These days, the concept of a crossover between two different fictional characters has become so entrenched in popular culture that it’s difficult to come across a pairing that is truly noteworthy. In a world in which everybody is exploring a Multiverse, it seems strange to think that there was a time when the idea that characters from rival publishers, from different mediums and who are and are not fictional might find themselves one day in the same story was entirely unlikely and unprecedented outside of playground imaginations. But of course, something had to set the precedents that got this particular ball rolling. And so here are Five Unprecedented and Unlikely Crossovers
Batman meets the Shadow, BATMAN #253. It’s no real secret that one of the most central influences on the creation and development of DC’s Dark Knight were the pulp and radio adventures of a similar nocturnal crusader, the Shadow. In fact, the first Batman adventure was stolen whole cloth from an earlier Shadow pulp magazine story. But while the two shared some commonalities among them, the notion that they would ever encounter one another was laughable for decades. That is, of course, until DC licensed the rights to do a comic book series based on the Shadow, thanks to the success of the latter’s paperback reprints of those 1930s adventures. At that point, DC was looking to promote its new venture–and what better way than by teaming him up with the popular Batman. So it was that the Caped Crusader found himself being aided by an unseen hand on a case–a hand that turned out to be that of the Shadow himself, unchanged since the 1930s in some mysterious never-explained manner. The pair shake hands, with the Batman expressing the debt of inspiration he owes to the shadow before the Master of Midnight vanished as mysteriously as he’d come. It was a momentous story, but something of a slight one. More meaty was the pair’s second encounter in BATMAN #259 a year or so later, when a young Bruce Wayne was revealed to have seen the Shadow in action as a boy, and the hawk-visaged elder crimefighter helped the Masked Manhunter overcome his aversion to firearms.
Superman meets Spider-Man, SUPERMAN VS THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. For decades, the Man of Steel had been the unrivaled champion of the comic book field, the granddaddy of all costumed crime-fighters. So entrenched in their belief that the DC/National Comics was were the character’s editors that they completely overlooked and misunderstood the appeal of newcomer Marvel Comics, failing to take the upstart company seriously as a threat until the unthinkable happened–Marvel surpassed them in sales. Much of this was down to the popularity of the newcomer’s flagship character Spider-Man, a neurotic super hero who in many ways seemed to be the antithesis of Superman. So the idea that the two would join forces appeared on the face of it to be unlikely. But as I’ve written about before a few times
thanks to the efforts of super-agent David Ober, a deal was struck that allowed the Last Son of Krypton to share a story with the Web-Slinging Wonder, in what was the most expensive single issue comic book released up until that time. To say that it was an event undersells it, it was like an earthquake hit comic book fandom. Despite its high cost, the book was a massive sales success, insuring that additional team-ups between DC and Marvel characters would happen in the future. But it was also the moment where everybody acknowledged the astonishing popularity of Spider-Man and how he now stood on the same level as the Man of Steel in the eyes of the world.
Superman meets Captain Marvel, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #137. It’s hard to remember given that they’ve now spend decades being part of the same fictional universe, but Superman and Captain Marvel were arch-rivals during the Golden Age of Comics–so much so that DC/National Comics sued the Captain’s publishers at Fawcett for copyright infringement and damages. This was because for a while, Captain Marvel proved to be even more popular than the Man of Steel himself, a fact that could not be permitted to stand. So with their comic book business shrinking due to the rise in anti-comic book sentiments, Fawcett settled with DC, agreeing never to publish the Captain or his family of characters again. And that’s how things remained for two decades, with older fans lamenting the loss of their old favorite and young readers learning of him as a legend from a bygone day. Then in 1973, DC arranged with Fawcett to bring Captain Marvel back under their auspices, hoping to capture some of those sales of long ago. But because Marvel now controlled the trademark to the Captain Marvel name, the series would have to be named after the Captain’s word of power, SHAZAM. Superman appeared on the cover to SHAZAM #1 to welcome the Captain to the DC line, but the pair never actually met for some time. Oh, there were a bunch of teases: a story in which Captain Marvel battled Lex Luthor, a running series of Superman vs SHAZAM letters pages, Superman encountering a faux hero called Captain Thunder and Captain Marvel battling a Superman robot. But it wasn’t until 1976, three years after Captain Marvel’s return, that the two heroes genuinely came face-to-face in the pages of this issue of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. After all of that built-up, their confrontation was anti-climactic, with the Captain freeing his mind-controlled opponent by speaking his magic word and calling down the lightning which shocked Superman back to his senses. There’d be later stories in which the two shared more screen time together, notably the SUPERMAN VS SHAZAM Treasury Edition. But this was the first, and it would have been unthinkable just a couple of years previous.
Spider-Man meets the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, MARVEL TEAM-UP #74. In 1978, there wasn’t a hotter show to be found than NBC’S SATURDAY NIGHT, the live late night comedy series that broke new ground by aiming its material at a young demographic that largely didn’t watch television. It was edgy, of its time and genuine, and it became a dynasty. But perhaps the leas likely place for the performers to show up was the pages of a Marvel comic. But it happened–in part because some of them (notably Dan Akroyd and John Belushi) had been Marvel fans growing up, and Marvel still had some cultural cache as a hip alternative to regular corporate comics. And it happened while the show was at its hottest–in a short time, Belushi and Akroyd would scale back their involvement, and the entire cast would depart by the end of the 1979 season. And so, flagship Marvel hero Spider-Man found himself sharing the stage and an adventure with Gilda Radner, Larraine Newman, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtain, Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd and John Belushi, as well as SNL creator Lorne Michaels and Marvel honcho Stan Lee. The story actually tied in with ongoing plotlines that writer Chris Claremont was developing, and involved an important macguffin being misdirected to the SNL offices. When the Silver Samurai is dispatched to recover the item, hilarity ensues. Master Marvel caricaturist and funny lady Marie Severin was called upon to provide likenesses for the assorted performers throughout the issue and on this cover, while the bulk of the story was drawn by Bob Hall (and the cover by Dave Cockrum.) It’s a surprisingly straightforward story despite the inclusion of the SNL cast and many of their signature characters and bits. It apparently wasn’t such a huge success that the event was ever quite duplicated (though the Avengers did attend Late Night with David Letterman a few years later, which was along similar lines) but it did go a little way towards reinforcing Marvel’s and Spider-Man’s pop culture cache at a time when the web-slinger was making inroads on television and being sold as a newspaper strip.
Superman meets Muhammad Ali, SUPERMAN VS MUHAMMAD ALI. Not to be outdone, Superman also had an encounter with a tremendously popular real life figure in the person of boxing legend Muhammad Ali in what was perhaps artist Neal Adams’ magnum opus in mainstream comic books. Inspired in part by the success of SUPERMAN VS THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, this oversized treasury pitted the Metropolis Marvel against the Greatest as the pair attempt to prevent an alien race from ravaging the Earth–the winner of their contest will take on the alien champion for all the marbles. Adams’ cameo-filled cover was a talking point all by itself, featuring caricatures of a wide variety of pop culture figures. (It was also a massive legal headache, as Adams hadn’t cleared any of the likenesses ahead of time, requiring DC to get dozens of releases and for Neal to put concealing moustaches on some spectators whose likeness rights they couldn’t clear.) Sadly, the project was plagued by production delays mainly down to Adams being meticulous with the artwork. So by the time the tabloid saw print, Ali had been dethroned as the Heavyweight Champion of the World by Leon Spinks (he would regain the title a short time later.) Along with the success of SUPERMAN THE MOVIE, this book helped to reinforce Superman’s lasting appeal as a pop culture icon and the predominant super hero of teh era.