The Cold War, The Victorian Age, The Catholic Reformation... Is there anything Batman can't make better? This week we cover alternate histories of the DC and Marvel universes.
The most difficult part about alternate histories in comics is keeping everything straight. When you have a world that allows for both time travel and alternate universes timelines can get complicated fairly quickly. I'm going to limit discussion to alternate comic histories that have to do with real historical events just so we're not here all week.
Luckily, DC's Elseworlds line of comics is dedicated to just these kinds of stories. While some of DC comic's Elseworlds line feature DC related historical what-ifs like Superman crashing at Wayne Manor as a child or Batman being chosen as a Green Lantern, others have a far more historical bent such as Mark Millar's Superman: Red Son where Superman crashes in Soviet Russia and becomes America's greatest enemy in the Cold War. Major threats to Superman's communist superstate include American president Lex Luthor and a Russian Batman wearing an awesome, awesome hat.
Elseworlds stories often feature superheros in a non traditional historical setting such as the Victorian Batman tale Gotham by Gaslight by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola or Adisakdi Tantimedh's steampunk JLA: Age of Wonder where Superman ends up working with Nikola Tesla.
Perhaps the closest thing to a traditional Alternate History story in comics is Batman: Holy Terror which even has a formal non-superhero point of divergence. In a universe where Oliver Cromwell lived another ten years and America was turned into a theocratic dystopia the reverend Bruce Wayne becomes Batman after learning that his parents were killed by the oppressive government.
Marvel's relationship with alternate histories is somehow even more complicated than DC's. Luckily much of it can be safely ignored here since it involves alternate comics history and rarely involves say, Spiderman fighting Napoleon.
A notable exception however is Neil Gaiman's Marvel 1602 where Marvel's superheroes begin appearing at the dawn of the 17th century. This leads to all sorts of interesting historical divergences such as a spanish inquisition that's seeking out the X-men and other Marvel mutants or Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four on the verge of discovering special relativity three hundred years early. The concept has proved popular enough to spawn three spin off comics focusing on other characters including a Fantastic Four spin-off 1602: Fantastick Four by Peter David where Dr. Doom kidnaps Shakespeare and forces him to act as Doom's official biographer.
While some of these alternate universes can seem like quick gimmicks, it's important to remember that comics and alternate history have a long and illustrious history together. Even Alan Moore's Watchmen - with its scenes of an alternate Vietnam War and an extended Nixon presidency - is an alternate history story.