“You planted a bomb at the White House?” Superman said incredulously.
“Uh-huh,” the Riddler acknowledged. “Set to go off in–” Shading his eyes with a violet- gloved hand, Riddler peered out at a clock tower in the distance. “Hm, about three minutes, now.”
“Three minutes!” Robin exclaimed. “Holy fireworks!”
“Don’t worry, Robin,” Superman said confidently. “I’ll have that bomb out of there in three seconds!”
“Not so fast, Supey,” Riddler said. “I put a special sensor field around the bomb. If any ultra-dense material comes close to it — like, say, your own super-bod — it’ll blow and take the Prez with it!”
Superman closed the distance between himself and the Riddler in an eye blink and grabbed a fistful of the villain’s tunic, lifting him off his feet. The Riddler goggled in terror.
“How do we stop it?” Superman demanded.
“O-only I can,” Riddler said. “Th-the bomb has a fingerprint code lock! Only I can defuse it — with my fingerprint!”
“You can fly him there in a heartbeat, Superman,” Robin suggested.
“Right,” Superman said. “Come on, Riddler, we’re going for a little trip!”
“OK, OK,” Riddler said. “You’d better wrap me up in your invulnerable cape, so the trip doesn’t kill me!”
Superman’s hands moved to the cape about his neck, then stopped. He glanced at Batman, who nodded once. “Tell me again about the bomb,” Superman said to the Riddler.
“The bomb?” Riddler repeated. “I-it’s at the White House! It’ll explode in two minutes if I don’t defuse it! It’ll destroy the whole place, kill everyone!”
Superman smiled grimly. “You’re lying,” he said simply.
“What?!” Riddler exclaimed. “No! No, I’m not! I swear I’m not!”
“My super-hearing gauged your heartbeat, pulse rate,” Superman explained. “There is no bomb. Batman told me you’re collecting super-hero memorabilia, now. This was just a ruse to get my cape, wasn’t it?”
“No!” the Riddler cried. “Gimme that cape!” Frantically, he lunged for the red cloak; Superman stopped him with a powerful hand.
“The game is up, Riddler,” he said.
“Indeed, it is,” a sepulchral voice boomed from behind. The Riddler screamed in terror; the three heroes’ heads turned in the direction of the voice. All three gasped in surprise, even Batman.
A hole had opened in the very air over the rooftop, a hole whose edges glowed with brimstone fire. The hole showed into a dark, cavernous region, with flames burning darkly on a stone floor. A tall, cloaked figure beckoned from within.
“You failed, Nigma,” the cloaked figure pronounced. The Riddler screamed.
“No!” The Riddler screamed, dropping to his knees on the rooftop. “Don’t let him take me! Please!”
“Riddler, what is this?” Batman demanded. “What’s going on here?”
“As I said,” the cloaked figure intoned, “the Riddler failed. I set him a task in exchange for his soul. To procure three items for me. He successfully acquired the first two, but failed to capture the third. Thus, his soul is forfeit to me!”
Superman watched the cloaked figure and the sulfurous cavern behind him with a chill in his stomach. “Are you telling us that you’re — that he–?”
“Precisely,” the cloaked figure said oily. “And now, I’ll be taking my property.”
“Not without a fight, you won’t,” Batman said firmly.
“Oh, please,” the cloaked figure said in a bored tone. A gnarled hand extended from beneath the cloak, and a burst of dark light shot from the fingertips and surrounded the Riddler in an ebon nimbus. The beam of light then receded into the cloaked figure’s hand as fast as a bullet, and the Riddler’s muffled scream died out as he was carried into the stygian realm on the other side of the hole.
“Of course, if you want him that badly,” the cloaked figure said, “come and get him — if you dare.” With that, the figure turned on its heel and walked into the burning cavern. The hole remained open.
Superman watched the gaping hole with mounting horror. As a boy growing up in a rural community, he had seen a few revival meetings, heard some fire-and-brimstone preachers rant about the grisly fate that awaited sinners. As a boy, it had frightened him. As a man, he had not thought about it in years; but now, facing a gateway to the Inferno itself, all the old fears came back to him.
He was brought out of his terror by Batman’s voice. “Well,” the Caped Crusader said decisively, “let’s go.”
“Batman!” Robin exclaimed. “W-we’re not really going — in there — after him! Are we?”
“It’s what we do, old chum,” Batman said.
“B-but — but he’s the Riddler!” Robin stammered.
“I know,” Batman said. “But we’re us.” And with that, Batman began walking purposefully toward the hole. Summoning up his courage, Robin followed.
Superman was not far behind.
The blast of heat, the stench of brimstone, were oppressive as the trio of heroes walked into the stygian realm. As soon as they were through the hole, it suddenly closed behind them, cutting them off from their own world.
“I don’t like the looks of this place,” Robin said fearfully.
“Nor do I,” Superman said. “I’m trying to use my super-vision to locate the Riddler, but it doesn’t seem to work in this place!”
“Help me,” a terrified voice called out weakly from above. The three heroes looked up and gasped to see the Riddler hanging between two stalactites to which he was chained by the wrists. His face was a contorted mask of horror.
“Well, well, so you had the courage to enter my realm,” the cloaked figure mocked from his perch atop a ledge on the rocky wall. “Or do I mistake courage for stupidity?”
“Call it what you will,” Batman said gruffly. “Just hand over the Riddler, and we’ll be going.”
“The Riddler is mine by forfeit,” the cloaked figure said. “Why trouble yourself? Even if you do take him out of here today, he’ll be back someday. Might as well be sooner than later.”
“He’s a human being,” Superman said. “Whatever his faults, we’re pledged to protect all human life.”
“Oh, spare me,” the cloaked figure sneered. “Very well, if you must. You’re willing to fight for the Riddler’s soul?”
“We are,” Superman declared.
“Then you will face three champions of my choosing, from my realm of the damned. Defeat them, and you and the Riddler go free. You understand, of course, if you lose, your souls are mine as well.”
Batman’s gaze flicked down to the teenager at his side. “Not Robin,” he said. “Send him back. Let Superman and I play your game.”
“What?” Robin cried out in astonishment. “Batman, I’m not letting you face this without me!”
“The young man was old enough to step into my realm of his own choosing,” the cloaked figure stated. “All three of you, or no deal. What do you say?”
“I say bring on your champions!” Robin cried. Superman and Batman exchanged a glance, then nodded.
“Very well,” the cloaked figure said. “Three warriors from my realm of damned souls. Let the game begin!”
“Who do you think he’ll throw at us?” Robin whispered.
“Search me,” Superman whispered back. “Hitler, Nero, and Dillinger?”
Just then, three geysers of flame spouted up in front of the world’s finest heroes. When the flames vanished, three men stood in their places. Their faces had the haunted look of the damned, their eyes empty, hollow sockets. The heroes gasped to see the champions who they would have to fight.
Jonathan Kent. Thomas Wayne. John Grayson.
Up above, the cloaked figure laughed.
“Pa,” Superman croaked hoarsely. “Pa, w-what are you doing here? Why aren’t you–”
“Be quiet!” the shade of Jonathan Kent snapped harshly. “Still running around in that ridiculous blue costume, I see! I always thought you’d grow out of it someday. But no! Still gallivanting around in your play-suit like an overgrown child! Didn’t I teach you any better than that, boy?”
“Pa,” Superman said, voice breaking, a tear streaming down his cheek.
“D-Dad?” Robin stammered, fearfully. “Dad, you? I-it can’t be!”
“Surprised?” John Grayson’s shade snarled. “Haven’t you heard me turning over in my grave all these years? Squandering the skills your mother and I taught you, letting the fine old tradition of the circus die with us! Why, I’ll bet you’ve forgotten everything we taught you!”
“Th-that’s not true!” Robin shot back, stung by his father’s words.
“Oh, no?” Grayson sneered. “Execute a double back-flip from a standing start. Now!”
Fearfully, Robin complied, whirling in the air and coming down on his feet perfectly.
“Adequate,” Grayson said unkindly. “Now a triple somersault with inverted handstand. Now! Go!”
“So, my son the big man,” Thomas Wayne’s shade sneered. “Letting others run the business empire I created while he runs around dressed like a flying mouse, solving fancy puzzles and punching out ridiculous sissies in their underwear! What do you have to say for yourself?”
“You’re not real,” Batman said through clenched teeth. And yet, all of his senses told him differently.
“Oh, I’m not, am I?” Wayne demanded. “Maybe I’m one of those silly villains you’re always fighting. Maybe I’m the Joker in a latex mask!” Wayne stuck his chin out far toward the trembling Batman. “Go on, then! Take a shot at me! You know you want to! Hit me! Hit me, you weak little coward!”
Batman’s fists trembled at his sides, so tightly did he clench them. He did not believe this. He could not believe it. And yet, if this were an illusion, so complete was it that it might as well be true. He could not bring himself to raise a hand against his father, no matter what he did.
Batman turned his face away from the sneering, mocking visage of Thomas Wayne. In doing so, he caught a glimpse of Superman withering under Jonathan Kent’s tirade of abuse.
Swiftly, his hand went to his utility belt. He could not act against his own father, but he had no such mental blocks against Jonathan Kent. A black batarang flew from his hand, swift and accurate as a bullet. It struck a dangling stalactite above Jonathan Kent’s head, exploded into a thick black net that dropped over the Kent shade, trapping him in its mesh folds. The shade struggled within the net, only ensnaring itself more.
“Pa! Wha–?” The sight brought Superman out of his trance. He gazed over at Batman, who nodded to him. Superman returned the nod; he understood. The Man of Steel quickly inhaled a lungful of sulphur-tainted air and expelled it again in a tightly channeled burst of super-breath. The wind funnel struck the shade of Thomas Wayne, sent it hurtling into the dark depths of the cavern.
Robin was turning back-flips and somersaults before the shade of John Grayson. Superman and Batman came racing up, each grabbing an arm of the shade, and hurled it far away into the darkness.
“No!” the cloaked figure cried out from his shelf perch. In a puff of brimstone smoke he vanished, to reappear down on the cavern floor in front of the heroes. “You blasted bat! You ruin everything!”
Batman smiled grimly at the cloaked figure. “I do ruin everything, don’t I?” Batman said to the cloaked figure. “But then, you always lose, don’t you?”
“Batman?” Superman asked, amazed. “Batman, what are you–?” Batman waved him to silence.
“I lose because you cheat!” the cloaked figure swore, stamping his feet. “You could never beat me fair and square!”
“We just came through everything you threw at us,” Batman said. “What do you call that — imp?”
The cloaked figure stood silent for a moment, then spoke. “How did you know?” he asked. But the voice was no longer deep and bass; it was high-pitched and squeaky — a voice Superman had heard many times before.
“Mxyzptlk?” he said incredulously.
With a loud POP! the cloaked figure vanished; in his place was a little man in an orange and purple outfit, wearing a derby hat, floating in air at eye-level with Batman. “How did you guess it was me, you bat-brained boob? Everything was perfect!”
“Who else could it have been?” Batman asked. “You come from a world where practical jokes are an art form, if they are in good taste and very funny — two things your jokes never are. This had your signature all over it.”
“Hah!” Mxyzptlk spat. “You wouldn’t know funny if it bit you in the bat-behind! You should have seen the look on the Riddler’s face when I first brought him here! It was priceless!”
“M-Mxyzptlk?” the Riddler stammered from his suspension between the stalactites. “Th-then he’s not — I’m not — I never was–?”
Batman looked up at the Riddler and slowly shook his head from side to side.
“Blast you, Batman!” Mxyzptlk ranted. “It was the perfect joke! The ultimate setup! And everybody swallowed it hook, line, and sinker! Except you!”
“I just have one question, you pixilated pixie,” Batman asked. “Why drag Robin and me into your feud with Superman?”
“Oh, come, now!” Mxyzptlk scoffed. “You know perfectly well why! After you tricked me back to my own dimension, that time I had some fun with the two of you!” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Supergirl-Batgirl Plot,” World’s Finest Comics #169 (September, 1967).]
“What are you talking about?” Batman asked. “I never did that!”
“Of course you did!” Mxyzptlk screamed, pointing a finger at Batman. “Don’t deny it! You know you did! You tricked me into saying my name backwards!”
“Your name backwards?” Batman repeated. “Mxyzptlk, you’re insane! I never did anything like that, ever!”
“You certainly did!” Mxyzptlk swore, flecks of foam flying from his shouting lips. “You tricked me into saying Kltpzyxm! Oh–” With a loud POP, the imp from the Fifth Dimension vanished. In a flash of light, the sulfurous cavern changed. The rocky walls were now clearly papier-mâché; the flames, painted wood and colored lights; the sulfur generated by smoke pots. It was a low-budget film set. The Riddler was back on the ground among the heroes.
“Oh, yes,” Batman said. “Now I remember.”
“A fake,” Riddler whispered to himself. “All a fake! I went though all that — for nothing!”
“Not for nothing,” Batman said, kicking over a painted wood flame backdrop. It fell to the cement floor; stenciled on the back in black letters were the words PROPERTY OF MXYZPTLK STUDIOS. “For a joke.”
“And now you’re going back to jail,” Superman said, grabbing the Riddler’s arms, “and that’s no joke!”
“Bah!” Riddler snarled. “Riddle me this, Superman; why is a jailbreak like a period?”
“Because it ends a sentence,” Superman said. “Now march!”
As they walked the Riddler out of the studio, Superman glanced over his shoulder at his friend, Batman. He had faltered, even momentarily, before what he believed to be the Inferno. Batman had not. Perhaps he had known all along; perhaps he hadn’t. Either way, the truth was clear.
Bruce Wayne was the bravest man Superman had ever met.