As comics fans we spend a tremendous amount of time in analysis of our monthly four color stories. Continuity is the mantra of our sect. Yet from the time we shatter those bonds time and again with our friends and toys. Who wins if Batman fights Darth Vader?! Who is faster Flash or Quicksilver?! Suppose character A met character B in this or that place and time. WHAT HAPPENS? WHO WINS?! These are the debates of playgrounds, sleepovers, and comic shops.
Creators are fans as well, imaginative and inventive people who breathe life into the ongoing adventures of our favorite characters. The silver age of comics (mid 1950’s to early 1970’s) was an unbridled time for story creation, a time when wild things could be done to or with characters, but set back to the status quo by the end of those thirty or so pages. Storytellers were pushing characters further than before and yet the desire to maintain some sense of ongoing narrative was strong. Some of these stories cause severe problems with maintaining that narrative.
The solution to this was simple: a tag line! Simple and maintained the company status quo while allowing creators to go wild on a highly publicized (and often a bit higher priced) book. It is in this mindset that we see the rise of DC’s Imaginary Stories (aren’t they all?) and Marvel’s What If. The difference between these comic lines (which are essentially the same! Think: status quo shake up for your favorite characters) rests in DC’s willingness to go FAR outside their continuity. Marvel’s What If line, while very fun, rests on a small-er character or story change inside the pre-existing Marvel universe/ continuity. DC on the other hand goes much further, completely divergent from the continuity. While these stories are popular during the Silver age, not enough to carry an entire distinct line, their own unique title. In 1989 DC Comics gave these stories a home and the title that is now well known and loved throughout fandom: Elseworlds.
I can’t necessarily remember which was my first: Gotham by Gaslight or Batman/Houdini. I do remember being about fourteen and completely intrigued by the premise. I had been an sporadic comics fan since I was very young, my father buying me books (especially on car trips), to keep me quiet. My personal Rushmore of comic’s culture goes Star Wars/ GI Joe/ Batman/ X-men, with my EARLIEST comic memories being GI Joe (sorry fellow bat-fans), Cracked and Mad magazine. There was always Batman though, always. Whether the ’66 show on rerun, which I thought was funny, or the books he was always a part on my consciousness. But when I was very young, early 1980’s, it was more GI Joe and giant robots for me.
1989 CHANGED EVERYTHING. Batman like no one had ever seen in real life! I was already there right? I had been nursing on this comics/sci-fi culture for my whole life. I saw Return of the Jedi in the theater when I was four. So when the 1989 Burton Batman hits I’m that perfect lose your mind age right? And I did. I fell in love with Batman, with everything I was presented with in that movie. It was bible for me. That was Batman for me (then).
My Batman movie excitement didn’t translate to Batman comic love right away, it had to contend with Image and the rise of the superstar artist first. And none of those guys were drawing a Bat-book. I went all in, as all in as an early teen who buys his own books could, trying to keep up with the glut of new material Image was releasing. I was simultaneously chasing X-books that were coming hot and fast in rising numbers. The biggest headache for the budget conscious comic’s loving teen in the mid 1990’s was the crossover. The inability for me to continue with a story in one book without buying sometimes five additional books, this publishing money grab led me to leave comics. I sold my books, I was out, it was too much to keep up with. I got rid of all of it….well almost.
I became a character reader as opposed to a comic’s reader. I entered the Batman and Grendel ONLY period of my reading. I didn’t buy either monthly. I set up my first pull at an LCS for The Long Halloween, and would pick up any Grendel tales I could find, but I was a ‘trade reader’ for the most part now. This went on for years, my interest in comics waning. I had no interest in monthly floppy issues only buying Batman trades or oversized issues.
I don’t remember the year, I do remember trustworthy Kevin Smith was the cons big name and Matt Wagner (creator of Grendel as well as the author of some GREAT Bat stories) was in attendance as well. My first con, my first Megacon. This is where the Elseworlds bug fully grabbed hold of me. I bought a ton of books there, and never looked back. It would be a few years still before I would be the weekly buyer that I am now, my comics tastes more fully developed than ever. I have read all the Grendel there is now, but it is the Bat mythology that I am the most comfortable with. I, admittedly, have not read it all (is it even possible?) but am well versed in the Bat history of the past twenty plus years. All the TBU podcasts help as well! Thanks everyone!
I love the one off story. The Elseworlds, the Imaginary Story, the What If. Batman as a character is timeless, an idea, infinitely malleable. His design, methodology, and purpose as everlasting as his appeal. In a medium born of creativity, the Elseworlds story removes ALL the chains of monthly publication and intellectual property protection. It’s one of the few times the giants of creation and character are truly free.
This will be a (hopefully) bi-monthly, look at these stories. The Elseworlds, the crossovers (Batman/ Spawn), the weird tales (Gotham by Midnight), all the out of the box stuff. I’m calling dibs on all the stories that “don’t matter”, because I think these stories inform the mythology of the Batman character just as much as Knightfall or Year One.