Alternate realities will never go out of style in comics. From the “imaginary stories” of the Silver Age to Grant Morrison’s “Multiversity” and composite Battleworld of “Secret Wars,” readers are fascinated by the chance to see their favorite heroes in a new light. But for the span of just over a decade, from 1989 to about 2003, DC Comics hosted a celebrated imprint of impossible universes; a now-legendary collection of titles called Elseworlds.
The Elseworlds line transported Batman, Superman and other iconic heroes and villains to new environs, from transformed origins to distant eras. Though some titles received a sequel or saw characters appear briefly in “Crisis” events and the like, for the most part the universes created for the Elseworlds remain largely untapped. Here are 12 Elseworlds titles that warrant further exploration.
12. Ring of Evil
DC once felt so highly of the Elseworlds line that they devoted the whole line’s annuals to the theme in 1994. Writer David DeVries and artist Dean Zachary spun an alternate history World War II tale where an occult ritual bestowed a powerful yellow ring on Reichführer Heinrich Himmler, who used its power to swing the balance of the war in the Nazis’ favor. After the Third Reich comes to America, Hal Jordan and Guy Gardner rise through the ranks, while Oliver Queen leads a haphazard resistance force of Green Lanterns, so called because of the lantern they carry to light their way through the wilderness. Shortly after elevating John Stewart to the leadership rank of Green Arrow, Queen is assassinated by Guy Gardner and his troops.
Meanwhile, Himmler’s ring, long thought lost, comes into the possession of Hal Jordan, and the ritual sacrifice of the surviving Green Lanterns creates a green-hued ring for Guy Gardner. Inevitably, they fight over their conflicting views of the Nazi ideal. When John kills the extra-dimensional demon that created both rings, however, Guy uses the distraction to murder Hal. John takes Hal’s ring — the one imbued with the souls of a bunch of Nazis — and gives it a new, noble purpose. Overpowering Guy, John siphons the souls of the Green Lanterns into his own ring.
Not going to lie, there’s no small bit of clunkiness to this story, but it’s got beautiful potential. John defeats the ruling Nazis’ top lieutenants, but will he be able to topple their empire? After decades of fascist rule, can even Green Lantern’s light bring this world out of darkness? Opening this world up to other DC heroes and villains could paint a fascinating picture how this society heals.
11. Legends of the Dead Earth
The “Legends of the Dead Earth” annuals were not technically Elseworlds stories, but they definitely followed in the same tradition. One of the best was the far future of “Justice League America” by Christopher Priest and Sergio Cariello. In it, the 20th Century’s Captain Atom finds himself mysteriously transported to a world at war, where he meets many familiar faces but everything is changed. This era’s Justice League, led by Michael Jon Carter (forgoing the Booster Gold monicker), resembles the one from the Maxwell Lord era, with Blue Beetle, Captain Marvel, J’onn J’onzz, Green Lantern Guy Gardner, Doctor Fate and Mister Miracle keeping the peace. But these heroes exhibit a more brutal form of justice, and Atom finds himself under attack.
Whisked away by the powerful Maxima, who unlike the other heroes with familiar names bears no resemblance to her ancient counterpart, Captain Atom learns that the Earth is no longer even a memory, and Carter’s Alliance rules the planet with an iron fist. Carter and Lord Havok — the being formerly known as Maxwell Lord — have survived through the centuries, but have gradually given up their humanity until there is nothing left. The rest of the League are clones of the originals. The clone of Ted Kord secretly works with Maxima on behalf of the Rebellion, but in order to defeat the Alliance, they need a superpowered native of the planet, so that he or she is accepted by a populace taught to distrust off-worlders. In short, they need Captain Atom and Maxima to have a baby. What’s bonkers is that this plan goes through. In continuity (or at least something approximating it), Captain Atom has a child in a future so far flung that the Earth itself is a myth. The Ray even visited this future in his own series, also written by Priest.
So you have a semi-canonical future world (let’s put aside, for the moment, just what this means post-“Flashpoint,” post-“Rebirth”) where a tyrannical Justice League has been overthrown and the next generation of heroes begins with the son or daughter of a contemporary hero. Also, at least two characters had survived from the present day, though one of them is dead by the end of the issue. That’s not a bad place to start. What other familiar faces are still alive? How does this fit in with “DC One Million,” at which point the Earth was still standing? With the Alliance deposed, what does the future hold for the former War World? All of these questions are just begging to be answered, and we would love to see what happens next!
10. In Darkest Knight
If ever there was a dude “born without fear” (or even, in the more modern iteration, “able to overcome great fear”), it has to be Bruce Wayne. In this “prestige format” one-shot from Mike Barr and Jerry Bingham, Abin Sur crashes to Earth shortly after Bruce begins his crimefighting career. He wastes no time clearing out Red Hood and his gang, and on his first mission for the Guardians, easily dispatches Sinestro, anointing Katma Tui as Sinestro’s replacement both in the Green Lantern Corps and as Korugar’s head of state. The Guardians aren’t happy that their new recruit for Sector 2814 has acted without consulting them, to which Bruce replies, “I didn’t think I could have made a worse decision than Sinestro.” Sick burn! But as Bat-Lantern instills order in Gotham through fear, his sympathies for Sinestro‘s point of view become apparent.
Sinestro, now armed with a yellow ring, comes to Earth seeking vengeance, murdering Jim Gordon and absorbing the mind of Joe Chill, Thomas and Martha Wayne’s killer. Bruce, meanwhile, openly rebels against the Guardians in a scene reminiscent of Hal’s betrayal in the “Emerald Twilight” arc, which was published the same year. This leads to the Guardians recruiting Clark Kent, Diana of Themyscira and Barry Allen into the Green Lantern Corps, complete with their own innate abilities.
The special ends with Bruce taking off into space in search of Sinestro, while the Justice Lanterns (not their actual name) remain on Earth and, presumably, loyal to Oa. This concept was toyed with a bit during Blackest Night,” when several heroes received a ring from one of the several Corps, but a world where Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the Flash have been Green Lanterns from the start of their careers is rich with story potential. What other heroes might rise, and what’s become of Hal Jordan, John Stewart, Guy Gardner and Kyle Rayner?
9. Superman: Speeding Bullets
It’s the World’s Finest, all in one, as baby Kal-El crashes to Earth near stately Wayne Manor. In this tale from J.M. DeMatteis and Eduardo Barretto, instead of being adopted by loving parents who taught him to use his powers responsibly, Superman was adopted by loving parents who were gunned down before his eyes. When Thomas and Martha Wayne meet their fate in Crime Alley, young Bruce unleashes a furious blast of heat vision into the murderer’s face. The trauma of the event clouded Bruce’s memories for years — including the fact that Joe Chill shot him several times, the bullets bouncing off — until a home invasion reminds him of his fantastic powers.
Inspired by the creatures in the cave where his spaceship lies hidden, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, using his powers in a never-ending battle against Gotham’s superstitious and cowardly criminals. Meanwhile, an explosion at Lex Luthor’s chemical plant has left the ruthless billionaire a changed man; he’s become a real Joker. Lois Lane, transplanted to the Gotham Gazette after Luthor bought the Planet, finds herself falling for kindhearted philanthropist Bruce Wayne, while crusading against the brutal violence of the Batman. When Lex Joker throws the city into all-out war, Lois serves as Batman’s moral compass to guide him out of the darkness.
“Speeding Bullets” is a hero’s journey story, with Bruce Wayne growing from a vigilante into a symbol of hope. But with the hero established, where might the character go from here? DeMatteis and Risso’s tale is essentially a Superman story set in Batman’s world; returning to that concept would let readers see the other side of the (possibly scarred) coin. This Bruce Wayne is not the world’s greatest detective, for example; how would that change the Dark Knight’s most iconic moments. How and why could Robin come into the picture? It remains a mystery, but as a future story, it could be one of the world’s finest!
8. Gotham by Gaslight
In 1989, Brian Augustyn, Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell took Batman into the Victorian era with “Gotham By Gaslight,” which sees Bruce Wayne convicted of the Jack the Ripper murders after his return to Gotham coincides with the Whitechapel Killer’s arrival from Europe. Questions also arise as to whether the new “Bat-man” and the Ripper are one and the same, and the Dark Knight ponders whether this uncertainty might be useful in his war against crime. Ultimately, the Ripper is revealed to be Bruce Wayne’s jovial uncle Jacob Packer, who embarked on his killing spree after being spurned by Martha Wayne.
Augustyn returned for a sequel two years later, this time with artist Eduardo Barreto, titled “Master of the Future.” 18 months after catching the Ripper, the Bat-man has seemingly retired from crimefighting. But as Gotham plays host to the American Discovery Expedition celebrating the thrilling future world to come, an enigmatic madman named Alexander LeRoi threatens to burn the city to the ground unless he, the self-proclaimed “Man of Tomorrow,” is made master of the fair. LeRoi proves good on his word, attacking the police force with a Joker-esque tank before kidnapping the mayor and launching rockets from his dirigible. Bat-man hang glides into action, putting a stop to LeRoi’s reign of terror. Bruce Wayne’s lady love, recognizing the man behind the mask, encourages Batman to continue his crusade.
The Victorian Batman stories are unusual among Elseworlds for not attempting to cram in every aspect of the hero’s “home” universe; the Ripper is revealed as a new character rather than, say, Two-Face, and LeRoi’s connection to the Joker is much more loose than what would ordinarily be the case. A third entry in the series should continue in this vein, possibly looking at the role of a hero like Batman at the turn of the 20th Century.
7. JLA: The Nail
For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the knight was lost, for want of a knight the battle was lost. So it was a kingdom was lost — all for want of a nail.
This centuries-old proverb aptly sets up the theme of Alan Davis’ “JLA: The Nail,” in which Jonathan and Martha Kent get a flat tire and thus fail to discover the rocket ship that brought baby Kal-El to Earth, creating a butterfly effect with ripples felt throughout the DC universe. As a result, Metropolis Mayor Lex Luthor has been able to successfully whip up anti-metahuman sentiment, in part by questioning the allegiances of the Atlantean Aquaman, a Green Lantern who operates under the jurisdiction of powerful foreign beings, the “inhuman” Martian Manhunter, and so forth. Meanwhile, the Strange Visitor from Another Planet who became a symbol of hope in our universe is nowhere to be found. Contributing to the furor are Oliver Queen, maimed from his time fighting alongside the Justice League as Green Arrow, and TV personality Jimmy Olsen. Even the Leaguers themselves betray bigotries towards one another, making it impossible to cohere as a team.
Luthor and Jimmy’s conspiracy leads to the capture or killing of many metahumans, but they further stoke anti-cape tension by orchestrating the death of the Joker at Batman’s hands on live television, framing Wonder Woman for the destruction of the White House, and brainwashing Metamorpho into murdering Perry White. It’s a bad scene, made worse with the revelation that Jimmy has been the willing participant in Lexcorp’s genetic experiments using Kryptonian DNA recovered from Kal-El’s ship, allowing him to graduate from Turtle Boy to pseudo-Kryptonian despot. When the fight between Jimmy and the hopelessly outclassed Justice League tumbles into an Amish community, however, the real Kal-El is drawn reluctantly into the fray, overpowering Jimmy when the madman’s genetic grafts break down. Kal-El, adoptive son of Amish farmers, then becomes Superman, as is his fate.
Davis’ follow-up, “Another Nail,” caught up with several heroes’ adventures, most notably exploring Superman’s struggles to adjust to a new world and Batman coping with the deaths of Robin and Batgirl, as well as his killing of the Joker. But a third volume could pose some interesting questions by examining how Superman’s new origin affects a familiar event from the DC universe. Though many of the stories we know and love would have been pulled up by the roots in “The Nail’s” continuity, there are a few events that could be excavated. How would Amish Superman have dealt with Doomsday, for example?
6. Justice Riders
Every pop culture icon should get a Western version, and Chuck Dixon and J.H. Williams III created a doozy with “Justice Riders,” a Wild West take on the Justice League. Sheriff Diana Prince holds a hard line against lawbreakers in her town of Paradise, right up until the town itself is wiped off the map by a mysterious power commanded by Maxwell Lord, in the process freeing Felix Faust from his jail cell. Enlisting the help of gunslinging speedster Kid Flash, Native American former lawman Katar Johnson, grifter Booster Gold, an eccentric inventor by the name of Beetle, and the mysterious stranger John Jones, Sheriff Prince, the Wonder Woman, hunts the man who ruined Paradise. But as Lord’s machinations play out, Sheriff Prince’s posse also have to contend with bounty hunter Guy Gardner, AKA Kid Baltimore, who’s hell bent on bringing Wally West to justice for the murder of Federal Marshal Barry Allen. Three paths converge in Helldorado, and after the big shootout with Diana, Jones, Kid Flash and Hawkman, Lord is reborn as the steam automaton monstrosity Lord Havoc. The unlikely trio of Beetle, Booster and Guy ride in as the cavalry, blowing everything to hell.
Although the book closes with most of the heroes going their separate ways, Dixon and Williams certainly left the door open for a sequel, as Beetle relates the tale of their adventure to Colonel Clark Kent. The revelation of a captive Dominator, left in the care of John Jones, would be a worth focus for “Justice Riders 2,” while a prequel could address the circumstances of Barry Allen’s death, which Wally describes as “a mercy.” The cast is very much based on the late-’90s incarnation of the League, though there’s no reason a sequel should feel bound to follow suit. Adding Cyborg would open up a world of possibilities, and we’ve yet to see the frontier versions of Batman or Green Lantern.
5. DC One Million
An ambitious, off the wall and very Silver Age-y concept from Grant Morrison, the “DC One Million” event found heroes from the 853rd century — one million months after “Action Comics” #1 — stuck in the present, while heroes from our era fight for their primitive lives in the far future. This wasn’t an Elseworlds per se, but like the official line, it created a whole universe of characters based on the heroes we know, transported to an all-new time or place.
There is so, so much rich material here. Morrison not only created a set of heroes for the 853rd century, he also glanced through the thousands of years that separate the “One Million” heroes from their present-day counterparts. Several characters — among them Superman, Martian Manhunter, the Resurrection Man and Vandal Savage — are revealed to have survived that entire span. There are also schemes and machinations, not least of which being the rise and fall of the Tyrant Sun, all of which play out over millennia, and we haven’t yet even begun to explore them.
It would be absolutely amazing to revisit the world of “One Million,” or perhaps a prequel called “500K.” The right creative team could even bring some of the concepts into the next “Legion of Super-Heroes” title, or get some more mileage out of the godlike Hourman android, who sacrificed his life in the late 20th Century (but surely there’s a way around that minor inconvenience). There are almost limitless possibilities.
4. Tangent Comics
From the mind of “Superman” writer Dan Jurgens, Tangent Comics was one of DC’s “fifth-week events,” a special line-up of comics meant to fill out the shipping schedule for months with an extra Wednesday. These were usually fun, thematically-related one-shots. But in 1997, DC went a bit wild and created a whole new universe of characters by taking the names of popular heroes and chucking everything else away.
In this world, the appearance of the Atom, Tangent’s version of Superman and its first superhero, changed the course of history by exacerbating the Cuban Missile Crisis, leading to the nuclear obliteration of Florida. The Cold War continues with even more players, as the Sea Devils flourish in New Atlantis and the covert organization Nightwing manipulates events behind the scenes. The dark and mysterious Green Lantern, created by James Robinson and JH Williams III, was perhaps the most intriguing new character: a woman who could summon the souls of dead heroes to clear up loose ends.
Tangent was not labeled an “Elseworlds” project, likely because it did not fit the mold of reshaping known characters into new environments. Remarkably, though, they were not even branded as DC Comics anywhere on the cover. That’s dedication to a concept, and doubtful they could do it in the modern environment. Tangent was successful enough to get a second round of one-shots in 1998, the only fifth-week event to do so. It’s the 20th anniversary next year, DC, let’s get a round three!
3. Superman: Red Son
It’s actually astonishing there hasn’t been a sequel to “Red Son,” the Mark Millar, Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett joint that saw baby Kal-L crashing in Soviet Russia instead of Kansas. It’s certainly one of the most famous Elseworlds tales, spawning action figures and playable characters in the video game series “Injustice.” All of the creators involved remain at the top of their game, though Millar hasn’t worked with DC since “Red Son” — moving on without him may be risky and controversial.
But if there was a sequel, what shape would it take? “Red Son” followed the Soviet Superman from his first public appearance in the 1950s, which accelerated the Cold War arms race and refocused it on superhumans, through the ’70s and ’80s, where Superman and Luthor rose to the highest offices in their respective countries, with very different effects. Along the way, Superman becomes an all-powerful despot, brainwashing dissidents, going to war with Wonder Woman‘s Amazons, and seeing Batman martyr himself in opposition to the Kryptonian’s oppressive regime. In the end, with the world believing him dead, the Man of Iron decides to live among the people like a true comrade. Oh, and an epilogue set billions of years in the future puts an interesting spin on this Superman’s origin.
A sequel could, of course, draw Superman out of retirement. But it may be more interesting to explore the “Red Son” universe he left behind. What is life like in a Russian Federation under the protection of the Batmen who are acolytes of the original? Who resisted the rise of Luthorism and his Global United States, and how did they fall? And Luthor being Luthor, what dark secrets underpinned his reign of peace?
2. The Golden Age
The Justice Society and All-Star Squadron fought bravely in World War II, but what followed? In “The Golden Age,” James Robinson and Paul Smith constructed a beautiful and haunting look at heroes adjusting to a homeland deep in the throes of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Robinson and Smith craft a complex and searing portrait of a world where the good guys triumphed and were cast aside, and how certain powers took advantage of post-war patriotism for truly horrific ends.
While Green Lantern, Starman, Johnny Quick and Liberty Belle all have significant roles to play, Robinson and Smith foreground less well-known characters. Tex Thompson and Dan the Dyna-Mite put themselves forward as leaders of the next generation of heroes, until it’s revealed that their super-powered bodies house the brains of the Ultra-Humanite and Adolf Hitler, respectively. The final battle is a mutual massacre, though the heroes prove triumphant. Liberty Belle strikes the killing blow against Dyna-Hitler, but it’s the arrival of Captain Comet that marks the dawn of a Silver Age.
That sounds like a good spot for a sequel, no? Robinson at one point had plans to do “The Silver Age,” but nothing came of this. Of course, the Silver Age isn’t going anywhere. And there’s no time like the present to revisit this world and its approach to superheroes, examining the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s through the lens of popular and obscure characters of the era.
1. Kingdom Come
Alex Ross and Mark Waid’s dystopian take on the future of the DC universe is perhaps the most well-known Elseworlds tale, and rightly regarded as a classic of the comics medium. The Spectre leads elderly pastor Norman McCay through this near-future world, where Superman has retreated from self-imposed exile following Lois Lane’s murder at the hands of the Joker. Kal-El may have endured the loss of his wife, but when Magog executed the Joker and the public chose the violent new hero’s brand of justice over his own, Superman’s Never-ending Battle came to a close. Magog’s actions are well in line with the heroes of his time, however, who spend more time fighting each other than combatting injustice.
When Magog leads a team to hunt the Parasite in Kansas, however, disaster strikes when the panicked villain splits open Captain Atom, creating a nuclear event that irradiates most of the Midwest. Superman returns to public life and reconvenes the Justice League, who offer the young heroes an ultimatum: either you’re with us, or you’re against us — and if you’re against us, you get thrown into a massive prison. Batman and Lex Luthor each lead teams of counter-insurgents, but the final conflict comes down to Captain Marvel’s fateful choice between humans and superhumans, and the judgement of Norman McCay.
Ross, who originated the idea for the series after his work on “Marvels,” told Wizard Magazine in 1999 of his original plans for a sequel, but the series that saw print earlier that year was under Waid’s sole direction after the creators could not reconcile their visions. “The Kingdom,” a two-issue series with five character-centered one-shots tying in, found a Kansas disaster survivor achieving godlike power and murdering Superman over and over again throughout the timeline. Now calling himself Gog, he also kidnaps the child of Superman and Wonder Woman and vows to raise him as “Magog.” As Gog makes his way back toward the present day, however, the “Kingdom Come” era trinity team up with the Linear Men (a group of time cops) and contemporary versions of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman to take him down.
As the most intriguing possible future of the DCU, “Kingdom Come” was also seeded in multiple series of the time, and the KC version of Starman became a member of the Justice Society of America. Gog also featured in a major story arc in “JSA.” But using these characters is easy. Even returning to this world, as Waid did in “The Kingdom,” isn’t so remarkable. What made “Kingdom Come” special was how successfully it contrasted the classic heroes and their values with those who’d come to prominence in the 1990s, especially the myriad Image Comics heroes of the day who delighted in spatter. Far from moralizing, no one in “Kingdom Come” comes off blameless. A true sequel should have something to say — where do Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman fit within the superhero cultural mindset of today? Where do they have something to teach us, and where do they fall short? Are there other contexts we should consider, such as the modern version of Image and its more literary aspirations? And outside of comics, how might our real-world fears be examined through the lens of our most iconic heroes? With these questions involved, a new “Kingdom Come” becomes a worthy successor and an instant classic.
What other Elseworlds stories stand the test of time (and space)? Let us know your absolute favorites in the comments!
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