Toon Musings: Alternate Facts, Comic Book Style
The recent popularity of the superhero genre brings back peculiar feelings for me; I was a fervent comic book fan back in the day, beginning with Batman and the World War Two era Blackhawk, and progressing (as many illnesses do) to the edgier Marvel comics heroes such as the Avengers, Fantastic Four, Spiderman and the X-Men. From there, it metastasized to an interest in the tongue-in-cheek Spirit, old (1950s) issues of Mad Magazine, and underground comics. I quit reading the more solemn masked adventurer stuff when I was fifteen or so, but occasionally I wonder what’s become of my old runnin’ buddies.
At the library the other day, I spied amongst the new graphic novels a copy of Wolverine: Old Man Logan. For the uninitiated, Wolverine (or perhaps more accurately, Wolverine™) is one of the X-Men, a group of mutant superheroes. My interest in the X-Men was pre-Wolverine by about a year, as it turns out. Still, he hangs out with a lot of characters I did know, so I checked it out.
In the old days, DC was known for depicting simple relationships that a child could understand. There were good guys and bad guys, and they fought a lot. There was some comic relief, and occasionally a girlfriend would appear, maybe to get in trouble and get saved. Kissing and other mushy stuff was kept to a minimum. Writers generally stuck to that formula, though there are stories of editors trying to spice things up by presenting a writer with a finished cover of the superhero in, say, a frilly pink party dress and telling the writer to “write around that!” Marvel was a bit edgier, advertising “superheroes with problems”. This proved popular, so everyone decided to follow suit, in spades. Nowadays, to appeal to an older market, comic books have gotten as emotionally fraught as a Mexican soap opera, with stormy relationships and byzantine social networks to keep track of (is there an app for that? No, but there’s an infographic!). And track must be kept. Everything has got to be consistent from character to character and book to book, because the readers are compiling stats like the most obsessive sportsball fan. Nerds like their canon, and comic book nerds are the nerdiest of all the nerds.
A related method of attracting a more mature demographic is to Go Dark; lurid stories grab the attention, and thus pay the bills. But in this country, depicting lurid sexytime in a medium generally considered kids’ stuff will get you in all kinds of trouble with various moral scolds. Leave that to the Japanese and the Europeans. Fortunately, there are many flavors of lurid, and in US America, violence, and even baldfaced nihilism is one way to go. And they do go there, with gusto.
This particular Wolverine yarn takes place in the future, the country is being run by super bad guys, and nearly all the good guys, including the ones I knew, are dead. You do get to see Captain America get his eyes poked out, and Daredevil gets eaten by velociraptors for a bad guy’s entertainment. A guy gets beheaded by a shotgun– wielded as a club. Ew. Blood everywhere!
Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t crying bitter tears for the terrible misfortunes the comics companies were visiting upon my superheroes, mostly because I’m not fifteen years old— or rather, because I’m several times fifteen. Nihilism in today’s comics is a good subject for an essay, perhaps by someone who cares.
But herein lies a dilemma. With the great Nerd Ascendency, comics are cool again, and thus there are fabulous sums of money to be made. Publishers want to attract the best writing talent, but unlike previous epochs, they can’t treat their creatives like indentured servants; how to let the writers take their squalid imaginations out for a stroll and explore the various permutations of who-messily-kills-who and who-chastely-screws-who, without bollixing up the Holy Canon? These characters are Corporate Property, and the canon must be protected because Nerds! And Nerds are from whence the funds flow.
This is how you do it: you create an Alternate Universe. Every time a writer engages in a flight of fancy and fiddles with a character or proposes an historical “what if”, like ringing bells and angels’ wings, another universe is born. What if Dr. Doom had a sense of humor? That’s Earth 62882. What if Batman was a pirate? Visit Earth 31.
As you might have surmised, you can’t just fart around and posit “what if?”. In true nerd obsessive compulsion, everything’s got to be catalogued. Everything! Feast your eyes on the byzantine underpinnings of Reality, the Marvel way! This is a list of universes in which the Marvel superheroes and their various iterations live their bombastic, punchy-explodey lives. Believe it or not, there is a method to the numbering system, explained at the bottom of the page. Some uncertainty is expressed over whether this numbering system is “confirmed”. Confirmed? Is there some regulatory body somewhere that certifies the designation of universes? Perhaps it’s the purview of a mysterious, all powerful being: The Designator! Further research is plainly needed; doctoral candidates, opportunity awaits!
And this practice is not exclusive to Marvel. The other big comics publisher, DC, has its own set of Alternate Universes — they’ve even got an orrery! And, if you’d like your favorite DC heroes to have a playdate with your favorite Marvel heroes, there’s a universe for that, too! It’s Earth 7642, in case you’re interested, and wish to call your travel agent.
Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring untrammeled wildernesses, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.