The Rules of the Game: Crisis On Mono-Earth, part II
When last we met, the menace of "shared universes" (the unwholesome practice of setting the majority of a publisher's titles in a single continuity) was killing superhero comics.
I'm borderline serious, here.
I've already argued that shared universes add layers of unnecessary complexity to the reading experience. New customers can't figure out where to start reading, should they be so inclined. Casual readers don't exist anymore, as they can't hope to follow the stuff unless they're willing to commit totally. Even guys like us (well, most of us), who have already been reading pretty much everything for years can't keep it all straight any more. The result of these hopelessly tangled storylines, needlessly interwoven through dozens of comic book series, is to make anyone but a head case ditch the whole thing. Which folks are already doing, in droves.
Not to worry, Gordius. Just bring that nasty knot over here and Dwayne McAlexander will make everything all better.
I propose we sever the ties that bind. With one minor class of exceptions (which I'll get to later) let every individual title be its own universe. Marvel Universe? Screw it. DCU? Please, as if it were remotely coherent now. Tell the truth. You like the Elseworlds stuff better anyway, don't you?
Well, even if you don't...
I've already received letters from readers who freaked because they think I'm suggesting we get rid of continuity. Relax, I'm doing no such thing. I'm simply suggesting a separate continuity within each and every title. Ever wonder why the Avengers don't show up and help when the Fantastic Four is locked in mortal battle with Galactus? Well, don't. Because under the new rules, there aren't any Avengers in the FF Universe, and vice versa.
"What!?!," you say. "No guest shots? No crossovers?"
Sure there are. But only if the creative/editorial teams want them. The first rule of individual continuity is this: Nothing is canon unless it happened (or is referred to) in the pages of an issue of the comic you're reading. If the Empire State Building was destroyed in the latest issue of Green Lantern, there's no Empire State Building anymore, but only in Green Lantern. The Flash remains free to coax Gorilla Grodd down from the top of that that very same nonexistent building, because in his comic, it was never destroyed. Should I read only one of those titles, I don't have to keep track of continuity that has nothing to do with the comic I bought. If I happen to read both titles, the "discontinuity" is no more confusing than the fact that on The West Wing, the President of the United States is named Josiah Bartlet, and on Spin City, his name is Bill Clinton.
You still want to know about guest shots, don't you? Okay, Rule #2: Guest Shots are permissible, but they only affect the continuity of the book they appeared in. If Flash does a guest-shot in Green Lantern, there's no Empire State Building and the Flash sees nothing wrong with that. Moreover, back in the pages of The Flash, the crossover story never happened (unless it's explicitly referred to in those pages). You with me? If you're reading Green Lantern, it happened, if you're reading Flash, it didn't. Anybody can still meet anybody though, if you're into that sort of thing.
Rule #3: No continued stories crossing from one book into another. A multi-part story is fine, as long as all the parts take place in the same title. No part one in Flash, part two in Green Lantern, part three in the 48 page bookshelf Faster Than Lantern's Light! nonsense. If I like the Flash, that's all I should ever have to read. If I really like him, I can follow his circulation-building guest shots in other titles if I want to. But I never have to.
Before you ask, Rule #4: Team books and multiple character crossover books are permissible but take place in their own unique universe. You may have team books. Even team books like The Avengers or JLA that are made up mostly of members who already have their own solo titles. JLA can have both Flash and Green Lantern as members but it has its own unique continuity, which may or may not contradict the continuities of the Flash and or Green Lantern titles. Big crossover epics like Maximum Security would take place in a maxi series called Maximum Security. You wouldn't need to read any other titles in order to understand it. Characters that guest star in a crossover title aren't beholden to that continuity unless they choose to be.
This brings us to the exception of the exception to my shared continuity rules. Exception #1: Groups of titles may share continuity in ways that violate Rules 1, 2 and sometimes 4. In other words. If the Empire State Building is destroyed In Superman, it's also gone in Adventures, Man Of Steel and probably in Supergirl as well. If you want to define a group of titles as "X-Men books, and all of their spin-offs," this is also kosher. But rule #3 is inviolate.
Another happy result of this system is that it would strengthen certain titles that are diminished by being in a shared universe. Captain Marvel, Plastic Man and Wonder Woman, for instance, would all work better in their own unique worlds, worlds that differ than the shared DCU. Captain Marvel's Fawcett City, stuck in a retro 1950's, with talking tigers and world conquering worms, is at best an uncomfortable fit with Superman's "just slightly ahead of our time" Metropolis. Maybe you disagree with my examples, but you know what I mean. Do street criminals have ray guns? Is public mass transit light rail, buses or transporters? Is the Hulk the strongest one there is, or is Thor? Are magic and the supernatural real, or just scams to be uncovered by the Amazing Randi? The answers to questions like these effect the kinds of stories you can tell. My solution? Let these questions be decided in their own individual titles. Then the creators can build a unique world that supports, not simply allows, the conceit of a title.
The best part of my scheme is that the people who care deeply about how all the various titles relate to one another will have more to argue about than ever. Imagine the fun of trying to stitch all these contradictory continuities together into a seamless whole. The rest of us don't have to risk migraines thinking about it ever again. I remember once, many years ago Marvel executive editor Mark Gruenwald explained Omniverse, his theory of how various fictional cosmologies all fit together, to me. I think I got it, eventually. But I'm sure I had less trouble grasping the finer points of Special Relativity.
None of what I'm proposing is all that radical, really. We've all seen these rules in effect many times before, in intercompany crossovers. Superman vs. Spider-Man was my first exposure to this treatment of continuity but the latest Aliens vs. Whomever mini demonstrates the principles just as well.
Okay, you've got the gist of my plan. Now it's time to shoot holes in it. I'll give you guys a couple weeks for rebuttal. Email me with your comments and critiques, I'm especially interested in examples of good comics that wouldn't be possible under these conditions. In a month or so, I'll respond by either cruelly shooting you down right in front of everybody, or grudgingly admitting that you're right and trying to refine my set of rules. If you're really successful, I'll just give up the whole idea.
Okay, I'm running long. See you next week with one of those "bits and pieces" type things, wherein I try to pass off as a real column a bunch of random notions too thin to carry even a rambling, unfocused, thousand word essay.
Dwayne McDuffie is the co-creator of Static Shock and Damage Control. He continues relentlessly hyping his new trade paperback collection, Static Shock: Trial By Fire, even though he senses it may be undignified to do so. Dwayne loves for people to visit his web site, but asks that you refrain from reading his columns archived there, as he's been reusing way too much old material.