Superman / Batman, vol. 1: Public Enemies
Collects: Superman / Batman #1-6 and Superman / Batman Secret Files 2003
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artist: Ed McGuinness
By Michael David Sims
One of my favorite comic books growing up was World's Finest. Sure they were mostly imaginary stories that were eventually erased thanks to Crisis on Infinite Earths, but the idea that Superman and Batman would team up from time to time to battle anyone from Lex Luthor to The Joker, rampaging villagers or even each other was huge to my young self. Granted, WF was no longer being published during my youth, but back issues were plentiful and relatively cheap — and I gobbled them up like a starving horse at a trough. As I grew older I always wondered why DC didn't publish World's Finest once more. I mean, at least to me, it seems that Batman and Superman sharing a single monthly title is money in the bank. So when DC announced that they would be publishing a brand new Superman/Batman book, I was ecstatic — gleeful even. Then I heard Jeph Loeb was writing it.
I do not hide the fact that I think Jeph Loeb is overrated. By no means does that equate into me thinking he produces poor writing. Quite the opposite really. Superman for All Seasons is a wonderful, heartfelt book that I could read over and over again. On the other hand, Batman: The Long Halloween and its sequel Dark Victory aren't all they're cracked up to be. I think what it is, at least with those two books, is that you know a twist is coming and he knows you know a twist is coming, so the writer wildly swerves you all over the place until finally revealing the missing piece of the puzzle. Then, when all is revealed, we're supposed to be shocked, but, really, there's no reason to be because the outcome was quite transparent. It's just that Loeb had readers so blinded by the many (useless) twists and turns that they think they had no choice but to be surprised by the end. Frankly, that doesn't make for good writing. Tossing a red herring out there makes for great suspense; tossing five doesn't.
On the other hand, when I heard that Ed McGuinness was going to pencil the series, my fanboy heart went aflutter. Having grown-up watching He-Man, McGuinness' male characters feel very familiar in their squat bulkiness; and while they might not be the most realistic looking superheroes, they're nowhere near the overly muscular, impossibly large steroid junkies that littered comics during the 1990s.
So while Loeb's involvement gave me little reason to actually buy the first issue of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, McGuinness' did. (Yes — this writer will admit he's purchased comics because of the artists and not the writers. "Blasphemy," some would say. I'd respond, "Shut it.") However, for reasons that aren't important to this review, I stopped reading the series after the first issue, and, once I heard how everything was wrapped up, I had no incentive to go back and finish it. As time coasted by and the TPB finally hit store shelves, I decided to give the series another chance. Frankly (and all you Jeph Loeb fanboys are going to love this), I'm glad I did.
What starts as a simple fight between Superman and Metallo quickly evolves into something much more complicated when Superman finds Batman digging through unearthed graves in a Gotham City cemetery. It would seem that Metallo, in his previous life as petty thug John Corben, had been a resident of Gotham City. When his brain was transferred from human flesh to indestructible metal alloy, the useless body was shipped back home for burial. Corben — having grown weary of his phony flesh, metal skeleton and Kryptonite heart — dug through dozens of graves in an attempt to locate his former bones. The Gotham detective had some of this figured out, but the Metropolis reporter (being more familiar with Metallo) filled in the gaps. But that's not why Superman descended upon Gotham, though his news does concern the cyborg. However, before he can deliver the grave news to Bruce, Metallo shows up, grabs his coffin and shoots Superman in the heart with a shard of Kryptonite.
Finally! After all these years, someone had the sense to do this. Everyone I know, even non-comic books readers, has asked why a villain simply hasn't shot Superman with a Kryptonite bullet. To this I had no answer. It seemed so simple and filled to the brim with drama, yet DC, for whatever reason, refused to open that can — until now. And because I'm one to always give credit where credit is due, I must praise Loeb for finally pulling the trigger (pun intended).
Obviously shocked, Superman collapses into an open grave. As Batman leaps upon his friend to remove the bullet, Metallo buries them under mounds of dirt and flees with his corpse. Trapped, the duo's days seem at an end. Worse yet (and unbeknownst to the crime fighters), so do the days of all mankind. (The Metallo portion of the story does come back into play, and it makes one wonder if President Luthor knows who Batman really is. If so, it makes great sense. If not, and it seems as if he doesn't, then it's not only nonsensical but it's just another one of Loeb's famous red herrings.)
It would seem that an asteroid the size of Brazil is headed straight for Earth. And not just any asteroid, but one that glows green and saps Superman of his alien powers. Yes — a gigantic piece of Kal-El's long-dead homeworld is days away from destroying his adopted planet. Oh, how ironic! Worse yet, because it is what it is, Superman can't get close enough to it to pound it into a million tiny pieces or shove it away from our doomed planet. Even worse than that, despite its presence in space, its sheer size is already causing Superman to feel weak in the knees.
What's a world to do?
First, and most obviously, President Luthor sends several nuclear missiles to shatter the rock. When that fails (and here's where the story sort of derails), Luthor has no other choice but to tell the world its fate... and then he blames Superman.
What made Luthor's rise to power in 2000 so special, so momentous, was that, despite what every superhero knows about him, Lex was able to keep them from talking to the press and, because the average American citizen (those in the DC universe, I mean) knows nothing of his shady past, Luthor won the presidency. Every costumed vigilante knows firsthand what en evil bastard Lex Luthor is, but, without a shred of proof to bring him down, they simply could not place themselves in front of television cameras and toss wild accusations. Luthor, as he's prone to do, even went so far as to manipulate Superman, of all people, on live TV. There they stood, on stage — these two enemies who've battled time and time again — shaking hands. It was wonderful watching Lex toy with everyone as if they were nothing more than pawns on a chessboard.
So when he placed himself in front of a live camera and blamed Superman without rhyme or reason (or proof), it seemed rather uncharacteristic of Lex. Normally, if he was going to make such a bold accusation, he'd present unwavering (though, maybe phony) evidence to topple his enemy. In this story, however, he never bothers. Instead, he tells the interviewing Lois Lane, "I think the American people are smart enough to decide if my actions border on the extreme.... I believe when the people of the world see the irrefutable evidence we have compiled... any actions this administration takes will not only be justified, it will be applauded." He then says, "It wouldn't be prudent," when asked to share this "evidence" at the moment. And that's it. Never do we see what Luthor had up his sleeve. Instead, we're forced to watch as he sends a pack of supers — some allies, some foes — after Superman and Batman. This all leads to Luthor's rapid decline into madness and the destruction of what made the character so great.
And if we're going to talk about Luthor acting out of character, Batman must be mentioned. Without giving away too much, Batman justifies a murder. No joke. He even suggests making it look like an accident. (His words are so cold, in fact, that they seemingly imply that Batman has hidden more than one body.) In the grand scheme of things, it does make sense. However, sense be damned; this is Batman we're talking about. He's gone so far as to save The Joker's life, so I just can't buy him condoning this.
By the end, when the day is saved and all of Luthor's plans have crumble around him, it feels like a great letdown. Not the story itself (because one has to assume that, in due time, Lex would have revealed his proof to the world), but Luthor's fall. So much precious care and time was taken to craft his rise, but it all falls apart in a mere six issues. Less than that, really. It's simply hard to believe that the President of the United States — that Lex Luthor — wouldn't have a backup plan just in case he slipped up.
(Some would suggest that he's too arrogant to even toy with the notion of failure, and, therefore, negating the need for a Plan B. To this I call foul. Luthor is a master strategist, and knows that one always has to plan a counterattack just in case a battle is lost. More so, his reputation is the most important thing in his life — even more than the utter destruction of Superman. So to not have a safety net in place for a situation like this seems grossly out of character.)
Overall, this is hardly one of those silly imaginary World's Finest stories I grew up with, but it is a worthy, mature successor to the throne. (Don't take this to mean I've softened on Loeb, however.)