When Action Comics #1 hit the newsstands in April 1938, Superman creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had no idea what they'd created. Their character had been rejected by numerous publishers before being picked up by National Allied Publications (now DC Comics) that year. But to their surprise, their creation became an instant hit. And National wanted more.
Enter Bob Kane and Bill Finger, creators of Batman (initially Bat-Man, which DC changed to one word). Batman came into being for purely commercial reasons. National (in the process of merging with Detective Comics Inc.) wanted more superheroes to match Superman's success. Kane and Finger delivered. And when Batman first appeared in comics anthology, Detective Comics, in issue #27, published in March 1939, the character became equally successful.
Superman and Batman first appeared together on the cover of New York World's Fair Comics the next year. But even though they were teamed up on the cover, the anthology comic actually featured solo stories for each character. Nonetheless, the issue inspired an ongoing series called World's Finest Comics (titled World's Best Comics in issue #1) in 1941, also an anthology book, frequently featuring both Supes and Bats on covers, but with no team-ups on the inside. The first official meeting of the two heroes eventually came in 1952 -- more than a decade after the first issue of World's Finest Comics.
In Superman #76, both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent, on a break from crime-fighting, go on a cruise. Somehow they end up, not only on the same ship but also in the same cabin, due to an accidental overcrowding issue (what an uncanny coincidence).
Bruce and Clark soon uncover each other's secret identities and save the day as a nefarious villain sets fire to a truck on the docks and ties Lois up (of course). More classically camp 1950s hijinks followed in this fairly inauspicious first encounter but it did signal the beginning of something that would become very special.
Two years later, when DC had to make a decision to cut down on the page count for World's Finest Comics, they ditched the solo stories and turned the title into a Batman/Superman team-up vehicle, starting with the tale, Batman -- Double for Superman in #71, which maintained the same cheesy flavor.
World's Finest Comics retained the same tone for the balance of the McCarthy era, with titles like The Three Magicians of Bagdad . Baghdad was misspelled on the cover and a whole lot of unmentionable cultural stereotypes were among the characters. The Three Super Musketeers was a very awkward time-travel story, and issue 97's Menace of the Moonman was about a mysterious, flying chariot-riding bad guy who only strikes at night. Stories like these were not particularly high brow reading, but they did help establish a relationship between Superman and Batman.
In the 60s, things got a whole lot more psychedelic. World's Finest #142 saw science fiction writer, Edmond Hamilton, and legendary Superman artist, Curt Swan present a very strange tale entitled The Composite Superman. Hamilton also wrote Superman #76, The Mightiest Team in the World, mentioned earlier.
Edmond Hamilton put a very unique mark on his Superman and World's Finest Comics stories. He had written for sci-fi titles like Amazing Stories and Weird Tales, created sci-fi hero, Captain Future, and penned many spaced-out short stories. Writing for World's Finest Comics for the better part of the 60s, he created many brightly colored adventures that saw the World's Finest team take on garish versions of themselves, bratty super and bat kids from the future, and caveman-capturing aliens (yes, really), among other things.
One 1960s story, though, stands out as strangely prophetic. Up until 1965's World's Finest Comics #153 (which also, incidentally features the now-famous "Batman slapping Robin" panel that's been turned into a meme), Superman and Batman had largely been portrayed as close allies and friends.
While their abilities and methods were polar opposites, they were "chums", who always stood by each other. But this issue featured a "what if" story called The Clash of Cape and Cowl, set in a world where Batman and Superman were enemies because Batman is under the impression that Superman killed Thomas Wayne.
From the 70s to the mid-80s, the Bronze Age featured mostly friendly team-ups, though Batman was growing progressively grimmer and the relationship developed an uneasiness readers had never seen before. Neal Adams continued to evolve the look of the Dark Knight until towards the end of the 70s.
By the 80s, Batman had evolved into the beginnings of the avenging angel that is widely known today. And when Frank Miller's groundbreaking The Dark Knight Returns arrived in 1986, the Batman/Superman dynamic was changed forever. But there is a lesser-known Batman/Superman story that was released just before Miller's Dark Knight that could well have served as a prequel.
World's Finest Comics #323, cover dated January 1986 -- one month before DKR -- was the final issue in the series, at the tail end of the epic Crisis on Infinite Earths, which rejigged DC continuity and reinvented its core characters.
The issue ends with Batman calling Superman out for his clumsy methods, and it's clear that their relationship is far more complicated than it was in the days of The Mightiest Team on Earth. Post-Crisis, both characters had grown up. And The Dark Knight Returns shattered any misconceptions readers may have had about their friendship being unbreakable.
The dystopian world of DKR saw Superman and Batman in a fight to the end, with their different belief systems on the line and Superman being painted as a government enforcer, reluctantly enlisted to take down his long-time ally. Frank Miller, and to a slightly lesser degree, Joey Cavalieri and José Delbo, in World's Finest Comics #323, brought the glaring differences between Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent out of the shadows. And the alliance has been uneasy ever since, even entering the mainstream media in the Batman v Superman movie -- derivative in many ways of Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.
The grim and gritty 1990s came to a close and the new millennium opened with Mark Waid and Howard Porter's JLA: Tower of Babel story arc, in which Ra's al Ghul steals Batman's contingency plans for neutralizing his Justice League teammates, using them to defeat the League. They bounce back, of course. But the League, feeling betrayed by Batman, holds a vote on whether or not he should stay in the team. Superman casts the deciding vote. And he votes against Batman staying -- a testament to the growing uneasiness within the Batman/Superman dynamic.
Flash forward to the present day. The current Batman/Superman title sees Superman infected with Joker toxin as part of an effort to defeat The Batman Who Laughs -- a twisted version of Bruce Wayne himself. Batman is concerned that Superman won't be able to overcome the infection, and could pose a threat, so their alliance becomes uneasy yet again.
As comic book storytelling has evolved, so has the Batman/Superman relationship. And the characters today are much less black and white than they've been in bygone eras. Batman/Superman #3 once again tested the heroes' relationship, but it emerged intact -- for now. With the Dark Multiverse closing in on the DCU, Batman and Superman may be about to face their biggest test yet.
It's uncertain if their relationship will survive this one. The Year of the Villain may still have many surprises in store. But Bruce and Clark have come a long way together, from composite Supermen to Bizzaros, Starros, giant gorillas and even a homeless lady who turns people to stone (world's Finest Comics #257). Perhaps their relationship will stand the test of time.