A fictional universe is a sacred thing to many. Whether it’s Marvel, DC, Warhammer, Harry Potter, Dancing with the Stars, or Star Trek, a universe is often held dearer to a fan’s heart than the story itself. Some exist only for a single story, but the larger — or extended — ones are strong enough to support many a tale. But those tales don’t always spawn from the same author, and that’s where things get interesting…
In some ways, it can definitely be a good thing to have multiple authors working within a single universe. This stops things from becoming solely based around the only author’s main character; it keeps him out of a rabbit hole of plot cliches and self-satisfaction. A universe with multiple protagonists is one with multiple plots and multiple stories, all colliding and working with or against one another.
But it’s not always lollipops and rainbows: having too many authors working on a single project definitely has its downsides — “too many cooks in the kitchen,” as they say. This problem happens most in comic books, where universes have been going on for decades, and have gone through so many disasters, reboots, and disastrous reboots it’s nigh impossible to know where to start.
This brings us to one of the most famous universes in the modern world: Marvel. Whenever it comes up, a question arises: which one? Earth-616, Ultimate, Cinematic, Zombies? Marvel has almost too many alternate timelines and canons, each based on the same original universe, but ultimately growing into its own.
Don’t get me wrong, I adore the Marvel Universe, from the big and famous Spider-Man to the rarely seen Taskmaster. Marvel’s world is a beautiful and intriguing one, with a multitude of heroes with their own story, problems, villains, and triumphs. With those heroes comes a solution to one of my problems with extended universes: no single hero is the crux of the Marvel universe’s story. They come together, go apart, befriend, befuddle, and bloody one another as often as they do their villains, making the universe deeper for it.
Marvel overcomes another issue of the extended universe through maintaining company control: a group of editors maintains the cohesion of the overarching storyline, throughout every hero’s tale. This keeps series on track towards the titanic intersecting arcs that bring all the heroes together, like Civil War, Infinity Gauntlet, and Age of Apocalypse. Each one is a great display of the universe’s full roster, but they share the same problem: where do you start reading?
With Marvel, it’s difficult to just dive in. You can’t pick up a current book in many cases: you need to delve into the backlogs if you want to learn what shaped the characters and the events they reference. Infinity Gauntlet is a commonly recommended beginning, but there’s not quite a perfect starting point. To fully understand, you may have to delve into the wiki as much as you do the comic, and that’s simply not the best way for a universe to operate. While that’s not a good thing, it is the side effect of a good thing: the sheer size and number of stories lying within this great world.
On that note, let’s talk about Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 books published by Black Library that hold a million tales of a million heroes. These worlds are not as well known as Marvel, nor as old, but they are wonderful in their own right. Exemplars of their genres, they’re fleshed out wonderfully by dozens, if not hundreds of authors impassioned by the world Games Workshop has created.
These tales have their own pros over worlds like Marvel, where stories intersect and bounce off one another time and again. These worlds are simply gargantuan in size (especially in the case of 40K), and authors do not work together on projects. This would be a con if any had characters that shaped the history of the world, but most stories in these worlds are smaller in scale: heroes doing good, marines saving planets, and poor normal people trying to eke out an existence. They’re independent stories in wonderful worlds, meaning you only need a basic understanding of the universe to engorge yourself in a series, rather than knowing the history of all characters that have come before.
But of course, with every yin, there is a yang. So with these pros comes a con, and boy, is it a big one. Since these stories are told independently, things stagnate. A hero may have a great effect in his own story, but in another, he never existed — time never moves forward. In the official canon, history has been at the same point in time for oh so long, telling a multitude of tales at that one point. Though the stories are interesting and intricate, they do little to move the canon outside of their own internal struggle.
Finally, let’s take a look at the other side of the coin: the extended, extrapolated, and entirely explored universes all born from a single author’s head. Possibly the greatest example of this is of course the universe that Tolkien created for the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. With a history over thousands of years, entire languages, cultures, and maps created all by one man, this world is one so thoroughly explored that few can ever hope to match it. There are plenty of examples of worlds created by one author that are trite, poorly explained, and never fully rendered in one’s mind except for what lies directly before the main character.
This is why I bring up Tolkien. With maybe the exception of Tom Bombadil (whom Tolkien admitted he included for his children), there is no one in this universe favored by the author. The universe feels alive and has a wonderful story to tell, but could support many more if he’d chosen so. Tolkien was a rare example of the extended universe done right by a single man, and one I admittedly have difficulty truly finding fault with.
Extended universes are wonderful things. They can mean that stories never have to come to an end, and that’s what all avid readers want when they fall in love with a world. They have their faults for certain, whether it be a tabletop game, comic book company, or one man with lots of time and more creativity than anyone could ever imagine. They certainly have their benefits — a satisfying ending that makes you content to leave the world behind is something that extended universes rarely have. But they’re wonderful in their own respects, and without them, the world would be a lonelier place.
Article by contributor Andrew Charlton.