A cross-company bromance for the (golden) ages – Batman & Captain America
Cross-company crossovers rarely succeed. They just have too much “cross” in them. Meaning? Meaning most of the time they operate in that fuzzy, two-layered “imaginary” imaginary story zone, where characters meet and on a neutral field with neither side carrying their steamer trunks of established continuity with them. The first encounter of DC and Marvel characters, the famous Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man, set that pattern, with the two heroes running up against each other for the first time within those pages despite both being established do-gooders within that pocket shared universe, and with both apparently the world’s sole champions of truth, justice and the American way. As if they both appeared fully formed moments before the events of the first page.
It’s not that this is a terrible device. In fact, it’s probably necessary. You can’t craft anything lasting out of chance meetings, one-night stands that will be forgotten the next month, so there’s no use in having them carry any plot souvenirs with them or back through customs. This undercuts the storytelling, though. It robs the plot of permanence, and turns it into nothing more than a Dallas dream season. Bobby Ewing may not show up in the shower on the last page of these crossover comics, but he’s there in spirit.
So you have to go in with these things in mind — actually, you have to read the book with them out of your mind. And if you do that? Then you might find some fleeting but real pleasure in the double layers of imaginary. And that’s just what happens in John Byrne’s Batman & Captain America.
There are no Byrneian giant, page-hogging signatures with accompanying footnotes in here (though the cover signature is, as usual, a bit too front and center). There’s no breaking of the fourth wall. There’s just two classic heroes doing their hero thing back in the decade that saw their earliest stardom. This is John Byrne doing what John Byrne does best: taking established characters and maximizing their iconic potential. And the Elseworlds brand, with its track record of quality, helps excuse some of the one-off finality of the book. This is a plus. (Though, since Marvel has no real Elseworlds equivalent, it oddly marks the comic as more a DC book than a Marvel. Part of their herd, as it were.)
Published in 1996, the square-bound comic is set in the 1940s, the decade which saw both characters establish themselves as newsstand titans, one in his nocturnal crime-fighting exploits, the other battling Hitler and his Nazi hordes in a most fistacular manner. This Golden Age temporal placement makes a great deal of sense, and leads to such delightfully appointed sequences as this chase between the Joker’s speedster and Batman and Robin in their secondary Batmobile, both cars looking like they come straight out of an episode of The Untouchables:
Meanwhile, Batman and Robin speed towards Cicero and the Joker’s speak-easy hideout…
Captain America? He’s over in the ETO, predating the Tiananmen Square tank protester (as an aside, it’s utterly chilling that his identity and fate remain cloudy twenty-plus years on) by staring down one of those secret mega-weapons upon which der Führer pinned so many hopes:
What brings these two titans together is some shady goings on around the top secret Gotham Project, the Elseworlds equivalent of the Manhattan Project, with Gotham standing in for the Big Apple. Steve Rogers is sent in to figure things out, and suspects that the secretive Bruce Wayne, who’s providing some of the project’s funding, might have some nefarious motivations. Just what is he doing sneaking out at night, anyway? This leads to the stalemate battle of equals “fight each other before they triumph side by side” that any crossover of this type demands:
Bucky and Robin are both along for the ride, and there’s some
wife sidekick swapping as the two young partners team with their opposite’s mentor. (There’s no reason for this, but it’s so apt and fun, who can complain?) The Joker and the Red Skull are naturally the real villains behind the doings with the bomb, and their team-up is the one that provides the most surprises. Which is a more potent killer, the Joker’s laughing gas or the Skull’s Dust of Death? Who will be the first the double-cross the other? Which of the two will make an oddly heroic late in the game stand?
It’s worth it to track down the book to answer those questions alone, and it’s a fine read apart from the settling of nerdy debates. A simple one-shot romp with big guns is right in the wheelhouse of John Byrne’s skillset. This is one cross-company mixer that rises to the top of the pile — or as high as one can go with the narrative boat anchors that always hold them down.