Re-reading ‘World’s Finest’ #258, the comic that got Jason Aaron into world-building

Tom Bondurant dives into a classic issue of DC’s ‘Dollar Comics’ line that helped inspire the architect of Marvel’s ‘Heroes Reborn’ event.

As part of our round-robin Heroes Reborn [2021] coverage, I learned that writer Jason Aaron’s first superhero comic book was August-September 1979’s World’s Finest Comics #258. Back then it was part of DC’s “Dollar Comics” line, boasting 68 pages’ and five features’ worth of colorful characters. In his newsletter, Aaron says

I fell in love with these books, in part because they didn’t just give me one story, but instead gave me a taste of an entire world of characters and adventures and history that was out there waiting for me. The sort of gargantuan super-world that would come to consume a large portion of the rest of my life. […] In other words, I think I’ve been primed from the beginning to want to build my own world of superheroes. And HEROES REBORN is maybe as close as I’ll ever come to doing exactly that.

It will surprise none of you to learn that I also read World’s Finest Comics regularly as a kid, especially during the Dollar Comics phase. (It lasted over five years and almost 40 issues, from April-May 1977’s #244 through August 1982’s #282; and a Green Arrow/Black Canary backup continued for a couple of issues past that.) Although the Dollar Comics line was largely an experiment in marketing and economics of scale, World’s Finest was pretty impressive among the company’s late-1970s output.

Issue #258 featured:

  • Superman & Batman (20 pages), written by Denny O’Neil, pencilled by José Luis Garcia-Lopéz and inked by Dick Giordano;
  • Black Lightning (10 pages), written by O’Neil, pencilled by Rich Buckler and inked by Romeo Tanghal;
  • Green Arrow (10 pages), written by Gerry Conway, pencilled by José Delbo and inked by Dave Hunt;
  • Hawkman (9 pages), written by Conway and drawn by Buckler & Tanghal; and
  • Shazam! (15 pages), written by E. Nelson Bridwell, pencilled by Don Newton and inked by Kurt Schaffenberger.

Not going to lie, the lead story is the issue’s highlight. It actually picks up on a subplot from a previous issue #256, which introduced Lar-On, a werewolf from Krypton; and reveals that a bystander who got infected back then is now – one full moon later – turning into a were-unicorn. Yadda yadda yadda, the were-unicorn scratches Batman, and he spends a month being a total tool to everyone before turning into a were-bat by the light of the next full moon. Superman reverses the transformation by flying him to the opposite side of the Earth (where it’s daylight, of course); and a set of blood transfusions cures both were-creatures. I hear you asking “all that takes 20 pages?” To be fair, they’re twenty fantastic-looking pages, because when you have José Luis Garcia-Lopéz and Dick Giordano drawing Batman versus a female unicorn centaur (topless, but tastefully concealed) – and then Superman versus were-bat Batman – you spread things out.

World’s finest were-bat fighting, from Denny O’Neil, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Dick Giordano

The Black Lightning story finds our hero teamed up with arch-foe Tobias Whale, who comes across basically as DC’s answer to the Kingpin. Whale’s upset with his ex-girlfriend Tabby Katt (…sure) because she’s ratted him out to The 100, Metropolis’ latest high-tech gang. This, in turn, has convinced Whale to take down The 100 – hence, the team-up. Following a fight at the Superman Museum (where The 100 has an ironic secret headquarters), Whale tracks Tabby to a car wash run by an elderly woman. “Granny” (as the story calls her) gets gunned down just as Black Lightning catches up with everyone. Whale and the 100 goons are defeated and Tabby turns over her incriminating info to Black Lightning. When Tabby talks about cutting a deal, though, an indignant BL tells her to “be quiet and look [at Granny] and have the decency to mourn!”

Denny O’Neil, Rich Buckler and Romeo Tanghal depict a frustrated Black Lightning

That reminds me – there’s a lot of closure in these shorter features, because when this issue was printed, DC thought it would be the last World’s Finest Dollar Comic. Black Lightning and Shazam! were supposed to move into a new Five-Star Super-Hero Spectacular anthology, anchored by Wonder Woman. However, the infamous DC Implosion changed those plans, and WF stayed super-sized for years to come.

Back to issue #258. The Green Arrow story is short on plot (he stops a gang of thieves who rob Social Security checks from mailboxes) and long on commentary (he notes that the elderly still don’t have enough to live on). Writer Gerry Conway does his best to live up to the high standards set by O’Neil and Elliott S! Maggin, who gave Green Arrow his early-1970s left turn; but this installment doesn’t do much beyond giving Ollie a new job as an op-ed writer. Conway was already writing Green Arrow regularly in Justice League of America, so this did give him a chance to dig more into Ollie’s character.

Green Arrow takes out some punks, courtesy of Gerry Conway, Jose Delbo and Dave Hunt

The same goes for Conway and Hawkman, since the Winged Warrior’s spotlight this issue also consisted of a basic plot (the Hawks have to stop a runaway starship from smashing into Earth) plus a little character moment (Hawkgirl and Hawkman hold hands as their own starship accelerates past its safety limits). The star of this story is penciller Rich Buckler, who gets to draw lots of sci-fi hardware; and who also depicts the hibernating pilot of said runaway vessel as a gigantic elephant. The latter is a good way to convey that his ship is both ancient and not exactly what the reader might have been expecting. Basically Hawkman saves the day by waking up the elephant, who then takes over for the autopilot which otherwise would have plowed through Earth without a second thought.

Gerry Conway, Rich Buckler and Romeo Tanghal show Hawkman a space vacuum and an extraterrestrial elephant

Closing out World’s Finest #258 is a mostly-delightful Captain Marvel Jr. story, “The Courtship Of Captain Nazi.” If you weren’t expecting to see “delightful” and “Nazi” in the same sentence, welcome to my cognitive dissonance. Essentially, Captain Nazi breaks out of prison and decides he needs to marry Beautia Sivana, the mad scientist’s blonde, blue-eyed daughter. She’s not having it, because a) she’s not evil like her dad and b) UM, NAZI. Since she knows the Marvel Family’s secret identities, she arranges for CN to pick up all of his wooing supplies – flowers, rings, bridal gown – at places and times where she knows Freddy “CM Jr.” Freeman will be nearby. Thus, whenever CN ventures out on one of these errands, he gets walloped by Captain Marvel Jr. Again, if you can get past the whole Nazi element – and I think many of us are tired of having to deal with actual Nazis once again – it’s a very charming story, helped along immensely by Newton and Schaffenberger’s spot-on work. Their facial expressions are the chef’s kiss topping off some solid superhero cartooning.

Captain Nazi can’t get rid of Captain Marvel Jr., thanks to E. Nelson Bridwell, Don Newton and Kurt Schaffenberger

Overall, it’s not hard to see World’s Finest #258 as a good gateway into DC’s late-1970s superhero lineup. It might include four B- to C-list features, but none of them are particularly unfamiliar. Green Arrow and Hawkman were Justice Leaguers, Black Lightning was a splashy newcomer at the time, and Captain Marvel and company were on Saturday-morning TV. In fact, all of them are now multimedia stars. The stories themselves are all new-reader friendly – even Black Lightning’s, which wraps up a three-issue arc – and they each have decent amounts of action and characterization. World’s Finest was just one of several Dollar Comics (alongside Detective Comics, Adventure Comics, Superman Family and non-superhero titles like G.I. Combat and House of Mystery), so it didn’t need to be all things to all readers. Clearly, though, it sold at least one reader on the joys of a shared superhero universe.

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