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
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
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
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 prot?g?, 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
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
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.
5) Batman: Holy Terror
Some writers and fans insist that Batman is a disestablishmentarian superhero even though being a white billionaire whose goal is to end crime by handing repeat offenders over to the authorities makes him about as pro-establishment as possible. Alan Brennert and Norm Breyfogle actually make a compelling rationale for a revolutionary Batman by making his parents victims of the state rather than criminals. In this reality, the USA is a Puritan theocracy that assassinated Thomas and Martha Wayne for providing medical care to “social undesirables.” Upon learning the truth from Inquisitor Gordon, Reverend Bruce Wayne becomes Batman to get revenge on the government. He’s further shocked to learn that it’s been performing ghoulish experiments on Flash, Aquaman, and Superman to weaponize their powers for its ongoing crusades. It’s refreshing that this rookie Batman doesn’t overthrow the system overnight, nor does he renounce his faith. This was a gutsy story to print as the first book to bear the Elseworlds sigil back in 1991; just don’t pick up Frank Miller’s Holy Terror by mistake.
4) Wonder Woman: Amazonia
Wonder Woman’s had a tough time transitioning to the big and small screens because you need to get both the mythic and feminist aspects of her just right. Transplanting Wonder Woman into a steampunk Victorian England built on misogyny and imperialism provides an excellent backdrop to contrast these tricky core features. By plunging her into these societal evils, author William Messner-Loebs also makes this perfect princess more sympathetic. Wonder Woman is exploited as a stage reenactor of Biblical feats (which is extra blasphemous since she’s Olympian-empowered) by her husband, Colonel Stephen Trevor of the Royal Air Marines, until she realizes her powers can help downtrodden women. Her effrontery puts her in the crosshairs of the King of England, who is Jack the Ripper (OF COURSE) and, more shockingly, American! This fight does not go well for the royal bastards who colonized her homeland.
DC printed this tale in an oversized format to better showcase Phil Winslade’s evocation of penny dreadful engravings. Of course, if this had actually been a penny dreadful, not a single reader’s monocle would’ve remained unpopped.
3) Elseworld’s Finest: Supergirl & Batgirl
Female spin-offs of popular superheroes are often overshadowed by their male counterparts, but that’s not a problem here as Superman and Batman are off the table. After her parents are murdered while saving the Waynes’ lives, Barbara Gordon protects Gotham City as the high-tech Batgirl. It helps that she’s turned the city into an Orwellian police state that bans metahumans with her Oracle Security System. (Take note, inefficient on crime non-Elseworlds Batman!) The sole survivor of Krypton, Kara Zor-El, joins Wonder Woman’s highly diverse Justice Society (it’s so inclusive it even has Ambush Bug as a member!) as Supergirl. When her benefactor, Lex Luthor, is kidnapped by the Joker in Gotham City, Supergirl breaks Batgirl’s embargo to rescue him. After locking horns, its leading ladies bond over mutual tragedies. Then they kick ass in a the rare one-shot with perfect pacing.
Not a page is wasted, yet nothing feels rushed. Barbara Kessel’s character driven action romp is perfectly matched with Matt Haley’s lush renders of appropriately buff superheroines. Once you see how chiseled these SBFFs are here, you’ll worry that their mainstream counterparts aren’t getting enough food and exercise.
2) Justice League: The Nail
What happens when a nail in the road prevents the Kents from finding Kal-El’s rocket crib? The Justice League forms without a Superman to win over humanity’s collective heart or keep the team from fracturing. Mayor Lex Luthor of Metropolis and a crippled Green Arrow rouse public xenophobia as Liberator robots round up metahumans. A massacre at Arkham Asylum breaks Batman’s psyche. Earth is cut off from extraterrestrial aid by a secret planetary forcefield. Nefarious supervillains are being eliminated before they can take advantage of the situation.
Who is the surprise mastermind behind this sinister conspiracy? What happened to the Kryptonian rocketship all those years ago? While most of the characters aren’t that different than they were in the late Silver Age, the context of the universe and its overarching plot make it an engaging story. Alan Davis writes and draws everyone (look for plenty of cameos) with the utmost of class. The Nail earns its uplifting ending by showing inspiring heroes in action; it’s a lovingly crafted testament to why classic superhero teams can be awesome. We’d even go so far as to say Davis nails it – if ToplessRobot weren’t above such low punnery.
1) Superman & Batman: World’s Funnest
During an argument between Fifth Dimensional imps Mr. Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite over whether Superman or Batman is The Best Superhero Ever, they accidentally kill both of DC’s sacred cash cows. Then their rivalry escalates to them destroying the entire Silver Age DC universe. It doesn’t end there, as Mr. Mxyzptlk chases Bat-Man across various alternate DC universes and timelines with murderous intent. Even The Spectre, the avatar of God’s wrath, doesn’t stand a chance against them. It’s Exhibit A of why fans can’t be trusted with infinite powers.
Unlike Countdown:Arena, it’s the rare crossover that’s not a gratuitous money grab. A murderers’ row of A-list artists (including Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, Mike Allred, Frank Cho, Phil Jimenez, Frank Miller, and Alex Ross, to name a few) provide distinct flavoring for each fan favorite universe smote by magical mayhem. Written by Evan Dorkin of Milk & Cheese fame, it truly is the world’s funniest Elseworlds comic. This multiversal massacre is both a scathing deconstruction of and a love letter to the kookiest extremes DC has to offer.