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12 Rationales for a Hero-Versus-Hero Slugfest on the Cover


Apr 30, 2004
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So you want to have the cover show two (or more?) superheroes going at it hammer and tongs. Of course, if both combatants are superheroes then theoretically they ought to be on the same side . . . most of the time. How do you rationalize your decision to show them squaring off on the cover?

This is a question that comic book editors have obviously asked themselves hundreds of times. I did my best to think of a wide range of Hero-Versus-Hero Slugfests in my collection and try to sort them out according to the general Rationales that were used for them. Most of the examples I cite below did have heroes confronting each other in the cover illustrations, either fighting or else looking as if they were right on the verge of throwing punches (or using whatever special weapons and powers they might have available, if not literally punching and kicking). However, in a couple of cases I had to settle for stories where such clashes definitely happened within the story, but weren’t featured on the front cover. Sorry, but it was the best I could do. Here was what I came up with:

The 12 Rationales

01. Mistaken Identity
02. Smear Job
03. Regrettable Duty
04. Impostor
05. Presumed Impostor
06. Analog
07. Dream Sequence
08. Mind Control
09. Incoherent
10. Good Clean Fun
11. Gone Rogue
12. The Big Lie

01. Mistaken Identity

“Oh, you're a fellow superhero? Well, how was I supposed to know that?”

This can work a couple of different ways. The hero who throws the first punch may have no idea who the other guy is, and just assumes his target “must be” a villain, name unknown. Or he may think he knows exactly whom he’s attacking—except he’s dead wrong!

The initial encounter of Spider-Man and Moon Knight (in “Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man #22” in 1978) fell into the “I don’t know who the heck he is, but I’d better fight him anyway!” category—at least from Spidey’s point of view. There was, of course, a Spidey/Moon Knight Slugfest on the cover. Toward the end of the story inside, Spider-Man saw Moon Knight clobbering a thug in a dark alley and trying to interrogate him about the Maggia. Spidey had overheard mention of the Maggia, and was sufficiently upset by Moon Knight’s harsh interrogation tactics to assume that this weirdo in the white suit was probably planning to beat this thug to death for some reason (as a job for the Maggia, maybe?), and Spidey seemed to feel his best bet was to capture both of them, just to be on the safe side, and then question both until he got some straight answers from one or the other.

Moon Knight, not surprisingly, refused to simply stand still and be immobilized by Spidey’s webbing. Things went downhill from there. Eventually a costumed villain who was really working for the Maggia showed up and attacked the pair of them, right around the time that Spidey was finally starting to figure out that his white-clad opponent was “Moon Knight,” whom he had at least heard of before in a favorable context!

(It also occurs to me, although I’m reasonably certain nobody said so at the time, that Spidey may have thought Moon Knight’s white hooded outfit looked like a variation of the traditional garb of that fun-loving bunch, the Ku Klux Klan. Those false first impressions can be killers!)

I have a vague idea that there may have been cases, in one company's continuity or another's, where two heroes met face-to-face for the first time and one of them somehow thought the other guy must be a notorious villain whom he had heard of before (instead of just saying, "Gee, that weirdo looks pretty villainous to me, but I don't know his name!") But I've been unable to think of a specific example of a hero-versus-hero slugfest that started in exactly that fashion. If you can think of one, please let me know!

02. Smear Job

“I heard that you’ve gone rogue. And I believe everything I hear. Once upon a time you were a respected fellow hero, but now I’ll just have to clobber first and ask questions later!”

I once wrote a “first reactions” piece about the graphic novel Spider-Man/Kingpin: To The Death (plotted by Tom DeFalco; scripted by Stan Lee), in which this happens to Spider-Man over and over in a single day, with several different heroes assuming the worst of him and trying to take him down by force without any silly preliminaries first, such as saying, “Please tell me your side of the story. Do you have an alibi?”

I called the piece:
“Spidey's only been a superhero for ages -- why trust him?“

As you might surmise from that title, my major problem with the plot was that the story was published in 1997, and obviously set in what was then “modern” Marvel Universe continuity (instead of being a flashback to “many years ago”), and yet a lot had changed since the Silver Age when Spidey was a very new kid on the block in superhero terms, and others (the X-Men, the Avengers, etc.) had never met him, or maybe just bumped into him once upon a time, and could plausibly say they didn’t really know anything about his good character or lack thereof. By the late 90s, Spidey had teamed up with practically everybody and his brother on numerous occasions to fight evil and sometimes even Save The World, so you’d think other veteran heroes would be willing to give him a little benefit of the doubt when they heard a news report that some super-powered guy in a Spidey costume had just killed a bunch of thugs with automatic weapons fire. Especially considering it wasn’t exactly the first time Spidey had been impersonated by a villain. (The first time was way back in “Amazing Spider-Man #1” and it was written, of course, by Stan Lee. That was how The Chameleon made his debut.)

Note: This story did not feature a Hero-Versus-Hero Slugfest on the front cover. But it sticks in my mind as a particularly silly example of lots of other heroes taking a Smear Job at face value without even considering the possibility that it might be, in fact, a Smear Job. Daredevil was the lone exception to the general cluelessness of the other Marvel heroes in that tale.

03. Regrettable Duty

“I know you’ll stand up and fight for what you think is right. And you know that so will I. It’s a crying shame that our respective duties are putting us at cross-purposes!”

If you count Frank Castle (The Punisher) as a superhero (which I don’t), then he’s probably had this sort of cover scene, shooting or punching at a more conventional superhero, dozens of times in his career! Because he feels it's his sacred duty to kill violent criminals (he doesn't count himself as a violent criminal in that context), whereas other heroes normally feel it's their sacred duty to apprehend violent criminals (by which they sometimes mean the Punisher too) without killing anybody in the process. Those mission statements obviously don't mesh very well.

If you want an example where the heroes on both sides had normally refrained from killing people, but ended up in violent opposition to one another anyway, then consider “Infinite Crisis #5," which featured a Superman-versus-Superman slugfest on the cover. The Golden Age Superman (Kal-L) was slugging it out with the Modern Superman (Kal-El, the guy who had been the star of the various Superman titles of the last two decades or so, ever since the Post-COIE Reboot of Superman continuity). Kal-L felt that the Earth of his native universe, back before the Crisis on Infinite Earths pruned the old Multiverse down to size, had been inherently superior to the newfangled Earth that so many superheroes lived on nowadays, and so he wanted to restore the “Earth-2” universe to its former glory. If that restoration process would be awfully hard on the Modern Earth of the DCU, that was just tough. His first loyalties were to his wife (and his native timeline in general).

This picture was complicated by the fact that Kal-L’s expressed rationale for what he and his allies were attempting seemed (to my eyes) to be mutating in odd ways as the Infinite Crisis progressed, and it didn’t help that a version of the Superman-versus-Superman slugfest published over in the Superman titles was somewhat contradictory of the version published within the pages of “Infinite Crisis,” but the key point is that Kal-L felt he was fighting for the best interests of his entire native timeline, and the modern Kal-El felt he was fighting for the best interests of his entire native timeline, and it was generally believed that those respective sets of “best interests” were somehow mutually exclusive.

(Ironically, at the end of the subsequent “52” series, DC decided to reveal that there was once again a Multiverse out there, including a parallel Earth that ended up at least superficially resembling Kal-L’s late, lamented Earth-2.)

I have the impression that similar situations of conflicting loyalties have arisen in Marvel's “Civil War“ and DC's “Amazons Attack,“ but I've largely ignored both of those events, so I won't pretend I can comment on them with any expertise.

04. Impostor

“Look out! It’s a villain posing as a hero and beating the tar out of us!”

A goldie oldie. It doesn’t have to be Superman (for instance) fighting those other heroes on the cover; it just has to be someone who can pass for Superman at first glance! Then you can rationalize the whole thing inside the pages of the story to explain why it isn’t really Superman at all! (It’s even possible that nobody within the story ever thought for a moment that it was the real Superman, even if the cover gave a very different impression to the customer!)

For instance: the cover of “Titans/Young Justice: Graduation Day #2” (middle installment of a three-part mini) showed Superman standing above the battered forms of Robin, Donna Troy (I think she was still calling herself “Troia” that week), and Superboy, while holding a rather-the-worse-for-wear Nightwing up in the air with one hand and drawing back the other hand in a fist, obviously ready to pulverize this powerless mortal.

And when you read the story, the heroes of those two teams did in fact fight something that superficially resembled Superman but definitely didn’t act like him. A previously-overlooked robot double that had now been programmed to kill, kill, kill. (Which it proved by doing exactly that to a pair of Titans, Donna Troy and Lilith. Donna has already made a comeback, of course; I don’t think Lilith has, but I figure it’s just a matter of time!)

And of course there have been any number of comic books that had a cover illustration featuring the costumed hero fighting himself. Usually, one of the combatants was simply an impostor wearing a duplicate costume! What could be simpler?

(Besides robot doubles and “just wearing the same costume,” other rationales for “Impostor” include clones, magically-created duplicates, illusionists, and shapeshifters.)

05. Presumed Impostor

“Prepare to be thrashed, you scoundrel! How dare you dress up like one of my colleagues in the superhero business? WHAM! Oops! Did I jump the gun a little on that one? Sorry!”

Sometimes whether one of the heroes on the scene is a fake is far less important than whether the other hero thinks he is—and reacts accordingly!

As an example of attacking a real hero on the theory that he must be a second-rate imitation, we have one of the stories in “Marvel Comics Presents #48.” As I recall: Spidey is out on patrol one night and sees Wolverine, in full uniform, standing on a rooftop doing nothing in particular. Now, at this point in Marvel continuity, Wolverine and a bunch of other X-Men were commonly believed to be dead and gone, following events in Dallas during the “Fall of the Mutants” event. Therefore, Spidey “knew” this couldn’t possibly be the real Wolverine, whom he’d met several times before. Therefore, Spidey “knew” it had to be some shameless, disrespectful, dishonest impostor trying to capitalize on Wolverine’s hard-earned reputation, for some nasty reason or other. Therefore, Spidey “knew” it was his sacred duty to pummel the rascal with a sneak attack.

Follow the logic? I mean, how was Spidey supposed to know that the X-Men who died in Dallas had been magically restored to life by Roma about five minutes later—and had been hiding this fact from the general public ever since? (I should point out, though, that this “Wolverine,” phony or not, wasn’t committing any visible crime when Spidey attacked him—but Spidey evidently saw no reason to get all hung up over such a tiny technicality!)

So, even though these two heroes had absolutely nothing to fight about, they did anyway! Wolverine initially seemed more amused than anything else by the whole thing, and Spidey eventually noticed that his trusty Spidey-Sense wasn’t screaming “Red Alert!” at him, which tended to suggest that this guy with the claws wasn’t exactly a supervillain after all . . . sure, you may think it would have been nice if he'd noticed that total absence of "Red Alert!" a few pages sooner, but that would have ruined the chance to put a Spidey-versus-Wolverine slugfest on the cover!
06. Alternate-Timeline Analog

“I’m not fighting my old buddy; I’m fighting a nasty version of him from a whole different reality!”

Marvel’s “Exiles” series gets plenty of mileage out of this one in its plots, as a motley assortment of characters from alternate timelines (some of them based on people we know from 616’s regular continuity, and occasionally an actual native of 616 gets involved)—goes gallivanting about the multiverse to visit more and more alternate timelines and fight the local versions of even more of the old familiar faces—and those “hero-versus-hero” slugfests occasionally carry over to the “Exiles” covers. I just checked an online gallery of that title’s cover scans and noticed that a surprising number of their covers aren’t slugfest-happy, but I also found an example that seems to illustrate my point in spades!

A cover scan of “Exiles #86” shows a team of six Exiles standing close together at the center of a circle. They are surrounded by about a zillion variations of Wolverine, and of course every last one of those analogs appears to have his claws extended, meaning he’s primed and ready to do what he does best (and you just know it ain’t very nice).

I don’t own a copy, but as near as I can tell from what I’ve read online (and from what I already understood about the basic premise of the Exiles), this illustration didn’t mean someone had been mass-producing “Wolverine Clones” or “Wolverine Robots” or even “Cheap Wolverine Disguises” in a factory somewhere! No, each of those guys was presumably the “One and Only” Wolverine (or Logan, or Patch, or Weapon X, or James Howlett, or whatever he called himself that week) in his respective native timeline! Now they had all been brought together in one world, at the same place and time, for some diabolically clever reason! (I’m not even counting the part about “showing a zillion Wolverines on the same cover” as being the diabolically clever reason all by itself, you understand.)

The “Alternate Timeline Analog” would also apply to the covers of DC’s Elseworlds material (or similar stories that might not carry the Elseworlds logo). If the entire story, including every member of the cast, is totally separated from the “continuity” of the company's regular monthly titles, then you can pit anybody against anybody else, even kill off any hero you please (instead of just having the combatants “kiss and make up” after the obligatory slugfest), and you’ll get away with it because every other writer knows he is absolutely free to ignore whatever you just did!

For instance, in James Robinson’s four-part Elseworlds miniseries “The Golden Age,” the final issue has a cover illustration of putative superhero Dyna-Man (formerly Dan the Dyna-Mite, erstwhile sidekick to T.N.T. in adventures from the WWII era) standing triumphant on a battlefield where various other Golden Age heroes are sprawled on the ground, presumably either dead or badly battered after tangling with his incredible power (seemingly Superman-level in strength and invulnerability, at least at the beginning of the battle)—and the cover is not false advertising; several veteran heroes did in fact die within the pages of the story; it was quite the bloodbath!

Word has it that James Robinson originally tried to pitch the idea as a “flashback” miniseries that would become The New Official Continuity regarding the final fates of a bunch of fairly obscure Golden Age heroes in the years following World War II. However, DC evidently didn’t want to let him kill off as many established heroes as he hoped to eliminate for dramatic reasons, so they insisted upon publishing it with the Elseworlds logo firmly displayed on each cover, instead. If he would settle for killing lots of “Alternate-Timeline Analogs” of various Golden Age heroes, then he could go hog-wild!

07. Dream Sequence

“Man, what an exciting dream I had last night! My good buddy and I just about killed each other in a fight over some stupid thing!”

So there was a fight scene, but it didn't really happen. Nobody got hurt. Besides simple dreams, other variations on this theme can include hallucinations triggered by mind-altering drugs, carefully engineered virtual reality scenarios, a work of fiction written by one of the characters within the larger story . . .

I’m having trouble thinking of a good example where a “dream sequence” was the excuse for a Hero-Versus-Hero Slugfest shown on the cover. Although I’m sure it’s been done. Anyone care to help me out here?

I initially hoped to find an example in “Ghost #21,” from the first “Ghost” series from Dark Horse, but when I checked an online scan of the cover (I remembered the story a lot better than the cover), it only has Ghost and X staring at each other, practically nose-to-nose. They certainly tried to kill each other in the actual story, in what was basically a dream sequence inflicted by a telepathic villain (as the two vigilantes eventually figured out), but that slugfest isn’t really reflected on the cover. All you could deduce from that picture was that X would be guest-starring in this issue, and he and Ghost would look at each other at least once (which was true, but far from the whole truth).

08. Mind Control

“I really hate to do this to you, old chum, but somebody else is in the driver’s seat inside my head right now!”

This has been done many, many times. For instance, “Batman #612” (Part 5 of the 12-part “Hush” story arc) had Superman choking Batman on the cover. I don’t recall if that exact bit (choking him) happened in the story, but there was certainly a violent confrontation, thanks to Poison Ivy having achieved mental dominance over Superman for a while.

It’s even been done via body-switching, so that the hero ends up in the villain’s body and vice versa. For our purposes, I’ll just call that an extreme case of the same phenomenon of “Mind Control.”

09. Temporary Incoherence

“I’d rather fight you than explain exactly what’s weighing so heavily on my mind, even though you’d understand my concern if I took the trouble to share it with you! Unngh! Ouch! Whoof! You’ve been working out, haven’t you!”

In other words, the “conflict” between the two heroes could be resolved in about ten seconds, without further violence, if the aggressor-superhero in this situation were capable of articulating one short sentence to coherently express why he was making such a fuss. (But why do a wimpy thing like that when he can settle for a long, pointless slugfest instead?)

On that note, let’s talk about “Fantastic Four #357.” By the time I first read this comic, years after it came out, I already knew darn well what all the fuss was about. It was painful to see that writer Tom DeFalco, just for the sake of justifying a Thing/Human Torch slugfest on the cover, had rendered Ben Grimm utterly incapable of formulating a simple declarative sentence that would coherently explain his violent attitude toward Johnny Storm’s wife.

Johnny and “Alicia” are talking when Ben suddenly bursts through the door, bellowing, “Move back, Johnny! Don’t let ‘er near ya!”

A moment later he tries to explain his reason for barging in on them this way. He uses the following well-chosen words: “I’m gonna kill yer woman!”

For some reason, this declaration doesn’t go over well with Johnny. (Isn’t that peculiar?) Observing that Philip Masters, the notorious Puppet Master, is standing right behind Ben at the moment, Johnny quickly suspects that Ben Grimm is being mind-controlled (Rationale #08, above) and is now a very nasty threat to Johnny’s beloved spouse for no good reason! (Ben sure hasn’t mentioned a good reason, or even a bad one, at this point! Nor will he for several pages yet!)

Hence, a slugfest, as well as Ben chasing Alicia all over the place while trying to either kill her (if we take his angry pronouncements at face value) or at least to terrify her enough to make her drop a masquerade so Johnny can see the truth (if we give Ben the full benefit of the doubt and judge by what finally happened, rather than by what he repeatedly said he was going to make happen).

Later on, when Ben has “blind Alicia” cornered, he says, “Yer dead, lady, dead! Nuthin’ can save you now!” Again, Johnny seems to think there is something terribly wrong with this picture . . .

I should mention (now that I’ve just reread that sequence) that Johnny, even while using his flame powers to try to keep Ben away from Alicia, also repeatedly tries to persuade a rampaging, murderous-sounding Ben to stop, take a deep breath, remember they are friends, fight off any mental control being used on him, not force Johnny to char-broil him in defense of Alicia, etc. Anywhere along the line, Ben could have responded with an explanation, in just three or four words, of why he was so bound and determined to get his mitts on "Alicia." Sad to say, Ben wasn’t interested in doing anything so rational. He actually indulged in bits of repartee with Johnny during their fight, but somehow never was able to find a moment to say, in plain English, why this fight was happening! Not until he’d already terrorized “Alicia” enough that she turned back to her natural form as Lyja, and then, on the last page of the story, Ben pointed at her and finally said what he just as easily could have said several pages sooner: “Yer lovin’ wife is a stinkin’ Skrull!”

(When I first read this issue, long after I knew about that retcon, I was appalled at how horribly written Ben was in this scene. How hard could it be for him to yell out a few syllables to an old friend—such as “She’s a Skrull!”—at the beginning of the conversation? Except of course, that if the guys at Marvel didn’t make him Temporarily Incoherent on this crucial subject, then there was no basis for a slugfest between two of the FF, and if there was no slugfest, they might have had to go with a non-violent cover illustration . . . the horror! The horror!)

10. Good Clean Fun

“Fighting? What fighting? That was just friendly practice! We have to stay ready for the real thing, you know!”

Yes, they were slugging away at each other—but they weren’t angry or anything. Pulling their punches, using their energy blasts at one-quarter-power, or whatever. Sometimes just as a training exercise; sometimes it's even done to settle a dispute without anyone being meant to get killed or maimed; sometimes they're just fooling around for fun without really thinking of it as "training."

Consider “Tales of the Teen Titans #42,” Part 1 of “The Judas Contract.”

Much of this issue's cover is a set of six panels shaped like TV screens; and the words across the bottom of the cover are “The Eyes of Tara Markov.” One of the panels shows Starfire and Wonder Girl I (Donna Troy) dueling with quarterstaffs. Another shows a bird—presumably Garfield Logan (then called Changeling; now Beast Boy again) trying to dodge a storm of clods of earth that seems to be pursuing him. Since that’s the type of attack his teammate Terra would naturally use, we had one definite Hero-Versus-Hero Slugfest advertised on the cover and a second one strongly implied. Indeed, both of them actually happened in the story, and both of them were—in theory—supposed to be Good Clean Fun for training purposes.

In the case of the Kory/Donna fight, theory and practice went hand in hand. It was just friendly exercise; not a grudge match. After Kory beat Donna fair and square, they hugged each other to show there were no hard feelings. (Garfield Logan muttered something about a waste of two perfectly good hugs.)

The Changeling/Terra fight, a bit later on, also started as a reasonably friendly training match, but Terra finally lost her temper (to be fair: only after a stream of undeniably obnoxious taunting from her opponent) and came close to killing Changeling in the heat of the moment. The other Titans finally intervened because they felt that knocking Changeling out and then throwing a stream of lava at his helpless form was a bit excessive. (Fussy, fussy, fussy!)

If you care, Terra talked her way out of it—for the moment—by claiming that under the stress she’d had a flashback to the period of her life when terrorists were picking on her all the time, and she'd felt like she was lashing out at them now . . .

11. Gone Rogue

The primary difference from Mind-Control is that one of the heroes is deliberately Being Evil (or Violently Insane, or something along those lines). Not just because someone else is pulling his strings, but because of bad choices he's made of his own free will (as far as we know) and/or because of inherent mental illness that isn't just the result of hypnosis or whatever. Sometimes we are told that this "heroic" character was always rotten underneath the charming exterior. Other times we're just told that he's finally lost his marbles under severe stress. Either way, it creates opportunities for his former friends and allies to have some lovely slugfests with him.

As an example: Picking up where we left off, the second installment of “The Judas Contract” (“Tales of the Teen Titans #43”) also had several smaller panels on the cover, and one of them showed Terra riding a rising wave of earth and obviously attacking a fellow Titan, Raven. This actually happened—although we only saw it in flashback—and it meant that Terra was finally showing her true colors as a dyed-in-the-wool psychopath who, for some reason, had long hated those goody-goody two-shoes Titans but was extremely good at covering that up most of the time (except for one or two tiny little slips, such as trying to fry Changeling with lava in the previous issue).
12. The Big Lie

“Ha! You expected the scene you saw on the cover? Fooled you that time, didn’t we?”

Here someone took the laziest way out, in the process of grabbing your hard-earned money with an enticing cover. In other words, the publishers put a hero-versus-hero slugfest on the cover . . . just because they felt like putting a hero-versus-hero slugfest on the cover to see if it helped sales, and not because it had any particular relevance to the plot of the actual story!

I don’t bother with the current “Supergirl” title, but I’ve recently seen complaints that it’s already used this type of Big Lie on the cover more than once, and the readers are expected to just grin and bear it and then come back for more! Supergirl squaring off against Power Girl on the cover of “Supergirl #8” . . . no such fight on the inside. Supergirl squaring off against a couple of Karate Kids on the cover of “Supergirl #22” . . . no such fight on the inside.


As always, I take it for granted that my "first draft" is likely to contain some errors, and probably totally overlooked some other possible Rationales for contriving a certain type of story. If you can think of other reasons for superheroes to face off with each other in shameless slugfests, then please tell me what you think I should add to a later draft of this list! :)

Further Reading

I've been writing these Numbered Lists, intermittently, since 2004. Recently I transferred copies of most of them to a new account on LiveJournal, following an embarrassing situation two months ago when my GeoCities pages got overloaded by the number of people seeing the links in a new post and trying to follow them. That shouldn't happen this time, if anyone reading this wants to take a look at my previous efforts to look at some peculiar aspect of the superhero lifestyle and list and analyze the different approaches that various writers have taken in dealing with such matters over the years.

12 Motives for Killing a Comic Book Character
17 Excuses for Bringing Back a Dead Character
16 Types of Retcons
19 Ways to End a Superhero's Romance
22 Ways to Show a Superhero Killing Someone
9 Categories of Continuity
5 Types of Superhero Team Members
Secret Identities: 10 Ways to Unspill the Beans
Superhero Finances: 10 Situations
13 Reasons to Use a Deathtrap
14 Functions for a Superhero Costume
10 Types of Superhero Successors
14 Ways to Rehabilitate a Disgraced Hero
14 Motives for Becoming a Superhero
12 Tricks for Keeping Superheroes Young
<a href=http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2007/08/13/lorendiacs-lists-13-reasons-to-quit-the-superhero-racket/]13 Reasons to Quit the Superhero Racket[/url]

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