the DVD adaptation of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. I’m most excited by the decision to base the character designs on McGuinness’ artwork, and by the return of three key voice actors – Tim Daly, Kevin Conroy, and Clancy Brown, voicing Superman, Batman, and Lex Luthor respectively – to the roles they first made famous from the original Superman and Batman animated series. While you’re waiting, you might want to check out the amazing original story in the fresh new collection from DC.
KC Carlson has been working in, around, and adjacent to comic books since the 1970s, most notably for DC Comics as an editor (including Collected Books) in the 90s. KC’s Bookshelf is an ongoing attempt to catalog the great comic book collections and history books that should be on your bookshelf.