Some comic superheroes are so well known that even your grandmother probably knows something about them. Superman can fly and doesn’t like kryptonite. Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider. Wonder Woman has a lasso of truth. Batman has a bat-cave, a bat-car, and a bat-everything else. These are the stories that have been around for over 75 years (except that youngster Spider-Man who is still in his 50s). What happens when one of these well-known stories takes a different turn? Speculative fiction exists within the well-established worlds of some comic characters. The multiverse — often Earth assigned a different number — is used to account for many of these alternate timelines. One slight adjustment to the origin story and the whole world changes. Here are two stories with different beginnings.
Superman: Red Son. Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, and Kilian Plunkett. DC Comics, 2014.
What if an infant saved from a dying planet didn’t land in rural America and grow up in Smallville? What if he landed in a different time zone and was raised in a Communist collective in the Ukraine? This is the premise behind a very different Superman and it creates a whole new level of weapons escalation between the political superpowers of the Cold War. Superman: Red Son asks readers to reconsider the good and evil of the well-known comic world and to reflect upon our own history. Superman vs Lex Luthor. Capitalism vs communism. Is an America full of strife under Lex Luthor better or worse than a Superman ruled communist utopia?
This book invites the rest of the DC universe to play a new role with, or against, the Soviet Man of Steel. A number of characters have cameos in the book, but Batman — also a Russian — plays a major role against the alien ruler. This battle between the superheroes is much better than in the recent Batman v Superman movie.
Red Son is a remarkable book. The art is amazing and some of the panels are reminiscent of worker propaganda posters. If you grew up thinking Superman = America = Good, then this comic might challenge you to think again. You could walk away still believing in Superman or you might discover that the world is full of ambiguity. Or at least the Red Son version of it.
Spider-Gwen Vol 0: Most Wanted? Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez. Marvel Comics, 2015.
What if Peter Parker weren’t bit by a radio-active spider? What if Gwen Stacy gained those amazing powers instead? This is the premise for Spider-Gwen. She is one of many forms of the Spider-Man archetype living on one of the worlds of the Spider-Verse, but she is one of the few to jump onto the pages of her own comic. Spider-Gwen: Most Wanted? collects her debut in the Edge of Spider-Verse #2 and Spider-Gwen #1-5. [“Spider-Verse” is a 2014 story-line from The Amazing Spider-Man of that year, with tie-in stories in various other titles.]
On Earth-65, roles are reversed between Gwen and Peter Parker. She has spider powers and he is dead. Spider-Gwen jumps straight into this world and throws everyone possible into your face: the Parker family, Mary Jane Watson, J. Jonah Jameson, Matt Murdock, Frank Castle, Wilson Fisk, and others. Like most alternate universes, not everyone plays the same role. Spider-Gwen uses this technique to have some fun, not to ponder larger life questions.
Spider-Gwen is full of fun. It isn’t meant to do anything else. Gwen is young and trying to figure out how to be a Spider in the aftermath of Peter’s death, but not in a morose way. She panics when she loses her phone. “You don’t understand — my whole life is in that phone!” But best of all, she gets knocked on the head and hallucinates for awhile, seeing one of the truly great members of the Spider-family: The Sporktacular Spider-Ham. [Yes, Spider-Ham is a thing! Peter Porker has appeared in Spider-Verse and Secret Wars, and is a member of the Web Warriors.]
Whether for fun or to explore deeper ideas, the What-Ifs inside the what-if world of comics are a good choice when you want to read something different from the usual characters doing the usual thing.