Parallel Universes in Comics*

(* No, not the dopey “DC multiverse” kind.)

So, here’s another bookmark I found in my recent organizing: Evidence of a Parallel Universe.  This is from waaaay back, but the reason I bookmarked it wasn’t necessarily for its scientific import: like most comics folk, my brain has pretty much one track–and it’s comics.

When I saw this article, and a flurry of others around the same time on this topic, what I thought of was not the stunning scientific and philosophic implications of possible evidence in favor of the multiverse theory of reality, but rather, I began ruminating on what sorts of parallel universes there might theoretically be in which the history of comics is almost–but not quite–the same as it is in our world.  Here’re some parallel “comics universes” I’d like to see:

World of Less-Cutesy Manga

Nowadays Manga is ubiquitous, but it wasn’t always so.  American and Japanese comics developed in parallel, but in near-total isolation.  Much of early Manga, though–and particularly that of Osamu Tezuka, the “father of Manga”–was heavily influenced by the work of Walt Disney.   The Disney studio was of course the dominant animation house when this crossover was occuring post-WWII… but it didn’t have to be.

In the early days of American animation, Disney was in close competition with another animation house, Fleischer Studios, for dominance of the market.    The latter procuced the Popeye shorts, the early Superman cartoons and many others including Betty Boop.  The Fleischer Studios  had a very different aesthetic than Disney; their character designs were rarely “cutesy” and some of their cartoons were downright bizarre.  For example, check out this 1933 version of Snow White starring Betty boop and featuring everything from a rotoscoped Cab Calloway to a team of dancing skeletons.

So, here’s the first parallel universe I’d like to explore: a world where the Fleisher Studios–not Disney–was the dominant American animation house and was the big influence on Manga.  I wonder if there was more of this in the mix in the ’30s:


… and less of this:


… whether we might have a whole lot less of this these days:


World of Less-Whiny Indy Comics

Todays non-superhero comics are (thankfully) bursting at the seams with stories of all stripes, but it arrived at this state via a path originiating with the underground cartoonists of the ’60s and then moving from there through an unfortunate developmental stage in the ’90s that was populated with more than its share of sissified self-confessional autobio comics.

Yeah, sure there are deniers, but the intertwining between indy comics and autobio seems pretty obvious to me and its modern roots seem to pretty obviously be in the ’90s.  Just as a test, try naming the most successful GNs you can think of off the top of your head.  I’d go with maybe Blankets, Jimmy Corrigan, Cancer Vixen, Persepolis, Maus and Fun Home.  The only one of these that isn’t autobio/memoir is Jimmy Corrigan.  And, yeah, I guess I’ll wimp out and not “name names,” but I’ll let Heidi MacDonald and Katherine Farmar do it for me, since I’m a cartoonist myself and pissing off my peers is kind of a bad idea.

How did we get here, though?  My one word answer is this: Crumb.  Of all the ’60s underground guys, Robert (now just “R.” apparently) Crumb is the one who’s had the most lasting influence on the non-superhero comics that followed him.  He’s the one who established the template of the whiny, nerdy, no luck with the gals, lost in nostalgia, 78rpm record-listening, self-confessional cartoonist.  But what if he hadn’t been the one with the lasting influence?

Among Crumb’s contemporaries were folks who were 180 degrees from him both in their personalities and in the comics they produced–people like S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams and Spain Rodriguez.   Spain’s comics, for example, drew on the artist’s experiences on the road as a member of the biker gang, the Road Vultures.  His main character, Trashman, didn’t spend his time moping about women or reminising about ragtime music; he was too busy blastin’ on fools!

So, here’s the second of the comics parallel universes I’d like to see: a world where the lineage of the modern indy comics scene was rooted in a ’60s underground dominated by bad-ass psychedelic shit-kickers, not self-confessional autobio.


World of Skinnier, Sweatier Superheroes

This one’s pretty obvious, but…

Open pretty much any superhero comic book today and there’s a good chance you’ll encounter at least one character created by Jack Kirby–and, more important, the basic “visual language” of superhero comics you’ll be looking at has its origins in Kirby’s work for Marvel in the ’60s.   Almost the entire stable of Marvel’s key characters originate in the fertile brain of Jack “King” Kirby: Iron Man, The X-Men, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four.  Only two of Marvel’s top tier characters, Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, were penned by a different artist: Steve Ditko.

Ditko was a man of strong–albeit unusual–convictions, and something (no one really agrees on exactly what) ruffled his feathers at Marvel and he left, just 38 issues into the Spider-Man series.  Kirby, though, continued at Marvel and pretty much everything that came after in the superhero genre would wind up owing a heavy debt of influence to Kirby’s aesthetic.

What, though, if things had been reversed?  What if Kirby left early and Ditko remained?  That’s the third parallel comics universe I’d like to explore: a world where the work of Steve Ditko, not Jack Kirby, establishes the basic “template” for modern superhero genre comics.

I think you’d see three main differences between this world an ours.

First, most obviously, an aesthetic difference.  Kirby’s characters look huge, even when they’re printed in a 2 x 3 inch panel.  They’re big, they’ve got mass, they’re impossibly burly.

They’re also drawn in an incredibly dynamic way, seeming to almost leap off the page:

You can’t blame Kirby for it any more than blame Led Zeppelin for Whitesnake, but clearly all paths to this kind of depiction of the male form go through Kirby:

Ditko’s characters, on the other hand, tend to look a little underfed by today’s standards.

Second, I think we’d see a de-emphasis on physicallity and a bit more emphasis on the psychological.  As much as I love Kirby’s characters from a design standpoint, I find it difficult to really ascribe to them much of an “inner life,” no matter the quantity of Stan Lee-penned thought balloons.  On the other hand, Ditko–possibly because of his background in horror and SF comics–seems intensely interested in his characters psychological states.  I find it relatively easy to see a character like Peter Parker, as drawn by Ditko, as someone with actual inner mental states.  (I suppose it helps that a lot of Ditko’s characters are kind of bug-eyed crazy and sweaty looking as well!)

Third–and finally–I’d bet comics in this “universe” would make a lot more use of the diagramatic/iconographic properties of the art form.  As much as I love a lot of Kirby stuff, I find Ditko’s work more interesting, partially because of his tendency to draw non-literally and mix realistic drawing with symbology.  Probably the best-known example is the famous Spider-Man “half-masked face.”

My favorite example of this, though, is the (in)famous scene from Witzend #3 in which Mr. A allows a criminal to fall to his doom.   Note how in the first panel Mr. A is knocking “Angel” off the roof onto a flag pole below… yet, in all of the following panels, Ditko manages to place the pole in our view, often directly between the two protagonists.  Literally, this is obviously not where the flag pole is spacially in the scene depicted, but in a daigramatic way that’s where the needs to be, with the criminal’s life visually hanging in the balance.



1 ping

  1. Isaac says:

    This is an awesome post, Ben.

    I’m thinking about writing about another “parallel universe” for comics in a couple of weeks: I just re-read Ronin and am wondering what would have been different, for Frank Miller and for us, if that and not Dark Knight Returns had been his big breakthrough mainstream-media success. Would superheroes have gone “grim and gritty” after all? Would we see more sci-fi from mainstream houses? Would Miller have descended into pseudo-ironic self-parody?

    I will let you know when I get this written up. It’ll take some thinking.

  2. Ben says:

    That’d be an interesting discussion for sure. When I see it’s up, I’ll cross-link to it. It’d also tie in nicely to your current LONE WOLF AND CUB series of posts, since LW&C was such a huge influence on RONIN as far as the drawing style goes.

  3. John says:

    That Cap. America bears an eerie resemblance to the octuplets chick. I’ve heard of bulging pecs, but that silliness looks cancerous.

  4. Dave Kopperman says:

    Looking closely at that Mr. A page, I think what’s happening is that the fight in the first panel takes place on a higher section of the roof – if you look in the upper left, you’ll see there’s a part where the roof drops away diagonally, which corresponds to a diagonal ledge above and to the left of the other two characters in later panels. So Mr. A drops down to the lower roof in between panels 1 and 2.

    Not Ditko’s clearest use of space ever, admittedly, but still ‘fair.’

  5. Ben says:

    That’s an interesting idea I hadn’t though of, Dave… Although, if you check out the previous page of the story, Angel and Miss Kinder are pretty clearly together on the same roof, so I’m not seeing exactly how a jump between levels would work.

    Even if they weren’t there together, I think the “roof jump” would still have been mainly for the purpose of visually getting that flagpole where it needed to be, rather than any storytelling reason.

  6. Dave Kopperman says:

    I agree completely that it was all put to the service of getting all elements in the panel together. I’m not saying that Ditko’s solution with the upper/lower roof was successful, but I do think he thought about it and put it in there. If it were one of my students, I’d give it points for effort and economy.

    I think it’s a sign that Ditko was losing interest in trying to maintain a believable spatial reality in his comics, in favor of polemics. Overall, the jump-cuts between panels leave a lot of room for ‘where did that happen?’

    But, boy: what a great lookin’ page. If ever there were a guy that should have written a text of visual storytelling, it was SD.

  7. Isaac says:

    Speaking of Ditko’s visual storytelling, may I be so bold as to direct you to an old Spider-Man page that I reformatted to bring Ditko’s storytelling out a bit more?

    The original page is quoted here.

  8. Chris S says:

    I always liked Ditko better than Kirby – Kirby implied action, but Ditko staged it.

    I’ve read in a few different places that Ditko left Spider-Man because Lee wanted a shocker for the Green Goblin’s identity, making it Peter Parker’s best friend’s dad. Ditko’s idea was a nobody enraged at a world that saw nothing special in him – he left right around the time the identity came out, which leads me to think there’s validity to this claim.

    I spend the majority of my Survey of Sequential class talking about how hugely influential individual people are, not usually for their art per se but rather for the shifts that take place as a result of their work. Fisher, Siegel and Shuster, Lee… it’s not, as a general rule, the body of work that changes the paradigm, but one little thing that changes everything to come, be it subject matter, theme, layout, etc. It’s really just happy accident that some things took root and others didn’t.

    Great post.

  9. Ben says:

    That Green Goblin story’s been floating around for a while, but I think there’s some debate as to the authenticity of it. Ditko himself denies it for sure. As I recall, in STRANGE AND STRANGER, the Ditko bio/art book that came out last year, this rumor is explicitly refuted.

    I think you’re totally correct about shifts in the art form occurring not from a creator’s whole body of work, but usually from one, particular innovation at one particular time. “Punctuated equilibrium” as the biologists say!


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