Who is a better superhero mentor, Superman or Batman? We’ve seen how their methodologies differ when it comes to crimefighting, but what about mentoring? Does Superman’s bedside manner make him a better teacher than Batman, or does the Dark Knight’s track record speak for itself? As I read the latest arc of Mark Waid’s Batman/Superman: World’s Finest, I began to ponder these questions.
Many of the team-ups between Batman and Superman tend to focus on the contrast between the two heroes. The result has been decades of stories showing the differences that cause tension in Batman and Superman’s friendship and partnership. A large part of the 2003 series Superman/Batman played with this angle, right down to the dueling narration. The current series takes a different approach, setting aside the tension and presenting the World’s Finest team as best friends. Super friends, if you will.
However, the series has also heavily featured Robin and Supergirl, which changes the dynamic somewhat. For one, we’ve been able to contrast how the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight treat their young partners. It’s worth noting that this series primarily takes place in the past, back when Dick Grayson was still Robin, and before Superman became a father. One surprise has been the revelation that Supergirl and Robin once went out on a date, which ended in disaster.
Sadly, the date happened off-panel, but it raises so many questions. Dick Grayson’s love life continues to surprise us! In fact, as I explore the differences between Batman and Superman as mentors, the failed Supergirl/Robin romance is a great place to start.
When Supergirl arrives in Batman/Superman: World’s Finest #2, it’s sometime post-date and she and Robin are visibly uncomfortable around each other. Superman is surprised and confused at the tension between them, implying that he was unaware of their history. However, Batman/Superman: World’s Finest #8 makes it clear that Bruce was well aware of their failed romance. In fact, Batman encourages Robin to have a dialogue with Supergirl to cut past the tension between them. He even teases Dick about asking her out again.
Does this mean Batman knows Robin better than Superman knows Supergirl? That’s one way to look at this, but it isn’t entirely fair to Clark. For one, Bruce and Dick live together, making it more likely that the Dark Knight will be aware of the Boy Wonder’s recreational activities. Plus, Batman is a detective. Imagine living with the World’s Greatest Detective and trying to hide the fact that you’re going out on a date with a powerful alien refugee.
We should also give Clark more credit here. Perhaps this demonstrates how Clark gives Kara her space, rather than trying to be privy to every detail of her life. If you’ve ever cared for a teenager, then you would know that trust and space go a long way.
Batman/Superman: World’s Finest #8 also reintroduces an interesting bit of continuity to Kara’s history. When Superman asks Supergirl how he should handle Boy Thunder (more on him in a bit), Kara replies, “You could always put him in an orphanage.”
It’s clear from the art that her statement is oozing in resentment. This is a reference to Kara’s first appearance back in 1959’s Action Comics #252. After Supergirl arrived on Earth, Superman placed his young cousin in an orphanage. It seems a bit cold-hearted looking back at it with modern eyes, especially since Kara had just lost her entire family and was now alone on a strange new world.
Superman is not a cold-hearted person, and he would never intentionally hurt his cousin. He just wasn’t thinking. When Batman met Dick Grayson, he took the boy in with no thought of placing the Boy Wonder in an orphanage. (Of course, it’s also worth mentioning that Batman was originally intending to give Dick back to the circus after their first mission.) I think the big difference here is Superman was a baby when Krypton exploded, so he has very little memory of the trauma. By contrast, Batman will never forget the trauma he felt seeing his parents gunned down.
When Bruce Wayne met Dick Grayson, he knew exactly what the boy was going through. He was able to empathize with the young orphan and give him the support he needed. Clark had no sense of the trauma Kara felt losing her entire world. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not Superman’s fault. It just means that he and Kara had different life experiences, which meant he may have been blind to the support she needed when he placed her in an orphanage. Plus, let’s be real, it’s also easier to adopt an orphan when you’re a millionaire with your own mansion and butler.
Batman/Superman: World’s Finest #7-11 introduces a new teen sidekick known as the Boy Thunder. David Nikela is a teenage refugee from an alternate Earth. His parents sent him to Earth-Prime as their world was dying in a fiery apocalypse. Does any of this sound familiar? The Boy Thunder serves as Superman’s sidekick, and a probationary member of the Teen Titans.
David’s case is interesting, because although Superman’s taken him under his wing, Batman plays a role in his training as well. This is where some of the contrast between their mentoring styles really comes into play. Batman gives the teen some stern advice in Batman/Superman: World’s Finest #9: “Logic over heart. Curb your emotions in the field, or they’ll blind you.”
David is confused by this advice, since Superman has always warned him not to be cynical. Batman dismisses this, telling the teen that Superman has grown accustomed to cheering crowds.
Unfortunately, David is a teenager who recently saw everyone he loved killed, and now he’s on a strange new world. This is a lot for any teenager to handle, and neither Batman or Superman seem truly equipped to help him. However, Kara’s situation was a bit similar. When Supergirl talks to the Boy Thunder in Batman/Superman: World’s Finest #8, they share their difficulties coping with survivor’s guilt.
During this conversation, Kara tells David how she coped during her early days on Earth: “I packed it away, way down because I wanted to be like Kal, who keeps his cool 24/7.”
As I previously theorized, Superman was ignorant of the private pain Kara was feeling. Had he been aware of what Supergirl was going through, he would have wanted her to express her feelings, so he could help her through them.
It seems that this is where Batman and Superman differ as mentors. Superman’s heart is in the right place, but through no fault of his own, he often misses the big things. Batman is aware of what his young partners are going through, but his cynicism leads to some bad advice. What does all of this mean for David? If you’ve read last week’s Batman/Superman: World’s Finest #11, then you already know.
In the end, I think I have been asking the wrong question. Both Batman and Superman are exceptional mentors. One isn’t better than the other, they’re just different. Every teenager needs their own special guidance, and mentorship is not a “one size fits all” situation. When we look at Nightwing, Supergirl, Superman (Jon Kent), Superboy, Robin and many others, it’s hard to argue with the results. They may have their faults, but Batman and Superman are truly the World’s Finest mentors.
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DC.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Joshua Lapin-Bertone and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.