It’s been said that all fiction starts with the words “What if…?” Now this is patently untrue, since of the hundreds, if not thousands, of novels I’ve read, not one of them started with those words.
Just at random, a novel I recently read, for example, commenced with the words:
Feeling the gun against the nape of her neck, Joan Bowden froze.
But I can understand the sentiment of the old saw, since at one point or another, the author of the novel must have thought “what if there was someone called Joan Bowden, and what if she had a gun against her neck?” Of course, the process is more complicated than that, since the opening words, despite setting the tone for the novel, and foreshadowing a later traumatic event in Balance of Power by Richard North Patterson, only form a periphery to the main thrust of the book.
It’s convenient that I thought of that novel, and double-checked the opening line, as it plays into something that’s been on my mind a lot this week, especially since I was chatting with some comedians in Edinburgh about different takes on the same essential centre of a joke.
This novel is the third in a series of novels featuring a recurrent cast, including a President of the United States, his family and the members of Congress with whom he exists and battles.
But if I wanted to look for a series of novels featuring a regular cast, it’s not as if I’d have to look far. From the pulp novels of the early part of the last century, through Leslie Charteris’s Saint novels through to JK Rowling’s happy cast of young wizards and witches, there has always been a segment of the novel publishing industry that has brought out books containing a cast of characters from previous books. It’s easy to understand why: familiarity with the characters breeds loyalty towards the characters. Moreover, even when the subjects are franchised out to different authors, as with the Remo Williams, Destroyer series of novels, the loyalty still often remains.
Take a look at the comics on the shelves next time you’re in your comic shop. The vast majority will feature the same characters as the previous month. The vast majority? Almost exclusively is more realistic.
I believe it was Warren Ellis who, when once railing against the predominance of the super-hero genre in the field of comics once gave the analogy of walking into a bookstore and seeing hundreds of novels, 90% of which were nurse romances.
However, the difference in this respect is that despite there being many examples of novels being merely one in a series, in a brand, most novels published feature original characters. Even where an author writes and is known for writing an ongoing series of works of fiction containing a repeating cast, they often write books featuring other characters.
There’s one other major difference between the comics featuring repeating characters and novels doing the same. No one seems to want, expect, demand or even request to see different versions of the characters. No one asks to see, for example, what Harry Potter would have turned out like had You-Know-Who only managed to kill Potter’s mum. Now before anyone jumps up and down on me, I’m deliberately excluding the ‘alternative history’ novels, such as those by Harry Turtledove, since they ostensibly deal in the ‘real’ world, not extrapolations of event changes in a pre-existing fictional environment
It’s difficult to identify precisely where this kind of comic book story started. Despite Marvel turning it into a brand in its own right with the title What If…? (of which more in a moment), by the time the first issue was published in 1977 containing the story What if… Spider-Man had joined the Fantastic Four?, it was merely part of a long tradition.
It could be argued that DC started the trends with their ‘imaginary stories’ in the Batman series, wherein first Robin dreamed of a future where he was Batman, with Bruce Wayne’s son as ‘his’ Robin and then later, Alfred Pennyworth would write an extrapolation into the future, with Dick Grayson as Batman II with Bruce Wayne Jr as Robin II. You think I’m kidding? They actually had the II on their costumes (see cover of Batman #145).
Is that cheating? Including ‘future’ tales as alternative takes on current continuity. I don’t think so, because with the occasional exception of a device that didn’t exist at the time, the stories could have been set at the same time as the ‘real’ stories were set. This is markedly different, for example, from Kingdom Come and Earth X, wherein the fun for the reader was seeing what would happen to the characters in 20 years or so.
But does that tradition of playing with current continuity and situations go back beyond those ‘imaginary stories’?
(A sidebar, if I may: I’ve always thought that Alan Moore’s opening captions to Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, the last Superman story before John Byrne’s revamp in 1985, were about the best there could be: “This is an imaginary story. Aren’t they all?”)
Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, that tradition and how long it’s been around. Well, I’ve only anecdotal evidence, but I recall reading a British reprint of a 1950s Lone Ranger comic wherein, while recovering from an injury, the masked hero reflects upon his life and wonders how different it would have been had the events that caused him to become the Lone Ranger not occurred.
I’d welcome even earlier examples, by the way.
The point being that for at least fifty years, say, there has been a ‘reserve’ story in the back of the minds of many comics writers, best summed up as “What if things had been different for this character?” It’s easy to appreciate why this story comes out every so often: it allows the writer to do whatever they like to the characters, and by means of simply ending the story, leave the characters precisely as they were, while hopefully telling a story that resonates in some way with the audience.
Sometime in the mid-1970s though, someone at Marvel Comics realised that, as long as the stories were good enough, they didn’t need to break the regular run of a title to run one of these stories which were popular with the comics reading public. Instead, the stories could appear in their own title.
And that’s precisely what they did, with the aforementioned What If…?. Now it has to be said that some of the stories were pretty dire, but some of them did exactly what they were intended to do: to tell an entertaining tale. The only problem, if problem it was, was that it ran a coach and horses through Stan Lee’s oft quoted reason for recaps in dialogue: “every comic book is someone’s first.”
The stories only really worked if they played against the readers’ expectations, knowing the title from which the story was drawn. Whether it was what If…Phoenix had not died? or What if…Captain America had been elected President?, the fun for the reader came from seeing what would happen to familiar characters when one pivotal event was changed. On the whole, as I recall, the heroes usually had a harder time of it in the alternative history than they did in the ‘real’ Marvel Universe. Only rarely (as in What if… Spider-Man’s clone lived?) did they end up happier as a result of the changes.
After a respectable run (47 seven issues over seven years), the first series ended. It was to reappear a couple of times, including a 100+ issue nine year run in the 1990s (including an incredibly good tale by Valentino and Leifeld: What If… Wolverine was an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.?) probably my favourite of the run.
Despite their head start with the imaginary stories of Batman and Superman, DC Comics got into the game relatively late. It could be argued (in fact DC would argue) that the first of their alternative histories was The Dark Knight Returns, but later books carried a special brand: Elseworlds. To quote from the blurb that accompanied each bookshelf edition – DC went the whole hog on these, on the probably correct assumption that playing with the histories of characters established for 50+ years would be bought to keep:
“In Elseworlds, heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places — some that have existed, or might have existed, and others that can’t, couldn’t, or shouldn’t exist.”
In other words: imaginary stories.
Some of these tales were incredibly good (I recommend without hesitation Alan Brennert and Norm Breyfogle’s Holy Terror), while others, to put it kindly, stank.
Over the past few years, both DC and Marvel have slowed publication of these alternative takes on their established characters, reasoning, I presume, that after Kingdom Come, The Kingdom and The Dark Knight Strikes Back from DC and Earth X, Universe X and Paradise X from Marvel, the comics reading public needed a break. (Or, to put it perhaps more accurately, that after being deluged with expensive books, the public wouldn’t buy any more.)
When the two of them re-entered the market, DC in particular did it in a very different way releasing Detective #27 written by Michael Uslan, an extra-ordinarily clever book conceived around the concept of Bruce Wayne being Batman without actually having to become Batman.
The fascination with seeing what would have happened to favourite characters had one thing changed in their history appears unique to comic books, though no less fascinating a concept nonetheless. Even Dark Horse got into the act with their alternative continuity of the Star Wars universe. Now, you might think that this contradicts my statement that it only happens with comic books. Well, no – despite the fictional universe being created in the movies, look where the alternative history appeared: in a comic book.
Those who are fans of the alternative continuity lark often defend their liking by saying that the stories allow the writer to explore, and the reader to appreciate, new facets of the characters, ignoring both that (a) the moment the history changes, so do the characters, and also that (b) if the story is set back far enough, the character back then was markedly different in most examples, from the character of the same name that’s being published now.
My own take on that is simple, and recalls the no doubt apocryphal story of a famous politician (I’ve heard it that it was variously, Mao Tse-Tung, Henry Kissinger and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson) being once asked what would have happened if Soviet Premier Kruschev been assassinated instead of President John F Kennedy. “Well,” comes the eventual reply, “I seriously doubt Aristotle Onassis would have married Mrs. Kruschev.”
Imaginary Stories – don’t ya love ‘em?