Red Dead Undead and Elseworlds

Elseworlds, that great imprint from DC that took the key elements of great characters and transformed them into something new in titles like  SUPERMAN: RED SON, SUPERMAN: SPEEDING BULLETS, BATMAN: GOTHAM BY GASLIGHT, RED RAIN, and DARK JOKER: THE WILD, has been on my mind a lot lately. But it’s not out of fond remembrance. It’s out of missed opportunity, especially as Elseworlds is considered “dead” in the New52.

In my interview with Henry Jenkins for COMICS, the sad, slow death of Elseworlds popped up:

That’s one of the things that concerns me a little bit, as DC and Marvel are being absorbed into the major media companies is some push-back on the experimentation side of this. Dan Didio, when he spoke to my transmedia class in the fall made it clear that, with DC renumbering and rebooting, that Elseworlds was dead as far as he was concerned. That just seems to me a fatal mistake.

I’d like the rest of the industry to pay attention to Elseworlds as a model of what I call “Multiplicity.” A lot of transmedia has been based on the concept of “continuity,” which comes from comics too, of course. But they’re all about “can we get all the pieces to line up perfectly?” In an industrial context, where these are being built by different divisions of companies, perfect alignment is never going to happen. So, instead of going in that direction, imagine playing with what comics have done and saying “we can explore these characters through multiple lenses” and get interesting things to emerge.

In Chapter 30 of COMICS FOR FILM, GAMES AND ANIMATION, I conducted a thought experiment to integrate comics and other serialized media into the world of RED DEAD REDEMPTION. First, I proposed a dime novel about legendary (and lover of his own myth) gunslinger Landon Ricketts, to be read by Jack in the game. Secondly, a comic book done in the Timely/Golden Age style of 1939 featuring Jack Marston as an outlaw after avenging his father’s death in the game. And finally, a modern-era graphic novel that will retell the events of the game through the eyes of antagonist Dutch Van De Linde, revealing that he has been watching Marston throughout the events of the game.

While these theoretical expansions would deepen the world of RED DEAD in the comics medium, Rockstar made practical use of the “alternate history/Elseworlds” capability of comics with their third DLC expansion game, RED DEAD REDEMPTION: UNDEAD NIGHTMARE, exploring the characters and world through “multiple lenses,” as Jenkins said. Taking place after Marston’s return to his family but before his death, UNDEAD NIGHTMARE revisits the world of Great Plains, New Austin and Mexico as a zombie plague has taken over the west. Is UNDEAD NIGHTMARE  part of the continuity? Is it a nightmare in John Martson’s head? Does it matter? It’s fun!

The Elseworlds imprint in comics and DLCs in games do something that few other media tap into: it makes the character or game a medium in and of itself. More than multiplicity, it demonstrates elasticity, the evolutionary ability of the character, the stretching ability of that character to become more. I talked about this ability in Jenkins’ interview with me:

But, in most cases – such as Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man – this is where the elasticity of a character – the evolutionary ability of that character – comes into play. Each creative team can build upon, pay homage to, deviate, stretch, and bring their own vision to the character…

Batman represents the most versatile character of the 20th century: he can be a vampire, a Victorian-era crime-fighter hunting Jack the Ripper, a dark gargoyle fighting the evil wizardry of a Rasputin-esque Joker. In the case of Red Dead, the landscape and vistas and gameplay and characters become tools in the creation of new stories on a canvas, stories not necessarily tied to any form of strict continuity.

This idea, this concept of DLCs combined with Elseworlds presents storytellers in any medium – can you imagine a film that integrated this style of content into the home viewing experience? – an opportunity to create more than a story, more than a storyworld. It lets them recast the original story as a new canvas on which to build different experiences and mine the original’s storytelling potential for all its deep-rooted worth, thus creating an experience that can be revisited time and again.