If there’s one thing you can say about fandom, it’s that all fans of every stripe want the same thing: more. If we love a TV series, we want movie spin-offs. If we love a comic book, we want that hero to appear in multiple titles. If we love football, we feign interest in the XFL or USFL until August, because at least it’s something. Whatever it is fans want, the unifying element is that everybody wants more of it.
The problem is that stuff takes time. The average TV season lasts for 13 episodes these days (sometimes 22, if you’re lucky), leaving well over two thirds of a year with no new content. Movie sequels can take from years to decades, and sometimes never happen at all no matter how badly you want them. Waiting for new books is a crapshoot – if you’re a Stephen King fan you’ll have three new novels to read by the time you get home from Burger King, whereas George R.R. Martin readers will have to inherit the fandom from their grandparents before they get any new content. Even comic books, which usually have a pretty standard schedule of once or twice a month, take you ten minutes to read and then you’re stuck sitting around waiting for the next installment.
So in order to satiate the thirst of fans for “more,” something marvelous has happened. “Extended” Universes. Novels based on movies, comic books based on novels, TV shows based on comics, movies based on TV shows. There’s a weird, incestuous spiderweb of media that springs up around any sufficiently popular franchise, and it’s been happening for ages. Back in 1942 George F. Lowther wrote The Adventures of Superman, a novel based on the world’s most popular comic book character who, at the time, was only four years old. In 1910, Thomas Edison produced a short film based (very loosely) on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Hell, way back in 1615, Miguel de Cervantes published the second volume of Don Quixote largely to spite an anonymous writer who, using the pseudonym “Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda,” released his own unauthorized sequel to the first book, something that would have brought down a legion of Disney-owned lawyers were anyone to try that today. The point is, fans have been greedy for a long, long time.
The great thing is, if you love Star Trek and can’t wait for June 15 and the season premiere of Strange New Worlds, there are literally hundreds of novels, comic books, and video games you can consume to get your fix. And some of them are really good. And some of them have very devoted fans, and some of them have wonderfully complex and entertaining lore and mythologies all their own.
And this is where the problem comes in. When extended universes are really popular, a sort of strange conflict begins to arise when the time comes to figure out what is and what is not canon. What’s “official” to the main universe that you’re enjoying? What “counts” and what doesn’t?
It used to be relatively simple: the medium that birthed the franchise was king, and everything else could be a fun diversion, but was not considered relevant to the creation of a new “official” installment. It didn’t count, it wasn’t real, it was “Fiction’s fiction.” Because of this, at the time, these expanded works didn’t usually do anything that would have permanent repercussions to the main story. Sure, there were Star Wars comics while the original trilogy was being produced, but there was never any real danger of Han Solo dying because Lucasfilm needed him for the next movie. This did produce some “funny in hindsight” moments when early writers teased a Luke/Leia relationship because they didn’t know yet that the two of them were brother and sister. Of course, neither did George Lucas, so who can blame them?
It was Star Wars, I think, that started to change things for these extended worlds. In the early 90s, it had been years since Return of the Jedi and there did not seem to be any intent to make more movies, so a plan was hatched to continue the universe via novels and comic books. The first Timothy Zahn trilogy of novels introduced the new big bad, the fandom-beloved Grand Admiral Thrawn, while Dark Horse Comics’ Dark Empire series brought Emperor Palpatine back from the dead by revealing he had the ability to transmit his mind into cloned bodies he had ready for just such an occasion. With the success of these stories, the Star Wars universe grew exponentially, with hundreds of interwoven stories introducing new characters, heroes, villains, planets, and alien species that were as thoroughly entertaining as anything the fans had come to love in the original trilogy. Even once movies were being made again, films that sometimes contradicted elements of the extended universe, the creators did their best to pivot, explain away inconsistencies, and incorporate “official” elements into their own world. And for the most part, it worked.
Then Disney bought Lucasfilm and designated everything except the six existing movies and Clone Wars TV series to be non-canon. Actually, they used the term “Star Wars Legends,” because that way they could keep reprinting and profiting off the work while usually failing to pay the creators any royalties, which is a different rant I’m not going to get into right now. There would still be an extended universe, of course, but now they were going to produce it themselves, with books, comics, and video games tied to the new “official” canon, and ostensibly, those works would be considered canon as well. So far it seems to have worked out, but that doesn’t mean I doubt for a second that Kathleen Kennedy would make a movie that contradicted Marvel Comics’s War of the Bounty Hunters series if she so felt the urge.
My favorite “Star,” Trek, has had its own issues with extended universes, particularly in the 80s when DC Comics held the license. Following Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, DC began publishing new stories assuming a status quo as it was at the end of that movie: Admiral Kirk commanding the Enterprise after the death of Spock. Then came Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, in which Spock…y’know…un-dies. Despite the fact that the movies clearly take place right after each other, chronologically, the comic writers wrote a story that dovetailed their few years of adventures into that movie best they could, then began a new status quo. The Enterprise was destroyed, so Kirk took over command of the Excelsior for reasons, while Spock became captain of a science vessel and had his own adventures. Then Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home further complicated things with a story that clearly happened immediately after the events of the previous film and did not fit the comic book canon in any conceivable way. The comic book writers flailed for a while until DC got the rights to do an ongoing series of the then-new Star Trek: The Next Generation series, at which point they rebooted the comic starring the original crew so it could start with a new first issue the same month that TNG #1 came out, and then they just pretended those other stories they told never happened.
Trek got better in the late 90s and aughts, taking a cue from Star Wars and moving into stories based on franchise installments that seemed truly “over” and therefore safe to expand upon. There was a series of novels following the Deep Space Nine characters after the conclusion of their show, another with the adventures of Captain William Riker on the Titan following the final TNG movie, and even some series featuring mostly-new casts like Peter David’s New Frontier or the Starfleet Engineering Corps books. When the J.J. Abrams films brought Trek back to the screen, it was no problem for the extended universe, since they explicitly took place in an alternate timeline. In fact, it just gave writers a whole new universe to play around in. Modern Trek does have a few clashes, though: IDW Comics (who currently holds the license) recently began an initiative to create a more tightly woven universe through a relaunched Trek series and its Defiant spin-off, both of which are good comics, but which feature versions of Data and Beverly Crusher that seem to flat-out contradict the canon of Star Trek: Picard, which seems like a bizarre choice.
The “official” continuation game has been played with more and more franchises in recent years. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly continued their respective universes in comic books, while Smallville – a TV show based on a comic – had a fairly lengthy “Season 11” series that followed that show: a comic book based on a TV show based on a comic book. Then there was the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, a desperate effort to squash the material of seven books into 95 minutes (that’s seven Stephen King novels, most of which are large enough to qualify for their own zip code). While most fans were disappointed in the result, the sting is mitigated slightly if people try to view the film not as an adaptation of the books, but as a sequel to them. That probably doesn’t make any sense if you haven’t read the books, but just take my word for it.
That brings us to the issue when printed media are translated to the screen. Books were first, gloriously first, but if we’re being honest here, the general public often accepts film or TV adaptations as more official. Just talk to any devotee of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its subsequent sequels about how much you love the Ruby Slippers and watch them die a little inside. James Bond was created as a hero for novels and short stories, but the films are obviously what most people are familiar with, and those are highly contradictory. Some of the movies are based on Ian Fleming’s stories, some of them use the titles of stories but very little else, and others are cut from whole cloth, but there’s just no way to pretend they share a canon. Most Bond fans don’t care, of course, and modern fans tend to see the movies as the “real” James Bond more than the novels that gave him birth. (He’s a more likable character in the movies, to be fair, so this is not necessarily a bad thing.)
As for comic books, there have been comic book movies for a very long time, but those have historically been ignored by the comics themselves. The first Batman serial from the 40s, for example, portrayed him as a government agent beating up spies, something that doesn’t sync with any canon comic book I can think of. Even really popular films, like the Christopher Reeve Superman or Tobey Maguire Spider-Man, had a negligible effect on the comic books. Then came the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and boy, things changed. With the gargantuan success of the MCU, there are now effectively two “official” Marvel Universes, and the cinematic one is by far the one that’s more recognizable to the general public. The MCU was the first time anyone had ever tried to create so intricate a universe of interwoven films and TV shows, something that made it feel more “real” than that scene in Batman Forever where Bruce Wayne casually mentions Dick Grayson’s circus is “halfway to Metropolis” but otherwise gave no indication of anything beyond the boundaries of the film. The Marvel Studios movies and shows all linked to each other and all mattered to each other, just like the comics, and the “cinematic universe” model is something everyone has been trying to replicate ever since.
And of course, occasionally elements in these extended universes become popular enough that they can cross over into the “real” worlds. Harley Quinn was created in Batman: The Animated Series and was such a hit that she joined the official comic book universe, then spread out into live action. Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen, almost as integral a character to the mythos as Lois Lane or the Kents, made his first appearance on Superman’s radio show. The aforementioned Batman serial, which is goofy and doesn’t feel like the same character at all, is responsible for the creation of the Batcave. And even though the Star Wars Legends stuff is no longer canon, Disney is starting to allow elements of that world to leak into the “official” world, such as bringing in Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn character and allowing the resurrection of Emperor Palpatine – although to avoid being accused of copying the Dark Empire comic book, they cleverly neglected to give any comprehensible reason for his return whatsoever.
The original question was that of what is “real” in these different universes. The newfound ubiquity of the multiverse concept in storytelling makes that easier. (It’s an old concept, I know, but in recent years it’s really experienced a boom in popular culture.) Marvel officially recognizes just about every version of its characters as “real” in one corner of the multiverse or another, with stories like Spider-Verse (the comic book) and Into the Spider-Verse (the movie) bringing them all into play together. DC has a similar policy and has officially declared that the Christopher Reeve Superman movies and Michael Keaton Batman movies are set in the same universe, although whether that will be contradicted by the upcoming Flash movie remains to be seen. The truth is that the people writing any version of these IPs in any medium will pick and choose those elements that they need to make their story work, and as that can be confusing if a fan is trying to reconcile everything, this is probably a good reason not to try that. What’s “real”? What “matters”? Whatever you need for the story you’re trying to enjoy right now.
The rest of it?
Just find that corner of the multiverse where a guy named Joel told us to repeat to ourselves “It’s just a show, I should really just relax.”
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. One of his favorite Star Trek novels is Federation, by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. Don’t try to read it and then watch First Contact. It doesn’t work.