Editor: Mort Weisinger Writer: Edmond Hamilton Art: Curt Swan (pencils); Sheldon Moldoff (inks)
The big news from National Periodical in the spring of 1964 was the debut of Batman’s “New Look”. As part of an editorial shuffle, Julius Schwartz had been assigned to the floundering Bat-titles. Schwartz jettisoned the science-fiction plots into which the Dynamic Duo had been awkwardly shoehorned, along with all the bat-detritus that had collected over the previous decade. The fans were intrigued to see Batman and Robin back in their old milieu as sleuths. Visually, the New Look was marked by the addition of a yellow circle to the Gotham Gangbuster’s chest emblem and vastly improved art, overall.
The New Look got all the buzz, but Batman and Detective Comics weren’t the only DC titles to enjoy a renaissance because of the shifting of editors.
As part of the shake-up, Superman editor Mort Weisinger inherited World’s Finest Comics from Jack Schiff. Weisinger had established a detailed mythos around the character of Superman, and since World's Finest featured joint appearances of Superman and Batman, there was a certain logic in assigning him as the title’s new editor. Immediately, Mort set about folding World’s Finest into his Superman family of magazines.
For the readers the most noticeable indication of that was the assignment of Curt Swan as the regular artist. Swan was regarded as the Superman artist and his rendition of the Man of Steel had become the standard for all of Weisinger's comics. Also reporting on board, as the series’ writer, was Edmond Hamilton. Hamilton had a talent for investing his characters with humanity, providing motivations for their actions more than “just because the script says so.”
World’s Finest Comics now had the same look and feel as the rest of the Superman titles, and it paid off with the same dividends. It invigorated the title. Readers were drawn by the sleekness of Swan’s art and the dimension of Hamilton’s stories.
Just about any Hamilton/Swan tale from that magical era of 1964-to-1966 deserves examination, but one more than any other stands out for me. Curiously, there is no villain in this story, no threat to humanity, nor even any real danger to Our Heroes. Yet, it exemplifies all the things that made Weisinger’s Superman-Batman team something that fans are nostalgic for, even to-day.
“The Game of Secret Identities” starts with the normally implacable Clark Kent getting the bejeesus scared out of him. He finds, shoved under his door, a message stating he is Superman. As it turns out, it’s just a handbill advertising, “At least you’ll feel like Superman---when you take Smither’s Tonic.” Still, it’s enough to put a nagging thought in the back of his mind. Just how safe is his secret identity, he frets, from someone with enough wherewithal and desire to really want to uncover it?
Now, if you or I had something gnawing at us like that, we’d probably just head down to our favourite watering hole and guzzle enough brewskis to wash our worries away. But the Metropolis Marvel is a man of action! Before the end of the first page of the story proper, he’s flown to Gotham City to present his good buddy, the Batman, with a proposition.
“Batman, you’re the world’s greatest detective! I want you and Robin to test my security by trying to find out my secret identity! If you two can’t do it, nobody can . . . and I’ll be sure I’m safe!”
But the Man of Steel has thought of that, too. He’s brought along a selective amnesia-inducer from the bottled city of Kandor. Kryptonians use the device to remove painful memories, without causing complete amnesia. With it, he can erase the Dynamic Duo’s knowledge of his identity.
Batman and Robin agree to the challenge, and when Superman departs, they submit themselves to the inducer. After it does its work, they have forgotten Superman’s secrets and his real identity.
They buckle down to the task that the Man of Steel has asked of them. The next day, in Metropolis, during one of Superman’s scheduled public appearances, Batman and Robin, in a lead-lined “television truck”, use an encephalograph to record the Kryptonian’s distinctive brain-wave pattern. They’re thwarted when the device reveals that Superman has no brain-wave activity at all.
Realising that it’s a Superman robot in the Man of Steel’s place, the Batman resorts to plan “B”. When the robot flies off, the Caped Crusader sends his flying remote surveillance camera, the “bat-eye”, to follow it. The Dynamic Duo knows that Superman has a Fortress of Solitude, though they can no longer remember its location, and they hope that the robot leads the bat-eye right to it.
It does, and the caped crime-fighters head for the Arctic in the Batplane. They manage to circumvent the security devices and enter the Man of Steel’s sanctum, hoping to find a clue to his secret identity there. But Superman has anticipated this, as well. He’s removed everything that might suggest that he is Clark Kent. Before they depart, though, Batman secretly disables all of the Superman robots.
As Batman had hoped, Superman doesn’t discover the tampering until it’s too late, the next day, to send one of his robots to his next public appearance. Once again on hand with the encephalograph, this time, the Dynamic Duo records the genuine Man of Steel’s brain-wave pattern when he arrives to lay a building cornerstone. Using the device to home in on Superman’s powerful brain-waves, they track him down to Clark Kent’s apartment house.
Studying the building’s tenants, Batman and Robin narrow the field to four men, including Clark Kent. But when they secretly record the brain-waves of each of the four, none of them match Superman’s. Now, if it were Lois Lane, she’d would have packed up her toys and gone home, once again figuring she was wrong about Superman being Clark Kent. But the Batman is made of sterner stuff.
“He suspects our plan, and by his super-mental control, is altering his brain-waves to deceive us,” the Masked Manhunter deduces.
Laying a trap, the Batman requests the help of the four suspects. He brings them to a small theatre and asks them to view some film clips. “You may help me break a case simply by watching them,” he tells them. Clark guesses it’s a ruse of some kind, but he can’t refuse without drawing suspicion.
The four men watch the films; they are recordings of previous Superman-Batman cases. (In a nice touch of continuity, some of the clips depict events from earlier stories, such as their battle with the Composite Superman. Hamilton often made reference to things from past issues.) Meanwhile, Batman and Robin monitor each of the men’s brain-wave patterns.
At first, none of the four brain-waves match Superman’s. But as the films continue to roll, one pattern shifts until it is identical to the Man of Steel’s. The brain-wave pattern of suspect number four---Clark Kent! Batman had expected this. “His super-mental control relaxed because of his emotion at seeing those old scenes,” he explains.
Privately, the Dynamic Duo confronts Kent with the evidence, and he admits exposure.
Now, if the story had ended here, it would have been nothing more than a pleasant little tale, good enough for a nine-page back-up filler. But here is where Hamilton does what he did best---he advanced the plot logically, based on simple, human emotion. In this case, the emotion of pride.
Instead of being grateful for being shown the weaknesses in his Clark Kent guise, the Man of Steel shows that his pride as been stung. He tells his bat-buddy that, if he wanted to, he could find out who he and Robin really are. Since that’s not such a big trick for someone who has X-ray vision, Superman double-dares him, insisting that he won’t use any of his super-senses to do it.
Take your best shot, says the Batman.
Part II begins with Superman using the selective amnesia-inducer to remove his knowledge of Batman and Robin’s secrets. Then he goes on the offensive. First, tries to follow the Batplane back to the Batcave. But the caped crime-busters discharge a cloud of green-kryptonite dust behind their ship, forcing the Metropolis Marvel to veer off.
Next, Superman scoots down to Kandor to pick up a telepathic hound, and when the Dynamic Duo appears at the public dedication of the new Batman Museum, he uses the pooch to lock in on Batman’s thought patterns. When Batman and Robin leave, Superman follows on foot, being led by the telepathic hound.
But Batman, recalling telepathic hounds from their adventure in Kandor, back in World’s Finest Comics # 143 (Aug., 1964), has figured out a way to dodge the pursuit---and rub his super-pal’s face in it, at the same time. Superman is astonished when the hound leads him to Clark Kent’s apartment! Then he finds the encephalograph machine planted there, with it set to broadcast a recording of Batman’s brain-wave pattern.
Meanwhile, the Cowled Crusader is afraid that Superman’s attempts to learn their identities may become an obsession with him. He approaches his old friend and attempts to call the contest off. The Man of Steel, still irritated over Batman’s success, refuses.
Moreover, it appears that Superman is, indeed, obsessed with proving that he is as good a detective as Batman. Wrapped up in his planning, he puts off requests for help and responds to emergencies almost too late.
Then, Superman announces to Batman and Robin that he will have solved the secret of their true identities within twenty-four hours. Concerned, the caped crime-fighters investigate a large citadel built by the Man of Steel on the outskirts of Metropolis. As they try to enter, electric-eye alarms, triggered by the colour schemes of their costumes, alert Superman via a receiver worn around his neck.
Confident, Superman shows them the giant computer within the structure. The machine has been programmed with the data of every person recorded in the 1960 census. Superman has fed the computer with all the information known about the Dynamic Duo, and within the day, he declares, it will identify which two persons in the country are Batman and Robin.
That night, they return to the citadel as Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, to avoid setting off the electric-eye alarms. But once inside, the lights flash on and they are surprised by Superman. It was a trick all along. Not even the colossal computer could have deduced Batman’s identity, but the Man of Steel calculated that they wouldn’t take that chance. And he knew they would return in their civilian identities to prevent triggering the alarms.
Smug in his victory, Superman flies off to handle the urgent missions that he has been ignoring.
In this case, however, victory is a matter of perspective . . . .
“He doesn’t dream that we purposefully let ourselves be caught by him,” says Dick, once the Man of Steel is out of sight.
“We had to do it,” replies Bruce. “Superman was neglecting vital missions in his obsession with the contest!”
The first thing that will probably strike you about “The Game of Secret Identities” is that Superman was a real sorehead.
That was Mort Weisinger’s approach to Superman. He understood that there was little physical drama in a lead character who could shrug off H-bomb explosions and juggle planets. Mort preferred scripts that emphasized Superman’s humanity, that he was heir to the same emotions as the rest of us---love, anger, loyalty, regret, jealousy, and all the rest. This was the key that enabled readers to relate to him.
Edmond Hamilton’s style dovetailed with this approach perfectly. His scripts weren’t awash with emotion, as Jerry Siegel’s could be. (When Siegel’s florid technique worked, it resulted in a powerful effort---“The Death of Superman”, for example; but when it didn’t, one was left with a soggy melodrama.) Hamilton would often turn a character’s motivation around a single, logical emotional result, which would propel the rest of the story to its conclusion.
We saw this a great deal in Hamilton’s World’s Finest tales. “The Game of Secret Identities” showed that Superman had a bit of an ego, after all, and what happened when his pride was stung. In “The Feud Between Superman and Batman”, from World’s Finest Comics # 143, the events flowed from the Batman’s inferiority complex after being shown up by the Man of Steel just one time too many. And both heroes give way to despair, in “The Composite Superman”, from issue # 142 (Jun., 1964), before digging deep inside themselves to find the courage to take on their overwhelmingly powerful foe.
Early in the story, Hamilton lays the groundwork for the Man of Steel’s peeved reaction. Despite his worry, Superman is confident that he has securely protected his identity. Before the Dynamic Duo even begins their investigation, Superman tells them, “I feel sure you’ll fail, which will quiet my worries!” So, no doubt, he’s embarrassed when his pals come up with the goods in only three days. It’s a blow to his ego.
Another notable feature of “The Game of Secret Identities” is that it strongly defines just what it is that the Batman brings to his partnership with Superman---his keen, analytical mind. Bear in mind, Superman was no dummy. He anticipated Batman’s use of the encephalograph by sending a robot to that first public appearance. The Man of Steel even expected that Batman would locate his Fortress and scrubbed it of any identity-revealing clues.
Nevertheless, the Masked Manhunter was able to out-think his super-pal on every turn. That’s not a small thing. More than any of his other abilities, his razor-sharp mind and quick wits make him a super-hero. And they enabled him to outsmart his super-partner. Many times over the course of the series, Superman is shown to respect and value this.
As strange as it may seem, Hamilton uses the competitive theme of the tale to underscore the deep friendship between Superman and Batman. It begins with the Man of Steel asking the help of the man whose abilities and intelligence he trusts more than anyone else’s. And later on, the Batman worries at how obsessed Superman has become in ferreting out his and Robin’s secret identities. And as his fears are borne out by the emergencies mishandled or ignored by the Man of Steel, the Caped Crusader knows how much his friend will regret this, when he comes to his senses.
So, for the sake of Superman’s conscience, as much as that of the world, Batman sets his ego aside and throws the contest.
Antagonism between the two super-heroes was also a frequent refrain in Hamilton’s World’s Finest plots. Note, I’m not talking about the “I constantly ride him but I really love him like a brother” kind of “friendships”. Those invariably come across as unrealistic and contrived. What Hamilton did was find a story wedge to drive between Superman and Batman, then examine its effect on their friendship.
In the previously mentioned World’s Finest Comics # 143, Batman develops an inferiority complex in light of the Man of Steel’s overwhelming array of super-powers and breaks up their partnership. Significantly, Superman genuinely believes that Batman is a contributing member of the team and tries to shake him out of it. That idea goes south in the worst possible way. In “Prison for Heroes”, from issue # 145 (Nov., 1964), a hypnotised Batman holds Superman captive on an asteroid prison under a red sun. The plot examines the Man of Steel’s sense of betrayal and anger under Batman’s sadistic treatment. And in “Batman, Son of Krypton”, from issue # 146 (Dec., 1964), the Masked Manhunter throws himself between a blinded-with-rage Superman and an Earth scientist believed responsible for Krypton’s destruction. Batman puts his own neck on the line to keep the Man of Steel from making the biggest mistake of his life.
Every time, the strength of their friendship overcomes all conflicts.
If you’re from a newer generation of comics readers and you wonder why older fans long for the days when Superman and Batman shared adventures as good and trusting friends, World’s Finest Comics # 149 is a good place to find out.