Put simply, Elseworlds are self-contained stories starring DC characters in re-imagined settings. A prime example is Mark Millar and Dave Johnson’s Superman: Red Son. This story postulates what it would be like if Superman landed in late 1930’s Communist-Ukraine instead of Smallville. As you can imagine, this change would drastically alter Superman’s thoughts, actions and legacy. Usually, only basic prior knowledge of a character is required for enjoying this and other Elseworlds stories. Now, a list of some hits and misses.
Disclaimer: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (which is considered by some to be an Elseworlds story), Kingdom Come and the aforementioned Superman: Red Son are not listed because they are well-known to be amazing and a recommendation is not necessary.
The Golden Age (1993)
Writer: James Robinson
Artisit: Paul Smith
Colorist: Richard Ory
Premise: This story takes place in the aftermath of World War II, where Golden Age heroes, such as Green Lantern (Alan Scott), Johnny Quick, Liberty Belle, Robotman and the Atom are figuring out life after the triumph of the Allied Forces.
While many elements of this book made their way into continuity, this is still an imagined story that explores the ‘loss of innocence’ theme. This loss of innocence in Robinson’s The Golden Age reflects that same loss found in the Golden Age of Comics. As comics began to be more grounded in reality, so too do the characters in this story. Definitely influenced by The Watchmen, this book has some heavy moments, but is by no means depressing. The highly dramatic ending perfectly exemplifies the superhero genre, because our heroes demonstrate supreme bravery against the greatest of evils. You could certainly enjoy this story without prior knowledge of the JSA, or the All-Star Squadron, but you would not get the full experience. A must read for any fan of the DCU.
4.5 out of 5 Cones
Son of Superman (1999)
Writers: Howard Chaykin & David Tischman
Artists: JH Williams III & Mike Gray
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Premise: When a solar flare bursts, Jon Kent realizes he has super powers similar to those of Superman, who has been MIA for several years. Jon soon discovers his parents are Superman and famous-reporter Lois Lane. The story is about his quest to fill his father’s boots while Lex Luthor and a corrupted JLA work against him.
If books were judged by their covers, this would be a masterpiece. The picture shown above doesn’t do it justice as the colors are too bright. The trade paperback I own has a much more muted version of the same cover that makes it irresistible to the eyes. Similarly, if a book was evaluated by the creative team, this would be one for the ages. Unfortunately for the publisher, and the reader, this book is judged by it’s story, and this story is weak.
Son of Superman has a decent premise, and smart dialogue, but suffers from leaving too many unanswered questions. I did not feel satisfied after closing the final pages. Also, this book did not contain anything that is particularly creative or new. If you are a fan of the Super-verse, you would realize that many of the ‘surprise’ plot twists have been done several times before. If you are new to Superman, possessing only a basic knowledge of the character’s mythos, you would miss the relevancy of using peripheral characters like Pete Ross and Lana Lang as antagonists. Overall, this was a big letdown.
2 out of 5 Cones
Superman’s Metropolis (1996)
Writers: Jean-Marc Lofficier, Randy Lofficier & Roy Thomas
Artist: Ted McKeever
Premise: Superman’s Metropolis is a futuristic melding of two mythoi; one of Superman, and the other of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film entitled Metropolis. This is one of three Elseworlds stories based on German Expressionism in film.
If you have been in your local library’s film section you have probably seen the creepy-looking, yet strangely attractive, robot on the Metropolis cover (see above). As a kid, I routinely picked up this movie and mistook it for a film starring The Man of Steel. After all, that robot looks like she would make a pretty cool villain. Ironically, I have since learned that the film’s name was the inspiration for the city Superman calls home. I suppose it was only a matter of time before this connection was used for a Superman story, and as it turns out, I am glad they did.
I don’t know anything about German Expressionism in cinema, or about the movie that provided half of the source material. And I am sure that snooty film students could give you a million reasons why this book doesn’t do the movie justice. OK, fine. What I do know, is that this dystopian world provides an interesting setting for The Man of Tomorrow. Be prepared to see the Superman story in a VERY different light.
4 out of 5 Cones
Superman: At Earth’s End (1995)
Writer: Tom Veitch
Artist: Frank Gomez
Premise: In the year 2012 AD, Superman is brought out of delirium to save a world that has faced not one, but two apocalypses. A semi-sequel to Kamandi: At Earth’s End.
This story misses on many levels. First, it seems like the author came up with ten plot ideas, couldn’t decide which ones to use, so decided to go with all ten. And, tell all ten plot threads in 48 pages, which can’t be done well. Second, this book is trying to relate an anti-gun message to the reader, but misses the mark. You can’t have an anti-gun message in a story where the use of guns literally saves the world from extinction. Finally, this story feels like it was either trying to capitalize, or satirize, the popular trends of comic books in the 90’s. Looking at the cover alone, you see an unmistakable similarity to Cable. That said, if the reader can’t tell if you are copying or satirizing a comic trend, you as a comic creator have failed.
Some readers might enjoy Superman: At Earth’s End in a ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of way, but not me. This baby is a shit sandwich.
1 out of 5 Cones
Batman: Holy Terror (1991)
Writer: Alan Brennert
Artist: Norm Breyfogle
Premise: This story re-imagines Bruce Wayne’s life, set in a world where the US was a member of the Commonwealth and run by a corrupt theocratic-government.
Batman: Holy Terror has a dynamite premise. For starters, it is fun to think about what it would be like if the US never left the British Empire. That alone would make for great fiction. Now add Batman into the mix, along with other DC characters, and you have a recipe for success.
One of the first Elseworlds stories to feature Batman, and the first title to carry the Elseworlds logo, Batman: Holy Terror is a masterpiece. BHT illustrates what is great about Elseworlds stories, the fact that the characters should be familiar, yet new, and have outcomes which are free from continuity restrictions. This freedom allows the reader to truly fret a character’s outcome as their fate is never certain. Having only done a minority of his works in comics, it is surprising how Brennert effortlessly weaves familiar elements of the DCU into this story. When familiar characters appear, it is by no means forced or predictable. Elseworlds often go south when a creative team arbitrarily injects a DCU character into the plot. Or worse, when the whole Elseworlds story is just a tour of the Elseworlds’ universe, which, would be a fair critique of JLA: Riddle of the Beast.
In sum, if you haven’t read BHT, do so immediately.
4.5 out of 5 Cones
Superman: True Brit (2004)
Writers: Kim “Howard” Johnson and John Cleese (Yes, The John Cleese)
Artists: John Byrne, Mark Farmer with Alex Bleyaert
Premise: What if Superman landed in ‘stuffy ol’ England?’
Ever wonder what it would be like if Superman landed in England? No? Me neither.
In Superman: True Brit, Kim “Howard” Johnson, a non-fiction author and Monty Python fanboy, teams up with the legendary John Cleese to re-write Superman’s origin, in what should be a comedic masterwork. Instead you get a stupid plot and dated jokes. The target of every joke is either the Superman mythos or conservative British culture. First of all, do we need to joke about how the idea of Superman is ridiculous? Is there anybody out there who thinks the Superman story is plausible? That’s what I thought. Secondly, making jokes about how the British are stuffy is not exactly uncharted waters. In fact, John Cleese himself made the same kinds of jokes 30 years ago. Furthermore, in America today we love British culture. FACT: One in every Five Americans is an Anglophile or has Anglophilic tendencies (www.centerforanglophilestudies.org).
If you are going to lampoon a culture, find one that is rife with new material. How about China? Just imagine Superman at his computer using his super-fast keyboard skills to censor Google. Or, how about an infant Superman that landed in Thailand? He can spend his days making sure ladyboys don’t get ripped off by German tourists.
If this was Superman meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail it would be amazing. But this is more like Superman meets Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail, in that it’s zany and not funny. I would compare the quality of humor to jokes you hear at the end of an episode of Captain Planet.
1 out of 5 Cones
There you have it, my hits and misses within the Elseworlds genre, let us know your thoughts. Also stay tuned for this article’s sequel Across the Multiverse II: Still Crossin’ the ‘Verse.