Ask Chris #267: Stories That Can’t, Couldn’t, Or Shouldn’t Be
A: I don't want to reject your premise outright since I think you're onto something here, but I also think it's worth pointing out that we're not exactly suffering from a lack of alternate-continuity stories, either. Multiversity, Convergence, and Secret Wars were all based at least partially on the idea of exploring and playing around with the same kind of stories that didn't quite happen. If, however, you're talking about those specific brands, the What If books and the Elseworlds imprint that showed up on so many comics, then you're right.
For the most part, I think it just comes down to a simple swing of the pendulum back from oversaturation. There were a ton of those stories, and as is usually the case with these things, publishers just decided to put 'em away for a while. But there's another reason, too, and it has a lot to do with why so many of those stories exist in the first place.
Comics have a long history with asking what would happen if things were a little different --- the classic "Imaginary Story" is such a staple of DC's Silver Age that one of the easiest ways to invoke the feeling of that era is to just type those two words together --- but they're far from the only venue for that kind of story.
Thinking about how different things would be if there had been one small change is something we can all relate to, whether it's the fun kind of take that we usually see in comics, or just that highlight reel of personal regrets that keeps you from going to sleep at three in the morning, and it manifests in the stories we tell on a pretty regular basis.
It's definitely not something that just showed up in 1942 --- I can't cite a source on this, but I've always heard that Shakespeare used to perform tragedies like Romeo & Juliet that we think of as being etched into stone with a happy ending depending on what he thought the audience would be into --- but superheroes do lend themselves to it more than almost anything else. It's a matter of sheer volume. If you look at a character like Superman, he's been starring in at least four stories every month starting in 1939 (when Superman joined Action Comics on the stands), and that's just in comics. When you consider how many of those stories were built around defining and codifying the mythology behind the character, it's not hard to see how easy it was to get from something like, "Lex Luthor is Superman's greatest enemy" to, "okay, but what if he wasn't?"
The imaginary stories gave an outlet for changes that couldn't be done in the regular stories that always had to return to the status quo at the end, which is probably why stuff like the original "Death of Superman" and "The Amazing Story of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue" ended up being so memorable.
Well. That and the weird hat.
As for the other side of the street, I think Marvel ended up with What If...? for what's almost the opposite reason. While DC spent so many decades keeping things at a standard status quo with slow, small tweaks added in, Marvel's storytelling was all about those Big Moments That Change Everything, from the Fantastic Four stealing that rocketship and Uncle Ben getting killed, all the way down to the rest of 'em, and those Big Moments invite the fun of asking how things would be different if they'd happened differently. I think that's probably why What If enjoyed such a huge resurgence in the '90s, an era that was promising that everything would change forever pretty much all the time, and we as readers demanded to know what would've happened if the heroes lost Atlantis Attacks. But I'll get back to that in a second.
I mentioned above that the "Imaginary Story" was heavily tied into the aesthetic of the Silver Age, and as DC made the conscious decision to move away from that, Alan Moore and Curt Swan pretty much put the nail in that term's coffin with "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow." The thing was, those kind of stories were still both interesting to readers and astoundingly profitable, and if you need evidence on that front, you need look no further than The Dark Knight Returns.
So the question became one of trying to figure out how you do those kind of stories while still separating them from the aesthetic of a bygone era, and the answer they hit on at DC was simple. You keep doing the same stories, but you just change the name. Thus: Elseworlds.
Okay, there was a little more to it than that, but only in that they treated them as prestige projects that they could package separately from the main titles rather than just using them for filler (and derailing the long-running, continuity-heavy stories that had become the dominant format). Other than that, though, they were the same idea, and while this is all just armchair editing at this point, I'd guess that Dark Knight's success was also why so many of them focused on Batman. I mean, they had the one where Batman was also Superman, the one where Batman was also Green Lantern, the one where Batman was also Hellboy...
You get the picture.
It worked, too. The Elseworlds line was a smashing success, thanks to both the inherently interesting nature of the concept and to the fact that they were often treated like huge events that may end up having drastic repercussions for the "real" stories. It was so successful, in fact, that in the era where Marvel's line was rigidly divided among groups of related titles, they briefly flirted with putting What If...? under an umbrella called "Alterniverse," which could not be a more blatant synonym for "Elseworld." But it never caught on, probably because it's a whole lot easier to just say "What If." The point remains, though, the idea of a new imprint focusing on those alterniworlds and elseverses was a hit, particularly for DC.
The best example of that is Kingdom Come, a book that would come to define the decade after its release for DC. It's the classic Imaginary Story setup of the Silver Age, providing an ending (of sorts) to characters that can never really end and giving slightly different takes on old favorites, but combines it with modern storytelling and an extremely serious tone that readers were very much into.
But I think that was also the point where Elseworlds started to turn, if only because success leads to more stories and when there are more of them, and like anything else, they lose a lot of their appeal when they're around all the time. Mike Carlin said as much back in 2003, when DC cut back the line.
There are a couple of other reasons, though. The first one that tends to apply more to the specific nature of What If...?, but it's the simple idea that you never want to tell your readers that they could be reading something better. Ideally, we'd all think that we were reading the best versions of our favorite characters all the time, because if we're not, then, well, why are we reading them?
I think that's probably why almost every issue of What If...? is based on the premise that if even one thing was changed about how the stories worked out in the main continuity, everything would just be terrible forever. I've read a lot of those things, and the only one that actually has a happy ending is the one about Wolverine joining SHIELD instead of Alpha Flight. The rest of them are just miserable, to the point where there's one called "What If The Punisher's Family Didn't Die" that is literally about the Punisher's family dying anyway.
The other reason, though, and maybe the more important one, is that we're living in a time when seeing alternate universes and alternate aesthetics for our favorite characters doesn't have the novelty that it once did. With the rise of the Internet, it feels like that's something that's shifted into the domain of fan art, where that natural instinct of wondering what these characters would look like in different settings, or if things had changed, can find a natural and immediate outlet. I mean, why would I bother going out and buying a comic about Batman being a pirate when a quick Google search will show me what he would look like if he was a pirate and a hedgehog at the same time?
I kid, but honestly, that's not a knock on the creative side of fandom. It's really great to see all those ideas floating around out there, filling that same role of providing takes that you wouldn't see in the regular, ongoing comics. But of course, there's still something about getting the official version that's a bit more fun. And like I said, we're not in danger of running out of those any time soon.