Alternate realities are seductive, aren't they? They entice you with the familiar, dangling remixed elements of the worlds you know in front of your eyes. Then there's the thrill of the new randomness that a parallel plane of existence can hold. Alt-earths have been a sturdy concept in speculative fiction and, in superhero comics, they've created followings for their specific brands of twisted history.
DC Comics had a long history of spooling out transdimensional variants — worlds where World War II never ended or where Superman, Batman and other metahumans were evil, for example. On the previous version of Earth 2, the Man of Steel and the rest of DC's oldest characters had been around since World War II and spawned sons, daughters and other successors that fought evil over the centuries. However, the publisher's recent New 52 reboot seemed like it was quashing any kind of multiversal mayhem for good. That's not the case, though.
Out tomorrow, Earth 2 introduces another version of an alternate Earth that harbours very different versions of characters that were just re-imagined. But writer James Robinson — best known for a classic mid-90s run on Starman and currently turning out great work in The Shade mini-series — is confident that he'll be able to take the generational elements and doppelganger personas of the past and make them feel fresh. I spoke with Robinson on the phone to find out what his plans are for the new Earth 2.
Kotaku: I think the announcement of Earth 2 really threw people for a loop because people were not expecting any kind of hint of the previous multiverse structure in the New 52 reboot. Can you walk me through how that came about?
Robinson: Well, how it came about was clearly fans wanted a book featuring the Justice Society. And it was the best way to bring that about and show the Justice Society, while being true to the new rules and the new story that's set up in the DC Universe with heroes being on Earth for a relatively short period of time. Which, of course, eliminates the whole concept of a first older generation of heroes.
So, from there we went through different ways, we could show the Justice Society on a different Earth. Ultimately, this was the one that seemed to have the most original, freshest feel to it, and the one that had the most potential for new, exciting stories that weren't rehashes of stories that had already been told, or ideas that we've seen before.
I don't think we need another Per Degaton story. Not to say you won't get one in the future. Maybe you will. But my point is, no one is really asking for that. Or yet another time that the Ultra- Humanite appears. Again, maybe you'll see that. Maybe you won't.
But, more importantly, it's freed us up to create fresh heroes and a fresh viewpoint with the Earth 2 heroes, while at the same time trying to keep the spirit of those characters the way they were originally in terms of the heroism, the idealism, and all the other things they carried with them back in their original incarnation when they were young heroes in the 1940s. To bring that into the present day, so these are fresh young heroes in a real world.
But they are still likable and heroic, and all the things that we love about those original Earth 2 characters from then, and as we've seen them age and mature throughout their prior incarnation of the DC Universe.
Kotaku: So, is the conceit here that we have these established characters like Alan Scott, Jay Garrick and other who've been heroes for a long time, and then we have the Superman analogs, the Batman analogs coming up, and picking up the mantle from them? Timeline-wise, can you break it down for me? Who are the old guys? Who are the young guys?
Robinson: Well the first guard of Earth 2 are going to be the Trinity [of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman], Robin, and Supergirl. We'll see those characters. We'll also see the next wave of characters coming after that, learning from them and drawing inspiration from them.
Kotaku: OK. Fair enough. In the older incarnations of Earth 2, older versions of the characters, what did you admire the most, and what are you trying to preserve from that older stuff, the Roy Thomas, Paul Levitz, all that stuff. What are you trying to keep from that?
Robinson: Well I grew up as a fan of Earth 2. When I was a boy I used to collect Earth 2 appearances in the way that some fans collect mainline superhero appearances. I would collect all of those DC Presents backups, "Whatever Happened to Dr Mid-Nite?" Or whatever happened to this character or that character. Eagerly await every year's JLA/JSA crossover that would happen.
When Paul Levitz took over writing the Justice Society from Gerry Conway, he was the first writer to bring them back into present day. And then followed on from that with Roy Thomas. There was such a love and affection for those characters.
I feel in love with those versions of the characters as I saw them being written. But with the version that we're trying to do now it really is me trying to say, "What is the essence of Jay Garrick? What was the essence of him in the 1940s? What was the essence of him as he aged?"
Try to distill that and put that into the new Jay Garrick. So that while he's a new character with a new backstory, he's young in the present day. But still those iconic elements to who he was and how he acted as a person, his integrity, his likability are still there. Hopefully, readers will pick up on and fall in love with his character all over again for the first time.
In the same way, I'm trying to distill what first I got from Alan Scott when I first met him as a little boy. Seeing Alan Scott for the first time was so strange. He was also called Green Lantern but was so different from Hal Jordan. He was much more colourful. His origin was different.
Even the oath with his ring with different. Also, he seemed this epic, heroic character to me, this green knight, for want of a better term. I'm trying to bring that to the character in the present and brand him as is the epitome of heroism.
I'm trying to find those key aspects of the characters and bring them into the new characters so there is a degree of familiarity. Even at the same time other aspects of these characters are new and fresh and different from anything people have seen or done before.
Kotaku: A lot of the advance chatter has indicated there is going to be a higher level of violence and probably emotional stakes too with this incarnation of the characters. Will the action be rougher?
Robinson: These are aspects of characters that drive them on and make them the characters that they are. There are elements to what motivates these characters based around the loss of loved ones. In the same way that in the main DC Universe it's the violent death of his parents that motivates Batman.
It's still the destruction of Krypton that motivates Superman. There are obviously things that motivate these characters and make them want to rise to the occasion, and be the heroes that they should be. But for some reason there is this feeling by people putting two and two together and perhaps making four and half, that this book is super, super violent.
It's a big superhero book, but it is no more violent than an issue of Superman, or an issue of The Flash, or Green Lantern, or any of the books that are being published at the moment. It isn't some gory horrific thing.
Kotaku: Which character would you say diverges most from the way he or she has previously been portrayed?
Robinson: That's actually very hard. Because I actually feel I've been very faithful to how the characters have been portrayed. Some of the backstories are different. But I guess possibly Hawkgirl might seem divergent in that she has a little bit of a different backstory. There are some marked differences to her visually that readers will see.
I think readers will be surprised by how true I am to the core basic feel of the original characters while also making them young and hopefully feel fresh for readers who want a new version of those characters.
Kotaku: There was a little bit of editorial subtext at the end of your most recent Justice League run. Should people go looking for that kind of statement here in the new Earth 2 book?
Robinson: Basically in the last issues of Justice League, knowing that everything was going to change, that what I had written really wasn't going to matter because it was all going to be vacated[? 12:39], I basically wrote an issue which told readers what the next year and a half of the Justice League was going to be, and I also knew that Donna Floyd was going away, so I had the chance to write what I thought was a nice eloquent farewell to her readers and her fans basically.
So that was a very specific thing that I had the opportunity to do based on a specific moment in time. This is a new ongoing book, so I'm not going to be making lots of in-jokes and references to editorial and things like that. No. This is very much a new exciting venture for me and I'm not trying to be too clever-clever about things.