Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Rise and Fall of Elseworlds

One of the first comics that my father ever bought me was called "Batman - Brotherhood of the Bat", back in the mid-90's. At the time, I did not know it, but this was my first exposure to the DC imprint Elseworlds, where "heroes are taken from their usual setting and put into strange times and places - some that have existed, others that can't, couldn't or shouldn't exist." In hindsight, I should have realized this wasn't a regular story (the fact that Batman is dead was a sure giveaway), but back then I was just getting started to read comics and I did not know about ongoing comics, or mini series, or elseworlds and it was all the same to me. This particular story stuck with me for a long time, because it is a cool concept (or at least it was to my pre-teen mind), Ra's Al Ghul comes back to Gotham 50 years after Batman died and uses a gang of people dressed in different bat-costumes, including some never seen before. In repeated readings, it has not stood to the test of time, with some of the dialogue being particularly cheesy, but back then I remember me and my friends discussing which Batman costume we wold wear if given the chance. Today I wanted to talk about the Elseworlds imprint, which is sadly no longer among us, and why I would like it to come back.

First of all, a little bit of history: "imaginary tales" have been around for a long time in comics ("Not a dream! Not a hoax!"), where writers could come up with the weirdest stories they wanted to and run with it without fear of repercussion from fans. It wasn't until 1989 that DC published the successful Gotham By Gaslight (by Brian Augustyn and Mike "Hellboy" Mignola) which led to the creation of the Elseworlds imprint and retroactively named that title the first official Elseworlds comic. Over the years, DC has published many Elseworlds of many different natures, while not all of them have been critical or commercial successes, some of them rank among the most favorite stories among fans. Superman - Speeding Bullets, JLA - The Nail, and Batman - In Darkest Night are all very popular among comic book fandom, but there's two Elseworlds that rank higher than all the others: Superman - Red Son and Kingdom Come. Red Son is the tale of what would have happened to the world if Superman's spaceship had crashed in Soviet Russia. Kingdom Come, on the other hand, is a tale of the latter days of DC superheroes, which must fight a new and more violent generation of superhumans. Both of these stories usually appear in "Best-Of" lists, or recommendations for new readers to the DC Universe, and both of them were popular enough to warrant their own set of action figures. Additionally, in the current JSA title, by Geoff Johns, a lot of events are inspired by what happens in Kingdom Come, to highly positive fan reaction.

According to Wikipedia DC stopped publishing Elseworlds title around 2005 because of low sales and lack of critical acclaim. The mini-series Batman - Year 100 is the last official Elseworlds published. That same year Infinite Crisis hit the stands and re-established the multiverse which was previously eliminated during Crisis on Infinite Earths, and many of the popular Elseworlds officially became one of the alternate 52 Earths that existed in the DC multiverse. Apparently, some of them were featured during Countdown, but I do not know to what extent as I did not read that title (a wise decision, I am told by many). Coincidentally, 2005 was also the year that saw the birth of the All-Star line of DC comics, where acclaimed writers and artists are allowed to work on more iconic versions of beloved characters without any restraints from regular continuity. Sadly, not much has been done with the All-Star imprint, only two titles: the critical darling All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, and the commercial juggernaut All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder by Frank Miller and Jim Lee(as a side note, both titles are/were plagued by delays). Both titles could have easily worked as Elseworlds series, with the exception of the fact that they were ongoing series. To the best of my knowledge, however, all other planned All-Star titles will not be seeing the light of day anytime soon (I vaguely remember some announcement from NYCC, but I could not find it).

DC had a good idea with the All-Star line, in narrowing down the ideas and using the most popular stars of the comic book industry they achieved what they were aiming for. But since it is apparently no longer used, maybe it is time to bring back the Elseworlds imprint. What they could do is combine the best of both imprints, using popular creators to create these new worlds like All-Star did, and stick to mini series or one-shots like Elseworlds did. Furthermore, there is a lot of unpaved ground if DC decided to publish "What-If" titles, like Marvel does. While a lot of Elseworlds work in the same concept of disconvergent time lines like "What Ifs" do, most of them concentrate on the origin of the heroes, but rarely to past important storylines. I think there's room in the market for comics like "What if the Green Lanterns had lost the Sinestro Corps War?" or "What if Batman had not shot Darkseid?". Of course, the most difficult thing to do would probably be to come up with a new title, I think Marvel has the "What If" title copyrighted.


  1. I think the major factor against Elseworlds is continuity. Since Marvel and DC push in-continuity stories as "important" readers view Elseworlds style as easily avoidable and so they are avoided. I assume it would be a similar situation with a mix AS/WE style line. Marvel and DC really do need to de-emphasize continuity and focus more on stories and story telling. Only then would a solid Elseworlds line survive.

    Also, not a fan of What If? type stories. I would much prefer original ideas.

  2. The Kingdom Come wrap up in the last pages of the recent JSA storyline was pretty cool. I also raise "Superboy's Legion" and "Golden Age" into the upper echelon. "The Liberty Files" comes close.

  3. @ Eric, I agree with what you said. I don't think all Elseworlds should be "What If?" types, but I would like to see some like that in addition to the ones we were already getting.

    @MOCK!, I have not read Liberty Files, but I just looked it up and it looks interesting.