DC's 1989 Elseworlds is a comic book concept that's not quite like anything else. The best Elseworlds comics slightly obscure characters that readers know by heart. Marvel has their What If? series that involves self-contained, single-issue tales, but Elseworlds tells enthralling stories that can only exist in a format that's removed from regular continuity.
One-off stories and non-canonical adventures aren't new to comic books. They're a great way for readers to see their favorite characters in new, outlandish situations, but the Elseworlds imprint offers more than a mere chance for Superman and Batman to dress up like cowboys.
In stories like Kingdom Come, DC was able to push its heroes to the status of modern myth. The story of how the Elseworlds imprint came to be and where it fits in the many DC Earths is something that every comic book fan should know, especially since Elseworlds has made its way to the DC TV universe.
'Elseworlds' Started As ‘Imaginary Stories’
During American comic books' Silver Age (1956-1970), Imaginary Stories was a way to tell one-off adventures with DC superheroes that were silly or had a villain who triumphed - something that never happened at the time. These stories were, in essence, similar to the Marvel What If? comics from the same era.
The final Imaginary Stories issue, Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow," came out in 1986 and put an end to Superman's wildly complicated backstory before DC ditched the Multiverse in Crisis on Infinite Earths. As with many of his books, Moore commented on the history of comics - and Imaginary Stories in particular - by opening the two-issue arc with a pointed intro:
This is an IMAGINARY STORY (which may never happen, but then again may) about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good... This is an IMAGINARY Story... Aren't they all?
The First 'Elseworlds' Story Was 'Gotham By Gaslight'
Initially, Batman: Gotham By Gaslight was simply a one-off story about a Victorian-era Batman chasing down Jack the Ripper after he appeared in Gotham City. It's a cool little detective story, one that served as a blueprint for many of the best Batman-centric Elseworlds stories.
The book was so popular that DC retroactively brought it into the Elseworlds fold, declaring it the official first book of the imprint. However, the first story that bore the Elseworlds logo was Batman: Holy Terror. This story reinterprets the Batman origin story as if Bruce were a kind of wealthy Dickensian orphan living in an America that's more puritanical theocracy than a democracy.
‘Kingdom Come’ Stands Out As The Most Important 'Elseworlds' Title
There are plenty of Elseworlds tales to explore if you're just now getting into the alternative stories. However, the biggest and most influential Elseworlds story is Kingdom Come. Published in 1996, this four-issue story took place 10-15 years in the future and echoed the themes of Alan Moore's groundbreaking Watchmen. On this Earth, Superman has retired, and the rest of the Justice League followed suit, having gone their separate ways as a series of new, younger meta-humans showed up to fight each other without considering the consequences of their actions.
Written by Mark Waid and illustrated by painter Alex Ross, Kingdom Come offers an apocalyptic story about some of the most well-known superheroes and asks whether or not these gods among men owe a responsibility to the regular people of Earth.
The Art Of 'Kingdom Come' Is Awe-Inspiring
Kingdom Come’s story is epic, but the continuity-breaking and world-destroying plotline wouldn't be as affecting without the art of Alex Ross. His work stands out in the comic world since he uses a detailed, photorealistic style that's more often found on cover artwork instead of interiors. Much of Ross's work is done in mighty splash pages that give the story the epic scope it deserves, allowing the artist to add a series of visual Easter eggs to humor longtime DC fans.
According to Ross, his work isn't as groundbreaking as people have credited him with and believed. In a 2016 interview with Entertainment Weekly, he noted:
[The artists who came before me] were much more involved in breaking new ground and being elaborate illustrators who pushed the medium of comic books in a direction that wasn't centered around corporate-owned superhero properties. I came in as a fan saying, "Hey, I really love those painted covers I grew up with featuring Superman or the Hulk or things Marvel did in the '70s, and I'd like to see whole books like that."