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Looking for diversity in comics? Try the ‘multiverse’

(Shutterstock/heather hopp-bruce/globe staff)

In superhero comics, universes are as common as death traps. Ever since the Silver Age Flash Barry Allen met the Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick back in 1961, multiple universes have been part of the comic book landscape. But the multiverse is offering more than geeky sci-fi fun these days.

As seen in the continued success of Ultimate Universe Spider-Man Miles Morales, the reinvention of dead Spider-Man girlfriend Gwen Stacy as Spider-Gwen, and the reimagining of the original superheroes as all-female in DC Comics’ Bombshells, the existence of the multiverse is proving especially beneficial for diversity. When you can create new universes on a weekly basis, you’ve got a powerful tool for flipping the dominant script. Increasingly, multiversity is equaling diversity.

The main advantage of alternate universe stories — or elseworlds, to use a term popularized by DC — is they don’t have to follow the official continuity of a company’s main universe, which tends to be an amorphous beast composed of thousands of stories that may or may not “count.” Official comics continuity is paradoxically always changing but never changing significantly. As AV Club comics journalist Oliver Sava notes, “Right now Marvel has a black Captain America and a female Thor, but I don’t expect these changes to be permanent in any way. I’d love it if they were, but I’ve been through so many cycles of ‘bold new directions’ that it feels like there’s a planned obsolescence in these changes.”

In an alternate universe, the status quo is up for grabs. This can lead to reinventions like Spider-Gwen. Gwen Stacy is known mostly for dying in a 1973 battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. But as part of 2014’s multiversal Spider-Verse, writer Jason Latour and artist Robbi Rodriguez created a world where Stacy is more than a tragedy to make Spider-Man sad: In this world, she’s Spider-Woman, and Peter is the dead one. Because of the great concept — and, let’s face it, even greater costume — Spider-Gwen was an immediate hit. As Rodriguez marveled in a phone interview, the character went from not existing to being featured on T-shirts in Hot Topic within six months.

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Rodriguez feels working in an alternate universe allows creators to “take more risks” and “play around with ideas more.” That kind of flexibility just doesn’t exist in a primary comics universe, as Sean Edgar, an editor at Paste, notes, “The older, most successful properties are tied to million-dollar licensing deals and merchandise that restrict what can be done to the characters.” On the other hand, he adds, “Alternate reality stories don’t have those restrictions. They can articulate and evolve the character in new and radical ways.”

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No wonder many of the best superhero stories — such as The Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come, Superman: Red Son, and Old Man Logan — are elseworlds stories. Recently, one of the most popular is Miles Morales, the half-black, half-Latino Spider-Man created in 2011 by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli. Marvel launched their Ultimate line back in 2000, creating a new universe and fresh slate for characters. The biggest update occurred when Peter Parker died and was replaced by young Morales — a replacement that stuck, unlike the temporary replacements in the main Marvel Universe. Morales has been such a hit that he survived the end of his own universe: The Ultimate Universe is going away in the wake of Secret Wars (a universe-smashing, cosmic event), but Miles Morales will be joining the main Marvel Universe.

TV and movie reboots often feel like elseworlds, and they often include more diversity, as they update old franchises. The 2004 reimagining of “Battlestar Galactica” famously outraged fanboys by making tough-guy pilot Starbuck a tough woman. The TV prequel “Hannibal” replaced white male characters Jack Crawford, Alan Bloom, and Freddie Lounds with a black man and two white women, while creating a new Hannibal-verse. But more explicit multiversity is making its way to comic book TV and movies, plus other geeky fare. Paste’s Edgar says, “ ‘Star Trek’ and ‘X-Men’ showed how film properties could radically evolve without abandoning the actors and storylines before them. There’s less cognitive whiplash.”

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While multiverses might be an easier destination for diversity in all media, that doesn’t mean mainstream universes have been abandoned to the usual straight white guys. Writer Marguerite Bennett has been a force in bringing diversity to both the mainstream Marvel Universe — with an all-female Avengers team called A-Force — and an alternate DC Universe, through Bombshells. The first page of Bombshells upends the most famous superhero origin of all, as the Waynes and young Bruce are saved from Joe Chill by Batwoman — who already existed. As Bennett describes, “In this universe, no heroine is derivative of a male counterpart.”

Ideally, change needs to happen across the board, as stressed by artist Tula Lotay, who co-created a neurodiverse, heroic version of the Lois Lane archetype in Supreme Blue Rose for Image Comics: “Different takes on existing titles such as Elseworlds are a wonderful way to introduce a more diverse range of characters. . . . But I also think this has to run alongside creating new diverse characters which will hopefully stay in the hearts and minds of children growing up now and go on to be their favorite characters as they grow older.”

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In other words, all creators, whether working in Earth One or Earth 43, need to do a better job representing another world: this one.

Mark Peters (@wordlust) is comic book editor-at-large for The Bark and author of the forthcoming “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press.

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