Origins, Observations, and the Future
of a Genre
by Bruce Bachand
Elseworlds thats the term to paste at the forefront of your brain for the duration of this feature article.
It was in thinking about this months theme that I couldnt help but make an important mental note. Many of the most significant and critically acclaimed Elseworld stories have taken place in the 80s. Its kind of ironic. Yeah, I know about some of the works that have been done in the 90s (including such DC novels as Elliot S! Maggins Kingdom Come and the Batman story The Ultimate Evil by Andrew H. Vachss). But those works that have gained widest approval\fame include Alan Moores The Watchmen (1986-1987) and The Swamp Thing (1984-87), Animal Man byGrant Morrison(who currently writes JLA),the Sandman series by Neil Gaimen (1988 to present) and Frank Millers Batman: The Dark Knight (1986). Gaimens success and critical acclaim continued well into the 90s and he remains a celebrity (as do Moore and Miller) to this day within the comics genre. The post-Crisis DC universe had some really great moments to build on. Ironically, the stories that gained the most success (artistically and commercially) took place in Elseworld settings! The mainstream of the DC universe, despite initial revisionist work on Superman and Batman , has pretty much stagnated as a whole. Writers such as Miller say that this is a built-in flaw\constriction of the mainstream titles and superhero genre as a whole (see his very recent comments in the current The Comics Journal interviews he gave).
What is an Elseworld tale you say? Well, thats a good question! Especially in light of hypertime and its present\future impact within the DC universe(s).
Elseworld describes those stories that loosely take place but dont fit within regular DC continuity. The above mentioned series all (except for the Swamp Thing in the beginning of Moores run on the book) occurred within some universe(s) but not within the mainstream DC universe that Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the JLA operate. Think of it another way. Everything that was published by DC Comics prior to 1985 was considered to be mainstream DC continuity. Those stories are now, for all intensive purposes, part of the Elseworld tradition (because of the events that transpired in Crisis On Infinite Earths). What was once mainstream DC continuity is now no more. The Sandman stories occurred somewhere. As did the Dark Knight tale. And the Animal Man series. And the Watchmen maxi-series. The questions is where? The answer is Elseworlds.
If this seems to be somewhat of a logistical nightmare you are bloody well right! Last month we looked at ramifications in the DC universe of 1985s Crisis On Infinite Earths, 1994s Zero Hour, 1996s Kingdom Come, and the recent 1998 The Kingdom mini-series (a take-off on the Kingdom Come series). The last of those series ushered in hypertime, a new multiverse\omniverse of sorts for the DC continuum. Currently, a storyline in the Superboy title is the first in DCs regular roster to delve into the specifics of hypertime (a term first coined and explained in The Kingdom #2, by Mark Waid). Hypertime is an attempt to explain that there is one single mainstream of time and continuity that shapes the bulk of the DC universe, yet there are various divergent streams that branch off of this mainstream. Best put, perhaps, there is an omniverse that is fundamentally characterized by Earth- Zero (the main universe where most DC stories occur), but there are an infinity of substreams that provide the environments for non-mainstream DC stories. The entire Vertigo line is such a divergent stream that is owned by DC. The coming couple of years will tell how well hypertime will translate from a working theory to a practiced literary device. In ten years it is entirely possible that another writer will negate hypertime just as Mark Waid and Grant Morrison have nullified the effects of the post-Crisis one-universe-fits-all continuity with hypertime. I do know that if we end up with a lot of cheesy stories about 67 kinds of Kryptonite and Batmite taking Bathound to the movies then perhaps we are no better off than when we started.
Some of the best stories that I have read in the comic book genre have been Elseworld stories\series. And there is a good reason for that. It doesnt take a computer programmer to figure out that the bulk of super hero characters and supporting cast dont really change all that much over significant time periods. But then think about your own life. Your are probably very different now than you were ten years ago (or at least I sure hope so!). You may have greater patience. Or an increased capacity to forgive wrongs against you sooner. Or your mind may be far sharper and agile. But there is also the chance they you have become increasingly disillusioned with life, love, and\or liberty. Futility may be the well you drink from more often than not. My point is this. You are different! No one stays completely the same.
Why do we like stories like The Dark Knight? And The Watchmen or The Swamp Thing? Well, part of it stems from the artistic license that these alternate universes afford. People die. And marry. And break-up. And betray those whom they worked along side for years. Or pout and give up. Or sacrifice their lives for their collegues. Or wander aimlessly after having served as a hero\heroine for many years. Or stayed dead when they die. In other words, real risks are taken far more often , and the outcome is less sharply defined or certain. Who would have thought that the Swamp Thing series would have taken the turns that it did in the mid 80s? Not me. But I can tell you that I would literally rush to my comic shop the day that the new issue came out. The same was true of The Watchmen and The Dark Knight. Now that is powerful writing!
A major shift took place in the comic book mainstream with the release of The Dark Knight in 1986. Frank Miller had been given a great deal of freedom to add his individuality to the voices of the future Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, and other supporting cast members more so than had really been allowed to that extent previously (though glipses were evident in his work at Marvel Comics). People such as Adams\ONeil had paved the way as groundbreakers for Miller to include more adult and overall darker themes in the comic book genre. Miller took the mainstream to new heights with Marvels Daredevil in the early 80s. By the time we arrive at The Dark Knight we see that the soil is ready for non-mainstream mainstream stories ( what were to become known as Elsewhere tales).
Admittedly, many of these stories took place in the future. But the near future (i.e. the next 5 to 10 to 20 years). What they did do was make reference to mainstream continuity and characters of that stream (thus, the appearance of Superman in The Dark Knight as a feature player). Those whom many knew were put into new situations, personal struggles, and times of crisis. These were stories that also dealt with far darker and more complex relational themes (e.g. in The Watchmen we are lead to believe that the heroes are viewed as vigilantes and the question is asked who watches, i.e. holds accountable, the Watchmen?). The real terms effects of evil and its manifestations are dealt with in real terms in the first Elseworld stories. The shackles of staid characterization are shattered profoundly for future writers. Characters such as Bruce Wayne (in The Dark Knight) are treated as if they were real persons who aged and needed to adjust to the changes that came with getting older. They would have the same doubts, insecurities, dreams, and sense of calling that you and I wrestle with on a daily basis. They also knew that the way in which we give shape to the answers will give meaning to or destroy our own lives.
At the conclusion of The Dark Knight Bruce Wayne realizes that the battle yet wages on and that his place in the whole affair is still vital. What changes are the terms in which he strategically applies his then-intact energies, wisdom, and resources. The costume is now part of the past. Older men look and fight ineffectively with old tools. The calling was the same as it has always been. It was the manner in which Wayne was to flesh out his calling that had changed because he had also changed. His body had changed. The city had changed. The way people viewed The Batman had changed. His enemies and their tactics had also changed. This Elseworld universe was a universe of change, of dynamism and transition. This was not a static tale. Old dynasties past away, new ones rose to prominence. A new man was needed for a new set of challenges. Thus, we see the key to the question posed.
So, what happened to the whole Elseworld genre the past ten years anyway? Why is there so much more garbage being produced under its umbrella? Is the DC mainstream to blame. Frankly, yes, to some degree. More specifically, editors and those in change at the top are to be held accountable for the changes taking place to this day. The industry has been dealt a pretty huge blow the past ten years. The mass media do not even view the comic book genre as vital for the most part let alone remotely culturally relevant . Only the Death Of Superman or similar grand scale events can generate any TV or newsworthy attention these days. People just dont give a damn. The average age for a comic fan has raised from that of 17 or 18 years old in 1969, to the present average age of 26 in 1999. We are losing the younger generation of potential fans, folks. Comics are ridiculously high-priced. Gimmick covers, numerous #1 issues and blatantly foolish distribution attempts hepled cave the whole thing in. And added is the whole matter of speculative buyers in the 80s and early 90s who ended up driving the thing nose-first into the ground.
So why do many of us enjoy those early Elseworld stories to this very day? It's simple. The stories broke new ground and stand on their own to this day as solid examples of what this medium (comic books) is capable of. If we want it to. This is also a good point to commend the many independent companies that flourished during the mid 80s. They peaked out, as all things do, but provided a more intense glimpse into the potential that the medium can facilitate for storytelling. Those with strong distribution and especially original characters survive. The fact that DC even went ahead with Gaimens Sandman as a regular series is mind blowing in hindsight! That was a huge risk 10 years ago! A proven market, commercially, for that type of book was very risky. A mere eight people showed up at the New York release for issue number one! The stories were Elseworld in the extreme! Yet look at the success and critical acclaim that the title garnered.
For many readers (myself included), Elseworld began as a segment of DC stories that one had a sense would be: 1) looser in language, themes, and characterization with new characters; 2) would reflect highly personal views on controversial issues that the stories centered on; 3) usually facilitated writers and artists who wanted to take the comic genre into new and uncertain directions artistically; 4) and, lastly, gave fans the chance to see esoteric and original ways of getting to know old faces in new situations in which change, growth, and creative transition were imperative to the pace and outcome of the story.
Sadly, this brings me to my last point in the discussion: the denigration and banality of many Elseworld stories as they have come to be. As an example, who even really looks forward to the DC summer annuals? Are they remotely better when they attempt to milk the Elsewhere format? Not likely. I am lucky if even one of them is worth picking up. And yet many of them have been taking place as Elseworld stories in recent years. Asa whole, Elseworlds have become virtual mainstream in some regards. They have been used as a cheap excuse to write any lame or tired story that doesnt strictly fit into the regular DC continuity. Even the recent The Kingdom series by Mark Waid has received mixed reviewsand flack from die-heard fans. One recurrent criticism is that the distinction between Elsewhere stories and regular mainstream stories have been blurred in a confusing way (remember, Kingdom Come was published as an Elseworld story when it came out). Has the boundary between the two been obliterated with the inbreaking of the hypertime device? I dont know. I doubt if Mark Waid really knows. In his own words he sees it merely as a tool that can be used but isnt required or considered a must to incorporate. That sounds fine, but excuse me if I find the execution far more difficult to imagine. You know, sometimes it seems as if all the really consistently good series are Vertigo ones! Yeah, there are the exceptions such as JLA (by Morrison) , Flash (by Waid), and The Titans (by Grayson). But there are far too many bloody unmemorable stories, titles, series, annuals, and special events happening for my (and many of your) tastes. Elseworld stuff still holds to most substantial hope. We simply need to be made more aware at the attempt to see it watered down here and there.
Where DC will be in 5 years is a good question. The comic end of things very well may end. The money made from comics is very, very low in comparison to that made from products and merchandising. A bad Batman movie still earn millions and millions in profits from merchandising. And that, folks, is why we even have comics still being published in some regards. The comics serve as R&D for the movies. We are a small (and ever-shrinking) community that needs to be far wiser in our endorsement of current titles, series, and comic runs. Vote with your money! The roots of Elseworld stories stem from the noble desire of writers and artist to produce stories that they wanted to write and would want to buy were they made available by others. That sums it up. The mid-to-late 80s was a rich period for experimental writing. DCs Elseworld line was a brave attempt by a mainstream company to publish non-mainstream material that it thought deserved publication. Sadly, the risks taken have not been as effective in the mainstream DC universe. Even Frank Miller continues to espouse pretty scathing opinions about the viability of the superhero or mainstream genres. He sees that as having been cursed with a chronic arrested development artistically. For the most part, he is right.
Unless DC is willing to continue to meet the expectations of its older fan base, it seems as if Elseworld stories (such as the Vertigo ones) will be the only mainstream source for many DC writers to hope to break new ground artistically and still make a decent living. Recent new editions of The Watchmen, The Dark Knight, and The Swamp Thing are selling quite well. The comic book market has changed the past ten years in ways that are not likely to change back. The challenge is to mostly facilitate an audience of older fans who fall into one of two categories: 1) those who want bright and shiny stories full of hope, courage, and happiness; 2) and those fans who thrive on the experimentally dark, brooding, and somewhat postmodern stories that greater characterize the society in which we are all seeing become to predominate one culturally. The Elseworld format allows both groups to have stories written around their appetites.
Granted, DC needs to make money to keep Warner happy (and DC employees employed!). But fans will always come up with the money if the product warrants the coin required. Elseworld stories broke out from a comic book mainstream environment that had stagnated and promoted the house style the point of inanity. Truly compelling and original works were produced, published, and promoted within what would formally become known as the Elseworld frame. Fans gobbled up this stuff that was printed on better quality paper with square-card backing. No one really cared about the added expense. The books were worth the cost. Now, in 1999, the market is flooded with mediocre Elseworld books, rip-offs, and wannabes. Yet the hope for the DC comic book genre still rests in that highly creative and volatile context of risk, passion, and experimentation. Times have changed and are changing again. It is what Elseworld began as that I hope we can capture anew in 1999. The talent is out there. The question is, why do us fans still buy so many mediocre and crappy stories rather than hold out for the gold? Thank-you Neil Gaimen, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison (and the others whom I am not mentioning) for breaking new ground the past 20 years. I hope that we can be wise, as readers and consumers, and provide opportunites and careers to those who will break new ground in 1999, 2000, and into the next millenium.
All characters are DC Comics
This column is © 1999 by Michael Hutchison.
All artwork is © 1999 by their respective artists.