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Are Lex Luthor, Joker, Benedict Arnold, da Vinci and Baron Münchhausen the greatest team-up ever? NO. – World’s Finest Comics #177

August 17, 2012

Before anything else is written, it has to be noted that there really is some spectacular star wattage on that Ross Andru/Mike Esposito cover. It’s not often that you get Batman, Superman and their respective arch-foes alone together in one frame like that. Not rare, but not frequent, and this one has a nice clean composition to it. The Joker’s particularly resplendent, looking crisp, clean, and like some archetype of how the Clown Prince of Crime should appear.

But. BUT.

Lex Luthor and the Joker have to be THE WORST GODDAMN SHOTS EVER. I mean, we’re talking Harry Dunne in Dumb and Dumber bad. We’re talking Lieutenant Frank Drebin in Police Squad! bad. Even taking into account lateral movement, that’s a hell of a marksmanship display. STOP AND AIM, YOU MORONS. (Also, that’s not the best pose I’ve ever seen Superman in. Is he leaning forward at a 45 degree angle? Could he look any more ridiculous? And that’s even putting aside the dialogue, as both of the World’s Finest duo sound like they’ve been taking groovy cues from the Super-Sons.)

Before we can get to that point in the story (Script: Jim Shooter, Pencils: Curt Swan, Inks: Esposito), there’s a whole pile of preliminaries to go through. You see, recidivist Luthor is in the hoosegow for the 179th time (a ballpark figure), and he has to figure out a way to bust on out of there. This is complicated by the fact that the guards refuse to provide him with anything that his criminal genius can cobble into a means of escape. That is, until an obliging guard gives him a dart set for a bit of recreation. Your tax dollars at work, folks. Luthor immediately goes full MacGyver (though, being a criminal, he naturally cheats a bit):

Who answers the call? None other than Batman WAIT THAT’S NOT BATMAN IT’S THE JOKER:

No, the Joker hasn’t been working out. It’s a padded suit. He says so later. In case you were wondering. So he’s basically like everyone who’s played Batman onscreen the past twenty-plus years.

After they’re briefly waylaid by Batman and Superman (who give up the chase when Robin takes a bullet(!)), they head to Luthor’s lair, a well-appointed hideout that’s a worthy counterpoint to Superman’s Fortress (and perhaps it’s the one that the Legion stumbled into centuries later). Though he lacks bottle cities and giant yellow keys, Luthor does have a time machine that’s operated by what looks to be a hybrid of the Dial H for Hero rotary phone thingamajig and the wheel on The Price is Right (no Sockamagees or fainting house fraus, thankfully). They use it to summon historical figures to help in their nefarious schemes — Luthor chooses Benedict Arnold, whose name is synonymous with treachery, while the Joker makes an unholy mess of things:

Yes, the Joker aims for the historical basis of Pagliacci (?!) and winds up with Baron Münchhausen, the man who gave his name (minus an “h”) to a variety of disturbing lie-based syndromes. Nice job, Clown Prince. I’m sure he’ll be a great help. The Joker is like that guy who finds a magic lamp and manages to piss away his three wishes in record time and ends up with a new suit and a box of cereal or something.

Oh, and to round out the trio that they’re able to bring through, they get Leonardo da Vinci and co-opt him into their little army. A JUGGERNAUT IS BORN, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN.

They go on a crime spree, steeling the Mona Lisa and some loot using Münchhausen’s adept lies and some of da Vinci’s inventions:

Once again they get away from Batman and Superman, but all is not well in this five-man syndicate. Luthor and the Joker — surprise! — don’t get along. Luthor hates Joker’s loose-cannoniness, Joker thinks Luthor’s bullying him, yadayadayada. Oil and water. They’re about to come to Moe and Shemp style blows, that is until Arnold proposes that they settle things like civilized men: with a duel. And — surprise again! — Arnold is less than trustworthy, planning to take over when Luthor and Joker kill each other:

They both apparently die. But — last surprise! — they’re not really dead, and their return to life kicks off a chain of crosses and double-crosses that requires profound spacial reasoning to parse:

NOW EVERYONE’S CONFUSED.

Da Vinci and the good Baron (liars are okay sometimes, it seems) help Batman and Superman round up their quarry, and all the historical figures head back to the past. And Luthor goes to prison for the 180th time.

This is one of the more frenetic comics that you’ll ever come across. If it’s not one thing, it’s another, you know? Fun but nuts. Kudos to Shooter for digging deep to throw Münchhausen in there. Arnold and da Vinci are A-list names, but the Baron is one of those lesser figures of history, a man whose story is known only vaguely to most, and if people have heard the name, it’s on an episode of E.R. or House about a patient lying about illnesses. Comics can be educational. They can teach you things about quicksand and offer you biographical bullet-points. Jim Shooter: America’s Tutor.

As for the art, I’m not nuts about the Swan/Esposito combination’s aesthetic, though the action flows well. Swan is the man with the master plan when it comes to Superman, but things here feel unSwanish. No one’s fault, and it’s still good. Feels a bit off, that’s all. (Incidentally, if Swan and Murphy Anderson had the Brangelina-like tag of Swanderson, does that make Swan and Esposito Swansposito? If so, it sounds like a hideous Dr. Moreau amalgam.)

I’m not sure that this story has ever found its way into a collection or trade of any sort. It’s a shame that a lot of the 1960s DC comics get the short shrift when it comes to apportioning reprints. I don’t care personally because I never buy them, but I know a lot of other people get all their old-timey material in that format. Oh well. Folks will just have to get their dollop of goofy education some other way.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. wordsmith permalink
    December 18, 2012 1:24 pm

    This story was just reprinted in the most recent “Showcase Presents: World’s Finest– Volume 4” , which came out last month and is available for really cheap at Amazon.com.

    I liked the art on this one–it seems less Swan-like, as if Curt were instructed to employ more unusual camera angles, so as to emulate the competition. (I don’t mean to sound like I’m knocking Swan–he’s still my favorite.)

    I find the directly-above panel entertaining, not only because it’s yet another example of Batman sporting another mask over his mask, but because Esposito went to such lengths to show us how wrinkly everyone’s shirts are.

  2. March 20, 2014 11:19 pm

    Why not support a local business by making use of a local
    ‘man & van’ to move the bulky packing cases.

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