"Please, Aslan!" [said Lucy] "Am I not to know?"
"To know what would have happened, child?" said Aslan. "No. Nobody is ever told that."
Let’s talk about the multiverse.
In 1977, Stan Lee’s arch disciple Roy Thomas created a comic book called What If...? Thomas was a smart guy. He'd spotted that Conan and Star Wars were the kinds of things Marvel should be doing when Stan Lee thought they should only be doing superheroes. Star Wars was a big hit and probably saved the company from bankruptcy. Conan was a slow burner, a critical success, sold steadily for decades, and was the main cause of Dave Sim.
When Stan Lee was pitching story-ideas at his stable of artists and co-writers, he used to say things like “What if Doctor Doom stole the Silver Surfer’s power?" "What if Doctor Octopus kidnapped Aunt May?" "What if the Thing quit the Fantastic Four?” Lee thought that being able to think up What If... questions was the very definition of creativity. He and he alone had the power to say “What If Jonah Jameson hired a robot to catch Spider-Man?” Any old hack could then turn these solid gold ideas into workmanlike comic books. (By a strange coincidence, when he stopped working with Ditko and Kirby, the power to come up with surefire What If...? questions mysteriously deserted him.)
At any rate, Roy Thomas would have had no difficulty convincing Stan that “What If...?” was a good title for a comic book.
The What If...? comic asked questions about the past, rather than about the future. Instead of taking a blank page and saying “What would happen if...?” it took an existing story and asked “What would have happened if...?” The first What If... took a narrative dead end from the first issue of Spider-Man and asked “What would have happened if Spider-Man had joined the Fantastic Four?” A bit of a tragedy, as it turned out: the Invisible Girl would have left Reed and married Namor, and the remaining members of the Fantastic Five would have been left wondering what would have happened if Spidey had never joined the gang.
Some of them were based on questions that almost anyone could understand (What would have happened if Peter Parker had stopped that Burglar and Uncle Ben had not been murdered?) Others asked questions you would have had have been quite hard core to understand or care about. (What would have happened if the Avengers had become pawns of Korvac?)
Some of the stories were just plain fun. "What If The Original Marvel Bullpen Had Been The Fantastic Four?" is pretty much just a romp through comic book history, and the last time Kirby’s brush came into contact with those characters. But very often they felt more like commentaries: ways of illuminating what was good and essential about the original story; the reason why things could not have turned out differently. "What If Phoenix Had Lived?" was Chris Claremont’s explanation of why the character had to be written out of the X-Men when she was; Frank Miller’s "What If Elektra Had Lived?" plausibly showed that if his one true love had not been killed off, Daredevil would have quit being a crime fighter and lived happily ever after and there would have been no more stories. 'What If The Fantastic Four Had Never Got Their Powers?" is essentially John Byrne demonstrating how much the original F.F owed to Challengers of the Unknown.
What If... has no morphed into an animated TV series, asking questions about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (We live in a strange post-fannish world where there is a thing called the Marvel Cinematic Universe you can ask What If... questions about.) But it is much more interested in creating fun, one-off versions of the movies than with asking clever questions about them. "What If Peggy Carter Had Been The First Avenger?" is an excuse to give us a lady Captain America with a Union Jack on her shield (and to put Steve in a very primitive Iron Man suit); "What If The Black Panther Had Become Star Lord?" is essentially a new Guardians of the Galaxy heist, with a not-evil Thanos sitting in bars talking about his plan to solve the population crisis.
Our friend C.S Lewis, who had probably not read many Marvel Comics, said that asking what would have happened was only ever a vivid rhetorical device for talking about what, in fact, did happen.
DC also had a nice line in counterfactuals, which they called Imaginary Tales. Imaginary Tales tended to be utterly preposterous events which, if not marked “Imaginary” would destroy a character or change them beyond recognition. An Avengers comic in which a female Captain England was defrosted by Nick Fury in the twenty first century would only be a little different from the Avengers comic we know and love. A Superman comic in which Kal-El stays at home in an apron and changes the diapers of a pair of super-babies would no longer be a Superman comic in any recognisable sense. The formula was not “What would happen...?” or “What would have happened....?” it was “What might happen...” Imaginary tales were about possibilities, albeit very remote ones.
DC had a propensity to produce parallel earths by the sack-load: but they were part of the main storyline. There really was another universe where the Flash wore a funny tin-hat and the Green Lantern had a strange raised collar and cape. You could get from Earth-1 to Earth-2 if you ran fast enough. But Imaginary Tales were a different thing. There was no Earth-17 where Superman became President; or married Lois; or watched Lois marry Batman; or where he married Lois and Lana and Lori consecutively; got old; turned evil; turned into a gorilla; split into two distinct individuals... They were imaginary stories. The Batman versions were occasionally said to be works of fiction that Alfred was creating in his spare time!
Spider-Man 121 has a front page caption: "Not a trick! Not an imaginary tale! But the most startling unexpected turning point in the webslinger's entire life! How can Spider-Man go on after this almost unbelievable death!" Marvel wanted us to believe that imaginary stories were cheating: that, at any rate, a non-imaginary story was more dramatic and important than an imaginary one?
But why? If they are all stories anyway, shouldn't the tale be judged on its own merits?
One is tempted to misquote Oscar Wilde: "There is no such thing as an imaginary or a non-imaginary comic book. Comic books are well written, or badly written, and that is all."
The answer is that a canonical story affects all subsequent stories. In Superman 149 Superman dies. There is no let-out clause, no unexpected happy ending: Superman is really dead. But because The Death of Superman is only an imaginary story, there is no expectation that he will remain dead in issue 150, 151, or 152. But once [SPOILER ALERT] Gwen Stacy is dead in Spider-Man 121, we take it for granted that she will remain dead in issue 122, and 123, and 124: and that we will see Peter Parker dealing with his grief, finding a new lover, agonising about his guilt. Gwen may be cloned; she may turn out to have a twin sister; she may even be raised from the dead. In comic books, no-one dies for ever,
except Bucky. But the tragic murder on the bridge can never un-happen.
The canonical story allows a writer to exert power over all subsequent writers. If Alan Moore says that the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon in the spine, then all subsequent writers have to depict her as a wheel-chair user (or give her bionic legs, or introduce a brilliant surgeon who can cure her.)
The canonical story is one component of a bigger story. An imaginary story or a What If... in which Aunt May died would not be particularly interesting: she is very old and very poorly and was bound to pass away sooner or later. But it would be a very interesting development in the on-going Spider-Man soap opera -- because we would want to know what happens next month, and the month after, and in five years time. How will Peter Parker cope in the absence of his only relative and mother-figure? Does he now have any particularly good reason to keep his identity a secret? Will Marvel's most realistic hero sign a pact with Satan to bring her back from the dead?
The distinction between canon and non-canon is therefore a litmus test of our fannishness. If you read Spider-Man as a soap opera, than stories which fall outside that narrative stream are a waste of time, albeit a diverting one. If you think that individual stories are merely bricks which make up a vast edifice called The Marvel Universe then an imaginary story is at best a piece of childish trivia and at worst a dishonest scam. But if you just read comic books, then the story is the thing. Comics are fun or boring, and that is all. A hard-core fan approaches the forthcoming Batman movie by asking "How will it interact with the Snyderverse?". The more casual fan and the normal movie goer is more likely to ask "Will it be any good?"
"It's called ther Batman", said Christopher Robin. "Don't you know what ther means?"
Alan Moore’s 1986 story Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is an elegiac tribute to Silver Age Superman comics; a celebration of everything Moore loved about them, and a vicious deconstruction of everything he found silly in them. It was the last time that the old 1950s world of super-pets and rainbow kryptonite would appear in a mainline Superman comic. Moore famously introduced it with the simultaneously wistful and cynical comment : “This is an imaginary story...but then aren’t they all?”
The previous 30 years of Superman stories were about to be "decanonized" in the Crisis reboot, so it was in one sense true that every single comic he remembered from his childhood was about to become, by editorial fiat, an Imaginary Tale. But at a deeper level, this story, like every other Superman story, and indeed every other story, was Imaginary -- a product of the human imagination.
It was a good line. But we shouldn’t press it too hard. If a fan asks “Is Batman: ther Dark Knight Returns an imaginary tale?” it is unkind and unhelpful to smile smugly and say "Yes, but aren't they all?" Marvel and DC comics have spent decades building up the illusion that their stories take place in their own, self-consistent universes -- imaginary, of course, in the sense of not-really-existing, but with a continuity and a history in which events have narrative consequences. Some things "really happened" in that great story-made-of-stories; some things emphatically did not. It is not childish or contemptible to want to know on what side of the line a particular graphic novel falls.
The future of a character is as much a part of that character as his past: as Alan Moore said, it is an important part of the Norse Thor that he will fall at Ragnorak; it is an important component of the yarns of David Crockett that he was killed defending the Alamo. I can read Dark Knight Returns thinking "this is how the story will end". I can reading it thinking "Frank is just taking the toys out of the boxes, fooling around with them, and putting them away again". Most of us take a little from column A and a little from column B. But it is simply wrong to say that it makes no difference. It makes a difference, not only to your reading of Frank Miller, but to your reading of every subsequent Batman story.
The Disney What If... cartoon series begins with a speech by the Watcher:
"Time. Space. Reality. It's more than a linear path. It's a prism. Of Endless possibility. Where a single choice can branch out into infinite realities, creating alternative worlds from the ones you know... I am the Watcher. I am your guide through these infinite realities. Follow me. And ponder the question. What if..."
If you ask "Where is an imaginary story happening?" the answer is (by definition) in the imagination of the reader, the writer, or in some cases, the Butler. But a What If... story takes place in the Marvel Universe itself -- a different time line, but one as "real" as the one our own Peter Parker or Tony Stark inhabits. That's why we need The Watcher: there has to be a viewpoint. A What If... story has to command what our friend Mr Tolkien would have called Secondary Belief.
This may have been one of the reasons Stan Lee was initially so reluctant to take on licensed properties. If everything Marvel published had to have Secondary Reality then everything which Marvel published had to link up into one vast Secondary World. If all Marvel Comics made up one big story, then the very act of publishing a comic about a real world stuntman called The Human Fly made The Human Fly a character in the same story as Peter Parker and Howard the Duck. So the first question to ask about a Star War or a Doctor Who comic was "“How will it fit into the Marvel Universe? Will Darth Vader meet Doctor Doom?” And you couldn't say "No, of course not: Star Wars is just a story" in case the reader thought "But then, aren't they all?" So Godzilla has to fight SHIELD agents, and Peter Parker has to meet Count Dracula. There was even a rather desperate attempt to send Spider-Man through time to meet Conan the Barbarian. (I seem to think that Mary Jane briefly becomes Red Sonja, although wild wildebeests wouldn’t make me re-read Marvel Team Up at this point.)
Tolkien said that when children ask if a story is true, all they are really asking is whether or not it was contemporary. They understand that the story in the newspaper about the Orrible Murder is True -- that’s why they mustn’t wander off and talk to strangers. They understand that the equally terrifying story in the fairy tale books is Not True -- there is no danger of them actually encountering a child-eating witch with a candy cottage. But hearing a story about Hitler or Sherlock Holmes or Francis Drake for the first time, they don’t immediately know which box to put it in. The correct answer to “Is it true?” he said, was “Well, there are certainly no dragons in England today.”
We never thought that Spider-Man stories are true in that sense -- although when we were very small we pretended we did. But we wanted and needed to think that Spider-Man was true somewhere -- in some secondary world. The stories didn't really happen: but they really happened to Peter Parker. And this is a very specific way of reading. No-one asked why Charlie Brown didn't advance in age from 8 to 58 during the half century of Peanuts existence: but the fact that Peter Parker spent three decades stuck at the age of 17 is a genuine impediment to our faith.
It’s ironic that it was Marvel Comics where this approach took root. Stan Lee literally presents his seminal texts as imaginary stories -- as tales that he and his collaborators are making up; observing; commenting on; and presenting to the audience for their delectation. He is the puppeteer and he wants us to see the strings. Lee’s acolytes never saw the joke. As soon as the torch was passed, the Roy Thomas’s and Mark Gruenwald’s started talking about Marvel Time and Omniverses and writing pedantic stories which connected the Golden Age Captain America to the Modern One. “What If The Avengers Stayed Together After World War II” pointedly omitted the word “had” from the title. It remained canon for decades...