The next installment of “Universe Lost,” continuing a comparative look at Marvel and DC’s attempts to reach the big screen, will be up on Monday once it’s been edited and fact-checked. I expect “Universe Lost” to run a half-dozen or so entries (see Part 1 and Part 2), but I’ll also be interspersing some slightly off-topic posts along the way. This post is one of those, and I also hope it might inspire feedback from you, the reader.
I grew up watching Super Friends and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends on Saturday mornings, but those cartoons initially gave me no particular affinity for super-hero comics. The first comic book I ever picked out and bought with my own allowance money was a DC comic with a story that involved the “Multiverse” – the idea that reality is composed of a near-infinite number of alternate universes, which vary from one another by greater or lesser degrees. My six-year-old brain was not yet ready to soak all that up.
Most of the comics I read between then and age nine were licensed titles based on toys or TV shows. The publishers did not own the characters in them, but instead had paid a toy company or TV studio for the rights to create new stories based on, say, Masters of the Universe, Transformers, or the A-Team.
For understandable reasons, publishers largely segregate licensed titles from the titles featuring characters they actually own. The fee paid to the licensor for the rights to use their characters means that licensed titles have a lower budget than titles from the main line, so the publishers won’t pay their top-tier writers and artists to work on them. The licensing company will also place restrictions on the licensees’ use of their properties, limiting the creative possibilities for the talent who do get assigned to those books. From the point of view of Hasbro or Mattel, Marvel and DC are there to help them sell toys, so the stories have to be written to that effect.
Although publishers have limited control over plot and characterization in licensed titles, what they gain from those titles is a market of casual readers who otherwise might not read comics. In the early 1980s, both Marvel and DC sought to lessen the divide between their licensed titles and their own intellectual properties in order to convert casual readers like me into a reliable audience for their super-hero books. He-Man met Superman in one of the Man of Steel’s regular monthly titles and Spider-Man guest-starred in an issue of Transformers. Cross-promoting the publisher’s own characters alongside the licensor’s toys was a shrewd marketing gimmick.
Despite those memories, the Transformers and Masters of the Universe comic books did not leave a particularly strong impression on me. I can far more vividly remember the single issue that turned me from a casual comic book reader into a die-hard fan: Uncanny X-Men #189. It belonged to a friend of mine, and nine-year-old me read it in the bottom bunk of a bunk bed while sleeping over at that friend’s house. It was the first comic book I ever read that made me want to find out what happened next.
Ironically, it was hardly a typical X-Men comic. I knew who the X-Men were because they had appeared on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, but this issue featured none of the main team. Instead, it focused on a recently introduced supporting character (Rachel Summers) and a guest star from another title (Magma from New Mutants). The plot revolved around the two young women exploring New York City as fish out of water, getting to know each other in the process, and ultimately confronting a super-villain.
What was remarkable about every aspect of that issue was the sense that it gave of taking place in a world that was more fantastic than our own, but still relatable and with an internal logic to it. The story opened at the Statue of Liberty, which was covered in scaffolding, just as the real-world Statue of Liberty was in 1985. The conversations between Rachel and Magma hinted at the characters’ complex back stories (one is from a dystopian future, the other from a lost colony of ancient Rome). Of course they knew the X-Men and talked about the X-Men (all the while passing the Bechdel test), but even though the title was called Uncanny X-Men, the X-Men themselves were not the focus of that issue.
By not actually showing the X-Men, Uncanny X-Men #189 let me know that there was more to the X-Men than their guest appearances on Saturday morning TV. It forced me to think about the X-Men in the context of the world they inhabited, a world so thoroughly developed that even the secondary characters were protagonists in their own epic sagas. I was tantalized by that knowledge. That 22-page single issue had a definite plot with a beginning, middle, and end, but it also made clear how much had already transpired to bring the characters to this point in their lives. Although the main conflict was resolved in the allotted pages, it still left loose ends to be addressed in the next issue.
In hindsight, the really remarkable thing about Uncanny X-Men #189 is not simply that it made me want to find out what would happen next, but that it also made me want to find out what had already happened. That single issue was not just an entertaining story in and of itself, but an organic part of a much larger fictional universe. The Marvel Universe was intriguing, and I wanted to explore it.
If you enjoy stories that are set in a fictional universe, how did you “discover” it? Did a particular episode/movie/issue/book suck you in? What makes that fictional world so engrossing? Would you like to contribute something or ask me to write about it? I want to hear from you!
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