Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man was the most impossible thing. It simply could not be. It was a category error, a fanboy’s absurd daydream, a conceit to be associated with an alternate Earth where each family had a cupboard full of jet packs, where the Beatles had never split, and where every day was the grass-bleaching height of summer whenever it wasn’t an eternally snug and snowbound Christmas. Because Spider-Man and Superman, DC and Marvel, were to the pubescent mind as separate and distinct and antipathetical as could be conceived. A grand political amalgamation between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was no more preposterous a fancy in 1976 to me than was Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man. Even now, even 35 years later, I can still sit and stare at that cover and know that this comic book simply couldn’t ever have existed. It’s a mock-up, a playful pop-culture hoax, a nostalgia-evoking snare designed to carry the wistful sense of the last great family holiday before adolescence kicked in. It’s the end of innocence, when improbable things become disturbingly conceivable and then, as is so often the way, commonplace. Everything after this is colored by a wistfully compulsive looking backwards at the memory of the first great pop-culture big-tent superhero comics event. After this, the deluge, and something of a weariness because of it too.
Its very impossibility meant that Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man carried a sense of utopianism along with it, or, at least, of that peculiar conception of utopia which the comics-consumed just-turned-13-year-old mind is beguiled by. If this could possibly be true, then what couldn’t be? The Enterprise could rescue the survivors of Moonbase Alpha. Rupert Rigsby and Reginald Perrin really might stumble into the chaos of each other’s lives while queuing for sausage and chips at the Watford Gap service station. There really may be a way to travel from Dune to Middle Earth and then home again via Barsoom, Cimmeria, Earthsea, Camelot, and Melnibone.
And there was so much of it too! Not just a preposterously thick tabloid of a comic, but one designed to be poured over in all its untypical and even obsessive detail by every rank of the comics consuming public, from the casual through to the fascinated and on to the entirely bewitched of readers.
From the perspective of the impossibly distant and clearly imaginary world of 2011, Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man is an almost entirely typical mid-Seventies comic fueled by a more-substantial-than-normal budget and a clearly abundant degree of glee. In truth, the story is an unconvincing confection whose antagonists are clearly buffoons and whose undercooked jeopardy would hardly unsettle a nervous six-year old. (This is not in itself anything at all of a bad thing, of course, given that children were going to be reading this wonderful folly in their tens if not hundreds of thousands.) Yes, Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man really is a great one-damn-thing-after-another cut-’n'-paste-plot job, powered by coincidence and improbability and, to be honest, a great deal of corner-cutting nonsense too. But then, so were most of the comics of the period, and, whisper it, nothing much has changed today beyond the fact that so much of the charm of the exercise, so much of the utterly warm-hearted and unpretentious charm, has been purposefully replaced by self-importance and self-regard.
Yet if Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man is an exemplar of a highly competent middle-of-the-road superhero book of its time, it’s also, in its own way, the very first of the widescreen comics, and everyone who’s put that concept to use for good and ill, from the creators of the Authority onwards, owes it a hefty debt of gratitude. For “The Battle of the Century” was designed to take maximum advantage from the opportunities offered by those huge tabloid pages. As a consequence, not only does the team of artists led by Ross Andru and Dick Giordano produce page after page of crystal clear, dynamic and engaging storytelling, but they also present a host of full and double-page spreads which feature their superheroes in action as framed against the most detailed and fascinating of backgrounds. The future really does start here, and unlike so many of today’s so-called decompressed books, the reader is never cheated by meaningless pin-up poses or plot-thin take-the-money-and-run storytelling. When a page of Conway and Andru’s modest epic is dominated by a single shot of, for example, a ”red sun radiation” amped-up Spider-Man belting Superman with the sound of a grand ”Kapow!”, the figures are vigorous and in character, the moment is absolutely central in its importance, and the pages around the spectacle are often richly detailed by way of compensation and contrast.
New York in particular has never been so convincingly and compellingly detailed as it is here, with the opportunities for detail and depth offered by the treasury format taken as the artists of few other comparable comics ever have. And though the years have revealed that a stable of artists from Neal Adams to John Romita to Terry Austin supplemented Mr. Andru’s work, the triumph of the book remains predominantly his. His life-long determination to track down real-world references for his books in an era where such was often exceptionally difficult to come across serves here to create backdrops so convincing and absorbing that the reader feels almost as if they could be stepped into. What’s here on the pages on Superman Vs. the Amazing Spider-Man is undoubtedly and considerably enhanced by the peerless work of Mr. Giordano and his estimable assistants, but those backgrounds still remain recognizably typical of Mr. Andru’s work. Indeed, the magical sense of an endless summer’s Sunday afternoon which his entirely plausible take of New York City evokes remains in many ways his greatest single achievement.
But regardless of how standard-issue the conflicts of the A-plot are, the various character moments shared between the casts of the two different comics from the two quite different continuities retain a considerable charm, and have, indeed, never been beaten for their agreeableness in any cross-company book. Although the cast of Spider-Man come across as being far more fully realised and interesting than that of DC’s flagship franchise, with even Ned Leeds getting more panel time than Jimmy Olsen, the meetings between the members of the various troupes are nearly always convincing and entertaining. In particular, Mr. Conway’s scene in which Morgan Edge and J. Jonah Jameson find themselves sharing their afternoon executive whiskeys, all power and disdain and self-interest, is an amusingly well-judged interlude of reptile character and ill humour. Almost as much fun is the two-page spread of both casts simultaneously arriving at ”the World News Conference,” with Lois declaring to Clark that sometimes he’s ”so dull I can’t stand it” while Jonah heads off Peter and Mary-Jane with a typically bristle-headed air of menace. Mr. Conway’s strengths as a writer always were far more evident in those moments of his scripts when the world wasn’t ending, when the costumes weren’t fighting for their lives, when the far more intimate and delicate business of everyday life took centre-stage and the punch-ups receded into the distance.
Would I recommend Superman Vs. the Amazing Spider-Man to anyone who hadn’t had the good fortune to read it when it was first published? Oh, yes, and especially for its “widescreen” approach, which really is of considerable comics-historical importance as well as wonderfully good fun in its own right. However, the curious are encouraged not to read the story in anything other than the original tabloid format. This is a comic quite deliberately designed to be read on a grander scale, and no other experience of it can come close to evoking the considerable pleasures of the work as published, just as no other version of the tale carries such a distinctive sense of the comics industry putting its best face forward in that watershed Bicentennial year of 1976.