With the recent news that Ben Affleck will play Batman in the Man of Steel sequel arriving in 2015, now seems like a good time to look back on the often fraught relationship between the two most iconic characters in the superhero pantheon. If comic books comprise a large part of the canon of our new American mythology—and there is every reason to think that they do—then the relationship between Superman and Batman, with their opposing views of heroism and justice, reflect our conflicted culture in interesting ways.
On the one hand we have Clark Kent—the immigrant and Midwest farm boy—who, in days gone by, claimed to fight for “truth, justice, and the American Way” (a statement that presented those three things as synonymous). He’s a character defined by his squareness, his kindness, his sense of law and order. Superman is evocative of America’s blessedness. To be born an American is to be born into most powerful economic and military superpower the world has ever known. Superman, a man endowed with godlike powers, is our myth of power righteously exerted.
On the other hand we have Bruce Wayne—a victim turned vigilante. His story begins with a vow, with a boy standing at the grave of his parents and pledging himself to become the greatest crime fighter the world has ever known. He achieves his goal on several different fronts, combining different elements into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. He’s a criminologist on par with Sherlock Holmes. He has as many gadgets as James Bond. He’s as theatrical as the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro. Swooping around the rooftops of Gotham City he is a cross between Tarzan and Dracula. In combat he doesn’t carry a gun; he’s a brawler. He’s Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee rolled into one. Driving all of it, weaving it all together, is a fierce ascetical commitment. Batman stands toe to toe with god-like Superman because he has purified himself of everything which would distract from the war he is waging. If Superman is a hero by birth, Batman is a solider by choice, his body pushed to the peak of human excellence by effort.
It makes sense, then, that these two heroes would come into conflict. They do, after all, represent two very distinct notions of heroism.
Superman has, for seventy-five years, represented not just of “truth, justice, and the American Way” but also a certain haggard commitment to social order. Superman is a company man, and the company is society. His Midwestern roots, his decision to blend in among us mere mortals and take a wife from among us—all this models principled self-control, the constraint of overwhelming power by a more powerful sense of public duty and personal morality.
Single-minded in purpose and lonely in its execution, however, Batman represents a uniquely libertarian idea of heroism. Batman is our myth of American striving. His body is nothing but flesh and bone pushed and punished to perfection. He is alone among superheroes in that he is driven by intention. He may have been born to wealth and privilege, but his focus is completely his own. He belongs in the shadow-filled streets of poverty far more than he belongs to the champagne-and-caviar set, and those dark streets are where the ascetic works out the final level of his commitment. No other superhero has been associated with darkness for so long, his foes so consistently psychotic and twisted. It is not an accident that this most self-controlled of superheroes is forced to crawl down the murkiest of holes. It’s not surprising that he and Superman would part ways on the most effective way to keep social order.
We’ll have to see how the creative team behind the Superman/Batman movie work out this fraught relationship, but here’s a quick overview of some essential moments in the ongoing saga of Clark and Bruce:
- One Night In Gotham City (1986): Writer and artist John Byrne created the definitive first meeting of the two heroes in the third issue of Man Of Steel, his landmark reinvention of Superman. The criminal the boys are chasing is an insignificant second-stringer named Magpie, but what really counts here is the relationship between Clark and Bruce. The book opens with Superman trying to arrest Batman. It only gets better from there.
- The Dark Knight Returns (1986): Frank Miller’s reinvention of Batman sent a shockwave through the comic book industry that reconfigured basically everything. One important part of his narrative was his decision to cast Superman and Batman as ideological enemies—and to have them engage in a battle to the death.
- Dark Knight Over Metropolis (1990): Writer and artist Jerry Ordway gave us one of the duo’s best pairings in this three issue storyline (unfolding over three different Superman titles) that found the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight teaming up against Lex Luthor, who has created a deadly Kryptonite Ring.
- Hush (2002-2003): Written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Jim Lee, this storyline is more Batman than Superman, but it does feature an epic showdown between the two when Superman is brainwashed by Poison Ivy. Evocative of Loeb’s deep love of comics history, it features the triumphant return of the Kryptonite Ring.
- The Supergirl From Krypton (2004): Unfolding over several issues of Superman/Batman, this storyline was written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Michael Turner, and represents the high water mark of the series. Loeb cleanly delineates the opposed personalities of the open and trusting Clark and the suspicious and calculating Bruce.
- Skeeter! (1987): Okay, this one might not be as well known as some of the others, but trust me, it’s worth hunting down. In 1987 John Byrne and Art Adams teamed up for Action Annual #11 and gave us Superman and Batman chasing a redneck vampire girl in the swamps of South Carolina. Beautifully illustrated and snappily written, it’s one of their oddest—and best—adventures.
Jake Hinkson is the author of the novels Hell On Church Street and The Posthumous Man. He blogs at The Night Editor.