To this day, I don’t know how I feel about Elseworlds. To a certain extent, I like them because they helped get me back into comics. But, as someone now well-versed in these worlds, I’m conflicted. I’m writing this to help me find where I come down on them, and the help of the community is greatly appreciated.
I love DC: The New Frontier. It’s one of my favorite comics that I have ever read (and probably ever will read). It’s easily what I consider to be the greatest “Elseworld”. Why, you might ask? Fair question. For now, just keep in mind that I consider this “the best one”.
I think the first time that I realized that I had a problem with Elseworlds was when a friend of mine said that Kingdom Come was his favorite comic. I don’t have a problem with that opinion, really. Lots of people like that story. I just have never connected with that comic, and so I started thinking about why people like it. Is it because it feels fresh? Is it because it’s bold? Even now I don’t understand completely, but this is why I think people like it (let me know if I’m wrong):
The story feels epic. Big, if you will. And it feels like a grand event story. Y’know, everyone loves Infinity Gauntlet and, to a lesser extent, Crisis on Infinite Earths (myself not so much on that last one, but I do enjoy it). The problem with those stories is twofold; one, they require a familiarity with the then-current goings-on of their respective universes to fully enjoy them, and, two, as much as they feel epic, their effects are quickly scrapped from the record. They provide the illusion of mattering, without actually mattering. The difference with Kingdom Come is that the effects stick, and it’s self-contained. It’s a big event story without the two major problems that drag those stories down. You get those powerful moments without the hollow consumerism playing in the background. People like Elseworlds because they can be grand stories that have lasting effects and you don’t have to worry about being bogged down with continuity.
Think about the most popular Elseworlds stories: Kingdom Come, Red Son, The Nail, Flashpoint (sorta). These stories have wide-reaching consequences, they affect the whole universe. And maybe it’s because of that that I take issues with them.
My first problem with Elseworlds has less to do with me and more to do with the appeal of such comics. By definition, isolating these stories means that they matter even less than events. This doesn’t bother me; I don’t read to keep up with the “story of the universe”, I read a comic because I like that story. But I think that it’s important to note that the central appeal of these stories is that they can be world-changing epics where the changes stick, and yet their effects are felt even less outside of their page count than in a 21st-century summer Marvel event.
Now, the other problem I have with Elseworlds is that I don’t particularly enjoy “large-scale” books. That world-ending, earth-shattering thing doesn’t do it for me. And, yes, there are good Elseworlds. I like The Nail, yes, but my favorites are the ones that are small. Gotham by Gaslight, while often feeling restricted by its length, is great. It doesn’t try to do too much, it just has a cool idea, and executes it pretty well (and the art by Mike Mignola doesn’t hurt either). But even the smaller stories can still irk me, for one major reason: the creators also don’t realize these stories don’t matter.
The Elseworlds imprint was started in the late-eighties (‘89, if I remember correctly). So, basically, after Watchmen and Batman: Year One, and The Dark Knight Returns and all those other “mature” superhero comics. And, look, I like WM, YO and DKR as much as the next, but what they inspired in the nineties I think we can all agree was best forgotten. The problem with those stories is not contained in themselves, but rather in the lessons people took from them. Watchmen made people think they wanted “dark” superheroes, when in reality what we wanted were thoughtful superheroes. And I think DC (even though they certainly handled the ‘90s better than Marvel) wasn’t exempt from this core misunderstanding. And Elseworlds, not Az-bats, is the epitome of such an attitude. What really bugs me about Elseworlds? The self-importance.
Batman: Holy Terror. Superman: Speeding Bullets. Kingdom Come. Superman: Red Son. Batman: Red Rain. JLA: Act of God. What do they all have in common? They bill themselves as more than they are. I can summarize their messages in a sentence, all of them:
Batman: Holy Terror: “Sometimes religion is weaponized against those in unstable positions.”
Superman: Speeding Bullets: “It’s not about who raised you or where you came from, it’s what you do.”
JLA: Act of God: “What if the superheroes weren’t super anymore?”
Superman: Red Son: “Hey, what if Superman, but Soviet?”
Batman: Red Rain: “Hey, what if Batman, but vampire?”
Kingdom Come: “Those Image superheroes are DUMB.”
And, look, all of those sound like fun ideas for stories. The problem is that those comics aren’t fun. They’re dark, and bland, and faux-academic. I don’t enjoy myself when I read them. They always just feel a bit out of reach. A bit emotionless and detached. And some people like that aesthetic, and it’s a perfectly fine opinion to have. But I can just never get over the intro to Batman: Red Rain that starts with, “Wasn’t it Prince who wrote, ‘I see the future and it works?’”
So, why do I like New Frontier so much? The simple answer is I just enjoy reading it, but, I’ve written all this. I should probably use it to make a point. New Frontier, even when it is big, doesn’t feel big. It understands that it doesn’t matter, and so it gets its impact from character moments. Green Lantern not remembering how to say “the war is over” in Korean. The story of John Henry Iron. Wildcat being champion of the ring for just one last night. This is all stuff that works within or without continuity. Now, the second reason it’s so good is because is because it actually does matter. It’s a story that encapsulates the changing attitude from Golden to Silver Age. It is a story designed to literalize that ideological transition. It’s telling a story of the real world. How WWII led into the Cold War and JFK and Reaganomics and what that did to the public conscious. And lastly? Even though it totally could, it never takes itself too seriouly. It’s fun. It’s brightly colored and idealistic. It’s not about a DC Universe gone wrong, it’s about how the DC Universe went right. It’s looking to a new future and always finding something to look forward to. It’s superhero-ing at its finest. And I understand that not every comic can be as good as NF. Most comics won’t be. And that’s fine. There’s always a new frontier on the horizon, and someone will be there to conquer it.
And let’s all hope to god they aren’t named Rob Liefeld.
Love to all (even you, Rob),