World's Finest #174, "The Double Death-Wish!"

WORLD'S FINEST COMICS #174; March 1968; DC Comics (National Periodical Publications); Mort Weisinger, editor; featuring Superman and Batman in "Secret of the Double Death-Wish!", written by Cary Bates and drawn by Pete Costanza with inks by Jack Abel. (Review based on the black and white reprint of this story appearing in SHOWCASE PRESENTS WORLD'S FINEST, Vol. 4, published 2012.  On the cover drawn by Neal Adams (who was becoming DC's regular go-to guy for covers around this time), Batman and Superman are both cowering before two unshown figures pointing high-tech guns, and begging, not to be spared, but to be slain; "Go ahead and kill us... we INSIST!"  "Yes... both of us must be EXECUTED-- at once!"  Somehow I have the feeling this is one of those issues where the "shocking" cover scene was dreamed up first and then the editor and writer had to scramble to somehow build a story around the scene.

Review by Bill Henley (yes, I know I said I wasn't going to review any of the stories from the WF Showcase.  I changed my mind.)

On the splash page, Superman is cowering before images of Luthor, Brainiac, Toyman and Prankster; "The faces of my WORST ENEMIES-- mocking me!"  (Curiously, at this point Toyman and Prankster had hardly appeared to battle Superman for many years, except in an Annual reprint or two, and were hardly recognizable as among the Man of Steel's "worst enemies".  But then, Supes' rogues gallery was pretty thin once you got past Luthor and Brainiac.)  Batman is stuck in what appears to be a dentist's chair with humanoid arms holding him, as bats flutter around him; "I'm being haunted by my OWN NAMESAKE!"
As the story proper begins, Clark Kent has no more concerns more dire than whether his new reporting assignment from Perry White will involve "another interview with a crackpot who thinks the earth is flat!"  But then, while riding a crowded elevator in the Daily Planet office, Kent collapses to the floor; "Losing consciousness!  Some force... flooding my mind..."  The "force" vouchsafes Kent with a vision of Batman apparently being crushed to death by a large boulder.  If he wants to save his friend and ally, Superman must travel to 51 degrees north latitude, 73 degrees west longitude.  (My smartphone tells me this latitude/longitude is located in Kazakhstan, then a part of the Soviet Union.  The Russians might have been nervous about Superman making a sudden appearance there.  But this doesn't enter into the story; probably Bates made up the latitude/longitude totally at random.)  Kent revives but insists on exiting the elevator immediately so that he can hurry to Batman's aid, causing a callous coworker to sneer, "You know Clark Kent... it never takes much to throw that weak-kneed creep into a panic!" 

And indeed Superman is panicking unnecessarily, for as a caption informs us, he has been "taken".  Batman is in no danger; in his Bruce Wayne identity, he is seeing Dick Grayson boarding a plane for a school field trip; "Batman will just have to do a solo for a few days!"  As Alfred chauffeurs Bruce back to Wayne Manor, Bruce appears to nod off, and Alfred attributes this to Bruce dozing off after a late night of crime-fighting as Batman.  But in fact Bruce/Batman is having the same kind of vision Clark Kent/Superman had,  showing Superman lying helpless under a Green Kryptonite boulder and warning that Batman must travel to 51 north 73 west to save him.  Bruce rouses and instructs Alfred to return him to the Batcave immediately, so he can rush to Superman's aid as Batman.  "So Batman has been duped, too!  But WHY?  And by WHOM?"

Superman arrives at the appointed spot and finds a "massive citadel" with lead-lined walls blocking his X-ray vision.  He enters an open door which then slams shut behind him.  At first he is confident of his ability to smash his way out-- "Someone's trying to lock me in!  Is he in for a shock!"-- but it is Supes himself who is in for a shock, as he finds that the door and walls are able to withstand a succession of his mightiest blows!  He gets increasingly frustrated-- "I can't let this door defeat me!  I'm SUPERMAN!  I can move whole PLANETS!" but he finally has to admit defeat and try to reach Batman by exploring the maze-like interior of the citadel.  As Superman reaches a circular chamber full of metal doors of the same impenetrable material, two men watch him on TV screens in a hidden control room, their identities hidden by their chairs.  "We have SUPERMAN in position for ORDEAL ONE!"  "Right! I'm activating the power controls now!"  "Ordeal One" consists of giant images of Supes' old foes appearing out of pitch blackness, accompanied by laughter so loud and shrill that "it's a toss-up whether my ear-drums go first-- or my SANITY!"  Eventually, however, the laughter stops, as the two masterminds decide to give Superman a breathing spell and turn their attention to Batman, just arriving on the scene..

Batman dashes for the now-open door of the citadel and barely makes it inside before the door slams shut; "WHEW!  A fraction of a second later andthat door would have smashed me into FLATMAN!"  Wandering the maze, Batman finds an "odd-looking object" that looks like a cross between a chair and a humanoid robot.  He stays clear of the chair, but its arms reach out, seize him and trap him in the chair, held so tightly that he cannot wriggle free or reach his Utility Belt gadgets!  Then the jet-propelled chair takes off and spins around wildly as Batman is surrounded by hundreds of fluttering bats giving off shrill screeches.  The combination is too much for Bats, and he falls unconscious as the chair lowers him back to the ground,  While waiting for Batman to regain consciousness, the two tormentors turn back to their other victim; "I see Superman is up and around again!  We don't want him to get bored!"  The Man of Steel now finds himself in a lead-lined chamber, and suspects, correctly, that he is about to face a threat from his mineral nemesis, Kryptonite.

In Part 2 of the story, "The Cape and Cowl Crack-Up!", internal heating coils melt away the lead lining in the walls, exposing Superman to the inner walls composed of Green K.  As if that weren't enough, in the best tradition of devilish villain traps, the walls begin closing in on Superman!  "Not even a Superman is beyond panic!  Faced with terrible, certain death, he give voice to a SUPER-SCREAM..."  Batman hears the scream and deduces that something awful must be happening to his super-buddy, as only he could produce such a shout.  "He's still alive!  But for HOW LONG? Somehow I MUST find a way to him... while there's STILL TIME!"  Just as Superman despairs and lies down to die, the room expands again and new lead shields close over the Kryptonite walls.  Superman's life is spared, but only for more torment.  "Superman should be near his breaking point by now!  "Yes!  I think it's time to allow our two subjects to get together for the ordeal that will determine whether they LIVE or DIE!" 

Batman reaches Superman and is somewhat reassured to find that he is still alive and slowly recovering from the near-fatal dose of Kryptonite.  They compare notes on how they were both lured into this trap, but then are confronted by a "welcoming committee" of four persons armed with deadly weapons.  "They're DEAD!  They can't POSSIBLY be here!"  ""They're armed...hostile!  But we CAN'T fight them!"  Why not?  Because their new foes are spitting images of Jor-El, Lara, Thomas and Martha Wayne!  Even though the heroes know that these cannot be their true, loved and lost parents, "we both have MENTAL BLOCKS that prevent us from fighting back!"  After being bombarded by blast-rays and Kryptonite beams by their parental units, the heroes tumble through a trap-door and find themselves in a chamber where the slightest bodily motion causes them to be targeted for still more deadly rays and Kryptonite radiation.  Their only chance of life is to remain absolutely motionless.  They manage to do so for "long, unbearable hours," but finally, not only Batman but the Kryptonite-weakened Superman "give way to utter exhaustion and collapse".  "That does it!" "Yes! It's time to start the INTERROGATION!"

Under that interrogation by the two unseen figures, our harassed and overstressed heroes begin spilling every vital secret they know-- their own secret identities,  that of Robin, plus inside info on the workings of the Gotham City Police Dept. and the "location of every secret U.S. missile installation.  "We've heard enough!  They've both CRACKED!"  "Yes!  Now we'll have to do away with them!"  And so, as the two tormentors smash through the wall of the prison chamber, our hapless heroes recognize who they are.  "I realize now WHO they are... and WHAT must be done!"  Kneeling before the men who have broken them, Superman and Batman beg for death.  "We failed!  We're useless!  Please-- DESTROY US!"  "Go ahead!  Blast us!  We MUST DIE!"  And so, the two masterminds fire their weapons at Superman and Batman, who fall lifeless to the ground!  "The experiment was a TOTAL FAILURE!" says one of them regretfully.  And at last we see that the two men who have driven Superman and Batman to their destruction are-- Superman and Batman!  It turns out that the "Superman and Batman" who were destroyed are androids created by a well-meaning scientist, hoping to create the perfect substitutes for the real Supes and Bats in their absence.  The Superman android is designed to react to Kryptonite, for verisimilitude, and both of them were programmed to believe they were the real heroes.  But before using them for that purpose, the real Superman and Batman determined to subject the androids to the most stringent tests.  "When they saw US, the androids realized what they were and realized that they HAD to be deactivated!"  "Yes! If they were ever captured by an enemy, they could have been forced to tell all our secrets!"  Superman mutters, "I'll stick to my ROBOTS if I need a double!  Let's go, pal!"  "Right, Superman!  I want to be out of this place!"  Final caption: "Moral: There's only ONE SUPERMAN... and ONE BATMAN!  They CAN'T be DUPLICATED!"  (But another possible "moral" is altogether ignored by the story... and even if Batman seems vaguely disturbed by what they have done, maybe he and Superman should have been a lot more disturbed.  Even if these androids aren't technically "alive" in some biological sense, and even if they themselves consent to their destruction, doesn't their ability to feel emotion and pain make the real Supes and Bats morally culpable for torture and murder?  If Superman and Batman met Star Trek's "Data", or Marvel's Vision, or DC's own Red Tornado who first showed up about this time, would they feel justified in tormenting and destroying these artificial beings at whim? And for that matter, how do they know for sure that THEY wouldn't crack up if hit by that exact combination of torments?) 

I decided to review this story after all because somebody on the list referred to another story which started out well but was ruined by a "cheat" ending, and I thought this story could also fit that description.  Interestingly, though, a two-part story reprinted later in this WF Showcase volume-- "Prison of No Escape" and "The Breaking of Batman and Superman", from WF #192 and 193, by Bob Haney and Andru/Esposito, has a similar theme of Batman and a de-powered Superman being tormented to the breaking point in a concentration camp run by a dictatorship.  Those are the real heroes, and they come out of it somewhat better than their android doubles.  I didn't feel like reviewing the two-parter, though. 

Oddly, though I don't own most of the WF issues reprinted in this Showcase, I have the feeling I may own this one-- but I have no memory of ever reading the Superman/Batman story before.  Anyway, according to the GCD, the original issue also contains an "Editors Roundtable" reprint of a Green Lantern story from GL #12, "Zero Hour in the Silent City".  I could lay hands on a copy of that story and review it, but I'm not going to just now.  Maybe someday I'll review GL #12 and cover it then.