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Top 10 Most Memorable Alternate Reality Stories

A column article, Top Ten by: The Comics Bulletin All-Stars

While we have much love for the main Marvel and DC Universes proper, it's always been a fun treat when we get glimpses into their alternate realities. You know, a place where our favorite heroes and villains are re-imagined in a vaguely familiar world, but who are slightly skewed or even fully twisted versions of their mainstream counterparts. Whether you're a fan of DC's Elseworlds Wild West romp, the Justice Riders or Marvel's Victorian Era, 1602 or even something in-between, a really well done alternate reality story can be fun, surprising, and shocking, but never boring. With that, we give you our...

TOP 10 MOST MEMORABLE ALTERNATE REALITY STORIES

10. The New Universe
by Jason Sacks

July 22, 1986. 4:22 a.m. EST.
THE WHITE EVENT

In a reality similar to our own, Earth was bombarded briefly by a strange energy from unknown derivations. The event resulted from a worldwide phenomenon: two out of every million people developed paranormal abilities. Some of these paranormals used their new powers for good, some for evil, but everyone on Earth shared the realization that they now lived in a New Universe.

The New Universe was intended to create a big splash and ended up being a subject for mocking. Then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter decided to celebrate Marvel's 25th anniversary in1986 by launching a whole new line of titles that existed completely outside of the standard Marvel Universe of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the rest. For a number of reasons, including that the line was kind of uninspiring, the New U. only lasted a few years. But there is a lingering affection among some fans for those old comics. Among those fans is me.

The New Universe line consisted of eight titles. Included in that line were such uninspiring series as Justice a kind of supernatural-influenced take on the Punisher, and Kickers Inc., a football team who all get superpowers. Slightly more exciting was the immortal Nightmask, who had the power to walk into peoples' dreams. Yeesh, you can see why this line failed, can't you? It just stinks of being second-rate.

Out of all the New U. titles, Star Brand was probably the most interesting and certainly the most controversial. Writer Jim Shooter was extremely controversial in his Editor-in-Chief duties (ask one set of creators their opinion of Shooter, even now, and they'll explode in an endless stream of profanity; ask another set of creators and they'll be effusive in their praise for Shooter). Star Brand was presented as Shooter's dream project, the comic that he created specifically to be the flagship of his new line of comics.

If the comic was Shooter's dream project, it was a decidedly odd project. The Star Brand was a sort of extraterrestrial tattoo that grafted itself to an underachiever named Ken Connell. Theoretically, the tattoo made Connell the most powerful man in his world. But somehow Connell never got around to exercising the power much in heroic ways. Instead, he kept his crap mechanic job and spent much of his power as a way to increase his sexual attractiveness and potency. It was an intriguingly post-modern take on heroics at a time before po-mo was in fashion, almost as if Shooter was intentionally creating a non-heroic hero in an attempt to create a countermeasure to the heroes he edited at the time. Ken was the most powerful person in his universe, the kind of person who could literally become a god but instead was just worried about bedding a few chicks.

A charming three-parter in Exiles #72-74 from 2006 established the New U as taking place on Earth #15731 and revisited our New U favorites in 1987, finding almost nothing changed from its earlier incarnation. To me, that stasis seems just fine and almost appropriate. Nothing seems more logical for a second-rate, nearly forgotten line of comics than a long limbo.

Of course, Warren Ellis tried a partial reboot of the concept with 2006's newuniversal. That was a good comic, but it never quite had the awesomely interesting kitchiness of the original New U.

The New Universe might not have been one of comics' most interesting alternate universes, but it has a warm spot in my heart. If you stumble across one of these comics in a quarter bin, it's totally worth checking out.

9. Excalibur: The Cross-Time Caper
by Sam Salama Cohén

You telling me that Excalibur left Old England to journey around different Alternate Dimensions for more than one year, and all because of a little and strange robot head called Widget (which turned to be an alternate reality Kitty Pride fused with Sentinel technology!!!)?

Looks like this title, which was great during many runs, never abandoned its creepy inter-dimensional jumps, with their Light Tower as the focal point where all of those realities converged.

However, it had to be on a really strange train and thanks to the involuntary connection between Rachel Summers a.k.a. Phoenix and Widget, that Excalibur started their crazy tour.

A tour that took them to countless crazy dimensions, which only the minds of Chris Claremont and Alan Davis could bring to life:

  • A fantastic and technologically advanced England, where they meet the counterparts of Princess Diana, her husband Charles and her son, Prince William, who married a young witch named...Kate.
  • A crazy super-populated world, where Galactus takes advantage of the constant street fighting between almost every super-powered character in the Marvel Universe (and Rick Jones) to finish them all.
  • The Wild Wild West
  • A crazy reality where all of Excalibur's members have become one family member of the Monsters (and yes, Captain Britain is a duck).
  • Earth 616...only for a few moments, just to, unwillingly, continue their journey.
  • A world ravaged by War, where Doom had destroyed NYC (and the FF and the Avengers with it).
  • A reality with lots of Nightcrawlers and lots of Lockheeds, where Phoenix, using her full force, acts like some Deux-Ex-Machina and brings them all back to life.
  • Earth 616...missed again during the jump, with Charles Xavier and his Starjammers watching them jump.
  • A crazy Dirty Pair world, where Jamie Braddock has complete control over his powers...and Excalibur's only chance is one Kitty Pride who has, at last, returned home to stop Jamie from doing inter-dimensional voodoo with Excalibur.

I won't spoil the end of this Inter-dimensional crusade, for those of you that want to pick it up and have a really good time, old English style.

But don't forget: like after any good story about a journey throughout the Multiverse, Excalibur's members will never be the same.

8. Justice Riders
by Danny Djeljosevic

Too often DC's Elseworlds stories tried to do too much by cramming every single major DC superhero into one 64-page prestige edition comic book. While your idea for a comic that sets the DCU in the time of the Revolutionary War is very cool, maybe just focus on Batman as a freedom fighter whose parents were murdered by the British. You probably don't have enough room to fit Green Lantern and Zatanna in there.

Justice Riders re-imagined a bunch of DC characters as Wild West archetypes, but writer Chuck Dixon clearly put some thought into his cowboy Justice League. For example, Wonder Woman's a U.S. Marshall, Hawkman's a Cheyenne Warrior and "Kid Flash" is an outlaw with super-speed, among others.

Besides being a fun, underrated sci-fi western drawn by JH Williams III, the book feels like Dixon came up with archetypes he wanted to work with as opposed to listing DC characters he wanted to use. For example, Kid Flash has a Pinkerton agent hunting him down who happens to be named Guy Gardner and it doesn't smack of Dixon thinking "Hm, what's the best way to cram a Green Lantern into this story?"

With equal amounts of steampunkiness ("clockwork men," giant machines) and gunslinger shootouts, it's hard not to read Justice Riders as a successful version of abortive sci-fi westerns like Jonah Hex and Wild Wild West.

7. Elseworld's Finest: Supergirl and Batgirl
by Shawn Hill

When I had to research online to find a back issue, my initial problem was that I kept misremembering the title, and calling it "Superwoman and Batwoman." There may be a faint tinge of the girlish about the naïve Supergirl's personality, but certainly not about her figure (she seems closer to Power Girl than to Linda Danvers), while Batgirl (at the beginning of the story) is a coolly efficient autocrat in charge of every aspect of Gotham society. She's forbidden any paranormals from entering city limits in fact, but has to submit to a ceremonial visit by the Justice Society.

If their names seem odd, they are the only parts of this alternative world that don't quite fit. These are clearly the same women we're familiar with, living different lives due to two significant changes; they grew up in a world without either Superman or Batman.

This isn't your usual simple gender reversal storyline, where all the boys are girls and the girls are angry. Those usually lead to some crass jokes about double standards, and humorous distaff male costumes. Kesel, Haley and Simmons have something different in mind in their deluxe mini-epic.

The world-altering changes are surgically precise: in Gotham, Joe Chill didn't kill Bruce Wayne's parents, but rather Detective Gordon and his wife. And in Metropolis, someone anticipated the arrival of a Kryptonian baby in a rocket, and struck while he was vulnerable, leaving Kara's later crash landing to be the inaugural debut of a fully-formed Kryptonian on Earth. She was welcomed by the Justice Society, adopted by Wonder Woman, and befriended by the philanthropic Lex Luthor.

The question at hand is whether Barbara and Kara can learn to get along, and Kesel and her team work hard to set up details of character and history that imply they might not. The Justice Society seems to have already been through a few generational shifts, so Wonder Woman and Big Barda are prominent, but Captain Marvel and Black Canary are now legacy characters that have replaced the originals. Abin Sur is Green Lantern, the Flash wears armor, and Black Orchid and Jade may also be members. Haley and Simmons do inventive, detailed adjustments to alternate costumes, giving us a sense of a much larger tapestry than can be explored in a one-shot.

They also capture a great sense of drama for key moments: Kara's horrific discovery of Kal-El's preserved body, for one, but also the ridiculous spectacle of a Joker swollen from Bane's venom, and the tragic grace of Supergirl's memorial for her cousin. A non-tortured, actual playboy version of Bruce Wayne may be a hard sell, but even so he functions as Barbara's version of Alfred. All in all, the creators succeed in making a viable alternative world just different enough to make us wonder how this burgeoning friendship will develop, where the two leads fill their big boots admirably. Not to mention looking great and heroic doing so.

6. Marvel 1602
by Dave Wallace

Filtering the birth of the Marvel Universe through the lens of Elizabethan England might seem like a strange idea at first, but somehow Neil Gaiman made it work.

On one level, the book works as a straightforward romp in which Marvel fans can have lots of fun spotting which of their favorite superheroes have been "re-imagined" in the new setting --along with original creations such as the shape-shifting Virginia Dare -- and which Marvel storylines and characters, Gaiman's story slyly alludes to.

On another level, it was a fun mystery, with the writer teasing out the nature of the 1602 universe over the course of eight issues, eventually revealing that one of the Marvel characters wasn't all he seemed and that the world of the book was more closely tied to the traditional Marvel Universe than it first appeared.

And on yet another level, we saw Gaiman return to some of his more traditional storytelling preoccupations -- such as meditations on the eternal and repeating nature of story, as well as some canny observations about specific Marvel characters. A favorite scene is one in which Reed Richards apparently becomes aware of the fact that the characters are essentially trapped by the rules of storytelling, noting that a cure for The Thing's condition would be unlikely to ever last because "in the end, alas, you are so much more interesting and satisfying as you are".

Along with some subtle references to contemporary real-world figures and events, and some beautiful art -- coloured straight from Andy Kubert's pencils by Richard Isanove -- the book was one of the more imaginative and unique alternate-reality stories to be published by the Big Two in quite some time. Even if Gaiman did only agree to write it in order to fund legal challenges against Todd McFarlane, at least something good came out of it.

Sadly, the strength of the original series was diluted slightly by a series of inferior follow-ups (none of them by Gaiman) whilst the only sequel I'd really like to see -- Gaiman's once-mooted 2061, a follow-up in which we'd see play out the future events that set up the story of 1602 -- looks like it has a slim chance of ever happening.

5. Ruins
by Morgan Davis

Ruins could only have come from the twisted mind of Warren Ellis. Ostensibly a "parody" of Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek's Marvels, the world of Ruins is portrayed by Ellis and his team of artists, including Terese and Cliff Nielsen, as one where Murphy's Law is the ultimate law. Which means when you're a scientist who selflessly tries to protect a boy from a gamma blast you don't turn into a Hulk but a radiation poisoned mass of tumors, or if you're a family of four flying off into clouds of radiation you simply wind up dead.

It's a bleak look at what could have been in the Marvel Universe had things events unfolded in a not-so-fantastic way and Ellis' peculiar sensibilities are perfectly suited to it. In lesser hands, the reality of Ruins could have wound up merely a sick freakshow joke but Ellis has a real point beyond the grim and gritty. For Ellis, the horrors on display here are horrors of hubris, of corporate experiments gone wrong or government intervention at its worst. It may not be pretty but it is undeniably potent.

4. Batman Beyond
by Christopher Power

When people think about the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini/Dwayne McDuffie helmed DC Animated Universe (DCAU), one could guess that most readers and fans think of the original Batman: The Animated Series or the seminal Justice League series. These shows, along with their lesser known contemporary Superman: The Animated Series, defined animation for a generation, and set the bar for good storytelling, action packed episodes and deep character development. Indeed, a testament to the success of these shows, despite what some fans think, is the integration of portions of that universe into the mainstream DC Universe. It is from this series that the notion was introduced to readers that John Stewart, Green Lantern, was a Marine. Other pieces of continuity have no doubt influenced the understanding of the DCU that readers carry with them, and what current writers are bringing with them to their creative process.

However, the most interesting piece of the DCAU is not these massive hit series. Instead, it is the fringe series, Batman: Beyond. In this greyed town, dark view of a future Gotham, an embittered Bruce Wayne has failed at his mission to clean up his beloved city. After great reluctance, he chooses to take one more chance with a young kid, Terry McGuiness, in the hopes of redeeming himself and Gotham.

There were many strengths to the Batman: Beyond series. First, was the great character design associated with the new Batman suit, which managed to look futuristic while keeping the signature triangular corners and sculpted cape/wings. More than that, there was an array of new gadgets and gizmos that are (or were) just out of the realm of possibility and they felt very Batman like. For example, if Bruce had been working still, you could see Bruce putting an invisibility option into a suit. Perhaps most of all, the character of Terry was likeable, with no ties to any DC Universe. This was a new character, that suffered the same faults and failings of other human beings, but was willing to overcome his own limitations and pushed himself to be a true hero. It was very reminiscent of Batman himself, and that resonated with readers.

Tied to this, was the successful new character designs of villains such as the street level Ghoul, the petty criminal Inque, or the criminal mastermind Blight. Once again, we see the things that make the original Batman villains interesting – believable motivations, intellect and a spectrum of challenges from the mundane to the fantastic. There were also just enough nods to old school Batman villains (Ghoul being a new Scarecrow) to provide a touchstone for viewers, while the new villains made it feel fresh. Probably most important aspect of this universe, and I think of the reasons that it appealed to fans, was that it capture din a very real way the frustration young people have regarding the current state of modern society.

That is very important when looking backwards in comic history. After the Bronze Age passed, we entered the Dark Age of Comics. That period was where writers tried to explore, and tease out, the breakdown of societal structures in the wake of globalisation, the end of the cold war, the rise of urban crime in major centres, and the relative uncertainty about the future. All of those factors resulted in writers producing darkly themed titles, with protagonists that were primarily anti-heroes. Violently themed, gun-toting maniacs became the order of the day. Indeed, other media, such as television also picked up on this, with shows like Law & Order providing a view into the criminal world. However, in those televisionshows there were heroes – in comics the heroes seemed to disappear.

Eventually, we became tired of that same old story, but the core frustrations remained. Indeed, with globalisation of information resulting in far more awareness of the world around them, young people have become more disillusioned and more aware of oppressive influences both from external sources, and even within their own nations. Indeed, in the second half of the last decade, we saw in comics a resurgence of the medium acting as a perverse reflective mirror, with dark stories put out in all publishers.

I think this is the reason that Batman: Beyond remains a powerful television series, and as of this year, a powerful comic book. It shows people living in a future that is uncertain, with danger skulking around every corner. While it may be that our present world is not actually like that, the perception of the average person is that walking outside your door is dangerous business. We need stories that show paragons of justice and virtue standing against the unknown. We need to feel like we are being protected, when everything else in society has failed us. Batman: Beyond captures that sentiment, in the same way the original Batman stories captured audiences.

3. The Amalgam Comics Universe
by Maxwell Yezpitelok

If you're in your twenties and you say you don't love Amalgam, then you, sir, are either a time traveler or a liar. It was (and still is, I imagine) impossible to be a comic book reading kid growing up in the 1990's and not think that merging the DC and Marvel superheroes was the most brilliant idea ever -- heck, I'm all growed up now and I still think it is. I have the firm conviction that we, as a society, would be much better if we learned to appreciate the fact that for one magical, unrepeatable week in 1996 (except that time they repeated it in 1997) two rival comic book companies joined forced and published a comic where Batman is merged with Wolverine. I mean... that's just... there are no words.

One of the reasons why Amalgam was so much fun (besides all the superhero mash-ups, I mean) is that you could tell that most of the creators were having fun with it too -- they didn't need to write fake letter columns referencing past comics that sadly never existed (like the classic Secret Crisis on the Infinity Hour), but they did it anyway because that's the sort of thing nerds like to do when there's nobody watching. For a while they even toyed with the idea of permanently swapping one character from each universe, but they quickly scrapped it because that would have involved a lot of paperwork, and paperwork is seldom fun.

There's so much untapped potential in the Amalgam Universe. If they do another batch, I keep hoping they'll go back in time and do something like an X-Patrol comic set in the 60's (X-Men and Doom Patrol were practically the same comic back then anyway) or an All-New, All-Different X-Titans comic from the early 80's (The Terror of Dark Raven Saga, anyone?). Besides, we all know the only logical next step in the current era of massive mega-crossover events is to just have that damn Secret Crisis on the Infinity Hour already. I also think the next time Marvel and DC decide to join forces for something like this, they shouldn't tell anyone. Just have Galactus show up at the end of a Green Lantern comic and blow everyone away.

2. Days of Future Past
by Karyn Pinter

Welcome to Marvel's Earth-811, aka the "Days of Future Past".

Chris Claremont and John Byrne had already torn the X-world apart with "The Dark Phoenix Saga", and then as a follow-up, turned what was left on its ear with "Days of Future Past". What we ultimately saw was the failure of the X-Men to bring peace between humans and mutants, the great goal of Charles Xavier that had died with him. In the reality of Earth-811 most of the mutants we had grown to love had been killed off. Scott and Jean, now dead, had a daughter named Rachel, and Wolverine and Storm are lovers. Strange indeed. It took place in the year 2013 – yes only two years from now – where Sentinels had taken over and mutants lived and died in fear and internment camps. How did this crap-sack future come to be? Because Senator Kelly, the jerk who started the Mutant Registration Act, was assassinated by the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. This just goes to show that creating robots to hunt and kill minorities will only turn the world into a dystopian hellhole upon your death. At least that's the way it played out on Earth-811. On Earth-616, the "normalverse," Kate "Kitty" Pryde time/reality traveled backwards and sideways from 811 to warn the X-men in 616 to stop the assassination, which they did, but that just crated a whole different path. Confusing much? Yes, it is.

1. Squadron Supreme Universe, (Earth-712 in the Marvel Multiverse)
by Michael Deeley

The Squadron Supreme is a satire/homage to the DC Comics superheroes. They often fight the Avengers while under the mental control of an evil villain. (Not to be confused with the Squadron Sinister, villains native to the main Marvel Earth, who were based on the Squadron Supreme, even though the Sinister appeared first. (Long story.)

The Squadron Supreme's most famous story was their self-titled mini-series from 1985. After being used by yet another mind-controlling alien, their Earth is in ruins. Power Princess suggests that the team doesn't just undo the damage they did. They should take this opportunity to create the perfect society. With their combined powers, intelligence, and resources, the team could completely eradicate crime, hunger, poverty, and even death. Most of the team agrees to tackle this seemingly impossible challenge. But Nighthawk disagrees. He knows any society they create would be dependent on their absolute rule. The rest of the Squadron continue with their Utopia Program. While they make great improvements in society, it comes at great personal cost.

Squadron Supreme is considered a landmark in superhero comics, and one of the best stories of the 1980s. It was one of the first stories to address the limits of superpowers in real world situations. It was also a chance for writer Mark Gruenwald to write the DC Comics stories he'd always wanted. The characters grew, changed, suffered, and even died in ways that their inspirations never could.

After the mini-series, the Squadron was trapped in the core Marvel Universe for several years. When they returned home, they found their Utopia Program had been abused by an evil coalition of corrupt corporations to create a fascist state. They ultimately overthrew this coalition with help from the Exiles.

If it were up to me, I'd have a Squadron Supreme feature in an anthology series where each story would re-interpret or outright parody DC stories. Didn't like "Bruce Wayne: Murderer"? Rewrite it with Nighthawk. Want to show why the "emotional spectrum" of the Rainbow Lantern Corps is a bad idea? Have Dr. Spectrum meet other aliens with power prisms like his. And why stop at existing characters? The Squadron's universe is 40 years old and we've only seen about 20 heroes and villains. Why not introduce altered versions of the Teen Titans, the Vertigo characters, and the heroes' supporting cast members? The opportunities for exploration and meta-commentary are endless.

I always keep an eye out for stories that take place on Earth-712. It's interesting to see DC heroes interpreted in the Marvel style. They also usually reference then-current events in the DC universe. They're like living Easter Eggs that reward fans who aren't wholly focused on one fictional universe. The Squadron Supreme was created at a time when Marvel and DC took playful jabs at each other through the comics. It rewards fans of comics in general, while paying tribute to the collective comics culture.

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