Friday, February 15, 2013

Alternate History and Superheroes

Guest post by Ben Ronning.

Superheroes and alternate history are two subgenres of science fiction that have always appeared to compliment one another but very few writers ever dared to combine and exploit to its fullest. One reason for this is continuity, the holy grail of all comic book geeks. Ever since the debut of Superman in 1938 and the Fantastic Four in 1961, the Big Two of the comic book industry more or less rely on a floating timeline that prevents their characters from aging (though continuity is far murkier for DC after two major reboots and countless smaller retcons.) Superman could be BFFs with Joseph Kennedy in 1963 then be shaking hands with Ronald Reagan twenty years later without aging a single day. Another reason is because both companies, especially Marvel, pride themselves on verisimilitude by making their universe superficially similar to ours so neither company has fully addressed the social and geopolitical implications of the effective demigods in their midst until recent years with Marvel’s Civil War and DC’s 52.

However, one can consider Marvel’s What If? titles and DC’s Elseworlds line alternate history to some extent. These titles largely centered on the individual histories of their characters like “What if Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four?” or “What if Sgt. Nick Fury Fought World War II in Space?” rather than historical events from our world. Some scenarios such as “What if Captain America Were Revived Today?” from What If? (vol. 1) #44 possesses some trappings of alternate history. For example, Namor the Sub-Mariner took a different route when the Avengers pursued him in Avengers (vol. 1)  #4 so he never discovered the group of Inuit who worshiped a frozen Steve Rogers and thus never hurled Captain America into the ocean for the Avengers to find. The Avengers eventually disbanded without Captain America, but more disturbingly, a janitor working at a government facility awakened the mentally unstable 1950s Captain America and Bucky from suspended animation and convinced them that the United States was in danger from subversive elements. As such, the impostor Captain America and Bucky became involved with a political movement that transformed the United States into a police state until a crew of American sailors found the true Cap in the Arctic.

Marvel, aside from a dalliance with a robot Stalin, waited almost twenty years to dip their toe into the alternate history ocean with Neil Gaiman’s 1602. While not technically a What If? issue, the mini-series has a point of divergence (a Captain America from a potential future goes back in time to the failed Roanoke colony and aids in their survival) that causes various Marvel characters to appear nearly four hundred years before they should have. Instead of being the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury is Elizabeth I’s chief intelligence officer whose apprentice is Peter Parquagh, an ersatz version of a nameless friendly neighborhood webslinger. However, one of the more intriguing elements of Marvel 1602 is Gaiman weaved themes from X-Men into late Elizabethan history, particularly James I’s persecution of the “witchbreed” or mutants and how Magneto is ostensibly a grand inquisitor for the Spanish Inquisition but hides his illicit activities behind his position.

This fascination with alternate history continued with the fourth volume of What If? in late 2005. Unlike most issues of the title, which were largely self-contained worlds, this volume of the series took place within in a single timeline where Captain America’s genesis occurs in the American Civil War as opposed to World War II and the Fantastic Four were Russian cosmonauts. Being more of an aficionado of American history, I prefer the Captain America one and appreciate how Cap because more of a physical manifestation of the American spirit during one the nation’s most troubled periods rather than symbol. Because of this Cap’s presence shortens the Civil War, prevents Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and his origins in Native American mysticism sparked a cultural craze that prevented the Indian Wars of the 1870s. Out of the six What If? (Vol. 4) one-shots, only Captain America and Fantastic Four address the broader strokes of alternate history whereas the other four are more character-focused. Unfortunately, Marvel did not revisit this timeline as they did Marvel 1602, but they are well worth the effort of searching through the odd long box for.

Meanwhile, DC, like their marvelous competition, has only dabbled in the realm of alternate history with its Elseworlds line but there are a few notable examples such as Batman: Holy Terror written by Alan Brennert and illustrated by Norm Breyfogle. The point of divergence for this story is that Oliver Cromwell lived ten years longer and the United States became a totalitarian, theocratic state. While I have never read the issue on account that it has been out of print for over twenty years, a cursory glance of the synopsis on Wikipedia was enough to pique my interest and should do the same for other alternate history enthusiasts. DC’s Tangent imprint, introduced in 1997, operates under a similar premise where there are not only vastly different versions of Superman, the Flash, the Atom, and even obscure characters like the Sea Devils but the presence of superpowered beings radically altered history from what we know. The central premise behind the imprint is that an alternate version of the Atom intervened in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which resulted in the destruction of Florida and Cuba. As such, Atlanta became an underwater city populated by merpeople, their technology advanced further than the mainstream DC Universe, and the hippie movement was in its infancy when the nineties rolled around.

Dan Jurgens, the man who killed Superman and the brain behind Tangent, justified this divergence when he told Comic Book Resources:
“While the DCU Earth is essentially the same as our own, no more advanced in terms of technology or communications despite the existence of those qualities within the super-powered community, Earth Tangent is greatly influenced by all of that. Earth Tangent's economic, geographic and political landscapes are defined by the superhero community, whereas in the DCU those aspects exist unaffected by the superhero community.”
Jurgens brings up an excellent point about a medium that birthed the trope, “Reed Richards is Useless.” Take the Flash’s rogues gallery for example, Captain Cold and his cohorts possess technology that can generate temperatures near absolute zero, alter weather patterns, and even transmute the 118 elements. Why did the scientists and business leaders not reverse engineer the technology after the Central City Police Department confiscated it? The Tangent imprint gives something of a look at such a world and is perhaps a blueprint for how ambitious writers should combine the two genres.

Some could argue that Superman: Red Son is an alternate history and I suppose it is to some extent. The premise is simple enough: baby Kal-L lands in Ukraine in 1938 instead of Kansas. However, my impression of the mini-series is that if it is alternate history, it is about squishy as bag full of marshmallows (or a Type X on Sliding Scale of Alternate History Plausibility.) Its writer, Mark Millar, makes reference to even greater civil unrest in the late 1960s under surviving JFK, a war against communists in the South Pacific in 1983, and a second American Civil War in 1986 without too much elaboration. Granted, there are constraints to the medium but it is clear that the focus is more on Superman as a seemingly benevolent leader of the Soviet Union and his rivalry with Lex Luthor than on the butterflies that a Soviet Man of Steel would create. That is not to say Red Son is not worth reading, it is more fantasy than alternate history.

Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is the mirror image of Red Son in terms of realism and setting. In fact, the world of Watchmen could be a reflection ours until 1938 where the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 inspired a wave of costumed vigilantes, and again in 1959 with the creation of Dr. Manhattan. Alternate history is one portion of Watchmen’s complexity that Moore executes extremely well. Dr. Manhattan essentially gave the United States the strategic advantage in the Cold War and practically won the Vietnam War single-handedly but that also becomes a disadvantage because he is also the lone reason why the Soviet Union stays in check. Hence, Moore makes the consequences of his departure realistic as evidenced by the Soviet invasion of Pakistan and bringing Earth closer to the brink of Nuclear War. However, there are also several other economic and cultural consequences as well. The good doctor’s ability to synthesize lithium allows for the mass production of electric cars, hence reducing the United States’ dependence of foreign petroleum, and the appearance “real” superheroes essentially led to the death of the medium in the late forties so pirate comics like “The Tales of the Black Freighter.” (Though I wonder how Indian fast food became so popular with the American public instead of McDonalds.) Watchmen is practically required reading for all comic book fans, but to read it again from the prism of an alternate historian demonstrates how well the two genres blend.

One of the things I admire about alternate history is that it posed a question Marvel asked when they released a new title in February 1977, “what if?” Personally, I am not as interested in the typical “What if the Axis won World War II?” or “What if the Confederacy won the American Civil War?” as I am interested in smaller events like “What if a more moderate candidate sought the democratic nomination in 1972” or “What if Lucille Ball decided not to sell Desilu Studios to Gulf+Western?” because even the smallest pebble can create many ripples. Marvel 1602, Tangent Comics, and Watchmen demonstrate that alternate history can blend with the fantastic as peanut butter tends to do with chocolate, and they are only the tip of the glacier. In a universe populated by gods, aliens, and immortal cavemen who could alter the flow of history well before the 20th century, the myriad of scenarios to use as story fodder is practically endless. Is there a writer ambitious enough to push this hybrid genre to its creative limits?

Only time will tell.

* * *

Aspiring writer and platypus enthusiast Ben Ronning has lurked the boards since June 2006. When he is not roaming the multiverse, he can be found at his blog, Thoughts of a Platypus.


  1. "Is there a writer ambitious enough to push this hybrid genre to its creative limits?"

    Yes, and that writer is me. :D

    For the past several years, I've been working on a series of novels set in a universe in which superhumans appeared during the 1920s. World War II lasted from 1938 to 1946, numerous Third World countries were taken over by supervillains during the Cold War, and technology is massively further ahead of our own. The result is a cyberpunk dystopia, with very few "heroes" to be found at all.

    As you said in your post, continuity is the bane of alternate history in comics. Look at how tangled the continuity of DC Comics is thanks to their efforts to stay "current". The Marvel ethos is to stay "realistic", in the sense that the Marvel Universe should be the universe outside your window, but the result is that the MU is actually less plausible than a more outlandish universe would be, because we have to believe that Reed Richards can only invent faster-than-light travel that works once, that Tony Stark can't mass-produce whatever powers the Iron Man armor, and that Bruce Banner can't adapt his own biology to cure cancer.

  2. At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, there is my Overman universe, the setting for a Champions RPG I ran for some years in the early 1990s. It has superhumans appearing in the early 1880s and changing history and technological development from then to give a different modern day with much higher technology, and a timeline that carries on into the 24th century. You can find it here:


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.