Published as three 48-page prestige-format issues in 1990, “World’s Finest,” wears its love for the Golden Age of superheroes on its sleeve thanks to a collaboration that unabashedly celebrated the off-the-wall splendor of costumed superheroes while softening the prickly relationship between fellow orphans Batman and Superman only a few years after Frank Miller’s precedent-setting “Dark Knight Returns.”
Written by Dave Gibbons
Penciled by Steve Rude
Inked by Karl Kesel
Colored by Steve Oliff
Lettered by Bill Oakley
When Lex Luthor and the Joker make a deal to switch cities and adversaries, they just may get their wish of ridding Metropolis and Gotham City of Superman and Batman forever!
In the preface to the handsome hardcover edition of this series (published in 2008), Dave Gibbons (yes, that Dave Gibbons) waxes rhapsodic about the stories from his youth that stoked his love of comics, focusing on the issues of “World’s Finest” that were reprinted in the UK under the title of “Super Adventure Comics.” His love for these stories shows throughout this mini-series, and more than that it evokes both an early ’90s modernity as well as the late ’30s genesis of the characters. Playing off both the dichotomy and similarities of the characters throughout, Gibbons’s script is not just content to throw Batman and Superman together in an admittedly convoluted story surrounding an orphanage with a scandalous past, but he also throws the entire supporting cast into the proceedings as well. Jim Gordon and Perry White talk like old friends, trading cracker-barrel observations. And Lois and Jimmy play off Alfred Pennyworth in a clever dynamic that reveals Lois to be the pretentious one while Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler is more grounded and compassionate. Lois and Jimmy both share a reporter’s cynicism, an aspect of their characters likely brought on by living in the somewhat idyllic Metropolis. A wheelchair-bound Barbara Gordon also makes an appearance, a brief anachronistic nod (considering the series aesthetic) to the continuity-altering one-shot “The Killing Joke” by Gibbons’s old “2000AD” colleague and “Watchmen” co-creator, Alan Moore.
Gibbons wastes no time casting the worlds of Gotham and Metropolis in stark contrast with the help of beautiful artwork by Steve Rude, hot off the long-running underground success of his creator-owned series with Mike Baron, “Nexus,” inker Karl Kessel, and now-legendary colorist Steve Oliff. In fact, the first sixteen pages of the first book unfold almost wordlessly with eight pages devoted to Batman foiling a jewelry heist followed by Superman sorting out an escalating traffic accident in Metropolis. Metropolis is of course sun-splashed, while Gotham is bathed in twilight. Doves flap on the eaves of buildings in Metropolis while ravens flutter skyward in Gotham. There is trouble afoot involving each of heroes’ main adversaries, Joker and Lex Luthor, but that wouldn’t take the World’s Greatest Detective or an investigative reporter with x-ray vision to figure out. It’s all a little on-the-nose, but the homage to the Golden Age couldn’t be more clear. Following those scenes is an extended set piece from which Zack Snyder could have cribbed the first meeting of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne in his Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice film. If only Snyder’s take had as much cleverness and droll humor, mostly brought on by Wayne playing the role of absent-minded playboy in the face of Kent’s uptight squareness. These are scenes that could almost write themselves, but Gibbons is clearly having too much fun with mashing up the worlds of these characters to not go for broke, hammering home the differences between not just Metropolis and Gotham but also their protectors and denizens.
From the onset, Rude is just as clearly having a field day with Gibbons’s increasingly busy script. Always the Jack Kirby acolyte but with an added elegance and better grounding in human physiology, Rude patents his rendering of the Man of Steel that could have easily stepped out of a Max Fleischer cartoon, and his slightly-built Caped Crusader evokes his earliest representations in the pages of “Detective Comics” 27. His Jerry Robinson-inspired Joker in particular caroms around the pages like a purple pinball, and his depiction of the cigar-chomping, power-suit wearing Luthor takes its cue from John Byrne’s “Man of Steel,” an amalgam of ’80s-era Gordon Gekko greed, It’s a Wonderful Life‘s Mr. Potter, and perhaps our current president. Rude’s panels and pages are wildly inventive, a master class in design and variety, and the dynamic poses of his characters are both exaggerated and grounded. In many cases it’s as if panels are capturing a still image within well-planned comic cinematography. Nothing looks posed. At the same time, Rude is able to capture the heroic iconography of these characters by simply making them present in their surroundings and not isolated in the sky or on rooftops.Continued below
Rude’s methodology is appropriate given the thematic elements that Gibbons attempts to weave into his narrative. To be sure, “World’s Finest” is not a deeply philosophical think piece on the psychology of orphaned children, opting instead to go for broader, and yes, more Golden Age story beats, but it’s admirable that Gibbons doesn’t miss the opportunity to reinforce the common ground for Batman and Superman by way of the narrative and their origins and not some insignificant coincidence. Martha, anyone? As for that narrative, the series has two climaxes that play out toward the end of the second and third installments respectively. The second gives the impetus for the true conflict that is resolved in book three where Joker and Luthor try to outmaneuver each other for their own nefarious ends while Superman and Batman race to undo their actions. In storytelling terms, it’s a bit of a feint, but by the story’s conclusion all the key pieces are returned to the board and everyone returns to their respective corners in either Gotham or Metropolis. It’s yet another longstanding Golden Age trope, leaving the world the same as they found it for the next creative team.
Reflecting on the series, the care taken in the visuals are really what’s worth the price of admission. Rude’s inventiveness and superhuman draftsmanship coupled with Oliff’s gold-tinged color palette are busy and beautiful. There are memorable panels at every page turn, and those pages are filled to the brim with artwork from a team of creators working diligently and successfully to evoke an aesthetic that recalls the superhero comics of the 1940s. Even Bill Oakley’s handcrafted and numerous word balloons drip with nostalgia. In a time when comic events aim to shake up the status quo, returning to 1990’s “World’s Finest” is a comfort in that its primary goal is seemingly and simply to pay homage to the legacy of characters that have been with us for eighty years. If creators don’t let themselves forget the primal appeal of these characters as lovingly presented by Gibbons and Rude, we should get at least eighty more.