I’ve been thinking lately about what it is that makes shared superhero universes work, especially those launched in the wake of Marvel and DC’s Silver Age. I find analogue (or “mash-up”) universes particularly interesting, sparked by recent dives into Black Hammer, Copra, and the Image Comics mini written by Alan Moore known as “1963.”
As the likes of Astro City makes clear, there’s a welcome familiarity to analogue superheroes, and a quick release satisfaction to identifying the source material. Spotting elements of Darkseid mixed with Galactus (and is that a side of Anti-Monitor?) is a lot like playing rock critic with a new band (The sonic inspiration is clearly solo Nico by way of Duran Duran). The trick that these worlds have to pull off is crafting substance behind the reference points.
Without question, Black Hammer is the best example of this success in recent years, and frankly one of the best I’ve ever read. Writer Jeff Lemire is not subtle in his character re-imaginings, with obvious Martian Manhunter, Mary Marvel, and Thor meets New Gods (aka the Full Kirby) forming part of his original core heroic team. Nonetheless, the characters are quickly and carefully established with personalities and complexity of their own. As a result, the thrill of a re-imagined superhero universe is blended with an engaging story of its own.
For my money, Black Hammer taps into one of the most exciting possibilities of this style, with the limitless opportunity that follows freedom from the burden of history. Marvel and DC are institutions with decades upon decades of continuity, and continuity breeds expectations. Spider-Man can’t die, at least not really. Certain principles hold steadfast, or alter then revert, perpetually reinvigorating Stan Lee’s “allusion of change.”
While I don’t necessarily think this is a net negative – the tapestry of the superhero mythology is an unparalleled feat in modern story – there’s undoubtedly breathing room without such restrictions. Black Hammer uses this space for quieter introspection, family dynamics, and even future-flung immigration policies. It’s an emotionally resonant restructuring of every comic lover’s favorite playground, with two years of grand ideas and no signs of slowing.
Copra taps into a similar high, with Michel Fiffe’s creative vision for an all-new Suicide Squad. In addition to the classic Squad lineup (Amanda Waller, Deadshot, and Count Vertigo analogues are easy to spot, just to name a few), Fiffe also weaves in Marvel classics like Doctor Strange and Clea, alongside the Punisher, all warped through new secret identities and slightly remixed character designs.
In addition to its character comparisons, Fiffe’s Copra also wears its stylistic vision openly, indebted to the Ostrander, Yale, Mcdonnel Suicide Squad. The entirety of Copra is a love letter to that specific run – this is no secret: Fiffe himself is one of the most genuine fans of the series out there – and is metatextually just as much an exploration of creative inspiration as it is an actual narrative.
Critics of either series might suggest glorified plagiarism or fan-fiction as derogatory ways of describing the projects. Given that this is essentially what all superhero comics are post-creation-stage, I’m not willing to give the criticism much credence.
Oddly, the most straight-laced of the bunch is the Alan Moore written “1963,” with art by frequent Moore collaborators Rick Veitch and John Totlebon (and Swamp Thing stalwart Stephen Bissette). The series (which lasted 6 issues, and should have included a giant-sized conclusion… but never did!) was pitched as “What if Alan Moore created the Marvel Universe!” and rather than update that concept for the times, it plays exactly like Moore’s version of characters in 1963. The dedication to the era is impressive if lacking in much of anything actually new to enjoy.
Unlike Moore’s “Supreme,” which uses a Superman analogue to write some of my all time favorite “Superman” style comics, “1963” actually does register like particularly skilled fan fiction. Thor’s mythology transitions laterally to Horus, Captain America becomes U.S.A., and the Avengers become “The Tomorrow Syndicate.” There’s a dangling plot thread about a “modern” invader from 1993 visiting all the ’63 verse characters, but apart from this, it’s very much Alan Moore and company doing their best Lee, Ditko, and Kirby impressions.
In a lot of ways, “1963” is a nice reminder that simply changing the character’s names, costumes, and origins isn’t enough to provide the reward of analogue comics. There still has to be a hook, whether it’s as fully formed as Lemire and Ormsten’s Black Hammer, or as motivating as Fiffe’s self-published artistic growth.
Comics Thing I Love: Insane Digital Sales
If you’ve ventured to Comixology over the past two weeks (or simply perused most comic press sites), there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen Marvel’s “biggest sale ever.” While Marvel’s no stranger to hyperbole, up to 80% over 3,500 titles is genuinely great.
I typically force myself to avoid digital sales, knowing I’ll see the book in Marvel Unlimited soon enough, but this one got my attention. In particular, the sale was perfectly timed with my recent obsession with Marvel’s original graphic novel line (which started in 1982, and is woefully undercollected). I nabbed 10 OGNs for $18, and although reading Dazzler: The Movie was one of the worst experiences of my life, it’s obviously a great deal.
There’s two elements to this sale I love in particular:
- There’s an entire Spider-Verse selection of discounted collections, perfectly timed on the heels of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
- Marvel dropped this sale right as DC released Aquaman to theaters, effectively quelling the hype on the digital sales bump side of things.
As a whole, publishers seem more and more willing these days to hype up a major loss leader as an in-road for new readers or fans who just can’t resist insane savings on comics (*raises hand*). Honestly, when you factor in the cost-per-comic value of Marvel Unlimited, or frankly the preposterous ease of online streaming (no, not legally), it just makes sense for Marvel and the like to say “Yeah, you can have the Coates’ run on Black Panther for $3 a pop, and will look forward to seeing you around as a lifelong fan as a result.”