DOs AND DON’Ts OF SHARED UNIVERSES

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We who read comics are some of the few media fans who get to enjoy a special kind of collaborative writing – the shared persistent universe. Whole lines of comics, each written and drawn by a wide array of creators, share a world and sometimes even the same stories. It’s a huge undertaking to make sure that all of these different people, writing all of these different characters, in all of these different comic books can be in sync enough that it all will make some sort of sense when you read them all in a group. Starting with DC in the Golden Age, characters that were once the stars of their own series started to feel the effects of the events of other books. Sometimes they would join together in special events and eventually getting together as teams in their own books.

Marvel’s first foray into this new world was in 1940 when they published the battle of the original Human Torch vs. Namor the Sub-Mariner in Marvel Mystery Comics #8-10. It was a huge undertaking, combining the talents of a group of creators, and they didn’t really know if it would even work. DC was already seeing initial success with their foray into the single shared universe concept with their first superhero team book: All-Star Comics’ Justice Society of America. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, it was kind of an underground thing.

"It was way better on vinyl..."

“It was way better on vinyl anyway…”

After it was a success, the shared universe was eventually incorporated into the basic structure of superhero comics as a whole. Even new publishers implement it without a thought, and it always starts the same way: a character makes an appearance, then again in another book, and another. Usually popular characters go to new titles or to ailing books that need a sales boost, but it always ends the same way – everyone is together, and big stuff happens.

So what’s the problem? We get new kinds of stories, with a wide variety of characters, and cult favorites get more exposure. Win-win!

No, not really. Because like any business when someone strikes gold they don’t just dig, they BLAST, destroying everything around the gold in the process. We get yearly (more like quarterly) events that affect almost all of a company’s books. We get a story change  in one title that forces change in ways other writers have to accommodate, lest they ruin what is ostensibly someone else’s project. So, fellow geek leaguer, what can be done? Is it a benign creation that will eventually destroy us all?

Next time keep better track of your toys, ok?

Next time keep better track of your toys, ok?

Number one:

DO have a shared universe

DON’T let it strangle creativity

This is important, so listen up. It’s totally ok that Wolverine is on every team. It’s okay that Spidey has adventures in three books at once. Why? Because stories are fun, and fun stories require room to grow. Having a shared universe opens up the whole toy box to anyone who wants to play, and if you get bogged down in the continuity of who was where and at what time then it all gets messy. We wouldn’t have gems like Captain America being trapped in Zola’s dimension AND fighting alongside the avengers at the same time. We wouldn’t have Savage Wolverine and Wolverine and the X-Men. But if you have other parts of the universe following a stricter continuity rule you have to write in a not good at all special Age of Ultron issue to go into why Spider-Man isn’t acting like an ass during all of that. Who cares?! AU involved so much time travel I think I’m still reading it, so just add in a thing saying that he was dropped in from a couple of years ago I don’t know. It’s clear this story was written with Pete in mind, so give a throwaway answer and let the story be what it should be. And while we’re talking about events –

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Number two:

DO have a strong company-wide editor.

DON’T let creators run the show

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Hickman is doing an amazing long form Avengers story that is based in the core book, which might connect up with Avengers Assemble, New Avengers, and Uncanny Avengers. It’s going to be interesting to see because he always puts story arcs on a slow boil, letting it steam and simmer until all that’s left is a crock pot full of awesome.

Now with something that will undoubtedly take a year or more to be fully realized, you need to painstakingly plot it out. Work with other writers and artists in the books that will carry the story. Write out issues and rewrite, and confer with your editor. No matter how good you are, you can’t just go with your gut with something like this. While I stand by my first point, you can’t ignore how the toys are being used elsewhere. If something major is going to happen, and how you can try to weave that into the long form story you’re trying to put into place…that’s where an informed and enabled editor comes in. They would say, “Ok, so this is going to be happening in a few months, and this other thing in a year, so you’d need to adjust this to make it all work.” Not completely change, but tweak a bit. A character shift with no explanation can be confusing to people who don’t read the book that actually explains the change.

Then you have a company-wide editor to tell the line editors the important things that are happening. Not just a “Chief Creative Officer,” who has responsibilities far past making sure that the comics all work together. Not someone who simply writes overall stories for the universe at large. Someone who can make sure all the editors at all levels are on the same page, and that they are keeping their creators in line. Line editors need to make sure their writers aren’t going off the deep end (I’m lookin’ at YOU, Grant Morrison). Comic books are a creator driven business, but it still has to make some sort of sense.

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Number three:

DO box yourself in

DON’T overextend yourself.

What is my favorite shared universe? Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. Why? Limited Titles. A strong mission. Editors and creators working toward the same goal. A line editor that clearly was saying “What the…no I don’t think so.” It made it a joy to read the four or five titles in that line every month, and it wasn’t too complex to follow. They were telling a story that affected all of the different stories, but didn’t roll over them like the juggernaut. One of the things…no wait back up. One of the FEW things I like about the nu52 is the strict lines they have created for themselves, even though it creates more than a few problems.

This could not have happened in five years.

This could not have happened in five years.

Barring events like the current Trinity War thing they’ve got going on, DC keeps each of their title sections separated. The Bat line has its stories, the Green Lantern line is off on its own in space. The Young Justice line…exists. Limit the number of books, keep them from overlapping and you have books that don’t require a hundred bucks to understand, and (more importantly) are easier to digest.

The Marvel Ultimate line started with four books. Four. Spider-Man, X-Men, Ultimates, and eventually Fantastic Four. They also had extra mini-series that gave us more stories and info about the characters populating this new world and provided a bit more structure. This was awesome. Books that didn’t contradict, but worked together, and all covered different genres: Teen adventure/drama (Spidey), widescreen blockbuster (Ultimates), crazy sci-fi (FF), and Wolverine (X-men). When they started losing sight of the tight storytelling and streamlined events it all fell apart, and it’s never been as wonderful since.

So what’s the takeaway from all this? Structure is important. Just like the real universe, it should be held to basic rules that govern how it should function – within the universe and without. Cap’s shield is indestructible, Spidey can crawl up walls because of some kind of atomic interaction; but remember these things. A writer should be given the space to write the stories they want, but the editor should be there to be a guiding hand, keeping them on some sort of track. Consider all the parts of the universe while you’re writing your own, because it’s ultimately a contribution to a larger, decades old work of art.

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About Author

Janra Roberts

Husband, Blue Lantern of Sector 2814, holder of the coveted third degree black belt in Troll-fu (with bitchin’ flames painted on the side to make it go faster), Janra has long searched for the end to his insatiable appetite for cartoons, movies, and comic books. Alas, the only way to curb his hunger is to complain about them on the internet. If you can't get enough of him, you can listen to his radio program, Press Start to Continue (www.facebook.com/starttocontinue), where he plays video game theme remixes.