I’ve been doing this column for almost three years, so I feel like I should be able to get honest with all of you — or I should at least be able to climb out of the hole I’m about to dig with these declarations. Here goes:
I don’t like alternate reality stories and I don’t like post-apocalyptic settings.
Big, bold statement, right? But I like superhero comics and action-oriented stories and dabble in science fiction way more than most people (but way less so than a lot of convention-goers). How can I be turned off by two of the most seemingly integral aspects of genre fiction? Do I like anything? Marvel’s current event, “Secret Wars,” is set in a post-apocalyptic setting comprised of a bunch of alternate realities! I’m going to hate that! Right?
Let me explain myself just a little, because again, this is a pretty big hole I’m in. I know that these rather hard and fast opinions I’ve forged stem from my fan brain, which is the part of me that still keeps track of continuity from the ’80s and gets a little angry about comic books getting renumbered. With age I’ve been able to separate these tendencies from the quality of a story; thanks to Marvel’s aggressive approach to relaunches, I’ve loved a lot of new first issues in the past two years. My eye twitches just a little bit less nowadays when I see series receiving their ninth volumes, so I’m progressing.
The fan brain hates alternate reality stories because it’s hard for Fan Brett to care. Seemingly every alternate reality is a horrible one and almost everyone our protagonists encounter has the opposite personality. On top of that, Fan Brett thinks that alternate reality jaunts don’t matter; I love Rogue, but I never care if M.O.D.O.K. Rogue or Mjolnir-wielding Rogue or Apple CEO Rogue bites it because she’s not Rogue, not the one I know and love.
I think this problem stems from Fan Brett’s love of continuity. And I don’t mean every bit of continuity; like other Nightcrawler fans, I’d be totally fine if everyone just forgot that “The Draco” ever happened. I do need some continuity, though. Nightcrawler and Kitty Pryde’s close friendship is made special by the fact that she was scared of his appearance when they first met back in 1980. I find myself adrift with alternate reality characters since they more often than not aren’t in that same context. There’s also the frustration of them looking like a favorite of mine without actually being a favorite of mine — looking at you, pretty much every Ultimate Universe character.
Even if that history is never mentioned in a story, and I one hundred percent don’t need every story to be a continuity cluster, I carry it with me and it affects and enriches my experience. I’ve held a big grudge — we’re talking Bachalo-designed Soulsword-sized — against Magik ever since the end of Kieron Gillen’s “Uncanny X-Men” run. Having this negative opinion of the character from a previous run affected how I’ve read Brian Bendis’ follow-up, and I’ve enjoyed seeing the character and my relationship with her change over the last year. Without the context of Magik betraying Colossus’ trust, I would have reacted to her gradually revealed vulnerability and humanity in the current arc much differently. Both stories stand on their own alone, but they mean more to me when connected by continuity.
What I’m getting at is that I do not know how DC Comics fans deal with the constant continuity rug-pull and for all of my hot talk back in 2011 about the New 52, I would be a mess if Marvel did that. That’s my truth and my weakness.
All that being said, the superhero fan that I’ve grown into knows that stories can be judged on their merits alone, void of preconceived notions and continuity. I had no affection for Superman until I read disparate runs from across the character’s history, and now I feel like I get him. I don’t love “Justice League International” or the first Jaime Reyes Blue Beetle run any less just because they’ve been rebooted. Stories are stories and good stories are good stories! Ease up, Fan Brett!
The post-apocalyptic future thing, though, isn’t really a Fan Brett thing — it’s an All Brett thing. I have a tendency to let my mind loose in every fictional world I engage with, and I think I subconsciously like revisiting worlds that I’d be fine living in. This explains why I imprinted on “Friends” in middle school when I had no actual friends at school and it might explain why I felt a desperate urge to do every touristy, “Cheers”-related thing in Boston after watching all 11 seasons of that show back to back. I also get that I, an asthmatic gay man, would be miserable in the smoke-shrouded hyper-homogenous-prejudice of “Mad Men” — but the clothes are amazing and I love the design and I’m kinda envious of their lack of clickbait listicles about baby animals? What I’m getting at is that the “Walking Dead” and “Mad Max” worlds bum me out as someone that likes having running water and clean clothes and living family members/friends. I get that this is a me thing.
With all that in mind, I have not been that excited about “Secret Wars.” A lot of the premises sound cool in a there-are-absolutely-no-rules way, but the fact that the Captain Marvel and She-Hulk starring in “Secret Wars” series aren’t my versions of them gives Fan Me some pause (I acknowledge that both series look fantastic and Fan Me should just chill). I also have this nagging worry in my brain that fears a “Crisis”-style reboot. I foolishly told DC fans to stop fretting about continuity years ago and I fear comeuppance for my past arrogance.
“Secret Wars” #1 didn’t sell me on the idea. The story was appropriately massive — maybe too massive for me to latch onto. Vignettes like the one of Iron Fist and Luke Cage, two of my favorites, rescuing innocent bystanders should have connected with me, but it all fell under the giant shadow of two Earths crashing into each other. Heck, I think Black Widow died in this issue and that didn’t even register with me!
I was expecting more of the same from today’s “Secret Wars” #2. I assumed we’d pick up with the wrecked raft carrying Reed Richards and his band of survivors from Earth-616 (the only Earth Fan Me cares about). But no, the issue — SPOILER ALERT — picks up some time later; no specific date is given, but enough time has passed for the citizens of Battleworld (or Latverion or God’s Kingdom) have created their own creation myth and highly structured society — or at least enough time has passed for Doom to warp reality to his whims. The rules of Battleworld are laid out in this issue which, while still including over a dozen speaking roles, feels way more contained than the first issue. This is a story of a new Thor and his first patrol as a member of Battleworld’s Asgardian police. Through him we get the lay of the land and we even get to see this world’s laws put in action.
Listen, this comic includes Mr. Sinister calling the law “very trashy.” I love Mr. Sinister and, even if this isn’t my Nathaniel Essex, Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic crafted a version of him that I found delightfully devious and over the top. Maybe I can connect to alternate reality versions of characters if they’re given the space to establish themselves? What’s happening to me?! In just a few panels and with very little wider context, Hickman also sold me on these alternate takes on Jamie Braddock, Brian Braddock and the world of Higher Avalon. I’ve never had an opinion about Jamie Braddock either way, and I still felt the impact of this Jamie’s death.
For all my anti-post-apocalyptic grumblings, I do have a massive love for “Planet of the Apes.” Like “Age of Apocalypse,” the dystopia-set stories I loved before I developed this weird aversion have stuck with me. Because of this, I’m really into the intrigue surrounding Sheriff Strange’s quarantine around the newfound artifacts that predate Battleworld’s creation. This new alternate reality dystopia is playing into the things I love from the dystopic stories of my childhood. Well-played, Hickman!
I wasn’t expecting to care about “Secret Wars,” and my credit card was real excited about that. But, sorry bank account, I think I’m now on board for this event. The world building is interesting — the Deadlands are definitely not a place for me to visit, though — and the storytelling was focused enough to cut through my predetermined biases. That’s pretty impressive. So bring on “Secret Wars” #3, and maybe even a couple or dozen of these new series, too. With this subtle shift in taste, I’m starting to wonder… am I an alternate reality version of myself? If so, it looks like I’m more okay with that fact today than I would have been yesterday.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He makes videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the sketch comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).
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