Comics and Cosplay
Soviet Superman And Other Timelines Better Than The Original

Marshall Lemon | 31 Jul 2015 17:15
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Justice League Gods and Monsters

Justice League: Gods and Monsters was released earlier this week, and for once it managed to get grim and gritty superheroes right. Set in a parallel universe where DC's "Trinity" never existed, the Justice League is founded by brutal vigilantes who aren't accountable to any Earth government. Superman is Zod's son, who crash-landed on Earth to be raised by Mexican migrant farmers. Wonder Woman is Bekka, a rogue New God who fled after finding sympathy for Apokolips. And Batman is Kirk Langstrom, whose altered Man-Bat formula turned him into a freaking vampire who started draining Gotham's criminal elements.

But what made Gods and Monsters great, where DC's latest animated films keep stumbling? It could be the new characters, or simply the writing expertise of the DCAU veterans Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett. But the simplest reason was simply setting Gods and Monsters in an alternate timeline. Doing so freed creators from relying on canon and established history, and let them explore new directions that wouldn't otherwise be possible.

Gods and Monsters isn't alone on that score. In the world of superhero comics, parallel universes are among the biggest critical hits on the stands. The Dark Knight Returns, Red Son, and Kingdom Come were all alternate timelines that received mainstream attention. And it's not just DC Comics either, Marvel will periodically dabble in non-canon books. Spider-Girl introduced an entire future around Peter Parker's daughter. Marvel 1602 reimagined classic heroes during Elizabethan England. The long-running Ultimate Universe was basically a playground where new readers could forget about backstories, and the current Secret Wars event is packed full of strange new universes.

miles morales ultimate spider-man

In fact, it's usually parallel universe books that new readers are likely to pick up and enjoy - not the ongoing canon which comic readers are used to. From Watchmen in the 80s to Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man today, these comics are the most accessible, get the most focus in the mainstream press, and usually get the best reviews. Everybody can recognize a popular superhero, but history shows the longer you stick with a "default" canon, the harder it is to appeal to new readers who weren't there from the beginning. (Perhaps that's another reason the Marvel Cinematic Universe films are so successful: Fans have either watched them from the start, or could catch up on the interesting parts over a handful of movie nights.)

It's easy to understand why this is. Fans think they want massive continuities and shared universes, but once that established history gets too big, we start to hate it. Maybe it's simply too hard to keep up. Maybe it's annoying to see the same storylines repeat without consequence. Maybe the creators themselves botch it up, releasing a One More Day or Final Crisis that makes no damn sense.

Alternate timelines don't have that problem. They don't need to rely on canonical history or established character behaviors. All they do is take popular characters, and tweak our preconceived notions to keep them interesting. Everyone knows Superman is the selfless hero, so it's shocking when he goes mad during Injustice. Everyone knows Magneto is the villain, so it's much more interesting that he founded the X-Men during Age of Apocalypse.

That's not to say parallel universes can't go wrong - they absolutely can. Just look at how Superman at Earth's End made Clark Kent a gritty action hero who guns down mutants and Hitler clones. The difference is when an alternate timeline messes up, you can ignore it. The story is non-canon after all - it's only in official universes that creators actually have to deal with the consequences.

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