As a sci-fi buff, I'm a big fan of dystopian future characters. Hence my love for Booster Gold, Spider-Man 2099, and Batman Beyond, among others. However, inevitably these future-bred characters become problematic when you try to fit them into the primary continuity, such as when Miguel O'Hara and Peter Parker switched places for a storyline (and then later for a video game or two). Such as when Booster Gold's future started not coming true in 52, and then he was made the protector of the DC Multiverse in his own title. And then the introduction of both Damian Wayne and Terry McGinnis causes problems with that timeline as well.
The answer seems to always be: "alternate universe." Thing is, there seems to be "levels" of alternate universe-ness. The out-of-continuity or alternate-setting story is handled very strictly by DC and absolutely bat-crap loosely by Marvel. Alternate timelines, by comparison, are wiped out when a storyline is over by DC and Marvel except when Marvel (if the story is popular) gifts these timelines with alternate universe status. This difference between an "alternate timeline" and a "altered timeline" (meaning, a timeline that is not as it should be) comes up constantly in books such as Booster Gold and Exiles where making sure timelines/universes are "as they should be" is their primary conceit.
Starting Example: The Prolific Loins of Scott Summers Across Time and the Multiverse
To start, I'm going to just quote myself from a discussion about Azari--Storm and Black Panther's alternate future child from the Next Avengers universe--which prompted me to write this entry (and that post borrowed heavily from a previous discussion about Cyclops' various daughters):
I see. Cos i was thinking their existence was really not canon cos when i watched the film, the avengers died. I don't think marvel would allow the avengers to die.
But perhaps they'll allow this young avengers to exist with their parents still living.
Exactly. Their "legitimacy" as a future timeline almost does not matter. If the character is popular but their timeline turns out not to be true, well the character stays but their timeline is just treated as either having been wiped out (e.g., Cable) or as an alternate universe (e.g., AoA Blink, AoA Sabretooth, Bishop). And we have all the Scott Summers' children as precedent for that:
- Rachel Grey, Phoenix (daughter of Scott and Jean; Days of Future Past timeline, called "Earth-811")
- Nathanial Grey, Cable (son of Scott and Madelyne; born in present, sent to an Apocalypse-ruled future timeline and returned--timeline assumed wiped out)
- Stryfe (clone of cable and his bitter enemy in the same future timeline, keeps coming back to haunt Cable in various versions of their shared future)
- Nate Grey, X-Man (son of Scott and Madelyne; from the official Age of Apocalypse universe, called "Earth-295")
- Ruby Summers (daughter of Scott and Emma; from Bishop's timeline, called "Earth-1191")
- Megan Summers (daughter of Scott and Emma; GeNeXt timeline, called "Earth-41001")
- Summers-Frost twin #1 (daughter of Scott and Emma; GeNeXt)
- Summers-Frost twin #2 (daughter of Scott and Emma; GeNeXt)
- Alex Summers (son of Scott and Emma; GeNeXt)
- Hope Summers (unknown "non-genetic inheritance" relation, but at the very least an adoptive daughter of Cable's; traveled deep into the future--something like 90,000 AD--after the Messiah Complex arc when on the run from Bishop--this far-flung timeline (called "Earth-967") assumed to be wiped out)
- Hyperstorm (child of Rachel Summers and Franklin Richards; from some timeline where sentinels have wiped out all other mutants and he rules the world with an iron fist--timeline assumed wiped out)
- EDIT: David Richards (another son of Rachel and Franklin, from "Earth-2600")
- EDIT: Dream Jeanie Richards (a daughter of Rachel and Franklin, from the Times Arrow trilogy of novels, called "Earth-9891")
---That's eleven, count 'em, eleven (EDIT: thirteen!) progeny--all in official canon (EDIT: Dream questionable without a comic book appearance) via the magical power of "alternate timeline/universe" listings--for Scott Summers. Seven of which are direct children of the Earth-616 (primary Marvel Earth) Cyclops (i.e., their timelines/universes branch from his). That's astounding, but hey, comics everybody!
Considering the above precedent, I think it's okay for Storm and Black Panther to have at least one future-kid who sticks around from--I dunno, have they given the Next Avengers' timeline a number yet? Oh hey, they have! Their Ultron-ruled timeline is officially known as "Earth-555326!" So Azari is now just as official as Rachel and Bishop and so on.
Now, you might say, "Well, if they're from alternate universes then they don't count," but see, there's a difference between "alternate universe" and "alternate timeline." There is actually another son of Storm and Black Panther from an alternate universe: T'chaka (the Panther), their son from Earth-1119 who appeared in Exiles.
The difference between T'chaka and Azari is that Azari's "Earth" branches off from 616 as a "possible future" and interacts directly with 616 characters. It depends on them to exist. T'chaka, by comparison, has never met nor interacted with 616 characters. His parents could be totally different from the 616 versions of Storm and Black Panther because his universe is an independent part of the multiverse, which is infinite.
For an illustration of how this "alternate timeline" thing works, look to Bishop and Cable, or more accurately, Bishop vs. Cable. They both come from different "alternate timelines" and went to war with each other because they are trying to prevent their particular dystopian futures from happening and they disagree on what brings about the end of the world. Bishop thought Hope caused his horrible future so he wanted to kill her while Cable believes she can prevent his horrible future so he wants to save her. But as far as anyone knows, their interference has created an all-new future where Hope makes her own choices that can be totally different from either of their timelines.
And yet, Cable is the "hero" there because Bishop's future has already split off into Earth-1191 and as far as we know cannot be prevented and will always exist as an alternate universe/timeline. Cable's future, meanwhile, is constantly in flux and seems more closely tied to the fate of the 616, possibly because he was born in the present.
I know just quoting that post outright was rather lazy but I didn't feel like retyping all that or trying to reformat the above post better for blog format. I do apologize. What I wanted you to get out of that post was 1) just how often future characters are brought into primary continuity, and 2) how there are indeed differences in how characters are treated when they come from alternate timelines vs. alternate universes.
So there seems to be two different questions here:
- How do Marvel and DC handle "alternate universes" differently?
- How do Marvel and DC handle "alternate timelines" differently?
Once we answer those questions we can put together how the two overlap, and more importantly, how they interact with each publisher's "primary" universe.
As stated previously, Marvel allows whatever writers want as far as their Multiverse is concerned. Anything and everything can and likely does exist in their Multiverse. This includes those that are relatively close to the primary timeline and those that are utterly different. However, not all universes are equal it seems. Some are treated as the typical one-and-done setting for a reality-hopping story. Some are home to ongoing monthly titles, such as the world of May "Mayday" Parker, Spider-Girl. Some are "uplifted" timeline stories because of popularity so they can be referenced later, such as the Age of Apocalypse and Days of Future Past settings. Some contain what DC would call "Elseworlds"--titles that have no correlation to the primary continuity but are instead reimaginings of it, such as Earth X. And finally, some are entire publishing lines such as the 2099, MAX, 1602, Marvel Zombies, and Ultimate lines. The rule of Marvel is that ALL of these various types of stories should--ostensibly--be treated equally with each given an "Earth" designation, a practice started by Alan Moore. Moore even set out to make the primary setting seem less, well, primary by giving it a higher designation than normal, Earth-616. These designations are given to alternate universes even if the planet Earth does not exist in them, such as with the New Universe setting. The advantage of this approach is that everything can be referenced by future writers. The downside is that it can get a little confusing at times (see the Summers clan list in quoted text above) and sometimes the stakes are not as high.
DC is less loosey-goosey with their designations and definitely do NOT put everything in the same bucket. After experimenting with various alternate universes early on they smashed everything down into one in the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline, a bold decision they've been running away from ever since. While the "one universe to rule them all" rule was in effect, however, they still allowed drastic retellings of the DC universe to be told with explicitly non-canon Elseworlds stories such as Superman: Red Son, Gotham by Gaslight, The Nail, and Kingdom Come. The problem is that these Elseworlds tales were frequently flipping awesome, including the two most influential modern DC storylines (or just comic book storylines generally), Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. This is a problem because the fans like seeing this stuff. They like interacting with it. They want the primary characters to sometimes rub shoulders with these characters and the creators to have some breathing room. Then there's the fact that DC owns entire other publishing lines--such as Milestone, Red Circle, Vertigo, and Wildstorm--and want to fold those into their primary continuity. Without a multiverse, they couldn't really do that without massive restructuring. Thus, 52, Infinite Crisis, and Final Crisis. And now we have 52 new universes to house some of these iconic Elseworlds stories and publishing lines. However, freely working with alternate universes is still verboten, and this means things like the relaunch--DC's new 52 after Flashpoint--happen instead of launching an "Ultimates"-style line for DC. What's interesting about this new multiverse is how different from their source material these universes will be.
Because anything goes and everything is a universe with Marvel, one would think that a true "altered timeline" is impossible, right? That there are simply universes that split off from our own some time in the future (either didn't exist until a certain moment or were indistinguishable until a certain moment). However we are told explicitly that not only can time "go wrong" but, in Exiles, that a whole multitude of timelines are broken and must be fixed! And then we have characters like Cable, Nimrod, and Stryfe who don't come from official, numbered universes (as far as I know) but seem to stick around and fight over creating/preventing their particular futures, which are constantly in flux. Compare this to Rachel Summer's Days of Future Past timeline or the Age of Apocalypse timeline which seem to just stick around as separate entities. Meanwhile Bishop's future is somewhere in between. There are also "pocket realities" from time to time, such as with the recent Age of X storyline where the whole thing was just a fantasy or dream. What I find interesting about this setup is, when does a "possible future" become an "alternate universe?" The obvious answer is "when the sales are good," but what does that mean to the characters in the ol' 616? What does that mean to someone like Bishop, whose home is treated as a separate universe but still acts like he's trying to prevent a future? Is he just trying to spare the 616 a similar fate from his own home's, or does he really still think he can prevent his world--Earth-1191--from occurring at all?
This is where DC really shines. Because you have one tried-and-true past, you can assume that you have one true future that is being slowly revealed to us, chipped away from the infinite possibilities. They even go out of their way to explain away line-wide reboots within this framework, so that rewritten history is still incorporated into continuity--it existed, it just doesn't exist now. The fact that they've tied timeline anomalies with real-world changes in the books they're selling means that they're allowing timeline changes to affect the reader more directly than a general "what if?" This allows them to really sell the danger of a future gone awry, unlike Marvel where you have characters like Wolverine shrugging off dire warnings of the future because hey, he's heard it so many times before. It means DC doesn't have to face the awkward questions Exiles faced whenever characters wondered aloud how a multiverse of infinite--infinite--possibilities could ever have "wrong" universes, an question the writers never really had an answer for. Instead we have Time Masters like Rip Hunter and later (earlier?) Booster Gold. We have things like an out-of-time Batman racing toward the end of the universe with all of reality (and control of the Batman titles) at stake. We have three different versions of the Legion of Super-Heroes meeting each other and wondering who will survive as the "real" future and who won't. That's kind of cool. This setup means that stories have far more of an impact when characters go to, for example, a Trigon-controlled future and know it's not just another reality they've wandered into.
I think both approaches have pros and cons, but since DC relaxed their "only one universe" rule I find that I'm more excited by their approach than Marvel's "anything goes." And I say that as a fan of the Exiles title, a book that made full use (and some might say, abuse) of the Marvel Multiverse. The reason why I like DC's new status quo is because it allows them to have high stakes even with alternate universes. The problem Marvel faces is that, if another universe or some far-flung future timeline goes to hell, who cares? What are the odds that will actually be the future of the ol' 616? What are the odds saving that future will even matter? The crappy version of that future will still have to exist somewhere in the infinite multiverse, after all. And we know the characters have this attitude because we see things like Bishop literally destroying the entire planet just to inconvenience Cable and Hope because he figures he can just change it back later. The future does not matter, and neither do other universes. In DC's new setup, there's a finite amount of universes, each with their own intended (supposedly) timeline. When they get messed with, or when the whole multiverse is threatened, it can have real consequences, including direct consequences to the reader as shown in Flashpoint. I think that the 52 universes provide enough wiggle room to make use of those popular Elseworlds titles and with room for future growth without being totally open to anything. This is especially true if those who want to go further afield from the standard 52 can do so with new Elseworlds stories, such as the Earth One books, and readers can vote with their dollars to see which of those deserve to become a part of the official multiverse.
But what does everyone else think? Do you see a significant difference between "alternate universe" and "alternate timeline?" Or even more subtle, an "alternate timeline" and an "altered timeline?" Do you prefer Marvel's Multiverse or DCs? Let me know!