• Everything But Imaginary #451: One-Shot Universes

    Today is the day that's going to draw that sharp line down the middle of the comic shop – people reading Before Watchmen and people not reading Before Watchmen. This second category will actually be split further between people genuinely not reading Before Watchmen and those who simply say they're not reading Before Watchmen on the assumption that this gives them some sort of moral superiority. I've got to be honest with you, friends, as far as I'm concerned Alan Moore gave up his right to the high ground when he said that it's okay for him to “steal” (his words, not mine) the works of L. Frank Baum, J. M. Barrie, H.G. Wells and dozens of other writers, both with and without initials, but God forbid anybody write new stories with characters that he created (co-created, people seem to keep forgetting about Dave Gibbons in all this) by making slight alterations to the preexisting Charlton superheroes already owned by DC Comics.

    That said, I'm not getting Before Watchmen today, but it's not out of any sense of righteous indignation. I simply decided I'd rather not spend four dollars a week for the better part of a year for a set of stories that – if history is any indication – will probably read better in a collected edition anyway. You see, besides kicking off the whole “Superhero deconstruction” phase that gripped comics well into the 90s and still lingers today, there's something else that the original Watchmen spearheaded which has become something of a subgenre of its own. Whereas before, creators usually would come up with one character at a time and tell their stories, often weaving them into the “universe” of whatever company happened to be publishing them, after Watchmen we saw more and more creators taking the chance of creating an entire superhero universe, a self-contained one... and very often, a universe that was only intended to be used for a single story.

    Now I'm not talking about things that were always intended to be open-ended... Bill Willingham's Elementals for example, or Kurt Busiek's Astro City. Nor am I talking about those worlds that are altered or “possible future” versions of existing comics, like Kingdom Come or Earth/Universe/Paradise X. I'm talking about those comics where the writer and artist come up with an entire world worth of heroes knowing full well that after the series ends, their story ends as well (very often in a nigh-apocalyptic fashion). There have been several over the years, many of which have somewhat faded into memory, but many more that have left an impression... and probably because of the closed nature of the story, most of these work better if you read them all at once than one at a time. Here are a few of my favorites.

    Bill Willingham's Pantheon (originally published through Lone Star Comics and currently available digitally if you can't find the trade paperback) was a 13-issue series many people thought was created to use up the story he was planning to end Elementals with before its publisher, Comico, went out of business. I don't know if that's true (if it is, Willingham worked a lot harder at changing up the basic character types than Moore did with Watchmen), but regardless, Pantheon was an interesting sort of morality play. In this world, the superheroes of the Freedom Machine and their various allies have succeeded where the Avengers, Justice League, and everybody else failed – they've defeated all of the world's supervillains and established peace. But now the heroes themselves are beginning to fracture. Dynasty, leader of the Machine, believes the heroes' sole task now should be one of maintenance – staying on alert, helping with natural disasters and the like, but otherwise staying out of humanity's affairs. The powerful telepath Daedalus, however, feels that the planet's best hope is if the heroes themselves take over. The brewing civil war between the heroes on each side makes for a tense drama that ends somewhat abruptly, but in a very satisfying fashion.

    Perhaps the best-known example on this list is J. Michael Straczynski's Rising Stars. In this 24-issue saga (well... 27 if you count the issue zero, the ½ and the “prelude” special) a mysterious burst of energy from outer space hits an American town and grants super powers to over 100 children who are in utero at the time. The powers aren't readily apparent, of course – the mothers give birth and the children appear normal for several years, until one of them publicly displays incredible strength. Soon after the others begin to demonstrate their gifts as well, although calling them “gifts” is not always strictly accurate. This was Straczynski's first major comic book work and is still considered his best by many. (I actually disagree, I think top honors belong to his horror comic Midnight Nation, but this is a close second.) The comic manages to tell deeply personal stories of several characters, but was damaged during the original publication when a dispute between Straczynski and Top Cow concerning the movie rights for the property delayed the last three issues for over a year and a half. Yet another reason I think stories like this are best read after the fact.

    Less known but highly worthy is The American Way, an eight-issue Wildstorm miniseries from 2006 written by novelist John Ridley with art by Georges Jeanty. In this story, set during the space race of the 1960s, the government has created superheroes as a way to help boost the morale of the American People. Things get far more complicated, however, when a young black man is recruited to become one of the new heroes. This comic is as much about race relations of the time as it is about superheroes, and it handles the situation in a very clever, intelligent way that makes for a great read. Wildstorm released a paperback edition in 2007, but you may have to hunt around to find a copy. If you do, though, it's well worth it.

    A little more recent is Mark Waid's Irredeemable. This 37-issue series actually just ended a few weeks ago, but there are nine paperbacks currently available with the tenth and final volume soon to come. The concept here is that the Plutonian (an obvious and intentional Superman analogue), browbeaten by years of having to keep himself in check and deal with the ungrateful attitude of the very people he's sworn to protect, snaps and turns on mankind. As he cuts a path of destruction across the globe, the remaining heroes desperately attempt to find some way to stop the most powerful man in the world before the planet itself is destroyed. There's also the spin-off series, Incorruptible, which focuses on a villain called Max Damage. When the Plutonian begins his rampage, Max experiences a change of heart and decides to become the hero the world needs, only he doesn't quite know how to go about it. Although set in the same universe, the two books read pretty well independently of one another, only briefly crossing over for a four-part story (collected in Irredeemable Vol. 9) that explores the origins of both characters. The end of the series takes a very unexpected turn into metafiction that is surprising, but wholly justified by the world Waid has created. It also makes a sort of charming point of showing that, although Waid may be involved in a pretty public feud with the people currently in charge of DC Comics, his love for the DC characters doesn't appear to have diminished at all.

    The Mighty was a 12-issue series by Peter Tomasi, Keith Champagne and Peter Snejbjerg, published by DC in 2009 and available in two collected editions. In this book we meet Alpha One, the world's greatest – and only – superhero. Alpha One has selected Gabriel Cole to be his newest partner, one of a series of people recruited to run the day-to-day portion of his operation, many of whom have met with tragic ends. As Gabriel goes deeper into Alpha's operation, he finds more and more that his hero may not be what he thought. This book suffered a bit, I think, because it was launched at almost the same time as Irredeemable and had a similar premise (Superman gone bad), but I think it's really well worth reading. The plot is very different and the world is very different, and if you can find these two trade paperbacks, it's definitely worth your time.

    I'll throw out a couple of honorable mentions here as well: Garth Ennis and Amanda Conner's The Pro is a hilarious send-up of superheroes featuring a super-prostitute. I was only a one-issue special, though, and doesn't quite take the time to develop the world and the story that the rest of the books included in this list do. The other would be Brian K. Vaughan's Ex Machina, about a superhero who retires from the business and becomes mayor of New York. Running for 50 issues and four specials, the reason I can't place this book any higher is because it never really sat well with me. It opened up with some 9/11 imagery that I felt was pretty crass (the first issue came out in 2004), and honestly, I never got over it, and didn't follow the book much after that. Still, I know that many people consider it Vaughan's seminal work, and I'd feel remiss if I didn't mention it.

    At any rate, whatever I may think of Alan Moore himself these days, I do think that these comics are indicative of something he and Gibbons started with Watchmen... and again, show how effective these stories can be when you read the whole thing at once.

    Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner, and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com and visit him on the web at Evertime Realms.Read past columns at the Everything But Imaginary Archive Page.
    Comments 2 Comments
    1. Dirge's Avatar
      Dirge -
      I like to think I am in the group of people not reading Before Watchmen because I don't really want any more information about the Watchmen universe than what was provided in the original series. And if any of the series get stellar reveiws, I may go back and pick up a trade.
    1. Matthew Maddicks's Avatar
      Matthew Maddicks -
      I am not reading it for the same reason Blake provided, I think it will be better in collected form. Plus that way I will make a more informed decision regarding the quality of the series.

      Nice recommendations, I will have to check Rising stars