Thursday, September 10, 2015

My Year With Marvel: Alternate Universes

The Marvel Universe is really a multiverse; an assortment of disparate realities, some of which occasionally collide thanks to the influence of science and magic and other fun stuff like that. A fair few of these alternate realities have made it into miniseries form, either because they bumped up against Earth-616 (our core Marvel canon) or because somebody with decision-making ability said, “Hey, why don’t we explore what our characters might be like if things were like this instead of like that?”

Marvel’s alternate realities are no doubt most interesting for readers well steeped in the 616’s characters and backstory, but they can also hold appeal for people who’re just easing into it all. I want to highlight three of them today: two you can probably read even if you’re a Marvel newbie and one with a solid grounding in the larger storyline.

Cover of Earth X, featuring an aged Captain America clad in a rough toga made from the American flag. He stands against a mostly-dark image of the earth, shield in hand.
Earth X (1999); written by Jim Krueger, drawn by John Paul Leon

EARTH X opens a couple decades on from the Marvel Universe you’ll see in current continuity. Everyone has superpowers, from the heroes of old to the kid playing in the street. It’s been like this for close on ten years.

The Watcher--a moon-dweller tasked with observing everything that happens down below--was blinded immediately before the shift took place. He needs visual confirmation of what’s happening, so he calls upon Aaron Stack, aka Machine Man, to be his eyes as he searches for clues and watches the conflict between an aged Captain America and a new, youthful, Red Skull unfold.

Meanwhile, the Inhumans have returned to Earth for a royal wedding between two of their youngest members. They connect with the surviving members of the Fantastic Four and conduct their own investigation into the changes.

The series is interesting in that it gives us not only alternate versions of beloved characters but also versions who are far older than Marvel would normally allow its characters to become. They’re themselves at a remove; aged, perhaps a little wiser, and settled into a world where their abilities are by no means unusual or remarkable. Some, like Peter Parker, have responded by repudiating their powers, in deed if not in truth. Others, like Captain America, continue to fight on because they see themselves as vital moral touchstones in this new, superpowered world.

It’s a dark series, both in theme and appearance. John Paul Leon’s art is distinctly 90s and often reminded me of SANDMAN in its use of line and colour. Jim Krueger's script, too, heads to some difficult places as it explores both the heroes on the ground and Aaron’s service to the Watcher up above. This Watcher ain’t the guy young Sam Alexander calls his friend. He’s brutal and implacable in his quest to uncover the truth, going so far as to strip away first Aaron’s skin, then his name, then his personality program to render him the ultimate disinterested observer. It hurts.

Nobody is very happy in this world because everyone is forever aware that this isn’t right. Something went wrong somewhere along the line, and none of them have the slightest idea how to fix it.

The series starts off a bit slow, but once all the pieces are in place it’s impossible to put it down. It’s an excellent look at responsibility and personal identity, all packaged up with some ideological conflict and a couple of solid mysteries. Established Marvelites will surely be interested in what it does with the universe’s usual notions of heroism, while those who are simply concerned with superheroes in general can focus on how it unpacks these universal notions.

If you read it through Marvel Unlimited, start with #0, then read #1-13 before you finish with #X.

Cover of Marvel 1602, featuring a woodcut of dark-cloaked figure striding towards the lit gatehouse of a large palace. Lightning bisects the cloudy sky above the person.

Marvel 1602 (2003); written by Neil Gaiman, drawn by Andy Kubert

MARVEL 1602 was actually my first experience with the non-X-Men side of the Marvel Universe, way back in the day. I read it on the strength of Neil Gaiman’s name, obviously, and while I loved it more when I knew next to nothing about the universe, I find it far more interesting now I understand where these characters are coming from.

If there’s one thing every Marvel reader knows, it’s that time travel messes shit up. In MARVEL 1602, a character from our own time falls backwards through the centuries and ends up triggering the four-hundred-year early emergence of all the core Marvel characters. Many of them are based in Elizabethan England, though it’s by no means the only source for superheroes, and all of them undertake roles similar, if not identical, to those of their contemporary counterparts.

Key players include Doctor Strange, Queen Elizabeth’s court mystic; Sir Nicholas Fury, her spymaster; Peter Parquagh, Fury’s spider-obsessed apprentice; Carlos Javier and the five young witchbreed he rescues from persecution and trains into an elite squad; Grand Inquisitor Enrique and the “orphaned” witchbreed who help him seek out and destroy others of their kind; Matthew Murdock, blind balladeer/spy who to whom darkness means nothing; and the crew of the Fantastick, long thought lost following the sea voyage that gave them their fabulous powers.

These characters are far more comfortable in their world than are the characters of Earth X, but they still recognize there’s something off about their existence. When Virginia Dare, first child born in the flourishing Roanoke Colony, arrives in England, everything kicks off. It’s all seriously cool.

And you can easily read it without knowing anything else about Marvel, though it’s far more fun to watch these alternate versions of the characters if you know who they should be.

I should note, though, that there's some extremely dodgy, off-putting stuff with a white character who adopts stereotypical speech patterns as he pretends to be First Nations. Watch out for that.

Cover of House of M, featuring a large assortment of X-Men, Wolverine foremost among them. The group also includes a couple of non-mutant heroes like Spider-Man and Captain America. They stand or fly in heroic poses.

HOUSE OF M (2005), written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Olivier Coipel

HOUSE OF M is the series at the heart of the crossover that changed the X-Men forever. This one’s a bit different from the other two in that it starts in Earth-616, which promptly shifts thanks to the influence of reality-shaping magic. Out of nowhere, we find ourselves in a world where the House of Magnus--Magneto and his three children--have ushered in an age of mutant rulers and sapien underlings. The only people who remember things were ever any different are Wolverine and a young girl named Layla.

HOUSE OF M is a wish-fulfilment AU. The Scarlet Witch alters the world so everyone gets exactly what they’ve always wanted. She herself is a sapien with living twin sons. Carol Danvers is the most popular superhero in America. Dazzler has a wildly successful talk show. Peter Parker is happily married to Gwen Stacey. Luke Cage is a sapien revolutionary who’s never even heard of Jessica Jones. And Wolverine can remember every single thing that’s ever happened to him over the course of his life, without a single mind wipe or amnesiac period in the mix.

The question then becomes, how are these people supposed to deal with that if they ever get out of this? How are they supposed to reconcile the life they supposedly always wanted with the life they’re actually living in the real world?

I haven’t yet read much immediately-post HOUSE OF M stuff about the characters who remember the AU, but I’m hoping the various series tackle this issue because it has such meaty potential. I want it to have a lasting impact on their lives.

Whether it does or not, the miniseries is well worth reading on its own merits. And rest assured, you don't need to dip into any of the myriad crossover titles to get the full story.

Okay. Info session complete. Now I want to talk about one particular thing that bugs me, with spoilers.

This is also the storyline that saw mutantkind all but annihilated. Wanda Maximoff, being possessed of supreme reality-shaking powers, declares there are no more mutants, and there aren’t. Around two hundred mutants make it through due to a combination of factors, but most of ‘em become sapiens without a hint of the X gene.

And I may not have read much immediately-post HOUSE OF M stuff, but I’ve certainly seen how this change impacts the more recent releases on my list. Pretty well everyone blames Wanda. They loathe her, even when they're not actively out for her blood. She herself feels so guilty that she runs away and blocks out all memory of her true self in an effort to atone for what she’s done.

Which seems fair if you don’t know the whole story--but within the miniseries, it’s clear Wanda is mentally ill both when she creates the HOUSE OF M world and when she destroys it. And none of it is her idea. Quicksilver, her twin brother, takes advantage of her reduced mental capacity to manipulate her into crafting this new reality, and she eventually snaps and destroys it because he piles even more pressure on her.

But aside from one brief scene where Emma Frost whispers, “Damn you, Pietro,” to herself, I’ve never seen a character lose their shit at Quicksilver for this particular act. (He’s an asshole, so various people are furious with him a great many for other things.) That pisses me off. Let’s blame the mentally ill woman instead of the guy who weaponizes her! Real nice, Marvel Universe. Bet that wasn’t a gendered choice at all.


  1. House of M was one of the first comic series I read at a friend's recommendation, and that YEARS ago so I don't remember much about it. I had totally forgotten that it was Quicksilver who manipulated Wanda to do that. Now I want to go back and reread it!

    1. Go for it! I haven't revisited it yet, but I have a feeling it'll reread really well.