In 1985, DC Comics began publishing an event comic known as Crisis on Infinite Earths. Written by Marv Wolfman with art by George Pérez, the comic detailed the collapse of the DC Multiverse into a single universe. One where Superheroes were a relatively new idea with Wonder Woman only coming into play at the then modern day. All the imaginary stories, all the alternate earths were discarded in favor of the single vision of what the DC Universe should be.
In contrast, Marvel Comics has an occasional series known as What If…? wherein readers are presented with an alternate version of events where things work out differently. In some, we are presented with worlds where the worst-case scenario goes horribly for everyone while in others that worst-case actually leads to a better world. Some What Ifs take on major events like the Death of Gwen Stacy or Captain America coming into the modern-day. Others take minor things like giving a boy a Sentinel or pondering if Bruce Banner was the monster and the Hulk a good man. But with all of these stories (the best at least), even in the bleaker narratives where the Nazis win and domestic abusers go unpunished, there is a sense that this was the only way it could have gone, even if we know alternatives exist.
I bring this up because a fundamental flaw with the Tales From the DC Dark Multiverse project is the inability to hit that sweet spot. A chief example of this is Bryan Hitch’s take on the Flashpoint universe. Unlike most entries within this project, this one opts for an optimistic ending where the death of the Flash in his attempt to regain his powers during the Flashpoint event inspires the Reverse Flash (after a fashion) to undo the death of Bruce Wayne. While the narration hints at a potential bleak implication for the universe, Hitch’s visuals lean more towards the traditional heroic ending shot. There’s no sign that this world is any bleaker than one where Superman defends President Donald Trump from a horde of angry foreigners.
What’s worse is that the moment is unearned. One minute, Reverse Flash is going on and on about the futility of hope, then the next he’s inspired because Superman didn’t let Batman kill him. He is inspired by the potential of Superman to make a better world. This is, in short, complete and utter pants. While Superman has the power to inspire the best in other people, there has to be more to it than “he’s Superman.” A Superman who goes around acting as an agent of the US Government isn’t one worth following any more than one who is openly a fascist dictator.
The comic doesn’t justify the Superman of its world with anything other than the simple fact that he’s Superman and he doesn’t kill. This Superman has nothing behind him to show that he could, in the words of Reverse Flash, bring about “a legacy of hope, a true heroic age.” This Superman has spent his whole life trapped in a cage with no interaction with the outside world, save for the events of this comic. He’s only given the status of being a beacon of hope because he is Superman. But the name isn’t enough.
Indeed, like Superman, the word “hope” is meaningless. Hope in what, exactly. In a bunch of costumed people who we’ve seen as monstrous. Hope in a vague idea that doesn’t really make sense. For that matter, what do we hope for them to do? Bring about the status quo of the main DC Universe, just more oriented towards the Flash and lacking a Batman? Do something radically different from what the rest of the DC Universe would do? These questions, and more like it, are not even contemplated by any of the Tales From the Dark Multiverse.
This is best understood when reading the best of the comics within this volume of Dark Multiverse Tales: Steve Orlando and Mike Perkins’ take on Crisis on Infinite Earths. Here, we are presented with a world where the world of the JSA was made the main DC Universe. There are a lot of interesting implications when approaching such a pitch. For example, there’s how such a change would alter Infinite Crisis. In that comic, we are presented with Geoff Johns’ typical approach to nostalgia wank where the past was always better, corrupted by entering the present.
In this universe, however, Superman is an old man. He is part of the first generation of heroes. What does this Superman do when confronted by a younger version of himself who finds his world wanting? What failures could a Superman, whose origin is tied with a desire to do social justice and upend corruption, have? Would the troubles of mind wipes, murder, and paranoia fill this version of the world or would it have its own failings?
Indeed, consider the JSA. In modern times, the JSA has become the ultimate Boomer idea, where characters are confronted with how much better things were before they got dark and gritty. As one Johns comic infamously put it, “The Justice League is a strike force. The JSA is a family.” (A common tactic for people trying to make their superhero team look better.) What does this universe, one populated with characters from the generation that gave us Ronald Regan and Richard Nixon, look like when forced to deal with the brunt of decades of continuity? Of the trends of the 80’s and 90’s? What does a Post-Watchmen JSA look like?
Unfortunately, Tales From the Dark Multiverse is not interested in exploring these implications. Instead, Orlando opts to sidestep everything in favor of the JSA dealing with Ragnarök for some reason never made fully clear in the comic. It doesn’t feel like a follow-up to Crisis on Infinite Earths so much as a dark reflection of a JSA comic that ends with the Green Lantern becoming the Silver Surfer. And while one could argue that the marketing of Crisis on Infinite Earths makes for better marketing, this is a volume that has a book riffing on War of the Gods. The What Ifs of Marvel had stories that took on Marvel UK, Conan the Barbarian brief time as a Marvel Character, and the most obscure of characters. It’s perfectly fine to do something that most readers haven’t heard of as long as you have the willingness to back up what you’re doing.
It’s that unwillingness to go wild with the premise, to do something interesting with the implications, to be willing to not do the obvious, that ultimately dooms The Tales From the Dark Multiverse project. Every single one of these books feels like it’s doing the same trick of bleak misery and pain. The best of the What Ifs that ended with things going sour often didn’t permeate the world with misery. Garth Ennis’ What If The Punisher Killed The Marvel Universe? had a boatload of Ennis’ typical wry, if edgelord, sense of humor. What If Iron Man Sold Out? featured a world where militarism reigned supreme, but also allowed for a more optimistic ending where heroism isn’t defined by that militarism. Even The Man, The Monster, for all its bleakness, utilizes itself into a story about domestic abuse and the way men in power can get away with monstrosity.
As such, let’s take one What if and explore it in-depth: What if Captain America was revived today? In the first expression of this premise (written by Peter B Gillis and drawn by Sal Buscema), we are shown a world where Captain America was never found. As such, the Avengers disband because they lacked a central pillar to hold them together. But more than that: other figures come into prominence. Mainly, a more fascist version of Captain America, one whose views on the world are opposed to the rising civil rights movements of the sixties and seventies than the Captain America we know.
So when Steve Rogers does inevitably come to the modern-day, he finds a world where the fascists have taken over. All potential resistance to this rise has either been taken out or gone underground. So when Captain America does eventually defeat his more fascist counterpart, he speaks not of the greatness of America, but of its fragility. How easily it can fall to fascism if just the right face says it’s ok. Above all else, none of the Dark Multiverse stories collected in this trade are willing to deal with the political ramifications of their stories. For them, it’s all just continuity nonsense.
It is fitting then that the best of the Dark Multiverse Tales remains Jeff Loveness and Brad Walker’s riff on the Death of Superman. Their story, while not perfect, understands the need for balance between bleakness and delight. Not merely the wallowing in a lost past that Orlando gets up to in his Dark Multiverse tale, but of the lost potential of Superman. How that potential could have been used for other purposes, be it the overthrow of systems or to be there to help. To fight those who profit off of cruelty. And how that potential, even with the best of intentions, can lead to damnation.
It doesn’t shy away from the implications of its tale. There’s no last-minute change into something else, no rejection of its central premise in favor of something else. It just does what it does and does it quite well. It’s not the best Loveness has done, not even in his Superman work. But he nevertheless utilizes his fondness for the character towards a universe where he cannot win. Every element of the comic builds to the tragic end. It never feels like there’s an onslaught of misery with every page.
The nightmare at the heart of Loveness/Walker’s Dark Multiverse tale that all the other ones lack is quite simple: It works as an answer to the question “What if Lois Lane was the Eradicator?” All others fail to answer this question. And that, ultimately, is why the Dark Multiverse fails. The people working on the comics, many extremely talented writers and artists, cannot fathom considering the implications of their thought. At best, they gesture towards the answer, more often providing a response that has nothing to do with anything.
The scenarios provided feel too out of place from the stories they spring from, too alternate from the universe. In turn, they say nothing, mean nothing, and do nothing save for exist. A dark mirror should be able to reflect upon the world, to see where one zigged where the other zagged. But alas, the mirror provided is nothing more than a black one. And you can barely see anything in complete darkness.