By Anna F. Peppard
World’s Finest #289 is a love story.
But it’s a love story specific to superhero comics published at a particular time, when men were allowed to love each other but not like that, because according to the Comics Code and the garbage culture informing it, loving like that was impossible. Yet superheroes have always traded in the impossible, as ably demonstrated by World’s Finest #289 – a comic book in which DC’s flagship superheroes, Superman and Batman, don’t kiss or cuddle on panel, but do spend the night together at the Fortress of Solitude. Before dawn, they tearfully bond over the very tragic, very strange mating ritual of alien slugs who are drawn into the orbit of Supes and Bats because, according to them, “On all this world, your auras—were at this moment brightest, emanating that which is our life-goal.” Some superhero comics lend themselves to queer interpretation; this one practically demands it.
I’m not in a position to speculate on the intentionality of this queerness. But I am in a position to talk about why it matters, within the history of the superhero genre and to my own superhero comics-loving heart. World’s Finest #289 tells a love story about Batman and Superman and alien sex slugs on the cusp of a great upheaval in the world of superhero comics. It can also be used to tell a love story about me and men and masculinity. This romance has always been rocky, our “happily ever after” sometimes seeming as impossible as Superman and Batman ever smooching or screwing outside of fan fiction, fan art, or porn parody. But I keep carrying a torch, precisely because of comics like World’s Finest #289.
The story begins in Gotham, where Batman stops one mugger but fails to stop a second. The mugger shoots and kills his victim, and Batman flies into a rage, beating the mugger-turned-murderer to within an inch of his life. But of course, Batman’s actually angry at himself, and his anger is actually sorrow, of a decidedly melodramatic type. After tossing the unconscious perp aside, Batman drops to his knees in a yellow pool of light, fists clenching in his cowl as he throws his head back to wail a protest at the heavens. Meanwhile, Superman is engaged in sunnier exploits, rescuing climbers from a falling boulder in the mountains north of Metropolis. Yet his thoughts are similarly dark. “The whole world in my hands,” thinks Superman, “but it’s not my world. In the midst of teeming billions, I must always stand virtually alone.”
In other words, we begin with the world’s most famous superheroes compelled to contemplate the limits of their power. On their own, they can catch (most) muggers and boulders but can’t mend a broken world – or their own broken hearts. This introspection is typical of Bronze Age superhero comics and would intensify in and around the publication of The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Watchmen (1986). But unlike the Dark Age deconstructions to come, the introspection on offer in World’s Finest #289 doesn’t ask us to question our own dark investment in the toxic masculinity and fascistic justice superheroes commonly model; instead, it’s the prelude to the love story.
We catch up with Batman in the Batcave, despondently slouched at his desk as he declines Alfred’s offer of companionship, because “as close as Alfred is… there are some things [he] just can’t share with him.” He can, however, share with Superman, who arrives at the Batcave just as Batman’s about to call him. Superman leads Batman out of his cave with a protective arm around his shoulders, saying, “I suspect, friend, that we could both use some solitude. But I think, too – it would be better if neither of us spent this night alone.” The couple is subsequently pictured journeying to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, soaring arm-in-arm over an enormous ice spear projecting into a purple sky. The captions inform us the air is cold enough to freeze a person’s eyeballs—unless, like Batman, they’re fortunate enough to be “swathed in the heat of a Superman’s blazing passage.” As Superman prepares to insert the giant key only he can lift into the giant lock only he can open, he muses, “An evening here will do us good, I think, especially in view of how we’ve grown closer these past few months.”
Inside the Fortress, the heroes talk through their similarities and differences. Batman confesses envying Superman’s power and the normalcy of his upbringing; Superman describes the ever-present loneliness of losing his own birth parents along with his entire planet and the rest of his people. Eventually, Superman summarizes their bond: “We’re like night and day, you and I, yet we’re closer than we realize, closer than twins, because we complement each other. We fit each other… like hand and glove.” If you’re wondering whether “hand and glove” is merely a metaphor – it isn’t. Superman extends his bare hand and Batman’s gloved hand accepts it. This page ends with a close-up on the heroes’ joined hands, haloed by a red, orange, and yellow rainbow and accompanied by the caption, “They hold the grip for a long time…”
And they do; the handshake continues onto the next page, and so do the captions, which swell from matter-of-fact observation into full-on purple prose, describing Superman and Batman as “staring silently, shattering with the honesty of their eyes all the usual emotional obstacles of embarrassment and discomfiture.” Though the next sentence tells us, “Such naked feeling… cannot last,” there’s plenty of room to wonder if it could have, had Superman’s computer not chosen that moment to sound an alarm about a disturbance in the atmosphere beyond the Fortress.
Many gay men, including comics scholar Lee Easton, have discussed the appeal these tender moments between male superheroes had for them in their youth. Easton writes, “The fact that these hard, powerful men were also capable of deep feelings, usually revealed in short moments of great softness and tenderness, would often fill me with desire to hold and comfort them.” As an adult woman who is attracted to men, these moments make me swoon just as hard but differently. I’m less interested in comforting male superheroes than investigating their intimacy. Gaining access to private, intimate moments between male characters in a male-dominated genre aimed at male readers is seductive because I like men a lot but often struggle to understand them, and because seeing men be vulnerable and reflective about their identities gives me hope for them and me.
If big strong men can open up to each other, maybe they can open up to me. If big strong men can acknowledge dissatisfaction with their gender roles, maybe they can understand my dissatisfaction with mine. If big strong men can admit that they’re unhappy, maybe they can change. Maybe they even want to change, and what a miracle that would be; sometimes, I let myself imagine a world in which men lead the charge against gender inequality instead of too many of them needing to be tricked and cajoled into caring, the way a certain intrepid reporter always seemed to be trying to trick and cajole Superman into acknowledging her in the pages of Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane.
These hopes are wild and silly, but so is World’s Finest #289. The alarm that breaks up the handshake signals the arrival of asteroids filled with the aforementioned alien slugs. At first, Superman and Batman attempt to help the creatures. But when a psychic energy beam generated by the slugs injures Batman, Superman turns against them. This initiates a role reversal, with Superman embodying Batman’s earlier aggression while Batman takes on Superman’s more measured approach to conflict, staying behind in the control room to try and communicate with the slugs using a telepathic headset. At last, via telepathy, the whole story comes out. And it’s a doozy.
The slugs were created by a race of beings called the Kryll, who extended their lives indefinitely by transforming themselves into self-replicating robots. The price was their emotions; the slugs are psychic vampires, designed to drain emotion from their hosts and transmit it back to the Kryll. But they can’t complete their mission until they link with each other. Basically—they need to mate. Superman says he sympathizes with the slugs but believes it’s too dangerous to let them link. He’s about to destroy the main asteroid, but Batman urges him not to, reminding him of the destruction of Krypton. At the last moment, “Instead of smashing the asteroid, [Superman] catches it—cradles it… Gently.” Everyone deserves a partner who can caress them as lovingly as Superman caresses asteroids full of slugs.
Superman and Batman subsequently settle in to watch the slugs do the deed, which is very colorfully described as “an awkward groping, a smaller questing at the end of their overall and far less intimate quest… tentative undulations not unlike a bizarre mating ritual… followed by a physical linkage, symbiotic mating—and psychic synergy.” But this time, the images are bluer than the purple prose. We spend a full page observing slugs rise and bend toward the eager, gaping orifices of other slugs before fluidly, completely penetrating them. This mating ritual both mimics human reproduction and makes it strange (or queer), the act of penetration transforming the slugs with orifices into sheaths for multiple phallic protuberances; in this orgy, all ins create new outs, like fingers in a glove if the glove wore you back. If this grosses you out, you’re reading it wrong. At the climax of the mating ritual, the omniscient narrator describes the slugs as behaving “majestically.”
Unfortunately, the slugs’ majesty is brief. Because their emotional vampirism is destined to destroy the world and the heroes who taught them to love, the slugs choose to sacrifice themselves. Before they die, they thank Superman and Batman “for granting [them] such precious gifts.” Superman and Batman’s perfectly parallel faces shed identical tears as they watch the slugs shrivel, their dialogue sharing the crux of the tragic twist. “They lived…” begins Batman, “…only to die,” finishes Superman.
On the one hand, this conclusion links queerness with death; the slugs’ ecstasy must, like Superman and Batman’s handshake, meet a decisive end. On the other hand, the slugs assert, and Superman and Batman’s empathetic response agrees, that love is worth any cost—even death. In addition, the slugs are animated by the emotional auras of Superman and Batman. Their love is, literally, a manifestation of Superman and Batman’s love, which, like the mating ritual of the slugs, includes awkward groping, inversions, and a final psychic synergy, signaled by the heroes’ shared tears and dialogue. And unlike the slugs, Superman and Batman get to survive—and thrive. If you’re so inclined, the story’s denouement may herald further climaxes: “Glowing with the returned auras of emotion, the two men weep… then turn and embrace over the ashes of feeling, the dust of sacrifice. Here it is warm… outside it is bitterly cold. Perhaps no one else, on any world, would understand.”
Following this caption, a red box says “END,” but of course—it’s not really the end. Superman and Batman’s stories would continue, though they’d soon be very different. Two years later, a crisis (on infinite Earths) would strip away much of their silliness, and the superhero genre in general would become increasingly grim. So would its depictions of sexuality, almost invariably at the expense of female characters; each of the most critically lauded Dark Age deconstructions, including The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) features a female superhero being sexually assaulted. These deconstructions clearly have value, but I’ll always be saddened by the lessons some creators and critics took from them: that the best thing we can do with superheroes is reject them, or at least have the decency to be embarrassed by their campness; and that mature sexuality must mean violent sexuality that polices gender roles instead of questioning them.
World’s Finest #289 is an extremely imperfect love story. It is, at best, symbolically queer, and while it inspires me to fantasize about being included in the culture and company of men, I’m definitely not included; I know Superman and Batman’s openness depends on the absence of women, who can’t penetrate the caves and fortresses that inspired the clubhouse flavor of so many comic book stores, which were becoming the main place to get comics right around when this one was published.
Any yet, like an improbably majestic slug braving the coldness of space and the colder embrace of death for the sake of an epic fuck, I’m making the heroic choice to love this comic book. Maybe love is blind. Or maybe it’s okay to see a silly thing clearly and love it anyway, because you want to, and maybe need to. For all their flaws, superheroes can be powerful beacons of hope. And some silly hopes are serious, or at least worth having, since hope begets love and we all deserve that, whether we’re superheroes or slugs or someone who simply wants men to be good.
World’s Finest Vol 1 #289 (March 1983)
“The Kryll Way of Dying”
Writer: Doug Moench
Penciler: Adrian Gonzales
Inker: Sal Trapani
Colorist: Carl Gafford
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Marv Wolfman
Anna is a writer, talker, and PhD-haver. She’s published widely on representations of race, gender, and sexuality within a variety of popular media genres and forms, including action-adventure television, superhero comics, professional wrestling, and sports culture. She’s the editor of the anthology Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero and co-hosts the podcasts Three Panel Contrast (a monthly discussion of comics classics) and The Oh Gosh, Oh Golly, Oh Wow! Podcast (a weekly, issue-by-issue re-read of Marvel’s classic Excalibur series).
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