Alternative universes! I can’t seem to get enough of them. I decided to avoid the obvious (ie, writing about alternate histories again and getting pwned by a bunch of history nerds) in favour of picking up on something I only mentioned in passing the last time you and I tackled this difficult subject together : comic books. For those of you who don’t know, comic books are a legitimate art form and nothing to be sniffed at. For every Rob Liefeld there’s an Adi Granov. For every Mark Millar there’s…well, shit, I guess there’s a Rob Liefeld. God damn it, I seriously hate that guy. It’s like, quite by accident, nobody ever told him he was terrible at both writing an drawing. Why can’t he just piss off back to the planet Mediocrus or wherever.
What was I saying? Oh yeah, comic books. You might be labouring under the impression that comic books are for kids, in which case it’s not my place to disagree with you, but while we’re here I’d like to shatter at least a few of the delusions you’re operating under. One : interpretive dance is not a legitimate form of theatre. Two : there is no god. Three : no matter how much tofu you eat, vitamin pills you chew or calisthenic exercises you perform, you and me are both probably going to die of some vulgar little tumour. Four: COMIC BOOKS ARE WORKS OF REAL FICTION.
The sheer sensual pleasure of comic books (I refuse to call them “graphic novels” because that would legitimise the dissenters) rests somewhere between the familiarity of the characters and the unfamiliarity of the story, embedded somewhere in the three-colour process. I imagine that, many centuries ago, people invented new stories about Hercules, Odysseus and Artemis for much the same purpose. There’s the same sense about comics, because both deal with familiar, iconic superheroes in slightly-unrealistic circumstances. You might say that comic-book heroes are the modern equivalent of a pantheon. Or maybe not.
And the best, most rib-tickling pleasure comes from familiar characters twisted into unfamiliar shapes. I’ve already mentioned that Superman : Red Son, where Superman is raised as a good Soviet citizen, is by far the best Superman comic ever written. We’ve done this already. Here are a couple I should have mentioned at the time but shamefully neglected.
Batman Vs Dracula : Bloodstorm, Red Rain and Crimson Mist (Elseworlds)
Camp, right? Very kitsch. The caped crusader versus Count Chocula. Pass. Wrong, my friend, dead wrong. In particular, Red Rain and Crimson Mist are the standout books in a very, very disturbing trilogy. I’ll give you the lowdown. To defeat Dracula Batman must become the vampire (an idea that was shamelessly ripped for 30 Days Of Night), and much of the rest of the series relies on the struggle between good and evil. Batman is ever the incorruptible hero until he becomes consumed by the thirst for blood. I have found it basically impossible to pick the right scans for this entry, because every page is shockingly-gothic, well-written and utterly disturbing. The undead batman is the most frightening superhero imaginable, a skeletal fanged monster who operates with the loosest possible parameters of “good”. I don’t even want to spoil it for you. It’s just too good.
Iron Lantern (Amalgam)
Included purely because this is the coolest idea, though not the best executed, in the Amalgam comics pantheon. Iron Man is the best that Marvel has to offer, bar none, and Green Lantern is the best of DC (after Batman). Smoosh them together in that special way Amalgam did, and you end up with a very special character that could, and should, have had his own limited series. But it was not to be. If anyone has the original back-issues of Amalgam comics I am prepared to offer you any number of free dinners in exchange for just looking at them.
Spider-Boy Team Up! (Amalgam)
I could fill this space with talking about how awesome Amalgam comics were and how much they influenced me creatively, spiritually and aesthetically, but you don’t give a shit about that. So, instead, I’m going to talk about how the idea of Spider-Boy sounds terrible but isn’t. It’s an open secret that comics went through a dark time in the nineties when nearly every writer was reading William Gibson cyberpunk novels, causing characters to become hardcore-punk versions of themselves. So we got Superboy, who was basically a pain in the ass, as well as some other forgettable teen nobodies I can’t even be bothered to google. Impulse, yeah, that was another one. The trouble was that nobody wanted to see Superboy in any capacity whatsoever when they could quite easily have had Superman tackling the same bad guy. It was the definition of superfluous. Haha, I made a joke….SUPERfluous? Seriously, nobody got that. I don’t have to fucking impress you.
So on paper Spider-boy sounds like a shitty idea, especially when you consider that it revels in that cyberpunky-feel of the era. Yet it works. It’s funny. It’s dynamic. It takes the punk feel of Superboy and the more serious,geeky feel of Spiderman and runs off in ten different directs hooting. As a result, Spider-boy might be the first example anywhere of what I guess we’d call geek chic. And that… that’s worth a lot in my eyes.
Noir : Iron Man (Marvel)
MORE IRON MAN! I am getting geared up for seeing the third movie this weekend and fully expect it will blow my mind, yet I have just enough excitement to recommend a comic purely on the fact that it’s set in the thirties and involves Nazis and Airships and Iron Man. The story itself is largely forgettable (something about Tony Stark’s dad being a Nazi) but read that introductory sentence again. Iron Man. Airships. Nazis. Aaaaaaannnnd SCENE.
JLA : The Nail (Elseworlds)
Simple premise : Superman doesnt’ get picked up by the Kents as a kid because they have a flat tire and miss his rocket ship landing. Instead he gets raised by the Amish. Without a stabilising influence on the Justice League, the world very quickly goes to shit. The Joker still kills Robin as originally, but this causes Batman to beat him to death in front of the world. Growing distrust in superheroes leads to the development of containment facilities, like the the Marvel Civil War, while Jimmy Olsen of all people experiments with Kyptonian DNA, creating an army of Bizarro clones and splicing it with his own. Although drawn and coloured in the pulpy style of 40s comics, The Nail is seriously dark at times, including scenes of evisceration, cellular degeneration and mass imprisonment.