Another Universe Is Possible?

Valiant-Logo-Red_primary_webRight now Valiant Entertainment and Action Lab Entertainment are each focused on building out shared universes for their heroes to inhabit. This could have lasting positive effects on diversity in comics, much like WildStorm did back in its day. I don’t know how either publisher will fare but I’m excited that they are trying.

The cultural and economic impact of Marvel and DC Comics‘s universes won’t be surpassed in our lifetimes, if ever. But could another superhero U succeed on it’s own terms? In Elle Collins’ latest column she asserts that we should look for depth not breadth in our new U’s and I’m inclined to agree. We can also use new universes as ways to bring diversity in to comics and unbridled experimentation.

My colleague Sarah Rasher has some great coverage of yesterday’s Valiant Summit. What Valiant is embarking on sounds ambitious and interesting. Sarah was excited to report that Valiant is very deliberately baking in diversity as the publisher builds out its new world. I suspect that will contribute greatly towards establishing diverse characters at the core of the stories their readers will care about. The diverse characters won’t end up as tokens or “Smurfettes” as Sarah explains. Sarah and I are n00bs to Valiant but we are both intrigued by what we heard.

Valiant’s new series Faith, staring a plus-size, geek-girl superhero has been a universal hit at Graphic Policy. We interviewed series writer Jody Houser on our podcast and we love her vision for the comics.

FUTURE-OF-VALIANT_007_DIVINITY-III-STALINVERSEWhat Valiant is trying to do with its Stalinverse sounds really creative even if it’s only temporary. It could end up being Valiant’s version of the Age of Apocalypse but with real world historical influences. It certainly sounds like writer Matt Kindt did his homework on Soviet history.

But one ‘verse I truly loved and miss was the WildStorm Universe. Planetary offered brilliant new distillations of heroes from all genres of genre entertainment stretching back to the late 1800′s. StormWatch and The Authority gave us the gay Batman and Superman in love that we always needed (even though as Elle brilliantly asserts in her podcast about Midnighter, Midnighter is actually Wolverine, not Batman– at least as written by Steve Orlando). WildStorm gave me my fictional girlfriend Jenny Sparks– a character who has no analogue because fiction never gave us a woman like her before. The Engineer was Iron Man at its best and also at it’s most latina.

I was sad when WildStorm got bought by DC because I prefer WildStorm standing as its own universe. Folded in to DC it lost a lot of what made it special. Culturally, giving a big two publisher the IP for characters like Midnighter and Apollo was incredibly significant, making it easier to bring major league gay superheroes to the forefront. But artistically, the WS characters will never be as interesting as they were in their own world.

Midnighter #1The exception of course is that Steve Orlando’s Midnighter is FAR better written as a character within his own solo series at DC then he was at WildStorm. It benefited greatly from having fresh talent like Orlando, himself a bisexual man, writing the book and the fact that it was a solo series focused on Midnighter unlike The Authority which was a team book. Orlando even found something interesting to do with Henry Bendix in the DCU, WildStorm’s particularly malicious evil mastermind. But it wasn’t DC comics that gave Midnighter room to grow by having him in a larger Universe, it was the talent on the book that gave Midnighter room to grow.

One experiment we’ve seen of folding new universes in to existing ones is Milestone Media‘s relationship with DC Comics. Milestone was invented to be a black superhero universe by black talent featuring black characters. Static Shock was wildly successful, staring in his own cartoon and really being Spider-Man to a whole generation. Milestone suffered from the comics industry implosion of ’93 and retailers stereotyping it as comics only black reader would by. DC Comics needed to do more to keep this important imprint afloat. While key characters were brought in to the cartoons I’ve yet to see DC market Milestone intelligently.

milestone media logoI was excited to hear announcements that Milestone is coming back. It will continue to be in partnership with DC and it sounds like the characters will be on their own planet, Earth M, but exist within the regular DCU. This would give them space to build their own world without being overshadowed creatively but still enable easy, audience building crossovers. However it’s been a year and a half since that news was announced and the whole project seems to still be in limbo. We need Milestone just as urgently today as we did in the 90s.

I miss the WildStorm Universe being its own universe. I’m not asking to have it back, but it still felt like a loss. Parts of it are a bit of a time capsule of the 90s and 00s mores and aesthetics – these are not my preferred aesthetics but its series did feel very timely.  I’m first to admit Gen-13 is kinda laughable. It was so 90s I couldn’t even stand it in the 90s! I never cared for WildCATS for similar reasons but GP founder Brett has assured me there’s a run that offered sharp commentary on corporate power.

Kurt Busiek‘s Astro City universe is a pleasure to read though I haven’t kept up with the series. It featured loving and intelligent re-imagings of characters like Robin and the Fantastic Four and it continues to build out to this day.

Meanwhile WildStorm served as a place of brutal satire at times. It could be nasty fun and it paved the way for beloved titles like Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen‘s Next Wave: Agents of HATE at Marvel.

In The Authority, the WSU gave Mark Millar (who I normally can’t stand) the space to point out that if a superhero team really could make a difference The Powers That Be in corporations and governments would do anything to stop them from making a difference. Because if you are in power you like things the way they are. I’ve never seen a mainstream comic make that point as clearly as Millar did in his controversial run which had the whole team killed and replaced by corporate-backed superhero stooges.

Works like Planetary and the best runs of The Authority stand the test of time. I don’t think they could have happened within the Marvel or DCU. They were too experimental. They relied too much on reconfiguring existing superhero worlds to really take place with in an existing property. They weren’t afraid to challenge readers. They were both meta-human and meta-textual.

Here’s to hoping places like Valiant go where the big two can’t or won’t as they build out their own superhero universes. Let’s hope they establish themselves as sites of experimentation and diversity that reflects our real world. If they do this they will have an outsized impact on the comics world no matter how many issues they sell. It will pressure the big 2 to build more diverse and inclusive worlds themselves. And it will make for some awesome reading.

2 comments

  • First, a minor note: it’s “Wildstorm,” not “WildStorm.”

    Not including Joe Casey’s run on WildCATs 3.0 in this article is almost criminal – that is one of the best reimaginings of a superhero team extant in comics. WildCATS was also an extremely diverse team that built up a huge mythology and foundation for the rest of the Wildstorm universe. You’ve also overlooked one of the best superheroines of all, that being Zealot, who was never defined by her relationship with a male character or male expectations. Rather, the reverse was true – her relationship with Grifter was such that he was always in awe of sublime power and ferocity, from the very first issue of WildCATS to the last.

    I really disagree with you about Mark Millar’s run on The Authority – it was Millar at his crudest, his most adolescent, reminiscent of Garth Ennis at his worst. Millar displayed a contempt for the superhero genre with his first few issues of The Authority and it got worse from there.

    You’re also leaving out the marvelous Mister Majestic, the best Captain Expy of Superman since Peter David’s “Supreme Power.”

    I still think Midnighter’s best characterizations came in various stories in The Authority and Garth Ennis’ solo Midnighter book (which you are not aware of, based on what is in this article?). I like Steve Orlando’s Midnighter, but he’s not nearly as dangerous or as funny as handled by previous writers.

  • I really want to encourage more commenters on the blog and I’m trying to assume the best of people. But I do want to flag for you that your tone here comes off as condescending.

    Anyway: the WildStorm logo always looked capitalized to me so I looked it up before I wrote my piece. Wikipedia has WildStorm written with the internal capitalization so that’s what I went with. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WildStorm

    I specifically stated in my essay that I don’t know WildCATS but that Brett has spoken very highly of the series and that it seems relevant to this topic. So no need to get indignant, I did acknowledge the series’ importance.

    I didn’t overlook Zealot. I didn’t talk about particular characters at all in this piece other then Midnighter. Zealot is in fact pretty darn cool. I also didn’t mention Mister Majestic because I am not focusing on the specifics of characters but yes, he did offer a different conceptual take on a Superman. There’s a whole lot of characters I didn’t mention.

    I don’t think Millar was expressing contempt for the superhero genre. I think he was expressing contempt for the power of corporations and making a legitimate and often ignored point about how it is in the interest of people in power to keep the world exactly as it is. That is an incredibly important point to make.

    He was ALSO crude (as you say). And I hated how Millar treated Apollo.

    But what he did by having the team replaced because The Powers That Be don’t want the world to change is actually far more like something Ellis would have done in his NEXT Wave series. Ie, something smart.

    I am aware of Ennis’ solo Midnighter book but it was under WildStorm, not DC. I should have made that distinction. I didn’t see much acclaim for it and I generally don’t like Ennis’ writing so I didn’t read it. I immediately picked up Midnighter’s solo series by Steve Orlando because I was relieved to see the character being written by an actual bisexual man for a change (the earlier writers were all straight). Orlando personalized the character in a way that made him far more interesting to me. I would have liked to see Midnighter take on corporate power more in the series but he was still absolutely badass. I mean, he punched a ribeye stake through a guy’s head!

    And for the first time Midnighter felt like an absolutely real person. Something the earlier iterations hadn’t focused on as much because of their team dynamics. Perhaps Ennis’ solo book did and it’s just my loss for not reading it. But I really don’t like his Punisher books. Here’s my write up of Orlando’s Midnighter https://graphicpolicy.com/2015/12/11/who-or-what-should-midnighter-punch-next/