In many ways, comic books resemble soap operas. Think about it. Only soap operas really match the superhero canon in terms of their length, complex story structure, and oddball story choices when the moribund franchise becomes too stable. Soaps have evil twins, secret allegiance flips, secret plans, discreet marriages, love children, sexuality swaps, and mysterious resurrections. Comic books have pretty much all that as well, but with superpowers, brightly colored costumes, secret identities, and space aliens.
And, very occasionally, when they feel that their material has run dry, or the writers regret a certain canonical story that is currently inconveniencing them, they will completely reboot the universe, and start over from scratch. In soap operas, this can be achieved with a dream sequence. More than one soap opera has revealed that entire seasons’ worth of events have been dreams. In comic books, we have the ever so handy-dandy sci-fi saw of The Alternate Universe. Most every comics company has played the Alternate Universe trick on us more than once, revealing, in a parallel series of events, a munch of evil twins, dystopian futures, or some other such thing. Marvel comics seems to have done this the most (or at least with the most note), to the point where I, your humble author, have been able to (with some assistance from one William Bibbiani) come up with ten instances of Marvel Alternate Universes.
Some of these are universes that our central characters can interact with. Some are stand-alone retcons of previous events. Some are just writing exercises. But, man oh man, is Marvel ever rife with alternate versions of familiar events. Indeed, there are so many retcons now, one has to be careful what one considers to be canon. Which Peter Parker is the “real” one now? These are intense topics of scholarly geek debate.
Let’s step into our dimension-hopper, shall we? And take a look at ten versions of the Marvel universe (its original, main universe being Universe 616… of course).
Universe #1) The House of M
This was a comic series from 2005 wherein Brian Michael Bendis tried to recast the universe of the X-Men in reverse. In the ordinary X-Men universe, superpowered mutants are the object of racism and mockery, leading to an ideological rift between pacifist mutants like Professor X, who would live in peace with humans, and antagonist mutants like Magneto, who would kill all the humans. In The House of M, however, Marvel posits that, back in the 1970s, Magneto was granted sovereignty over the island of Genosha following a wicked plot (concocted by Richard Nixon) to destroy all mutants. Magneto, being the antagonist that he is, arranged society from his island to where mutants are now controlling all the world’s governments, and humans are considered to be second-class citizens.
This universe was actually created as an alternate universe by the super psychic powers of Professor X and The Scarlet Witch, in an attempt to essentially create world peace. The experiment blew up in their faces. This storyline is not at all loved by Marvel fans, and there is still some debate as to whether or not it is a canonical aside, or just something to be swept under the rug. Like all comic stories, it sounds neat in description, but was probably rife with writing problems.
Universe #2) MC2
In the early ’00s, Marvel took several of its more popular titles, and posited what would happen in them in, say, 20 years’ time. Writer Tom DeFalco conceived of the titles in the Marvel Comics 2 line, and included some of the children of characters, while positing on the fate of some of the others. MC2 was wildly unpopular, only spawning one character that would catch on: Spider-Girl, the teenage daughter of Peter Parker, having inherited his spider powers, and using his clone saga-era costume.
Other children included J2, the wise-cracking, flannel-wearing son the the Juggernaut, and Wild Thing, the daughter of Wolverine and Elektra. There was also a Fantastic Five, which featured Reed Richards as a brain in a jar, and A-Next, a new version of The Avengers. None of these titles lasted more than 12 issues. I, for one, at least appreciate what MC2 was trying to do, taking a look at a new, young generation, now that the older heroes were mysterious not aging out (how old is Spider-Man these days?). I actually have all the issues of J2, as it’s weirdly funny, and also a strange object lesson in what Alternate Universe thinking can do to your company.
Universe 3) 1602
Not so much an alternate universe as a writing exercise by Neil Gaiman, Marvel 1602 was a repurposing of Marvel’s heroes into Elizabethan England. That’s right, fighting next to Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I are Spider-Man, Captain America, the Fantastic Four and all the rest.
To answer your immediate question: No, they don’t wear their costumes, and no, they weren’t thrown back in time. These are Renaissance versions our heroes. Peter Parker was now a French resistance fighter called Paquer. Captain America was an import from The New World. The Fantastic Four were struck by lightning while at sea (aboard the SS Fantastic), etc. Elizabeth herself is concerned with the fate of the heroes, and is looking to control what’s going on. This comic seems like the ultimate marriage of geek interests. It has the usual heroes, it has Ren-Faire costumes, it has the old language, and it was all written by geek hero Neil Gaiman. It’s an odd way of looking at things, but it’s still a fun read.
Universe #4) Marvel Zombies
I think I’ve finally figured out the zombie craze. For a while, I was baffled as to how zombies escaped Halloween to become a dominant force in popular culture, but I have a theory: Zombie fulfill a popular end-of-the-world fantasy. If a zombie outbreak ever occurs, well, not only will you still have free access to all the stuff you’ve wanted (you can pillage and loot once the cities have been abandoned), but you’ll get in no trouble for doing it. The rules are all gone, and you are now in a position to become Lord of the Wasteland. What’s more, if you have ever had violent murder fantasies (yeep), now you can chainsaw people to your heart’s content, and it will be considered a service.
Marvel, not one to ignore trends, once started up a version of their universe wherein all the superheroes have become rotting, flesh-eating brainless zombies. The Marvel Zombie universe originated during Mark Millar’s opening run on Ultimate Fantastic 4, in which the Reeds from both universes met through a dimensional doorway. But it was a plot designed by the Zombie Universe Reed (un-zombied and under pressure) to find a new universe for the zombies to break into. So the Marvel Zombie universe started as a spin off from the Ultimate universe. Mildly confusing, right? There was a backstory as to how a zombie virus got spread and how SHIELD was attempting to cure the virus, and how The Silver Surfer aided them, but c’mon, we all know what’s really involved here: We wanted to see a bloody, fleshy superpowered zombie battle royale. Here’s my theory: If zombies are mindless flesh-eaters, couldn’t you dress them in anything? A Captain America zombie is just a neat image. The story needed more brains. Braaains. BRRAAAAAIINNS!
Universe #5) Marvel Noir
Some of the Marvel heroes are harder-edge than the others. The Fantastic Four have weird powers, a sitcom dynamic, and will likely not be having regular battles with demons. Aliens are more their bag. But heroes like The Punisher, who is essentially a psychopath with a bunch of guns and a hellbent focus on justice, may be facing his inner demons on a more regular basis. These darker heroes were granted their own alternate past in Marvel Noir, which is, as the name implies, a film noir version of Marvel comics. Rather than having colorful and noisy battles with bad guys, these heroes were quiet, smoky detectives who had to deal with a more violent version of the world.
I imagine this was conceived in the wake of the 2005 film “Sin City,” which crossed old noir conceits with a super-steroidal version of the noir universe, complete with extra-depraved characters, super-sexist men, and almost immortal thugs. Marvel Noir is likely not as hard-edge as all that, but is trying to play up the edginess of some of their characters. I suppose Daredevil always had a bit of darkness about him. Let’s put him in a fedora and long coat, and have him smoke incessantly. Sounds cool to me.
Universe #6) Avataars
Do you remember this? Me neither. I only learned about the Avataars universe from an accidental discovery at a comic book store quarter sale. It was, evidently, a three-issue miniseries that ran back in 2000, which recast the Marvel heroes as medieval knights of the 14th century. It was supposed to run only 12 issues, and didn’t even make it that far. I guess seeing a guy in Captain America-looking armor (complete with shield) riding a horse into a medieval battle was a geek mashup the world wasn’t yet prepared to deal with.
I did like the conceit. The Gods of the universe want to create an “experimental” world wherein they can toy with the people and see how alternate scenarios would play out. It essentially recasts God as the ultimate writer of fanfic. One of the Creators of the Universe, it turns out, is a teenage comics fan who – get this – thinks he is dreaming when he’s actually conspiring with real gods. He is the one who decides that this new medieval universe needs superheroes. Yup. Gods and fanfic writers. Go figure.
Universe #7) The Age of Apocalypse
I kind of followed this one back in the day. It was an X-Men crossover series that ran in 1995 and 1996, which sent a character named Legion back in time to kill Magneto (but accidentally killed Professor X instead). In the wake of his death, the evil mutant Apocalypse rose to dominance on the planet, and the world was essentially enslaved under martial law. All our heroes are still born on time, but now they’re badass versions of themselves, fighting in a post- (or I suppose during-) Apocalypse landscape. Wolverine is missing a hand. Nightcrawler is a pirate of sorts. Angel too. Other non-mutant characters like The Hulk and the Fantastic Four are fighting an underground resistance.
I liked this universe at the time, and was already following Generation X, so it was cool to see them repurposed as Generation Next. I wonder how the writers of individual titles feel when they receive a company-wide crossover decree like this. Do they like it, or are they put off? In additon to Generation Next, we had off-sounding titles like X-Calibre, Factor X, Gambit and the X-Ternals, and, the only one to take off on its own after the storyline finished, X-Man. X-Man was another version of Cable. X-Man was so popular, in fact, it pretty much just replaced “Cable” altogether.
The Age of Apocalypse Beast has been a major player in the current X-Books for a few years now and recently the survivors from Age of Apocalypse have played larger roles in the most recent X-Force Archangel storyline.
Universe #8) 2099
Another look into the future, the world of 2099 took place in, well, AD 2099 with new characters now living down the diluted legacies of familiar Marvel characters. The stories were started in 1992, and lasted longer than such an experiment usually does. The world is a typical sci-fi dystopian universe, which was essentially just a backdrop to some rebooted superhero antics. Spider-Man was, as usual, the first to be reimagined, while Dr. Doom (perhaps) became a time-traveler, The Punisher was restarted, and a new character named Ravage was introduced.
More titles were introduced into the universe (I actually regularly read X-Men 2099), and the idea actually ran for four full years before they started to run out of ideas. Dr. Doom was eventually revealed to be the same Dr. Doom as in 1992. The present-day Fantastic Four was brought into the future, and mess-making crossovers became common. I think crossover events, however cool they may be to read, are often a death-knell for ideas. Well, unless it’s The Infinity Gauntlet. That one was just cool.
Universe #9) Ultimate Marvel
There’s been a lot of hubbub surround the recent reboot of the DC universe, and I’m surprised so few people are mentioning the similar ploy that Marvel did back in 2000. Ultimate Marvel is essentially a way of cutting free of all the confusing backstories we’ve already seen in Marvel, and starting all over. Peter Parker is now a teenager again, and we can start at the beginning. For the writers, this seems like a sigh of relief. Marvel wisely didn’t not cancel its other titles, just trying to offer up something different. I’m convinced this alternate universe was a response to the impending success of the disappointing “Spider-Man” feature film, which does, after all, take place in the present.
In order to have their cake and eat it too, Marvel started referring to the Ultimate universe as Earth-1610, effectively allowing for a grand map of Marvel universes, that can or cannot intersect, and all of which can be equally canonical. Is it me, or, in inventing something that was intended to clean things up storywise, did Marvel just invent something even more convoluted than anything they had made in the past? Well, now the damage is done. Whatever alternate versions you want can be included, and they’ll live comfortably in an easily-mapped alternate universe. This is either clever or devastating, depending on your point of view.
Universe #10) Earth X
The Earth X universe takes place in the further future, perhaps about 50 or 60 years, when a cataclysmic event has given everyone on Earth superpowers. That’s a great approach. There are literally thousands of superheroes in the world. Why not just push that concept to its natural extreme? What happens to Captain America when the entire planet is entrenched in a vast gang war for superpowered dominance? Earth X also envisions that this everyone-is-a-superhero mentality to be tantamount to the end of the world. Maybe the writer was trying to make a comment on the sheer volume of characters in the Marvel universe.
There is also an elaborate and somewhat strained attempt to reconcile all the events of all Marvel comics to date. Really. All of them. All the weird decisions made in the past are brought together under the aegis of Earth X. All the weird behavior of The Sub-Mariner are explained. All of Thor’s silly rigamarole is put into play. And, it’s even explained, that the earth itself, and the superheroes on it, may actually be a huge plot by gigantic amoral cosmic beings who wish to use the planet to breed. Talk about summing everything up. It seems to me, after the events of Earth X, Marvel shouldn’t be able to use the Alternate Universe ever anymore (but they did in Universe X and Paradise X).
Witney Seibold left his home universe for this one years ago. His life as a spy and a killer is behind him. He now writes movie reviews for a living, and works in a movie theater. His further material is in the usual places.