It came out right around the time of my 9th birthday–in fact, that may have been the reason it was bought for me, given its hefty cover price. At a time when regular comics cost a quarter (and were right on the cusp of increasing to 30 cents–my most recent subscription issue of FLASH carried that cover price, but I can’t say that I really noticed) this monster would set you back two bucks. But it was 100 pages long (or 96 plus covers) without ads, every page new, and it featured a meeting and an adventure that nobody could have predicted ahead of time–one that almost seemed like sacrilege in some ways.
I’m not sure that the generation of fans who’ve come later all appreciate how truly earth-shattering the publication of this book was. Up until this point, there had been scant acknowledgement of Marvel by DC and vice-versa–some barbs in the form of “Brand Echh”, some parodies in INFERIOR FIVE, an odd dialogue reference or two. But even though at this point Marvel had surpassed DC in sales, it was still largely considered the scrappy upstart company. DC was the establishment, DC had history. And yet, here they were, Superman and Spider-Man, on the same playing field, treated as equals.
In fact, they were such equals that they even appear in the same number of panels in the story. I once asked John Romita about working on this project, and he told me that it was an enormous headache. Players on both sides of the project had concerns about different aspects of it, including that “their guy” not come across better than “our guy”. And so, panels were counted, and even the sizes of figures were measured and sometimes adjusted. And you can tell, throughout the issue John was called upon to re-ink a bunch of Spider-Man figures (despite the fact that artist Ross Andru was at that time the regular AMAZING SPIDER-MAN artist) and virtually every Peter Parker head.
But with that, they definitely got the right creative team to produce this seemingly once-in-a-lifetime extravaganza. It’s worth noting that, in these days, the tone and styles of the DC books and the Marvel books was markedly different. That difference has eroded away starting in the mid-1980s, to the point where today the only real difference is the preferences of the creators and editors. But in 1976, the two companies were even pitching their stories to different audiences largely. So this story had to somehow bridge that divide and provide a Superman experience that felt like a Superman story, and a Spider-Man experience that did likewise.
Writer Gerry Conway, newly-arrived at DC, was at this point the only person who had written stories for both characters. Likewise, artist Ross Andru was the only person who had regularly drawn both Superman and Spider-Man. Ad DC produced this book, they were backed up by inker Dick Giordano and his uncredited assistant Terry Austin. In addition, Dick’s studio-mate Neal Adams took it upon himself to re-pencil a number of Superman figures, and John Romita, as noted earlier, made similar adjustments to the figures of Spidey and his cast.
As anybody following this page is aware, at the time this book came out, I wasn’t a Marvel reader. In fact, I actively hated Marvel comics, having tried them and found them not to my liking. Nonetheless, I could tell what an Event this was from the advertising alone, and so I wanted it. If memory serves, I found it in a Stationary store that typically didn’t stock any comics apart from the occasional Treasury Edition. The impetus for Marvel and DC producing this book was in part that they were trying to jumpstart sluggish sales with a high-ticket can’t-miss item, and that certainly worked on me.
It was a colossal reading experience, and still probably my favorite of all of teh assorted inter-company crossover comics, including the ones that were qualitatively better. But for all that, it still didn’t make me into a Marvel reader–that was still 18 months or so in the future. To be honest, I didn’t really like Spider-Man in this story–he seemed far too together and hip as Peter Parker, way more so than I was as a kid–I simply couldn’t relate to him, ironically enough. The book was broken up into chapters and because of its great length, Ross Andru was able to cut loose with the sorts of architectural double-page spreads that he did better than anyone. There’s a great sense of height and depth in this book.
The adventure begins with a trio of prologues, the first a typical Superman adventure that introduces him, his cast and his arch-enemy Lex Luthor. The second does the same for Spider-Man, his cast and Doctor Octopus. In the third, Lex and Ock find themselves in the same maximum-security prison, where they strike up a partnership and help one another escape. From there, the action shifts to the World News Conference in Manhattan, which is being attended by both the staff of the Daily Planet and the crew from the Daily Bugle. Some fun is had as Lois Lane encounters Peter Parker as she’s trying to get pictures of the new Comlab satellite that will make worldwide communications possible.
But then, the tranquility of the moment is shattered when Superman appears, and blasts both Lois and the coincidentally-nearby Mary Jane, seemingly disintegrating them. Both Clark Kent and Peter Parker move to change into their fighting outfits–and Peter presages the Superman movie by not being able to locate an actual phone booth to change in–and then, the promised moment is upon us, as Superman and Spider-Man meet for the first time in the skies above New York.
The impostor Superman is, of course, Lex Luthor, and he and Ock secretly bathe Spider-man in Red Sun radiation, so that the clash of titans isn’t over in two seconds, since Superman is so much more powerful than Spidey. Not certain why he’s so powered up when it comes to the Man of Steel, Spidey presses his advantage, knocking Superman for blocks. Supes even gets annoyed enough that he almost punches back–only stopping the blow, which would have anihilated Spidey, at the very last second. But the shock wave from the displaced air is enough to send the web-spinner careening through the city. Ultimately, after a funny moment when the Red Sun radiation he’s been infused with wears off and he can no longer made a dent on the Kryptonian Crusader, Spider-Man and Superman comes to a meeting-of-the-minds, and team up to track down the impostor.
They follow the trail to a secret headquarters, where Luthor and Ock let them know that they’ve abducted Lois and MJ as bait. The heroes follow the trail to Kilimanjaro, where they interact with some unfortunately-racist depictions of native Masai warriors, who help them locate Luthor’s lair. But the two villains have already departed for their ultimate base; the recently-abandoned satellite headquarters of the Injustice Gang. They plan on using technology they’ve stolen to take control of the Comlab satellite, using it to create Tidal Waves on the planet below and thus blackmail the world.
Superman and Spider-Man follow the trail of the two criminal scientists to the Injustice Gang headquarters, but they’re both incapacitated before they can gain entry. When they recover their senses, an obliging Luthor lays out the villains’ plan for them. The two heroes immediately jump their enemies, but hampered by the low gravity on the space station, they make a bungle of it, and things on Earth are getting worse. Superman needs to abandon the fight in order to try to prevent the massive Tidal Wave that’s been formed from striking the coast–leaving the odds two-to-one against the Wall-Crawler.
But as the fight continues, Lex’s true ambitions reveal themselves: he’s not interested in any blackmail money, he just wants to strike back at those who haven’t genuflected to his genius. Doc Ock is horrified–this isn’t what he signed on for–and he turns on his partner. This buys Spidey enough time to put the kibosh on Luthor and rescue Lois and MJ. Meanwhile, Superman creates a massive sonic boom that creates a barrier to the Tidal Wave, canceling it out.
And so, the oversized adventure comes to its conclusion. I’ve got a copy of Conway’s original story pitch around here somewhere, and initially he suggested a much more complicated adventure, one which would include visit to the Bottle City of Kandor and, if I’m remembering correctly, the far future. But this was enough, it was already bigger and grander than just about any comic book story that had come before it. Any more would have been overstuffing the sausage. We even get a nice one-page wrap-up with Clark and Peter and their respective friends enjoying a final moment together.