It’s probably me. I’m probably the sucker.
I really just enjoy continuity in my funnybooks. I want things that happened before to MATTER. Elseworlds and What If’s are fun, but ultimately, I want there to be a big, long line of continuity that carries through the “main” books of a comics universe.
If what happened before doesn’t make a difference to what matters now, then… why should I care? Whatever’s happening now will be irrelevant soon, so I don’t feel as engaged.
Of course, that doesn’t entirely work, either, since Marvel and DC can’t “move on” from their cash cows, so Spider-Man is 26 in perpetuity, and Batman will keep getting younger and younger Robins without his own age ever changing. If time exists in a lock, then continuity–as much as I love it–doesn’t make much sense, either.
None of this is to say that I don’t like some quality alternate universe stories! Sometimes creators have a tale to tell that just won’t “work” if it is considered canon. So we get multiverse theory where there are thousands of Earth’s in both DC and Marvel where concurrent events take place. And some of comics’ best stories ever have taken place in these pocket universes!
So let’s take a look, not at some of the best alternate reality STORIES necessarily (though story quality obviously helps a great deal), but at some of the best alternate universes and what makes them work?
10. Amalgam Comics
I want more of this!
For a brief time, there lived this combined universe in which both DC and Marvel not only existed, but were smooshed together. Why have a universe with Superman AND Captain America when you can have a universe of SUPER-SOLDIER instead!?
This was never meant to be more than a bit of fun, and we will likely not see any revisit of it for a good, long time since Marvel and DC don’t work together as much as they used to. It was easier to get two little comic companies to play nice than it is to get media giants like Disney and WB to do so, I guess. Another downside to the over-conglomeration of media nowadays, I guess.
We could all stand to remember the Amalgam Universe, though, when we see people viciously fighting online over whether the MCU or the Snyderverse is better. At least at one point in time, these companies didn’t even care. Why should we? Maybe we deserve an MCSnyderU where everything is brown and gray but also has funny jokes.
9. Kingdom Come
Now if this was based STRICTLY on story quality, this would be #1 or #2. But as it is, Kingdom Come exists mostly as a four issue story and the occasional check-in’s ever since.
Mark Waid and Alex Ross created a future world that was neither entirely dystopian, nor overly idealized. Without the hyperbole of either direction, the Kingdom Come world felt wholly plausible. Characters got old and retired, while more and more superbeings continued coming into existence. And those new heroes had much more of an edge than their classic forebearers. It really was a parable for the industry at large. Sure we lost Jack Kirby, but we got, uh, Youngblood? So that was a thing.
For managing to feel both relatable AND dire–and for just being such a brilliant story–Kingdom Come makes the list even with relatively few appearances.
8. Days of Future Past
This is the granddaddy of them all for the Marvel Universe. The first alternate timeline that really impacted the 616 canon. It inspired hundreds of creators to dream up awful futures where all the heroics we see in the monthly titles don’t matter because our protagonists are DOOMED anyway. Really putting the FUN in Funnybooks.
With mankind growing so fearful of mutants that they let Sentinels roam unchecked and control the globe, homo superior is a dying race, and what few are left are almost all imprisoned. The heroes who might have stood against this injustice have also been squashed by the robotic menace, and the remaining X-Men have one chance: save the past!
Days of Future Past is much shorter story than you would think–just two issues of X-Men in the immediate aftermath of the Phoenix Saga–but it’s hard to picture the Marvel Universe without it. It opened so many doors.
7. Batman ’66
For a LONG TIME, this was the general public’s perception of comic books.
The campy classic Batman television show was popular and beloved, and no one CARED that it wasn’t what the books were “actually” like. It had pop-up sound effects! Bright costumes! Corny dialogue! It might as well have been the whole genre to 80% of people.
From a strictly influential standpoint, you can’t leave this one out.
And it was fun, too. There’s an argument to be made that it pigeonholed comics and kept them from being taken more seriously for literally DECADES in its wake, but that’s not the show’s fault. It just put smiles on faces.
6. Marvel 2099
Marvel is pretty good at occasionally releasing an entire reality in its own line, parallel to the main continuity books. One of their first and most successful attempts at this was the 2099 line in the mid-1990’s.
In a future that was over a hundred years away when it was dreamed up, there were flying cars and new religions… and new takes on some of our favorite Marvel characters. The best and most influential of them all was Miguel O’Hara, the future Spider-Man. But there were others! The X-Men, The Hulk, Ghost Rider, The Punisher, and more all had their own correlating 2099 versions. And Stan Lee came back for the 2099 line to plot a book called Ravage 2099! It… wasn’t great. But still! STAN LEE, kids! Take our new line seriously!
Spidey 2099 was an exceptionally fun book; Peter David excels when he can make up a whole culture. And I remember enjoying Punisher 2099, more or less. The others were a bit scattershot, but still… it was a good effort by Marvel to give an entire alternate reality its own ongoing line.
5. The Age of Apocalypse
I WAS SO CONFUSED BY THIS AS A KID.
I think I just missed any announcement that it was intended as a limited series; I just remember Marvel going “throw away everything you know about The X-Men; THESE are your X-books now!”
And I really assumed it was going to last forever. Not just, like, 5 months. So I definitely remember thinking “What about [all these unresolved plotlines]?!”
But yeah, for a few months, Marvel discontinued all of their X-Titles and replaced them with correlative books that took place in the Age of Apocalypse universe. X-Factor became Factor X (sigh), Generation X became Generation Next, Uncanncy X-Men became Astonishing X-Men, and so-on.
This worked because the Age of Apocalypse was TERRIFIC as a story, even with names like “Factor X”. And, like 2099 before it, Marvel went ALL IN on it, even if just temporarily. And due to its success, The X-Men books have revisited it and its characters multiple times.
4. The Dark Knight Returns
Dark Knight Returns is one of the most critically lauded comics of all-time, and it is credited for helping inspire a major shift in the genre to get it more fully away from the aforementioned Batman ’66 residual image.
Like Kingdom Come, it shows a future that is neither terrible nor perfect. It’s just a bit darker, scarier, and sadder than our own. And like Kingdom Come, it features an aging hero having to come out of retirement to save it from its nihilistic path. It feels mostly plausible (aside from Frank Miller’s bastardized Superman, at least), and had a huge impact on the industry.
I’m not a big fan of Injustice, honestly.
The games are fine as games, though I am historically utter trash at any fighting game that isn’t in the Dragon Ball Z Budokai series. But they are fun.
As a universe, though… this never really worked for me. It put a lot of work into some characters, but left others feeling like shades. Superman goes full autocratic dictator in the wake of a Joker scheme that caused him to kill a pregnant Lois Lane, sure. It’s an alternate world, so go nuts. But most other heroes follow his lead just… because? Why would Hal Jordan or Wonder Woman (among others) just act like Kal-El’s dogs and go along with his regime?
I never bought it.
Still, I’ll put it this high because it IS influential, and DC ran with it as an Elseworlds continuity for quite some time. And it’s become one of the alternate universes that even a fair few non-fans know about.
2. Ultimate Marvel
At the very end of the 90’s, Marvel realized it had a continuity problem.
Many of their featured characters were edging up on FORTY YEARS of established tales! It was hard to expect new fans to come right in and pick up a book and get what was going on.
What did they do? Did they reboot all of their titles? Gaslight us into forgetting what wars Tony Stark and Frank Castle were involved in? Merge Earths?
They basically said “Let’s start over for new fans while leaving everything else intact for existing ones!”
It was an idea remarkable in its simplicity. It didn’t chuck the previous 30+ years out the window and create a mess of a timeline no one can understand (DC, are you listening?); It just said “Sure Amazing Spider-Man is 400 issues deep. Would you like to read this new Spider-Man whose career is just beginning?”
And from Ultimate Spider-Man came Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Fantastic Four, The Ultimates, Ultimate Daredevil and more! There was a completely new Marvel Universe for fans to get invested in. And the books were mostly great!
And then it ran long enough that it became what it sought to fix.
Oh well! In its prime, it was incredibly important and well done.
1. The MCU
When I started this list, I thought “what could possibly slot higher than the Ultimate Universe”?
And then I remembered the MCU exists.
What do I need to say? The MCU has made approximately every single money in the world. It’s become THE pop culture consciousness of comic books. And after a few hiccups in the early 2010’s, it started churning out great flick after great flick.
WandaVision has shown there are no signs of slowing down.
So the MCU is the clear-cut #1 alternate universe in comics.
And, uh, I was lying about an MCSnyderU. We don’t… no one wants that.
- DC Bombshells – An alternate reality full of beautiful, pin-up style versions of our favorite DC heroines? YES, PLEASE. Also, it’s decor my wife and I both love. I only drink out of my Bombshells glasses!
- Marvel Zombies – A funny and silly reality where the Marvel Universe (and I do mean UNIVERSE) is overrun by a zombie virus.
- Batman Beyond – Loved this cartoon, and I appreciate that DC goes back to this well every so often.
And that’s my top ten. It might not be YOUR top ten, though! So hit me with it: what are your ten favorite comic book alternate realities? Which huge ones did I miss? I keep thinking there is at least one…
Until next time… take care!