The 10 Best Elseworlds Stories

By Matthew Catania in Comics, Daily Lists, Nerdery
Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 6:00 am
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DC Comics used to be chock full of experimental "Imaginary Stories" that took place outside of mainstream continuity - not that they were that concerned about things making sense. Imaginary Stories had been kiboshed once DC tightened its hardly-buckled continuity belt in Crisis on Infinite Earths, but that didn't stop its creators from dreaming up scenarios that couldn't fit within the streamlined status quo. The solution was to launch the Elseworlds imprint as a means of telling independent alternate reality tales which either re-imagined established characters in new contexts or showed the effect that changing key events would have on the DC universe.

Published as mini-series, one-shots, and sometimes annuals, they were clearly stamped with the Elseworlds logo so as not to cause confusion with the in-continuity titles. And because they're self-contained, each story told under this branding can have complete arcs and radically alter - or permanently kill - popular characters.The first Elseworlds title is arguably 1989's Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, although it was printed without the distictive logo. It clicked with fans looking for new takes on old favorites and launched numerous stories across DC's Multiverse, but this cottage industry slowly ground to a halt & became moot around the time 2005's Infinite Crisis decided that twenty years of relatively sensible continuity was long enough. Various Elseworlds characters were last seen being forced to battle each other in Countdown: Arena, which missed the point of not mixing the Multiverse.

Now that the imprint is kaput, it's a perfect time to catch up on all of them. But if you're a normal nerd with limited funding and shelf space, which Elseworlds can't your libaray afford to miss out on? The best not only tell engaging standalone yarns, but they also give new insights into their stars. Having gorgeous art doesn't hurt either.

Only works originally published under the Elseworlds banner count here, so please don't complain about the lack of The Dark Knight Returns and "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" in the comments. Although the New 52 hogs all the limelight, elements from Elseworlds appear in Injustice: Gods Among Us (a shoe-in for the "Most Overwrought Video Game Title of the Year" award) and the Infinite Crisis online multiplayer, proving that even altverse IP gets recycled. While modern DC Comics compulsively retcons and reboots itself, let's take a nostalgic look at some outstanding comics that were intentionally out of continuity.

10) Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham

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It is known that nerds love Batman and the works of H.P. Lovecraft above all things. Mike Mignola had the brilliant idea to mash them up into the peanut butter and jelly of comics. The result feels surprisingly organic; if any superhero could stand to be more macabre, it'd be Batman, and his gothic reinterpretations of Killer Croc, Green Arrow, Two-Face, and Oracle are particularly inspired. Twenty years after his parents were viciously stabbed to death by a madman, a nightmare-haunted Batman returns to Gotham City to prevent the necromancer Ra's al Ghul from summoning one of the tentacle-tastic Elder Gods. (It's got plenty of nods to Lovecraft stories, although Arkham Asylum is strangely absent.)

The only downside, which is unfortunately common in Elseworlds tales, is that the conclusion is too abrupt. Oddly, DC never reprinted this mini-series in a single collection causing the already pricey issues to skyrocket on the secondary market. Their stubborn refusal to make a surefire profit on a Batman book is a sure sign they've been infected with the madness of the Great Old Ones!

9) Kingdom Come

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Kingdom Come is the epic tale of Superman & other old-guard Justice Leaguers coming out of retirement after Magog (a dead ringer for Marvel's Cable) and his Justice Battalion accidentally let Parasite blow up Kansas. (OOPS!) The reunited Justice League thinks the new generation of metahumans is too violent and irresponsible not to be thrown in a giant prison; the ultimate "Get off my lawn!" move. Lex Luthor's Mankind Liberation Front (made of old school villains) seizes upon this volatile generation gap and a brainwashed Captain Marvel in an attempt to get rid of all the superhumans in one fell swoop. Meanwhile, Batman forms a rival intergenerational superteam to save the day because Batman is always right.

Who knew Mark Waid could blend Biblical allegories and meta-commentary on 90's superhero comic books with such nuance? The real draw, however, is the best work of Alex Ross' career. Not only does he paint futuristic versions of just about every pre-existing DC character, he also invents dozens of new ones. In addition to admiring the insane level of photorealistic detail lavished on tons of metahumans, keep your eyes peeled for scads of in-jokes in the background. Could it be the whole project was a colossal ruse so Ross could paint EXTREME versions of the Beatles, the Monkees, and the Village People?

8) The Golden Age

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James Robinson's & Paul Smith's The Golden Age adds some much needed depth to previously one-note Golden Age heroes. After helping win WWII, the Justice Society of America is having trouble adjusting to life during peacetime. Starman has a nervous breakdown over his guilt in helping create the atom bomb. Green Lantern gets blacklisted for refusing to narc on his radio station's commie employees to Senator McCarthy. Hourman struggles with addiction to Miraclo pills, the source of his powers. Only Americommando and Dan the Dyna-Mite are flourishing as a senator and his protégé, and they're so obscure that they're never dusted off for JSA reboots! This story features the best use of the Ultra-Humanite (DC's first supervillain and Nazi scientist), though it would've ranked higher if he appeared in his albino ape body. Luckily everyone's complex personal problems are resolved during a climactic bloodbath in Washington, D.C., to stop an insidious threat to the nation. Othwerwise, how would you know it's a superhero story?

7) Justice Riders

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Long before wild west versions of Justice League were popular on DeviantArt, DC had that niche officially covered. Rail baron Maxwell Lord made a big mistake when he razed the town of Paradise to the ground: It made Sheriff Diana Prince very angry. She gathers a posse of Kid Flash, Hawkman, Booster Gold, Blue Beetle and Martian Manhunter to bring Lord and his immortal buddy, Felix Faust, to justice. Complicating matters is Pinkerton agent Guy Gardner out to collect the bounty on Kid Flash for the murder of Marshal Barry Allen.

J.H. Williams III's moody art is fittingly gritty for a western, and contrasted with some of the loveliest panel borders around.The heroes' powers are tuned way down, but it's not that irritating since Chuck Dixon writes gunfights so well. Luckily he's not too obsessed with making things "grounded" or "realistic," otherwise we wouldn't be treated to an over the top climax in the clockwork city of Helldorado where Lord fights the Justice Riders in armor made out of an entire steam locomotive. After that, there was nowhere for steampunk to go but down.

6) Superman: Red Son

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What if Superman's rocket landed in Ukraine instead of Kansas? Mark Millar answers that hypo in a rare instance of good taste. (The premise of just one event being different is strained a bit, however, when analogues of Batman, Pete Ross, and Lana Lang also conveniently appear in the USSR.) The Cold War escalates exponentially once Superman becomes Stalin's right hand man; fortunately for the USA, it has Lex Luthor to provide countermeasures.

When the idealistic Superman becomes leader of the Global Soviet Union, he raises plenty of ethical concerns in his attempt to turn the world into a utopia. The story spans multiple decades to paint a broader picture of how a communist Superman reshapes global politics. Red Son is like a political science class where nations are represented by metahumans wailing on each other. This Elseworld also handles Luthor's Presidency much better than mainstream DC did - as with many Superman tales, Lex is the real star of this alternate history show. Well, him and the opportunity to bust out some Yakov Smirnoff-esque quips as you read along.

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