Alternate cover: Alternate Universes

Is the Marvel multiverse getting out of hand? James is finding it hard to keep up with it…

As a comics reader, I’m no stranger to alternate universes. Indeed, as documented in the opening column here on Den of Geek, the first ever US comic I bought was set in one, so it’s not a tough concept for me to wrap my head around. However, looking at the shipping list for this week’s Marvel comics, I couldn’t help but notice that alternate universes and peripheral, out-of-continuity series were running rampant. Here are the Marvel releases coming out this week, stripped of collections, reprints and non-superhero titles:

Amazing Spider-Girl #26Amazing Spider-Man #577Avengers Fairy Tales #4 (Of 4)Big Hero 6 #3 (Of 5) Captain Britain And Mi 13 #7 Eternals Annual #1 Fantastic Four True Story #4 (Of 4)Marvel Adventures Spider-Man #45New Exiles #14Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane Season 2 #4 (Of 5)Wolverine #69X-Men Magneto Testament #3 (Of 5)

The comics highlighted in bold are taking place out-of-continuity in one way or another. Surprisingly, for a week when no Ultimate book is even shipping, only 5 of the books are happening in the regular Marvel Universe. The others are either isolated in their own similar-but-different worlds, like Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, or a possible but not canonical timeline, like Amazing Spider-Girl. New Exiles even occupies the unique position of being an in-continuity look at alternate universes. Wrap your heads around that, if you can.

The sheer amount of such stories begs the question: is continuity quite the cornerstone it sometimes seems to be? Personally, I’m a big fan of keeping track of continuity and canonicity. I don’t care for Buffy novels or Star Trek comics because, as far as the parent medium is concerned, they didn’t “happen”. Which I know is ridiculous, because none of these things happened anyway! They’re all fictional stories!

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Still, I have to wonder whether continuity itself is soon to be a done deal. You practically need a degree in quantum physics to explain what the DC Universe has done with its continuity, but as we see, even Marvel – the original model of a shared superhero universe – is playing fast and loose with the idea now. Is it because books that take place in their own “universe” are more accessible to casual readers? Or is it because the interlocking nature of continuity actually restricts the storytelling potential of comics, and alternate universes are seen as a way around that? Either way, the signposting is clear: continuity is holding enough people back that they want to work outside it.

So why stick to it at all? Is it purely to keep the “old fans” happy? Perhaps. There’s business logic in it too, that says “buy one Marvel Universe title, and you’ll soon want to buy more.” Certainly, Marvel’s film division think it’s a good idea, as even now they’re weaving together the universes of various big-studio films with the aim of creating an “Avengers” story down the line.

It’s hard to say whether current models of continuity will ever go away. Logically, it’ll only stick around as long as it actually helps sell comics – but if this week’s releases are any indication, it seems like the day when it doesn’t might be closer than we think…

James writes Alternate Cover every Monday at Den Of Geek. His previous column can be found here.