A few weeks ago a link went past me to a page from an old issue of Captain America. It was a story in which a fake Captain America takes up Cap’s identity in order to support an organization called “The Committee to Restore America’s Values.” The Committee was a organization that had appeared previously in Captain America—a front for the sinister Secret Empire—and with the help of the fake Captain they were quickly converting the US into a fascist state.
Luckily the real Captain America arrives in time to battle with the fake, delivering a simultaneous physical and rhetorical beat-down which culminates in the false Captain’s shield being shattered, and the real Captain giving a speech denouncing jingoism, flag-waving, and American Exceptionalism. It’s a powerful scene that tunnels straight down into the core of what makes Captain America a potent character. It also never really happened.
Captain America has given lots of memorable and moving speeches over the years, many of which were similar to this one. But this particular speech is from What If? #44, in which Steve Rogers—the original Captain America—was not awoken from the Arctic ice in 1964 but rather in the (then) present day of 1984. The false Captain America he fights is William Burnside, the psychotic replacement Captain America who fought communists in the 1950s and—in the main 616 Marvel universe—ultimately became a super-villain called The Grand Director.
It’s a great comic, and worth tracking down to give it a read. But beyond that, it prompted me to pick up a collection of What If? comics. There are plenty of silly stories—including several variations of “what if the Fantastic Four had different powers?” But there are also a number of stories that mirror actual in-continuity plots from later Marvel comics: What if the Hulk had the brain of Bruce Banner? What if Spider-Man’s clone had lived? What if Elektra had lived? What if the Fantastic Four’s second child had lived? (There was kind of a running theme in those early stories.)
DC had their own version of What If?, first in the Silver-Age “imaginary stories” and then later in the form of the Elseworlds—DC’s official out-of-continuity imprint which was home to some of their most memorable stories, including Superman: Red Son, Kingdom Come, and Gotham by Gaslight. These stories—along with similar Marvel stories like 1602, Marvel Noir, and Earth X—are remembered in part because they’re good, certainly. But more so I think because they do things that in-continuity books can’t.
When all else is stripped away, superheroes are characters of serialized popular fiction. And like all characters of serialized popular fiction at least as far back as Sherlock Holmes—and likely quite further—they can never really die. No matter what ills should befall them or how definitive their death a popular character will always find some way to return for another adventure.
In our hearts, all readers secretly know that. We know that no matter how dire the circumstance, the hero will triumph eventually. That an apparent death will turn out to be a clone, or robot, or a time-traveling bullet. Hell, sometimes they just outright die and get raised from the dead, no beating around the bush.
We, the audience, more or less know that within certain parameters these characters will never stray too far from their iconic forms, and should the Earth get blown up, or all the humans in the world get turned into monkeys, or if half the population of the universe die under mysterious glove-related circumstances, eventually things will get put back in order basically the way they were and we will return to an iconic status quo—usually just in time for a movie tie-in.
Elseworlds—which from here out I’m going to use as a generic term for all of these out-of-continuity stories—discard that inherent plot-protection, and thereby change the way in which the audience engages with the story. They are, by their very nature, playing outside of the rules. In an elseworlds story anything is possible and there are no take backs. Spider-Man died? Oops, guess what kids he’s not coming back. Spider-Man turns into an actual spider? How interesting. Doctor Doom is a good guy? No inevitable face-heel turn for him. Superman is a communist? Gee, what’s gonna happen there?
These sorts of stories—both those that alter the status quo of a character in some radical way and those that reimagine them in some alternate realm—are interesting in their own right, but I also think they are incredibly important. There are a lot of constraints placed upon creators when they work in the Marvel or DC universe. As Warren Ellis once put it (and I’m paraphrasing here), “when you play with someone else’s toys you have a responsibility to put them back in the box in more or less the condition you found them.”
Which is to say that while you’re telling your own stories about a particular character you need to leave them in a condition that they can still be used by the next writer. This is one of the reasons that Watchmen stars original characters rather than the Charlton Comics characters they were at one time based on. DC felt that the story Alan Moore had pitched would have irreparably damaged the characters—and rightly so.
An Elseworlds story—like Watchmen—gives a creator the opportunity to cut loose, pull out all of the stops, and do something they wouldn’t normally be able to do. To try storylines that are too weird or experimental for the main continuity or which don’t fit in with the current editorial vision. They are also an opportunity to remix a character, put them in a different time or place, or change some variable which allows for a creative new vision of a character.
The significance of them, however, only really struck me going back through those old issues of What If?, and seeing all of those instances where a concept that had appeared there had been brought back later and used in continuity. How many times a work like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns or Kingdom Come had its ideas picked up and incorporated into the “real” version of those characters.
When you include other-medium out of continuity works like Batman the Animated Series—which gave us new characters like Renee Montoya and Harley Quinn, as well as new interpretations of characters like Mr. Freeze—or the entire Ultimate Marvel Universe, which has fed back into the 616 both directly and via the movies, it becomes starkly clear how important it is to have a format which allows creators to experiment with characters in a way they generally don’t have the opportunity to do when working in-continuity.
The Ultimate Marvel U., in particular, is a great example of this principle written large. For over a decade it has acted as the “gloves off” sandbox where Marvel writers get the opportunity to really change things, and go off in strange directions that wouldn’t be permitted otherwise. What started as more or less a modern retelling of the classic Marvel canon has continually mutated and evolved into it’s own thing which is in many ways wholly distinct from 616 Marvel. But more importantly, it’s acted as an ongoing proving ground for testing or refining concepts that can be used in the main continuity.
I note this with particular emphasis because DC, meanwhile, has folded its closest equivalent—Wildstorm—into its main universe and has almost entirely abandoned Elseworlds (Dan Didio, DC’s co-publisher has been quoted as saying, “Elseworlds [were] dead as far as he was concerned.”
Which brings me, ultimately (no pun intended), to my point. The Big 2 superhero universes are, if not unique, at the very least notable in their scale and scope as ongoing serialized fictional settings. Dozens of titles, hundreds of characters, thousands upon thousands of pages of story all being produced month after month stretching back for decades on end. If nothing else the sheer VOLUME of material in the Marvel and DC canon is impressive, to say nothing of the apocrypha.
And as these universes have grown and their characters taken on a mythic role in our cultural lexicon, it is only just and reasonable that the people who helm those universes would want to ensure that their characters—and the meta-story of the universe(s) as a whole—continue to evolve in a way that sustains that mythic quality.
The other side of that coin, however, is that there must always be an Elseworlds. A place we—audience and creators both—can go wild, get wacky, and find out what would happen if Batman was a Green Lantern, or Conan the Barbarian was stranded in the 20th century, or Superman was raised by the Waynes, or Wolverine was lord of the vampires.
Because I really want to know the answer to that last one.