Zach Snyder’s Batman v Superman hits theaters today, but before you buy your ticket, you may want to take a minute to study up. In the world of comics, Batman and Superman are both vanguard and elder statesmen. Within the past ten years we’ve seen five films featuring the caped heroes (two for Superman, and Nolan’s Batman triptych.) But even as these cutting-edge films rise, they’re dwarfed by a printed lineage reaching back decades. Think five films in ten years is a lot? Consider the hundreds of thousands of pages printed since the heroes first hit the shelves back in the late 1930s. That’s a daunting amount of history, but we’ve got just the guy to help you stay informed.
The 2015 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records named Southern-California-native Bob Bretall as the owner of the largest comic-book collection in the world. As of six months ago, the official count rests at a heady 101,822 unique issues (no duplicates), but he’s certain that he has cracked 103,000 since then. A collection as vast and nearly complete as Bretall’s is perhaps best measured in terms of what he doesn’t have. He is a mere 67 issues short of owning every Marvel superhero comic book and, though he is less of a DC completist, he owns the entire collections (that is, every single issue) of The Justice League of America, Teen Titans, Hawkman and more. “I think what makes my collection special is its breadth,” says Bretall. “It’s not just superheroes.” Even though he was initially bit by the radioactive comic-collecting bug after reading his first Amazing Spider-Man issue at age eight, these days he’s more partial to independent and un-caped titles like Saga or The Walking Dead.
But Bretall, a husband, father and M.S. of Computer Science, is not just a comic-book collector. He refers to himself as an “Ambassador of Comics,” a title he fulfills in his earnest, methodical approach to his well-curated collection. “I bought all these comics, pretty much off the rack. I’ve been doing it every month since the summer of 1970,” he says during our conversation — and he’s read most of them too, at a steady clip of 120 issues per month. “Lots of collectors buy in bulk, but this is all me buying these books and reading them myself,” he says. When he’s not reading the books, Bretall is spreading their gospel, donating comics by the thousand to friends and military servicemen and maintaining a rigorous not-for-profit webpage, comicspectrum.com, on which he publishes reviews, tips for comic book collectors and more.
When it comes to Batman, Superman and their upcoming movie, we had some questions. Where did Batman and Superman crossovers come from? What are some examples of major battles they’ve had in past story arcs? What should we expect with Snyder’s Batman v Superman universe? Bretall took a moment to educate us.
1 Understand the larger history of the Batman and Superman crossover. When it comes to Batman and Superman — DC’s “big two,” as Bretall calls them — the heroes have been close for decades. In fact, at first, they even shared the same book. According to Bretall, from 1941 to 1954 the two heroes’s stories ran side by side between the covers of World’s Finest Comics. “It had Batman and Superman in it — every issue — because they were the most popular superheroes for DC at the time,” says Bretall. “But they never teamed up. It was always separate — Batman’s story and Superman’s story side by side in the issue.” According to Bretall, It wasn’t until issue 71 in 1954 that the two heroes actually joined storylines, and not for the reasons you might think. “Part of it had to do with the reducing the physical size of the comic books,” says Bretall. “There wasn’t enough room to have two full stories, so they combined Batman and Superman together.”
2 Batman and Superman weren’t always enemies. In fact, in their early print iterations, it was quite the opposite. “Back then, they were best buddies,” says Bretall, referring to the first handful of times the heroes teamed up, from the ’40s to the ’80s. “You didn’t have Batman against Superman unless there was some misunderstanding. They knew each other’s secret identities, and they would help each other out.”
3 Understand the context of the Snyder universe. “Now, in the Zach Snyder universe that we’re dealing with, Superman almost completely destroyed Metropolis in the last movie, Man of Steel, while fighting Zod,” says Bretall. “Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne was in Metropolis when all of this was going down and was thoroughly unamused. In this film, Batman takes matters into his own hands.” As far as that clunky armor we see Batman wearing, Bretall explains, “Superman versus Batman is very interesting because you’re pitting a regular human against a godlike, super-powered alien. Batman has to figure out how to level the playing field using only his wits and his weapons, and usually some Kryptonite. Batman is going to be in some kind of armor, probably embedded with Kryptonite — like kryptonite gloves, so he can punch Superman.”
Bretall also suspects Snyder will be bringing a darker approach to his superhero universe, “which is keeping in step with the darker tone a lot of superhero comics have taken in the last few decades, as well as the Christopher Nolan Batman movies,” he says. Perhaps it can also be viewed as the beginnings of a trickle-down from the “Deadpool effect,” especially with the film’s R-rated home release on the way. “It is different from the lighter tone many people think of when recalling Batman and Superman TV shows of the past,” says Bretall.
4 Be ready for Superman and Batman comics to surge in value…if the film does well. Though Bretall generally refrains from price-oriented discussions of comics (in his words, he prefers not to speak of them as “stocks and bonds”), he did mention that the value of a comic series fluctuates drastically when a movie or television iteration is produced. “I guarantee you that this Superman-versus-Batman movie is going to have more eyes on it during its opening weekend than than all Superman and Batman comics have had, cumulatively, over the past year,” says Bretall. And it is those kinds of numbers that will force a subsequent surge into the comic shops, as fans of the film clamor for its print version — that is, provided the movie does well.
“It depends on how well the movie does and how well it’s received,” says Bretall. “For instance, there’ve been three Fantastic Four films, none of which were very acclaimed, and as a result, most of the comic book values have not gone up or retained high value. Avengers and Iron Man comics, on the other hand — those comic books have gone up and stayed up.”
5 Don’t come to the movie looking for the comic book. “The movies and TV shows are very different beasts, and so I don’t mind when they’re different,” says Bretall. “I know a lot of people who get very bent out of shape when a movie or a TV show changes something from the way it was presented in the comic book. I just think of them as completely different entities. I don’t really mind. They’re just trying to appeal to a different, wider audience.”
Match-Ups: Past Issues Where Superman and Batman Clashed
The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
“In the ’80s, Frank Miller came along and created The Dark Knight Returns, a four-issue series that heralded in a dark, noir age of comics. It was set in the future, with Batman coming out of retirement. He and Superman have a major fight in this series — it really started this idea that you could have a physical conflict between these two characters.”
Batman: Hush by Jeph Loeb
“This arc was particularly popular in the early 2000s. It is renowned because it’s written by Jeph Loeb, who is really big in Hollywood now, and it was drawn by Jim Lee who is now one of the co-presidents of DC. During this storyline, Poison Ivy ends up taking control of Superman’s body with a certain vine and causes him to fight Batman.”
Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar
“This story arc was released from the Elseworlds imprint and is totally out of continuity in relation to the rest of Superman comics. In Red Son, Superman lands in Russia rather than America and it has a large Superman versus Batman component. Mark Millar wrote it back before he did Kickass.”
The Injustice Series
“The Injustice storyline started first as an incredibly successful fighting video game and was later accompanied by a comic book that served as a prequel. It presents an alternate version of Justice League universe, in which Superman takes some of the heroes and creates a new world order — a kind of totalitarian regime in which an unhinged Superman is in control.”