Maybe comic books are the bugaboos of yesteryear, but they still share with video games one subversive characteristic that makes them dangerous to anyone — politician, moralist, or other — who clings to the status quo. Comic books lend themselves well to fantasies about multiple, parallel universes. Because these are narratives that last over decades and spawn multiple spin-offs by hundreds of different authors and artists, comic books inevitably train readers to imagine how one scenario might lead to several different outcomes. And comics also invite readers to explore how one little change in the present can lead to whole new interpretations of history. There's even a word — retcon, for retroactive continuity — that comic book geeks use to describe what happens when a new comic book author changes a character's history to explain a new present. Like video games, where different characters and players take the game play in new directions, comic books remind us that there is no one perfect path to follow, and that the future can always be changed.
When the retconning and multiple story lines get too complicated, though, sometimes a crisis occurs. Thus the subject of my current obsession: the "crisis on infinite Earths" story lines from DC comics of the 1980s. This was a period when DC decided its authors had created too many parallel worlds containing multiple versions of each character. To solve the problem, DC wiped out all but one Earth and all but one version of every hero, in a plot tangle that spanned several dozen titles. In fact, I don't claim to understand it all — I haven't read enough from that era. Honestly, it's probably better in concept than execution.
But I love the concept: the idea that there are many Earths existing in parallel and all of them are having a crisis at the same time. It's a perfect reminder that our lives are a tangle of possible futures, struggling to extricate themselves from a morass of multiple pasts. Choosing between them, and choosing justly, is what makes heroes out of ordinary people. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose favorite comic book store is still Comix Experience because Brian Hibbs is a hero.
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