Comics Creators

Is it time for finite Superhero universes?


We all know that the Marvel and DC sales model has been to feature the same core characters throughout the generations. They’re updated and modified slightly, but they’re the same basic characters. But they’re getting on - Superman is over 80 years old, Captain America is close to there - and the amount of stories already told make it tricky for new writers. It’s bogging down franchises like X Men or Fantastic Four, and create a barrier to entry for new readers.

Added to that, selling the ‘illusion of change’ can turn off long term fans.

Other properties don’t go for this model. Whether it’s Star Wars or Star Trek, or more recent hits like Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Saga or Walking Dead, media companies are finding that it’s the universe that sells, rather than the characters. And it’s easier to create a strong ongoing narrative if you have a set beginning and end point.

So the question is should comic books start focusing more on telling long term beginning and end point type stories?
Or is the DC and Marvel model that they’ve used for the past few decades still working in today’s pop culture world?

What do you fine residents of Millarworld think?


The answer has to be yes. If you think about it, the books that have crossed over into the mainstream (The Sandman, Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, Preacher, Kick Ass) have all had a beginning, a middle and an end.

While people like us live and breathe continuity, regular folks find it hard to figure out which Avengers book is the first one. My wife, who has been with me for over 16 years and has a pretty decent knowledge of geeky stuff, finds it too difficult to navigate. If she can’t do it, what chance do other people have?


Weve already had at least two - Wildstorm and Ultimate.


I prefer a story told in arcs that can stand alone. Tenuous contact with other stories in the same “world” is cool if you’re familiar with the cross-over characters but it too much can make difficult for new readers (like my wife) that might not be familiar with the backgrounds of the other books. Civil War and the Ultimates did it really well, but I wasn’t inspired to read any further on the individual heroes after I read the trades.


Interesting question, I think the other properties cited are still a bit young to see how well they work going forward. With Star Wars and Star Trek at least, it was a return to the familiar characters that brought them back to popularity. We’ll see how Rogue One fares later this year.

It seems like DC was trying to go in the legacy of heroes direction for a while with everyone but Clark and Bruce. Even the Silver Age had a change in the guard in this respect. Then, a bunch of creators who grew up on Super Friends came in and put things back to the characters they grew up with. Marvel has even flirted with it a little. I think moving things along could have worked but now everyone sees it as temporary and only assumes that it won’t be long until Bruce or Hal or Barry or Steve or Odinson or Tony will be back in the costume.

While I like the finite Millarworld stories, I think their impact can be blunted because there isn’t anything ongoing. It’s great that the story is done, on the shelf and I can always go back to it. But there isn’t this wealth of back material or new material to look forward to. I’m curious how the legacy of these finite stories will live on. Would DKR still be popular if it didn’t have the entire Batman legacy behind it?


How Mike Mignola has developed the Hellboy universe might be an interesting halfway point. Hellboy was a series of mini-series, which built on each other. Then the BPRD book with Guy Davis and John Arcudi spun out it. Now there are even more books, some of which delve into the past. However it is all the same continuity and fairly tightly controlled as far as I can see.


I think Astro City is great example of how a “finite” superhero universe can work.

It’s constrained, in the best possible way, by it’s consistent creative team and the fact that the characters age in real time.

this means that finite stories can be told, with characters and arcs given natural ends, without sacrificing the fun aesthetics of a continuity heavy superhero universe.

The continuity, on the page or implied, is rarely more than seasoning - never the point of a story


That’s another good example, more expansive (with more creators and books) but with a finite skeleton


And both are now out of print. Had each universe been it’s own company those companies would be bankrupted.

I don’t think it’s an easy question to answer, and if you’re someone like Valiant or you own an IP like Transformers or GI Joe you must be thinking about what your future might be.


I think that, like anything, it’s a mix - and it depends what works for each individual property, and what the storytellers are trying to do.

I’ve always thought of Marvel and DC’s ongoing universes as being like soap-operas: endless sagas that don’t need to be experienced in full from beginning to end - you just jump on and enjoy the ride from whatever point you joined. And even when you narrow the focus to individual books, the same can be true: books like Spidey or X-Men are historically popular as much for the cast dynamic and soap-opera story elements as anything else.

That said, if the story that you want to tell is going to benefit from having a defined beginning, middle and end - and will be better served by not having links to existing properties - then that’s the way to go. Would Watchmen have been as effective if it had been a continuation or even re-imagining of the existing Charlton characters, as it was originally intended to be? Probably not. By standing alone and outside of the existing superhero universes, it managed to be both much more satisfying and complete unto itself, and make a powerful statement about the nature of superhero comics that wasn’t tainted by any association to an existing superhero universe.

Interestingly, it seems that some of the big franchises you mention - like Star Wars and Star Trek - have increasingly veered towards the open-ended approach in recent years (and decades), becoming less shackled by the limitations of the formats in which they were originally conceived. Star Wars is now to all intents and purposes open-ended in the movies, and is increasingly becoming an endlessly-expanding universe of infinite possibilities, especially when you consider the comics, TV series, novels, video games, etc.

And obviously the Marvel movies have drawn great strength from having each of their individual movies take place within a shared universe, with the MCU itself becoming a brand, and allowing overarching story lines to gradually develop across many different separate films.

Artistically, I think we will always have these different approaches, because they will suit the differing needs of different stories. There’s something inherently satisfying about a series that’s complete and finite, that you can hold in your hand in a single volume, that you can follow beginning to end. But a lot of benefits can obviously also derive from a single ongoing sprawling shared universe.

Commercially, I can definitely see things leaning towards the infinite connected universe exemplified by the Marvel and DC universes and the Star Wars mega-franchise, because you grab your audience and don’t let them go by giving them an easy jumping-off point.

Crucially, though, you have to be able to hook readers in with a strong story to start with, otherwise they’re not going to have any reason to invest in the universe as a whole. I think BvS is a cautionary tale about not taking that for granted: first, you have to start with a story that people like and make them want to see more, rather than assuming from the start that interest in a wider universe is guaranteed.


You can have an infinite property with finite characters. They can publish Star Wars stories for the next 100 years, but the characters are getting older and the story is progressing.

Marvel and DC characters remain in this eternal bubble where age and death and previous plotlines don’t really matter. I think the cracks are staring to hit pretty hard with that model at this point.

Another thing to think about is the rapid expansion of so many brands. If you wanted to become a Spider Man fan in the 90’s you could recap his history pretty quickly (got his powers, Green Goblin, Gwen Stacy, Sinister Six, nearly gave up, MJ girlfirend, alien costume and you’re mostly done). Today if you wanted to catch up on Spidey’s backstory you’d need 3 hours on Wikipedia and there’s no way you could read a satisfying summary. So instead you skip most of that, but the backstory was what made some of these characters great back in the day.


Trying to fill in the gaps is basically what turned me into the fan I am today. My adolescent self would have been delighted to find consecutive issues of anything put out by Marvel. It used to involve trawling through dusty boxes at the back of bookshops (as I didn’t live anywhere near a comic shop). The fact that I can find everything digitally would have blown his tiny little mind.


Only if the story you’re reading demands that knowledge, though. Otherwise it can be as simple as “bitten by a radioactive spider; failed to save uncle; fights crime with spider powers”. :slight_smile:

It’s why I think writing for shared-universe and ongoing characters demands skills that not all writers have: you need to keep things accessible while also drawing on (and explaining) history and past continuity as and when it’s needed. Which can be done, but is not always easy.


They’ve already jettisoned one set of continuity though and so far the only things that have really been popular have centered around the same characters. We have yet to see how a property that isn’t centered around a Skywalker will work.

I’m not so sure it’s rapid expansion as so much time passing. Almost the same amount of time has passed between when Spider-Man was created and 1990 as 1990 and now. I think a lot of the cracks go back to writers resetting things back to how they liked them when they were kids. Peter for example had grown up and was married. They could have brought MIles into that universe as a new younger character. Now it’s not real clear how old he is. Some origins work well with slide. Some don’t.


I can’t speak for Wildstorm but the Ultimate Universe really did go past it’s expiration date.

I think there is room for for both options, at least for the Big Two.

You can have the decades old universe that everyone is familiar with. You also have an “ultimate” version that will have only last a few years with a limited number of titles at any given time. You bring in young, fresh talent and let them tap the zeitgeist and tell very contemporary stories with the classic characters. After a few years, you end it and restart the cycle again with newer talent and different sensibilities.

My own personal preference has swung to finite runs. Since I have stopped reading Marvel and DC, I don’t miss the frustrating retcons, the “illusion of change” or editorial whims just to keep the property going. I prefer shorter series though if a tale is being told in long-form and stays compelling, I will continue with it.


It also depends how you define ‘finite’, of course. If you want to be strict, you could say that it means that a story exists only as something complete unto itself, and no elements of it go beyond the confines of that story (something like Ex Machina or Y: The Last Man, say).

But you can also have ‘finite’ stories told within a larger ongoing universe. The various versions of Sherlock Holmes do that (each story is a complete story, but they’re all part of the ongoing adventures of the same character).

One of the reasons I warmed so much to Ultimates (out of all the original Ultimate books) is that it felt like a complete story, but that it also existed within a wider universe that you could explore if you wanted to. No outside knowledge was required to enjoy it on its own terms - and it was completely satisfying in and of itself - but if you wanted to open doors to other characters and concepts and explore them further, you could do that.

Comics work a bit differently to other complete works (like novels or films) because they’re often episodic periodicals, which means they play by different rules. I’d bet that a lot of people got into Marvel and DC comics in a similar way - you read one character and follow it as a single story, then after a while you start seeing elements of other characters and concepts mentioned in the book so you check those out, and these lead to others, and before you know it you’re following an entire line of books. But did the fact that these other stories existed stop you from enjoying the first character you tried? Of course not, you just didn’t know about them yet.

Really, I think it’s the fear of lacking important knowledge that’s more of an issue than lacking the knowledge itself. And a good story will give you everything you need to enjoy it (whether that’s feeding you past information or knowledge about other characters), meaning you’re not sitting there worrying about what you don’t know. To come back to Ultimates, it referenced events that had already happened in the Ultimate universe when it needed to (Hulk’s rampage, his meeting with Spidey, and so on), but did so in a way that felt organic and didn’t make it feel any less complete a story.

I do wonder whether the desire for a finite story that is going to end at some point comes in part as we grow into later life and the time we have to enjoy entertainment is more limited. We don’t want something that’s going to be an infinite demand on such a valuable resource! So we tend towards things that are self-contained, and aren’t going to require such a massive investment.

But would we really enjoy stuff like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad any less if we didn’t know that there was an end in sight, and that they could potentially go on for ever? Does a story only have meaning or value if we know it’s going to end? I think we can become guilty of placing restrictions on our choice of entertainment that are more a result of the practicalities of fitting them into our lives than anything else. (And I know I’m definitely guilty of this, and it stops me trying long-form works that I might well enjoy.)


Basically the big DC characters are demigods, they’re supposed to be immortal classics that represent something timeless and unchangeable, not that fresh maybe but still relevant. If they’re not, the problem is the writer.

I think other universes should let their characters age, retire, or die heroically, making place for new generations. You know, like in real life. That way the universe can still be infinite, but with finite characters, who can still depend on the universe’s history.


I’ve started treating the DC and Marvel universes like a merry-go-round. I get on and ride for a bit until I get tired of it. Then, I hop off for a while. When a story sounds interesting, I’ll hop back on for a bit. It allows me to enjoy the rich, episodic history and has little of the frustration of what seems like going round and round for years.


Me too.

The two books that I have always loved and probably would always collect are Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four (R.I.P.). I am still reading Amazing each month. I like the sheer enthusiasm that Dan Slott brings to it each month. I will try out different books here and there, but I’m not going to buy in to the endless roundabout of Events and crossovers.

I signed for for Marvel Unlimited and am really enjoying reading through old issues of FF, and more obscure stuff from Marvel Spotlight etc. And I am also giving serious consideration to trying out the Steve Gerber Defenders run I’ve heard good things about.


I think it depends on the product. Lost is a great example of a show that needed a definite ending. You could tell early on that they were stretching things out just to fill out seasons. Once they had an end date, the show tightened up considerably. Television has been embracing anthology series of late where each season tells a complete story. The Ultimates was the precursor to that.

As to comic books, I think self-contained stories set in a larger continuity is a good compromise.