For those of you who haven’t read Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s phenomenal epic Planetary (and shame on you for THAT), you would have missed one of the most inspiring and apt representations of the idea of a multiverse conceived within the medium (in my slightly-enlightened opinion anyway); that of a stunningly beautiful snowflake. The multiple, interlacing paths of a snowflake combined with the idea that no two snow flakes are exactly alike make this a great parable, but when taken out of the story realm the idea of multiple lines of continuity create some uniquely entertaining and wildly unfortunate consequences from the publishing angle. Click on down as we explore the idea of the many existing as one.
The idea of different universes existing at one company is not a new concept, nor is it uncommon in this day and age of imprints and side projects and creator owned blah blah blah. However, when you boil it all down, the entire impetus for new imprints often times is to escape from established continuity in order to achieve a specific goal. For the purposes of this column, I want to look at two well known and distinct imprints and some recent events that kind of illuminate their very existence: Vertigo Comics and Marvel’s Ultimate Comics.
Established in 1993 as DC Comics’ mature readers line, Vertigo has been responsible for some of the most well respected, ground breaking comics and graphic novels seen over the course of the ensuing 18 years. When it began, the line between the Vertigo Universe and mainstream DC Universe was fairly thin, with characters crossing over fairly regularly for adult-oriented adventures in the Vertigo Universe before returning to the largely all-ages DCU. However, as time went on and what I can only assume was in the name of creating a more distinct branding for the company, the walls shut tight and all back and forth between the universes ended completely, with the characters on either side of the line staying put where they were.
Now, several years later, the line between the universes has been redrawn, allowing characters like Swamp Thing to rejoin the DC Universe proper and for John Constantine to actually co-exist in both continuities at the same time. So while this issue may seem to have been resolved, think about the implications of it for a second: for close to fifteen years, no one could touch the character of Swamp Thing unless they not only had a solid pitch for it, but a sufficiently high level, mature readers idea for it to make it fit within the Vertigo line. If that wasn’t an inherent stunting of the character’s potential, I honestly don’t know what is. Don’t get me wrong, I am one of the biggest Vertigo fans out there and I am by no means calling for a widespread cross pollination of characters here (especially since the overwhelming majority of books that Vertigo publishes right now feature creator owned characters), but the idea that a character’s story can only be told one particular way is just silly.
Which brings us to the core of the Ultimate Universe. Now, the modus operandi of this universe has shifted some since its humble beginnings back in 2000. Originally, the concept was simple: Marvel had too much continuity built up and it was scaring away new readers (this was before relaunching a book with a new #1 became commonplace). However, while creating a line of comics that were inherently new reader friendly, Marvel also took the opportunity to reboot the mileage counters on some of our favorite heroes down to the year 2000 rather than 1950. Hence, Marvel rebooted their universe in a parallel imprint, called it Ultimate and all of a sudden the X-Men came together with cell phones in hand and Peter Parker could surf the internet to research spider bites, and that was great for a time.
Until it wasn’t.
You see, ten years into the mix (give or take nine), the Ultimate Universe began running into the same problems the “main” Marvel Universe had. Not only had this universe built up its own complicated, conflicted and “deadly-to-new-readers” continuity, but many believed it had actually begun adopting the SAME conflicted continuity of the Marvel Universe. In other words, despite the cell phones and twitter references, the stories being told in the Ultimate Universe stopped being legitimately NEW. The concept of a clean slate was being wasted, which is the point I imagine lightbulbs began going off in the heads of the creators behind the Ultimate line. Because the simple fact of the matter is, while the characters may seem familiar, they were NOT working with the Marvel Universe. The traditional, household name versions of these characters will still existent and on course over in the Marvel Universe, which gave the Ultimate universe a whole boatload worth of potential.Continued below
Hence, Ultimatum AKA a LOT of people that could never die in the Marvel Universe due to public expectations dying one right after another (and in some particularly gruesome ways too)happened and counter was reset once again, this time with the seemingly all encompassing goal of “be different.” And, I can safely say for the most part, that the rebooted “Ultimate Comics” line has sufficiently delivered on the “stories we can never see in the Marvel Universe” angle, and with the apparent Death of Spider-Man coming down the pipe, it looks like that mission won’t be letting up any time soon.
At the end of the day though, while there is potential for both good and bad to stem from intentionally aiming to tell stories differently in a side universe (where collateral AKA public damage is not an issue), if their existence allows for the telling of legitimately NEW stories with the same old faces, I’d call the entire concept of a snowflake a complete plus.