Monday, June 05, 2006


Other Lives

Last September, I realized that I could trace the recurrent themes in most of my fiction to a handful of digests published by DC Comics in the late seventies and early eighties, which contained reprints of silver and bronze age superhero comics.

One of those stories, which I read under the title "The Five Other Identities of Superman" in Best of DC #8 (Nov/Dec '80), was my introduction to the concept of alternate histories. Oh, I'm sure that I'd seen It's a Wonderful Life or any number of retreads of the plot in sitcom holiday episodes, but this story marked the first time that I understood the concept. A single change in a character's history (such as "On what planet does the infant Kal-El's rocket land?" in this instance) could lead to widely variant futures.

Originally published as "The Day Superman Became The Flash," in Action Comics #314 (July 1964), the story relates how Jor-El examined probable futures, in each one of which the infant Kal-El grew up to be a superhero of one sort or another (and all, naturally, closely resembling his fellow members of the Justice League of America).

(It's important not to focus too closely on the details of the story, I'm afraid. At this point in the character's publishing history, it was a fait accompli in any depictions of Superman's early life that his parents would not escape the destruction of Krypton, and that the infant Kal-El would be the sole occupant of the rocket which reached Earth. This resulted in some rather strange plot machinations, such as in this story, in which Jor-El devotes considerable time and effort into determining to which planet he'll send his infant son, rather than devoting his attentions to things like, oh, I don't know... building a rocket with three seats, for example? Krypton, with its rich and varied history, was at this point just a place to be destroyed, his parents merely people to be mourned. When the number of Kryptonian survivors approached the millions, at least (taking into account the prisoners in the Phantom Zone, Supergirl, Supergirl's parents in the Survival Zone, various and sundry scientists, criminals, and robots who arrived in rockets throughout Kal-El's life on Earth, and the entire population of one of Kandor, which as one of Krypton's leading metropolises must have had a considerable population), it began to appear that Jor-El and Lara were the only ones not to survive the destruction of Krypton.)

In later years, DC would create an entire imprint to examine this sort of story, Elseworlds, spinning a square-bound "prestige format" graphic novel out of precisely the sorts of scenarios exhausted in this story in the span of a few panels. There's an interesting sort of narrative inertia in the DC Universe, such that no matter where Kal-El ends up landing, he grows up to be a superhero, usually some variant of the Superman with which we're familiar, with the attendant supporting cast and villains in tow. (My personal favorite is probably the pulp-flavored "Elseworld's Finest," written by John Francis Moore, which recast Superman and Batman as 1930s adventurers, Lex Luthor as a Robur the Conqueror type, and so on.)

I remember that digest - the one where Superman is force d yto act out the rhyme "Doctir, Lawyer, Indian Chief...". That's thge second blast from the past I got this week, the first being Spiderman and the Man-Wolf.
Ah, the Man-Wolf. If you dig those old superhero records, though, you should check out Nothing but solid gold...
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