The Multiverse According to ComicsXF!

With the looming release of Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness serving as the latest entry in pop culture’s recent obsession with multiverses and realities alternate, parallel and multiple, we asked our ComicsXF writers to share their thoughts about their favorite alternate reality from across the wide multiverse of stories! 

Earth-1610: The Ultimate Universe by Armaan Babu

The thing about a comics Multiverse that includes stories told from decades before you were born is how distant most of it can feel. There are significant chunks of the Marvel Universe that I have never read, and possibly never will, despite how vital they are to the stories being told today, but the Ultimate Universe? I’ve read every single issue ever published, and that’s a lot of comics — and I’ll be the first to admit, a lot of them are not very good. 

So why is this my pick?

Part of it is the sheer energy this universe kicked off with. Starting with Ultimate Spider-Man, the Ultimate Universe shucked off the weight of Marvel continuity to just focus on the moments that would hit the hardest. It started heroes off in a modern context, made everyone younger and a lot more overwhelmed. The world was darker, the bad guys more savage, and the stakes ran deeper — you knew an alternate universe could get away with things the main universe couldn’t. There was that constant multiversal joy of seeing familiar faces, themes and tales being remixed and presented in bright, shiny new packaging.

It helped that this was all coming out in my early teenage years, and in that brief window of time American comics were being published and regularly released in very affordable formats here in India. I wanted superhero comics to feel edgier, darker, more “realistic.” I wanted lasting consequences in a shared universe. I wanted insane and intricate layers of worldbuilding. 

That impossible dream. “Everything is connected.” The attempt to make the most of a shared universe. The ripples one book caused were felt in another title in a way that regular universe comics couldn’t match. The Oz formula, the number of villains spawned from attempts to recreate Captain America (not to mention the entire mutant population itself): when it began, the Ultimate Universe was just small enough to make all the connections work, and it’s a philosophy the MCU attempted to adopt when it began too, along with other big elements from good ol’ Earth 1610.

We’ve all seen what happened to the MCU. What counts as part of that shared universe and what doesn’t is as much a matter of headcanon as anything else. Its attempts to expand into various TV shows (ALL of which have made just enough references to each other to be able to technically count) fell apart, but the center still holds. The Ultimate Universe, however, didn’t have the privilege of being a multibillion dollar undertaking, and towards the end it was collapsing beneath the weight of its own uniquely convoluted continuity, dying off in 2015’s “Secret Wars” event, and bringing the best of itself over to the regular universe with Miles Morales.

As weird as things got towards the end, I still miss that universe and keep a sharp eye out for its return, because my favorite thing about it was this: being able to keep track of everything, being able to keep up with it as it came out, helped me feel like a part of it. 

The Ultimate Universe felt like it was mine, as much as any fan can feel possessive of a fictional place.

Multiversity’s Earth X by Sean Dillon

Oh boy, where to start with this one.

There’s a common desire within science fiction circles to contemplate what would happen if the Nazis won the war. (Second only to pondering if it’d be ok to murder a child if the child was really, really bad.) Oftentimes, the explorations will culminate in a return to status quo wherein American democracy wins out as the dominant form of governmental systems. Earth X is different.

Grant Morrison and Jim Lee’s The Multiversity: Mastermen #1 presents a world where the Nazis won… and kept winning into the 21st century. In essence, the comic positions a world where the Superman, one of the core ideas of American fiction, was consumed, corrupted and shifted into following an ideal of Truth, Justice and the Fascist Way! But unlike stories where the Superman is turned evil, the core principle of the Superman remains visible, if not amplified, within this Nazi nightmare.

It’s just that this principle isn’t the rebels of Morrison, the outsiders of Yang, or the queer strangers of Brombal. Rather, it’s the agent of the status quo that many fans of the Superman yearn for him to eternally be. Who looks at an age of cruelty, horror and evil and does nothing about it. There are no reparations for the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. No acknowledgement of guilt as “it was before I was born, why should I feel bad?!?”

You might have noticed my usage of the term “Superman” is not referring specifically towards the character of Overman. Overman feels immense guilt for what he was (if not knowingly) complicit in bringing about. For all that he builds a utopia, he cannot escape the ashes of those whose bones made the foundations. The Superman, meanwhile, scoffs at this display of weakness of Overman’s part. Leatherwing is proud of his Nazi grandfather’s service. Who cares if there was suffering in the past?

The core of any alternative history narrative that’s worth a damn should be the highlighted differences between the worlds the stories show and the ones in which we live. In Mastermen, we are shown a world where those with power do nothing about the cruelty of the world save, at best, mope around while being complicit in torture. A world where the superheroes are agents of a status quo and will fight to protect that status quo from terrorists, regardless of how monstrous that status quo was. Where fascist ideas are allowed to run rampant while anti-fascist ideas are condemned. Where might makes right.

Why is Earth-X my favorite Alternate Earth? Because it reveals how close our world is to one where the Nazis won.

Earth-12025: Home to General Howlett by Cassie Tongue

Oh, the agonies and ecstasies of comics exploring the multiverse. Sometimes you see characters and settings you love distorted with pain, suffering, or struggling under the weight of a single labored gag. And sometimes you get a glimpse of the stories that really feed your soul – the stuff you wish could be integrated into the 616 universe, Marvel Comics’ ‘home’ reality.

X-Treme X-Men (2012) is written by Greg Pak, who has a knack for blending light, easy humor with sustained and satisfying arcs of character growth. The series is penciled by Stephen Segovia, who world-builds with clever landscapes and delights in catching character expressions.

In the series, everyone’s favorite 616 disco superstar-turned-superhero, Dazzler, is pulled into a multiversal task force (we first met them in Astonishing X-Men Vol. 3) to destroy the ten most evil Xaviers before they kill all of creation.

This is a multiverse comic full of sharp character investigations, explorations and experiments. It features a couple of warmly sexy and unexpected romances (the one between Dazzler and Corporal Scott Summers of Earth-70213 is a particular delight), but it’s the romance that springs from Earth-12025 that is the more nakedly romantic and unabashedly sexy than most anything in the 616 reality, and acts as a balm for queer audience hearts.

This Earth isn’t utopic, or even particularly pleasant: it’s styled like the late 1890s or early 1900s, a time of heroes, adventures and Victorian morality. But it’s where, despite all social pressures, despite all obstacles faced, two of that universe’s biggest heroes fell in love and refused to keep it quiet.

James Howlett, Governor-General of the Dominion of Canada and Viceroy of Her Majesty’s Expedition to Shangri-La, was well known for his strength and bravery. So too was Hercules, the demigod son of Zeus and Lion of Olympus. As they fought together, this brawling warrior-poet with a heart of gold and this blustery super-strong flirt with, well, a heart of gold, they fell for each other. In a neat, heart-tugging twist, Hercules even gifted James with mystical Adamantine, which bonded to his skeleton to create the metal-coated bones and claws we know so well. A Wolverine as we recognize him, created not with cruelty, not by stripping him of his humanity, but instead created with the ultimate gift of humanity: love? Its effects are a quiet revolution.

The Queen has outlawed sexuality, and Zeus has forbidden any god but himself from consorting with mortals, so for a moment, James and Hercules keep their love – good, nourishing love, built on gentle teasing and open affection – secret. But after they saved Canada from a giant monster, they revealed their love to the public.

It didn’t go well – Zeus banished the couple to fight damned souls in the pits of Tartarus – but their love and devotion never wavered. When they are reunited in a new universe in X-Treme X-Men, the pages seem to sing with joy.

And when we read their relationship, perfectly loving without sacrificing an inch of established character traits, we get a glimpse of what the 616 comics universe could look like if it would ever reflect the ‘real world’ in which it supposedly takes place: full of heroes proudly owning their identities from all corners of the LGBTQ+ community, still saving the world with courage and blood and battle, but saving themselves, and those around them, with the gift of being their whole selves: loving freely and being loved in return.

Earth-18133: What If Magik Became Sorcerer Supreme? by Latonya Pennington

Illyana Rasputin has a fire and a vulnerability to her that I love. I picked What If Magik Became Sorcerer Supreme? #1 because Leah Williams’ writing brings out both these sides to Illyana beautifully. This comic imagines what would happen if Illyana became Doctor Strange’s pupil instead of joining the New Mutants. 

The story begins right after a teenaged IIiyana has escaped from a literal seven years in hell with her demon captor Belasco. She is so scared and hurt that she initially uses her mutant teleportation powers to run away from Doctor Strange when he offers a sorcery apprenticeship. It’s only when he assures her that he wants to give her a safe place that she relents.

One particular page that stands out is a panel representing a montage of Doctor Strange teaching Illyana magic. Chris O’Halloran’s colors, Filipe Andrade’s artwork, and Clayton Cowles’ lettering are a kaleidoscopic delight. To me, it represents Illyana’s potential expanding as a person.

This impression is further cemented as Doctor Strange attempts to teach Illyana creation magic and she struggles for months because Belasco made her a tool for destruction. Yet despite this, she manages to create the Soul Staff, a pure and tangible representation of her soul. A moment after she does this, Belasco finds her again and she is forced to use her staff to stab and kill Belasco.

Now on the verge of literal self destruction, Doctor Strange takes Illyana to a blight plane and tells her to let go of her self-hate, lest she kills herself with her own magic. At first she is scared of hurting Strange but he tells her he can handle her explosive release of pain. As a result, she lets some of it go and reclaims her innocence, which is represented by various child-like drawings. It is here that she takes her first step to succeeding Doctor Strange as Sorcerer Supreme, deciding to grow rather than be buried by trauma.

The Earths of All-New X-Men #25 by Stephanie Burt 

Half the pages in this issue might as well be splash plages, and more than half are splashy: Brian Michael Bendis and company (and it’s one hell, and heaven, and purgatory, of a company) did not turn in a story about an alternate Earth so much as a pack of mini-stories, storylets, and suggested could-have-been-stories about the whole idea of alternate Earths, inviting the fans – especially the fandom-fans, the transformative fans, the fans who like to follow our own “what ifs?” and canon-compatible futures – to track down our favorite figures’ might-have-beens.

Most of the issue depicts, one by one, those alternate Earths. A roster of 27 (yes, I counted) artists, from 2010s alterna-hits and Tumblr-based cartoonists to vintage Claremont-era collaborators (Paul Smith! Art Adams!) illustrate a range of potential futures, from the disastrous to the triumphant. Each involves one or more A-list mutants, nearly all are depicted via just one or two pages apiece. We begin in horror and conclude by fighting Skrulls in space, as members of what would have been the X-Men fan out across the universe and find their destinies with or without their namesake team.

Pixie and Rogue could work as agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.! Kurt Wagner could join the Avengers! Bizarre combinations of powers and costumes, as in a delightfully goofy, wavy-lined cover for “Giant-Size X-Men 25 (499 cents!)”, imagine mashups of Steve Rogers with Illyana Rasputina (shield and sword!), Piotr Rasputin and punk Storm, Betsy Braddock as Captain Britain in Iron Man armor, all while the Original Five X-Men look on, aghast. Betsy as the Captain prefigures the Krakoan era, while a whole page of Illyana Rasputina (in her Bachalo-era boob-window black costume) shows her reveling in her later-explored, psychologically-rewarding alternate-Earth role as the Sorcerer Supreme. 

That’s a serious outcome. Others are just bonkers. Bendis and Marcus Wicks turn in two pages and sixteen total panels on the past and future of Kitty (not yet Kate) and Piotr, taking advantage of the comic book’s physical form. The page turn divides the past (as of 2014) from the future, where Piotr and Kitty just keep almost hooking up, till death do they part: “I want to grow old and die with you, Peter.” “Okay.” “But I only have four days to live. So we really have to get moving.” 

Alternate Earths give writers and artists the power to tell stories about our favorite characters that could not, would not, do not fit into any imaginable main continuity: they are too happy, or too ridiculous, or too universe-destroying, or too sad.

Yes, sad. The first few Earths here show one character apiece, each meeting an appropriate, and expressive (or even expressionistically rendered) doom. Emma Frost goes catatonically mad: “Her mutant power revealed the true nature of man to her every second of the day. Every horrible, ugly, criminal, awful thought pummeling her over and over.” We see her nearly disappear, eyes shut, a slash of blue lipstick amid endless shades of off-white. Beast goes feral in the Savage Land, “smart enough to get away from other human beings” (except Ka-Zar) before he finally loses all sense of self. Iceman, in Skottie Young’s dynamic snowpocalypse, dissolves into rampaging icicle monsters, like a scene from an extended cut of “Let It Go.” And Jean Grey, in a scarily suggestive one-page pinup, becomes a queen of hell on a corpse-throne. 

All these realities, the framing sequence shows us, would have come to pass, but now “will never happen,” because Hank McCoy has brought the Original Five X-Men from the Silver Age into the present of the Bendis era. That’s what the Watcher tells Hank, backlit by moonlight on a rainy night. “A myriad of realities you have destroyed, Dr. McCoy.” Hank has prevented all sorts of catastrophes, but he has also prevented the myriad beneficial outcomes that could have come to pass if he had just let the O5 be.

The Watcher, of course, won’t help Hank make it right: he just likes to watch, and Beast is – or believes that he is – on his own with his overwhelming guilt. “It’s not too late,” he objects in sleepless darkness, dramatically rendered by David Marquez and Justin Ponsor. “I can still fix this. I just need –.” Hank trails off, melancholy, head on pillow, eyes open, still staring at the ceiling. 

All New X-Men #25 is an excuse for Bendis– and therefore for readers– to enlist the varying talents of so many artists, including those semi-retired from comics, those who don’t draw comics much because they’re far better paid to do something else, and those whose talents could not fit a whole normally-plotted issue. It’s also a story about how some of us can’t stop imagining: about idealism, and about anxiety and catastrophic thinking. How many realities do you imagine, for yourself or for your loved ones, every day? How many end badly? How many turn out right?  How many could you describe as your own alternate Earths? What if you knew those alternate Earths were real, or could have been real, except…. except…

I love this issue for a constellation of reasons – the art and the artists, the goofball parts, the serious thinking about how some of us, too, see the future, or alternate futures, along with our own regrets, every time we look at the people we love. (Does Beast have an anxiety disorder? Does he need psychological help, or just magical assistance, or melatonin? Or all three?) But the brightest star in that constellation, for me, is – of course –  the most famous part of the issue, the one that speaks directly to my predictable lesbian heart. 

Ronnie del Carmen normally works for Pixar: he was, among many other distinctions, the story artist for Ratatouille and Coco. We don’t see him in Big Two comics much. But here he is, with two pages of carefully rendered (are those charcoals? or pencils?), beautifully and subtly colored (almost all yellows and oranges and browns), elegantly superimposed faces and full-body portraits and combat poses and hand-holding frolics and even a hotrod joyride and a bathing-suit romp, depicting the unalloyed delights and adventures of one Kitty Pryde and her… you know the rest. Let’s just say Kitty’s charismatic, magical companion shows off blond bangs and a hefty sword and undying, very much reciprocated, loyalty to her one-time roommate and longtime best friend. 

Apologies to the people (Papa Chris Claremont perhaps included) who see Rachel Summers and Kate Pryde as monogamously together in their best lives, but this tableau, not that one, is The One. Here it is at long last, with the coyest, most delightful caption in post-Claremont Marvel history: “with your struggles of self behind you, your people are free. Free to live. Free to love. Free to experience adventure and friendship. Free to be all that one can be.” 

That’s a future worth waiting – no, worth working – to see.

Earth-2182: “A Nocturne’s Tale” by Anna Peppard

I have a lot of feelings about Talia Josephine “TJ” Wagner, aka Nocturne, aka the alternate universe daughter of Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch. And those feelings are especially big and messy in Exiles #41-42, “A Nocturne’s Tale,” written and penciled by Jim Calafiore. This story is a flashback for TJ that’s a flashforward for us, into one of many possible futures for the Marvel comics universe we know and love.

TJ’s world—official designation Earth-2182—has elements of tragedy. In this world, Shadow King used Wolverine to kill Professor Xavier, which left Logan with paralyzing injuries and a whole lot of guilt. It also fractured the X-Men. Cyclops, unable to forgive Logan, fronts a new Brotherhood. Logan, meanwhile, takes over the Xavier Institute alongside his longtime bestie Kurt Wagner, who hasn’t aged especially gracefully (can we please stop drawing forty-year-olds with dramatic wrinkles?) but is wonderfully unashamed of this fact. When he’s not off-duty in a Picasso tee and Daisy Dukes, Earth-2182 Kurt pairs his eyepatch and white goatee with an X-Men uniform that employs a sash for a shirt, meaning he’s usually nipples-out in a fight and I love that for him. 

The relationship between Earth-2182 Kurt and Logan also intrigues me. Though this Kurt is still fond of the mother of his child, he and Wanda don’t live together. Instead, Kurt lives with Logan. Logan is the one Kurt tenderly cares for. Logan is the one Kurt collapses into the couch with at the end of a long day to discuss parenting dilemmas. Sometimes, alternate universes are worse than the world we’re used to. Sometimes, parts of them are better. (This story definitely needed more Wanda; the fact she’s only present on a TV screen is the most tragic part of this tale.)

Then there’s TJ. 

I also love TJ, and how could I not? She’s the ultra sex-positive, body-positive, adventure-loving, rock band-fronting daughter of two of my favorite characters and looks like a female version of my number one fav. I should want to be TJ. And part of me does. But another part of me sometimes recoils at the thought of being her. I like Kurt’s slutty outfits because on a male body, that flamboyance feels rebellious.

In contrast, TJ’s hyperfeminine re-embodiment of Nightcrawler, with her perpetually scarlet lips, impossibly tiny waist, and perfectly separated, always-perky breasts, can cast me back into the bad parts of puberty, when I lived in terror of the obligations of womanhood. Or, more accurately, the obligations of binary gender, since I’ve never really wanted to be a man, either. I’ve always just wanted to be me. Which means being a boyish girl, or maybe a girlish boy. Whatever that means, but it makes sense to me.    

My favorite scene from this story negotiates these messy feelings. Midway through Exiles #41, Kurt supervises TJ in a training session. TJ’s wearing Kurt’s classic costume, except the white gloves are longer and the white boots become thigh-highs to better showcase her shapely legs. But TJ’s not excessively objectified in this sequence, at least not reductively. Her sexiness is athletic, joyful, and shameless, evoking but exaggerating the stuff I love about Kurt. And yet, nothing she does is good enough for him. Kurt harshly criticizes her for not taking things more seriously or following his instructions, causing TJ to retaliate with a typical teenage complaint: “I’ll never be you, so stop trying to make me you! And you’re not going to change me by constantly yelling, and lecturing, and reprimanding! It just hurts! When do I get to be me?!” 

When I read this admittedly generic exchange, it’s more and different than that. It’s not TJ talking to Kurt. It’s me talking to me, about the way my younger self sometimes thought I could escape misogyny by copying it. I wish I’d had the strength at seventeen that TJ does here, to embrace my boyishness without devaluing my femininity. I can’t be Nightcrawler, any more than TJ can. Not because he’s a man or because he’s not real, but because, like TJ, I need to be me. Which isn’t Kurt Wagner or Talia Josephine Wagner, but does remind me of the latter at the end of this scene, when she walks out on Kurt, flatfooted and un-fetishized, to be her own version of her hero and mine. 

Fantasy, science fiction, and the entire medium of comics are thought experiments, ways of rewriting/redrawing the world to review it. Alternate universes, with their might-be and could-be relationships, families, and doppelgangers create additional cerebral and sensual entanglements. (If I had more time, I’d also talk about the version of Jean Grey merged with Colossus who visits Logan in bed.) Alternate universes remind us that regular/real universes are always unstable, unto themselves and in the heart and mind of the beholder. Which is why alternate universes are like gender, and perfect for thinking through it. 

Earth-43: The Vampire Batman Earth by Matt Lazorwitz

Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of alternate versions of Batman. Whether we’re talking about the various multiverses, Hypertime or Elseworlds, DC has made a cottage industry of crazily-different versions of Batman. But of all of them, the one that sticks in my mind the most is the Vampire Batman of the Red Rain/Bloodstorm/Crimson Mist trilogy. 

Set on a world where there are seemingly no other superheroes or super-powered beings, and the supernatural is still superstition, this series plums the depths of Gothic horror in three volumes that follow Batman down a darker and darker path.

Volume one, Batman/Dracula: Red Rain, sees the Lord of the Vampires, Dracula himself, come to Gotham, and Batman must fight him alongside a group of vampires who have reformed and seek the destruction of their lord, only for Batman to be turned at the very end. The second volume, Bloodstorm, has a now-vampiric Batman fighting the urge to drink human blood while combating the vampires’ new leader, the Joker, and allying himself with a were-cat Catwoman. And in the final volume, Crimson Mist, a Batman who has given himself entirely to his bloodlust cuts a swath through Gotham’s underworld, and his allies and enemies must team-up to stop him before he begins to take innocent lives.

This was published under the Elseworlds banner, when DC technically had only one Earth and any other story was outside of canon, so creators could really go wild. What makes this series so interesting is that while it is wild, it’s also well thought out. The narrative thrust of the story is about addiction, about Batman slowly succumbing to it and fighting against it. It’s a character-based story, not one built solely around a crazy idea, as a lot of Elseworlds stories are. It also holds back on a ton of winky nods to DC continuity and canon, which was also a major shortcoming of a lot of Elseworlds: the more they tied in, the more they felt bloated and full of groaning, bend-over-backwards story beats and cameos.

But while the Vampire Batman story is interesting, and the themes compelling, what truly sells these books is the art. Kelly Jones is a master of the macabre and a master of Batman stories. There is no artist better suited to a tale of horror in Gotham. His Batman’s cape seems to live on its own. The vampires are not sexy, sparkly things, but the stuff of terror. His Joker is a terrifying clown. And in Crimson Mist, the fully vampiric Batman is something out of nightmares, a skeleton wrapped in a Batman costume, with bugs crawling all over him, his fangs always bared.

While the story was designed to be a closed circle, a trilogy with a beginning, middle and end, DC never lets anything good rest. When the Multiverse was recreated this story was said to be set in Earth-43, and the vampire Batman was still somehow alive there (well, undead anyway). I prefer to think of that as a variant on this Earth, as this story has such a satisfying conclusion.

If you like your superhero comics with a scary edge, and don’t mind a truly tragic ending (like most of the best alternate universe stories have), then you can’t go wrong with the Vampire Batman trilogy. 

The World of Jeeves by Robert Secundus

I’m fascinated by alternate realities that are not recognized as such by their readers today. My favorite novel, Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (and yes, I know he was an absolutely wretched person and is likely burning in Hell, you don’t need to @ me), is set in an alternate future but not recognized as such because its alternate future actually came to pass. It’s a post World War I novel that ends in World War II, published 9 years before World War II. If you give it to someone who doesn’t know the publication date, a couple of details in the final section might strike them as a bit odd, but they’ll likely conclude those details come down to Waugh’s weird dark comedy, not that they were details he predicted somewhat inaccurately. Reality changed the genre of the story: science fiction became historical fiction, our world joined the alternate. 

Waugh asked “what if the Great War did not in fact result in world peace; what if we all lied when we said that we’d never let that happen again?” 

And then the world answered. 

But my favorite alternate Earth setting tends in a sort of opposite direction. Instead of an alternate future that became our own, it’s a setting that most people think of as our past: the stories of PG Wodehouse. They are not true. This is a past that never existed. If, flipping through our cable channels, we caught an image of Hugh Laurie sitting down and playing “Minnie The Moocher” for Stephen Fry, it would be easy to assume we were watching one of the Bright Young People of the 20s and 30s. But that isn’t true. George Orwell outlined the situation clearly:

“But there is another important point about Bertie Wooster: his out-of-dateness. Conceived in 1917 or thereabouts, Bertie really belongs to an epoch earlier than that. He is the ‘knut’ of the pre-1914 period, celebrated in such songs as ‘Gilbert the Filbert’ or ‘Reckless Reggie of the Regent’s Palace’. The kind of life that Wodehouse writes about by preference, the life of the ‘clubman’ or ‘man about town’, the elegant young man who lounges all the morning in Piccadilly with a cane under his arm and a carnation in his button-hole, barely survived into the nineteen-twenties.[..] the period was really the Edwardian age, and Bertie Wooster, if he ever existed, was killed round about 1915”

But Orwell only gives part of the story, because while the characters can only exist before the Great War, the plots explicitly take place after. (Also, I think he could go back a bit further. The Drones have the Dandy in their DNA.) Wodehouse created something we cape nerds would recognize as a kind of sliding timescale; his “what if” is “what if these these archetypes, these people, these aspects of a culture survived, and kept surviving, and lived among archetypes and cultural contexts that only appeared later?” And he kept writing this patchwork setting into the 1970s.

The Alternate Earth story is often employed to say something about our own by contrast, or else about the preceding fiction. The Mirror Universe tells us something about Starfleet and about Kirk. What if? Magik tells us something about Ilyana as well as her original plotline. Dystopian fiction from Utopia to 1984 tells us about our own philosophies, politics, governments. The examples I’ve offered interest me because I can’t help but wonder: what do they have to say now

If the Alternate Earth works by contrast, what can we learn from them when we can no longer detect the contrast at all, when either the march of history or our own historical memories occlude the difference? 

Earth-295: “Age of Apocalypse” by Austin Gorton

It was in eighth grade biology when I first heard about the death of Professor X. 

My fellow comics-reading friend Chad – the same person who brought me into comics by leveraging my love of baseball cards into comic book cards a few years before – breathlessly broke the news to me that Professor X was going to die and Marvel was going to cancel all the X-books. 

I didn’t believe him. 

The X-Men were Marvel’s best-selling characters! They had a cartoon! They wouldn’t cancel our beloved X-books! They couldn’t! 

Chad persisted. It said so in Wizard.

That shut me up. 

I still wasn’t sure I entirely believed him. But I did believe him a little bit, at least.  

Of course, we were both right (and both wrong): Professor X did die, and Marvel did, technically, cancel the X-books. But they also replaced them with all new titles starring twisted alternate reality versions of the X-Men living in a world without Xavier, where a genocidal despot rose to power and conquered America: the Age of Apocalypse.

(And four months later, they, uh, uncancelled the X-books.)

Long before I’d even cracked the chromium foil-enhanced cover of X-Men Alpha, the kickoff issue to the event which I bought from one of the three comic book shops which then existed inside the Mall of America because the early 90s were wild, I was pot committed. The death of Xavier, the cancellation ruse, the sheer scale of the event (to say nothing of already being a dyed-in-the-wool X-Fan), sucked me in completely. 

Seeing the new versions of beloved characters cast in new roles, the amount of world-building that had gone into the crafting of the new reality (how I pored over the proto-Hickman data pages in the back of the earliest issues that marked the lines of Apocalypse’s territory on a map and hinted at the identities of his various subaltern Horsemen), the cool 90s grimness of it (Cyclops lost an eye! Wolverine lost a hand!), it all justified the hype. And the art – from burgeoning rookie Joe Madureira, to the slick and reliable Andy Kubert, to the enigmatic Chris Bachalo – all presented on new deluxe paper stock that took advantage of advances in computer coloring – more than met the scale of the story. 

It was like nothing my thirteen year old mind had ever encountered before. 

It wouldn’t be long before that early teenage wonder would harden into mid teenage cynicism, when the scales would come off my eyes and I’d see the X-office for what it truly was, less a leading part of a well-meaning House of Ideas and more a highly successful arm of a commercial enterprise designed to sell as many comics as possible while doing its best to make everything that happened in the stories look like they were always meant to happen that way. Revisiting the “Age of Apocalypse” event with a critical eye, it is far from flawless. But it remains admirable for its scope and its scale, for its commitment to a bit. 

It came along at the perfect time, to both fool me, and hook me, and reward me, with the sheer audaciousness of it all. 

They wouldn’t kill Xavier, I had insisted to Chad, shoving books into my backpack as the middle school bell rang. 

They wouldn’t cancel all the X-books.

They couldn’t. 

“Age of Apocalypse” convinced me – however briefly – that there wasn’t anything they wouldn’t or couldn’t do. 

Earth-200500: “Beards” by Zachary Jenkins

In this universe, all the Avengers have beards.

I think more superheroes should have beards.

In this universe, all the superheroes have beards.

This is, therefore, the best universe.

Austin Gorton also reviews older issues of X-Men at the Real Gentlemen of Leisure website, co-hosts the A Very Special episode podcast, and likes Star Wars. He lives outside Minneapolis, where sometimes, it is not cold. Follow him on Twitter @AustinGorton

Anna is a PhD-haver who writes and talks a lot about representations of gender and sexuality in pop culture, for academic books and journals and places like ShelfdustThe Middle Spaces, and The Walrus. She’s the editor of the award-winning anthology Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero and co-hosts the podcasts Three Panel Contrast and Oh Gosh, Oh Golly, Oh Wow!

Cassie is an arts and culture writer living on Gadigal land in Australia. For 10 years she’s been working as a professional theatre critic, and is delighted to finally be writing about her other love: comics, baby.

Latonya Pennington is a freelance contributor whose comics criticism can be found at Women Write About Comics, Comic Book Herald, Newsarama and Shelfdust, among others.

Matt Lazorwitz read his first comic at the age of five. It was Who's Who in the DC Universe #2, featuring characters whose names begin with B, which explains so much about his Batman obsession. He writes about comics he loves, and co-hosts the creator interview podcast WMQ&A with Dan Grote.

Robert Secundus is an amateur-angelologist-for-hire.

Stephanie Burt is Professor of English at Harvard. Her podcast about superhero role playing games is Team-Up Moves, with Fiona Hopkins; her latest book of poems is We Are Mermaids.  Her nose still hurts from that thing with the gate. 

Zachary Jenkins runs ComicsXF and is a co-host on the podcast “Battle of the Atom.” Shocking everyone, he has a full and vibrant life outside of all this.