World’s Finest #142, June 1964. Cover by Curt Swan and George Klein. TM & © DC.
Click on the images in this post to see them larger on your screen … all art TM & © DC.
I was almost nine years old when this gem hit the stands in 1964, and it remains my favorite issue of World’s Finest from the Mort Weisinger-edited era. The idea of a superhero who melded together the costumes of Superman and Batman into one “Composite Superman” blew my mind at that age. And the funny thing about the character is he didn’t even have either of those heroes’ specific powers!
World’s Finest started life as World’s Best Comics (March 1941), but “Best” quickly became “Finest” with issue #2. For it’s first 70 issues, it was a larger-sized, 15-cent publication, featuring separate Superman and Batman stories, but the chraracters teamed up on the covers. When DC reduced their page-count to 32 pages in the 1950s, the heroes teamed up in one story, starting in issue #71 (July-August 1954). The origin of the team was told in issue #94 (June 1958).
But who is the Composite Superman? Let’s start with a synopsis. Joe Meach is a loser who Superman saves from certain death; Meach wants to be the world’s greatest high-diver and he sets up a stunt to dive into a small pool of water from the top of a Metropolis building. But Superman rescues him: The plastic tub he set up for his stunt has leaked and by the time he dives in, the water has all but leaked out. Superman graciously offers him a job as “caretaker” at the Superman Museum (must be nice to have your own museum, dude), where—as so often happens in the Silver Age DC Universe—lightning strikes; this time it’s a set of statues of the Legion of Super-Heroes as janitor Meach cleans up nearby and BAM! Meach now has all the powers of the Legion plus those of Supergirl and Jimmy Olsen in his awesomely-powered role as the stretchy Elastic Lad. Realizing that becoming the “Composite Legionnaire” would require sewing all those costumes together, Meach opts to use Chameleon Boy’s powers of shape-shifting to become the “Composite Superman,” a Superman/Batman half-and-half combo—but he throws in Brainiac 5’s green skin for good measure and because, you know, it looks cool.
Meach threatens Superman and Batman with exposure of their identities if they don’t let them into their little superhero do-gooder club, so for a while he acts like a hero; an arrogant jerk of a hero, but a hero nonetheless. But the bloom goes off that rose pretty quickly and Composite Superman quickly tells Supes and Bats to stand down or he’ll tell the world their secrets. It’s Dick Grayson who rallies the troops and helps them formulate a plan to stop the megalomaniacal anti-hero and recapture their super-heroic identities. But (SPOILER ALERT! for a 60-year-old funny book), Meach’s newfound powers wear off and he’s left being just dull, ol’ Joe Meach once again, with no memory of his quest to conquer the world. The only remnant left behind: A hastily written and unfinished note Composite Superman composes to remind Meach that “When you stand before the super-hero statuettes and lightning strikes them …” But Meach has no idea what it means; he’s just a normal guy now, no longer the Brainiac he once was.
This a standout DC comic for me during a time when everything was Marvel-Marvel-MARVEL as far as I was concerned. By June of 1964 (or April when this issue probably first appeared on my small town newsstand), Daredevil had completed the Marvel Age of Comics superhero introductions and those ten books or so a month had become my main four-color obsession. That great Curt Swan-George Klein cover depicting Composite Superman swooping down and destroying the Batplane, while Superman, Batman and Robin react in horror was fascinating to me, not to mention the handy list of CS’s powers running down the outside edge of the cover. And the story—by sci-fi writer Edmond Hamilton—was great, too. The “Composite Castle” Meach builds for himself and decorates with world-dominating statuary was chilling to me; it finally seemed like there was a worthy adversary for the dream team of Superman and Batman. And let’s face it: They don’t defeat him! His powers just fade away.
Meach returned three years later in World’s Finest #168 (cover-dated August 1967), the victim of an alien who wanted to exact revenge against the Superman-Batman team for imprisoning his father. Xan, from a “far-off planet,” visits his dying dad Vyl in his prison cell and vows to take revenge on the super-team supreme. (I don’t think this backstory is something that was actually ever told in World’s Finest; DC wasn’t huge on continuity in the Silver Age, except for the Julius Schwartz-edited books). Xan seems to know the whole story of the Composite Superman (maybe he bought World’s Finest #142 off his local newsstand) and recreates the whole lightning striking the Legion of Super-Heroes statues in the Superman Museum thing yet again and WHAM! (we used BAM! before, so we’re contractually obligated to use WHAM! now), the Composite Superman is back in business. This time CS displays some more of the Legion’s powers, including the much-lauded raw strength of Supergirl, Mon-El, and Ultra Boy, plus the size-changing prowess of Colossal Boy, and the … um, roly-poly roundness of Bouncing Boy to defeat Superman and Batman. As in the first Composite Superman appearance, the constant explanations of whose powers he’s using gets a bit tedious, but hey … he once again defeats—and almost kills—Superman and Batman by combining all his Legion powers into one giant power burst to split the heroes’ bodies in half. But it’s at that moment that—once again—Meach’s powers start to fade and Supes and Bats return to normal. Just then Xan lands to finish them off, but Meach—back to his old, normal, boring self—thoughtfully opines that his hatred for the heroes has faded along with his powers and makes the ultimate choice, throwing himself in front of Xan’s “Magna-Gun” blast, and is blown to smithereens, sacrificing himself to save DC’s moneymakers. “As the Composite Superman, Meach defeated us and nearly killed us!” muses Batman. “But as Joe Meach, he made the supreme sacrifice to save us! We’ll never forget him,” says Superman, while he silently thinks, “Still … I wonder … would the Magna-Gun have destroyed me?” I guess we’ll never know, Superman.
I love this era of World’s Finest. Editor Mort Weisinger treated it more as a Superman book, I think, mainly because that was his guy, but also because Batman and Robin were pretty lame next to the all-powerful Man of Steel. But then Batman became a ratings powerhouse with his ABC-TV series in 1966 and suddenly the cover read “World’s Finest Comics starring Batman and Superman.” Weisinger had just taken over World’s Finest with issue #141 (May 1964); it’s previous editor was Jack Schiff (who we talked about in our world-famous Bat-Baby episode—click here to read it). This coincides with Schiff leaving the Bat-books when Julius Schwartz introduced the “New Look” for the character in both Batman and Detective Comics. Weisinger brought with him Curt Swan as the main artist for World’s Finest, and he stayed on the book pretty much—except for 80-Page Giant reprint issues—from #141 through #173. A very young Jim Shooter also wrote some of these stories, as did Cary Bates and Leo Dorfman. But Swan was the main attraction here, at least for me. It’s amazing that he was doing so much Superman at the time. World’s Finest was published eight times a year, Action Comics twelve times, and Superman probably around ten times; that’s a Jack Kirby kind of schedule, almost three books each month.
The Mort Weisinger era of World’s Finest included art by Curt Swan and a parade of both thrilling and wonky “real” and “imaginary” stories over Weisinger’s 50+ issue run.
In World’s Finest, Weisinger sometimes was credited as “executive editor,” with E. Nelson Bridwell as editor, but anything with Superman in it in the 1960s belonged to the irascible editor, until he, too was replaced by Julius Schwartz who was tapped to recreate—once again—his magic when it came to revamping and resurrecting DC’s heroes. Weisinger was gone from World’s Finest—and all the Superman titles—by the end of 1970, ending his long reign as the Super-editor. One last thing he did— and did right—was have newcomer Neal Adams pencil some memorable issues for World’s Finest, along with a number of great covers. Schwartz took over the title with #198 (cover-dated November 1970) and along with Weisinger saying adieu, Batman did, too. (Hey! That rhymed!) WF became a Superman team-up book through #214, when Batman came back full-time. It became one of DC’s first “Dollar Comics,” a giant-size (100 pages) format with numerous stories, from #244 through #282. And lo and behold, when it back to be “normal-sized” with issue #283, guess who was back? Yep! The Composite Superman! This time it’s the return of Xan, the revenge-seeking son who caused Joe Meach to become the Composite Superman for a second time in World’s Finest #168, and who dons the split costume and green skin. I don’t have this issue, so I can only go by the recap I found online, but once again CS comes very close to defeating the Superman-Batman team, until Supes travels into the future for the Legion of Super-Heroes’s help.
Top row: Weisinger was one of the first DC editors to utilize the incredible talents of Neal Adams, who provided covers for World’s Finest along with the occasional story. Bottom row: WF briefly became a Superman team-up book; the Composite Superman returned with a new secret identity in #283; and #323 signaled the end of an era.
The first volume of World’s Finest lasted until issue #323, cover-dated January 1986, a time when DC was revamping and rebooting a lot of their characters. The title—and the Supes/Bats team-up idea—has been revived numerous times—including as just Superman/Batman—with a current incarnation written by Mark Waid and drawn by Dan Mora, which, in issue #4 featured yet another melding of the Superman and Batman characters. And I guess I’m not the only one who finds the Composite Superman so memorable; Funko just released a POP! figure based on the character (of course I bought one!) and DC Direct did a couple of action figures; he even appears in one of the LEGO Batman video games. This longevity from a character that appeared only twice in the Silver Age just confirms the fact that you can’t keep a good character down, especially when he’s made up of two—or 102—good characters.
Next time: Roy Thomas and Gil Kane finally crack the code on Marvel’s Captain Marvel, a mediocre late 1960s title created solely to establish the lapsed copyright of the World’s Mightiest Mortal … until Kane designs that spiffy new costume and Thomas introduces Rick Jones as Mar-Vell’s own personal Billy Batson.
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