In one of my previous entries I mentioned that the existence of the multiverse often served as a convenient method of explaining away continuity errors and other storytelling discrepancies.
It’s true; the multiverse, like the assorted shades of Kryptonite, often proved to be something of a storytelling crutch.
Even so, I found that more appealing than the post-multiverse approach to storytelling that I call “Contiwhatity?”
Contiwhatity? refers to a technique that both of the Big Two (DC and Marvel) often take to dealing with continuity errors: not dealing with them at all.
Continuity has become something of a dirty word, and is viewed by creators and editors as a constraint on creativity. “I can’t tell great stories,” the writer claims, “because my story doesn’t fit in with the established history of the character! I’m being repressed by the demands of mouthbreathing ‘fans” to have things actually make sense!”
While I admit that there are some people who can be too hidebound by a commitment to continuity – “In that flashback sequence in which you recreated the scene from Amazing Forbush Man #7, you showed the cop as parting his hair on the left. If you look back at the original issue from 1965, you’d see, in the third panel, that the cop clearly parts his hair on the right. Give me my No-Prize!*” – I don’t think that at least attempting to pay attention to it when coming up with new stories is as onerous as some claim. Indeed, some of the best stories I’ve read are the ones that tie back to, or flow directly from, events from a character’s long history.
Beyond that, I have to be honest and say that I’d find the argument against continuity a little more compelling if abandoning continuity actually did results in the awesome stories that people claim can only be made possible by ignoring continuity completely.
With very few exceptions, that is rarely the case, and I personally think that a lack of imagination is a much bigger obstacle to crafting great stories than continuity could ever be…
In any case, that’s not what this is about.
What this is actually about is the flip side of the existence of the multiverse: the great story possibilities that having an infinite number of Earths with an infinite number of histories to play around with made possible.
Yes, this does seem to be making a case for Contiwhatity?, but the difference, while subtle, is real.
The problem with Contiwhatity? comes into play when the stories are working within a well-defined continuity and the writer, for the sake of convenience, simply chooses to ignore important events.
With alternate realities, however, you not only can ignore important events, you’re pretty much required to do so. If you’re going to write a story in which everything is exactly the way it is in the “real” version, why bother writing an alternate version? At a minimum, you can go of in wild new directions even if you have the same starting point.
On the Marvel side of things, they used to have a comic set in their own multiverse called What If..?
The premise for it was to take a “real” story from the main Marvel Universe continuity (the primary Earth of the MU is Earth 616), and then follow through with what might have happened if things had moved in a different direction at a pivotal moment. So you’d get stories in which, for example, rather than angrily spurning the offer of assistance from Reed Richards, young Victor Von Doom actually takes a second look at his calculations and realizes that he had, in fact, made a mistake.
Thus Victor gets to keep his pretty face when his experiment doesn’t blow up in it, the world is spared from the creation of one of its greatest villains, and the name “Dr. Doom” actually becomes synonymous with heroism.
That is actually an interesting story, as a one-off, but it wouldn’t work so well if someone wanted that to be the status quo in Fantastic Four and decided, “Meh, I’ll make Dr. Doom not be a villain this month. Who needs continuity?”
Anyway, to get to my point, I wanted to list out some examples of some of my favorite stories of yesteryear that hinged on the concept of the multiverse, one of which I’ve already mentioned What If..? Vol. 1, No. 22, “What If Dr. Doom Had Become A Hero?”
Detective Comics No. 500, “To Kill A Legend”
As the anniversary of his parents’ death approaches, Batman receives a visit from the mysterious Phantom Stranger who informs him that, just as history repeated itself on Earth 1 decades after the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne on Earth 2, so too is the young Bruce Wayne of yet another Earth about to lose the two most important people in his life. The Stranger offers Batman the opportunity to travel to that world and break the cycle. On a world without heroes, will Batman choose to spare this younger version of himself the pain he knows all too well, even if it means robbing that world of its own Batman?
DC Comics Presents Annual No. 1 – “Crisis On Three Earths!”
Just as Earth 1 and Earth 2 each has its own Superman, so too do they each have their own Luthor. Alexei Luthor, the red-haired Luthor of Earth 2, teams with the bald Lex Luthor of Earth 1, in a crisscross scheme to rid each other of their respective adversaries. Along the way, they find themselves on Earth 3, a world where good an evil are reversed. The two Luthors enlist the aid of Ultraman, Earth 3’s evil version of Superman. Their adventure gives rise to the birth of Earth 3’s first super hero: Alexander Luthor!
One of the things I really liked about that Batman story was the fact that not only did that other Earth not have any super heroes, without a Batman, they would never have any. Robin had accompanied Batman on the journey, and while Batman busied himself with watching over, er, himself, Robin went off and did some research. Looking through astronomy texts, he discovered that Rao, the star that Krypton orbited, didn’t exist, so the world would never have a Superman. There was no evidence for the existence of Themyscira, AKA Paradise Island, the home of Wonder Woman. This Earth was also not the home to a Hal Jordan (Green Lantern), Oliver Queen (Green Arrow), Barry Allen (The Flash), or any of the other heroes that existed on Earth 1.
Further, the world didn’t even seem to have the concept of inspirational legendary heroes. No stories about Robin Hood, or Zorro, or the Lone Ranger, or King Arthur. As horrible at the thought was, Robin was beginning to realize that if the world was ever going to have a hero, Thomas and Martha Wayne must die.
As for “Crisis On Three Earths!” one of the more interesting aspects was the difference between Lex and Alexei. Whereas Lex was motivated primarily by his unreasoning hatred of Superman, Alexei was just straight-up evil. Sure, he felt some personal animosity towards Superman, but while Lex, if not for his pathological hatred, might have had a chance at being a decent guy, Alexei was never going to be anything but a monster. Ultimately, when Alexei reveals his scheme to break down the vibrational barrier between Earth 1 and 2, causing them both to occupy the same space at the same time, thereby destroying both worlds, Lex turns on his counterpart, as that was clearly taking things too far. Lex, it seems, was not willing to give up the place where he keeps all of his stuff.
In the similarly-titled animated Justice League movie, Crisis On Two Earths, the League travels to an alternate Earth that is very much like Earth 3, and encounters Ultraman and his cronies in the Crime Syndicate of America. I loved the fact that, in terms of the voice actor and the mannerisms they gave him, the filmmakers presented Ultraman as being a total Guido.
”Crisis On Three Earths!” also provided a key element for the plots of Crisis On Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis.
In the course of the story, as he becomes Earth 3’s one and only super hero, Alexander Luthor meets, and falls for, a beautiful young reported named Lois Lane.
Several years later, in the opening issue of CoIE, we find ourselves on Earth 3, as it’s being consumed by antimatter. The Crime Syndicate, not wanting to lose the place where they keep all their stuff, actually shift their focus from being evil to try to prevent the end of the world. They fail, of course, but after Alexander Luthor watches his enemies engage in an uncharacteristic sacrifice, he realizes that all hope is lost and returns home to be with his wife Lois, and their newborn son, Alexander Luthor II.
Recreating the last moments of Krypton, as seen on Earth 1 and 2, Alexander loads his son into an experimental craft and sends him off into the void, hoping that there is someplace in the multiverse where he’ll be safe.
The energies he’s exposed to on his journey across the vibrational barrier give young Alexander strange abilities, which ultimately prove vital in the resolution of CoIE, and 20 years later, twisted by the time spent in the oversold “paradise” dimension outside of reality, Alexander turns evil, and is one of the primary architects of the Infinite Crisis.
*Back when comics had letter pages, Marvel used to have a tradition known as the “No-Prize.” Basically, whenever there was a continuity screw up or other error in one of their stories, fans would write in with elaborate explanations as to why this seeming error wasn’t really an error at all, and for that they would be awarded an official No-Prize. So you might see something like, “In that flashback sequence in which you recreated the scene from Amazing Forbush Man #7, you showed the cop as parting his hair on the left. If you look back at the original issue from 1965, you’d see, in the third panel, that the cop clearly parts his hair on the right. However, in the flashback sequence, the image of the cop that we’re seeing is actually his reflection in a mirror on the wall in the hallway that was first shown in issue 4!” That would earn a No-Prize. Many fans didn’t really seem to understand how it worked, however, and would simply write in pointing out an error, without providing an explanation for why it wasn’t really an error, and demand a No-Prize. It was always especially pathetic when they would write in to point out a printing error or something not actually related to the story. “The color on page 7 was messed up! Give me my No-Prize!”