“A few words to writers who might be tempted to add to this game — it’s not enough to cover pages with flow-charts, family trees, and speculation to establish an extended kinship… If you use a pre-existing fictional character, you are under the same obligation a writer of historical fiction is in using a real person — you still have to make them over to fit into your own fictional universe, and perhaps pass judgment on them… The lifeblood of the Land of Fiction remains story — the adventures, exploits, loves and deaths — not the crossovers; fun as they are, they have to come second or you get sub-par fan fiction…”
— Kim Newman, from the introduction to Crossovers: A Secret Chronology of the World, Volume 1
From the time we were introduced to characters popular enough to eclipse the star power of their creators, readers and writers alike have been drawn to the questions of the ages.
Who would win in a fight between (list two favorite characters here)?
What would happen if X’s villain faced off against this other hero?
Could these two characters work together, or would they kill each other first?
And so on. It really begins with the magazines that gave us short stories and serialized adventures of characters like Sherlock Holmes, Zorro, and Tarzan. Then it extended to novels, and to comic books, and to radio, and feature films, and beyond. It’s the product of imagination that proves that the public’s desire for such stories will never end, an extension of the two greatest words in the English language: “What if?”
People have always played this game on some level, but it was the Sherlockians that really took the first steps into this realm with “The Game,” wherein the true diehards took the exploits of the Great Detective as the factual case files of a living human being. And if the life of one character could be documented in such vivid details and extrapolated, why wouldn’t it work out with others? Of course, even without this conceit, other writers just couldn’t resist tossing favorite characters together in the thick of things. That’s what superhero groups like the Justice League or The Avengers are all about. It’s why we have movies about these characters now, graphic novels like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and TV shows like Penny Dreadful.
To this end, science fiction author P. J. Farmer wrote two character biographies: Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. In those books, he introduced the first elements to what would become the Wold Newton Universe. The idea was that the stories of all of these great characters were, perhaps, fictionalized accounts of the exploits of real people. And all of these real people were chronicled through time in fiction because they were just a bit too extraordinary for people to believe. Farmer himself took up the role of chronicler and knitted together the family tree from whence these great adventurers came from, and the event that made their family lines extraordinary in the first place.
The meteorite’s radiation infected the genetic makeup of those in the immediate vicinity, causing in their descendants an endowment of extreme physical strength or mental capacity, and with those gifts the unbalanced desire to do great good or great evil. Many of these descendants have familiar names: Sherlock Holmes, The Shadow, Solomon Kane, A. J. Raffles, James Bond, Professor Challenger, Fu Manchu, and so on. But of course, these characters aren’t the only extraordinary beings. They live alongside and/or on the same timeline with such characters from other lines, such as The Phantom, Zorro, Horatio Hornblower, Victor Frankenstein, Captain Nemo, Robin Hood, Dracula, Conan the Barbarian, Captain James T. Kirk, Indiana Jones, Batman, Freddy Krueger, the Predator, Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, all things Lovecraftian, etc. Then toss in historical personalities from our own real world, because, yes indeed, everyone factors. It’s the Mother of All Crossovers. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Now imagine that you’re a reader in the modern era who has never heard of the Wold Newton Universe, but like so many others before you, you ask these great questions of “What if?” Today we have the internet to help us track down some of these great stories of yesteryear, and indeed, if you’ve clicked the link to the WNU above, you’ve already found the chief resource on the internet. You’ve also discovered it’s a bit cumbersome to navigate and hasn’t been updated in a long while. Besides, aren’t you a book lover? Don’t you want an easy reference on your shelf that you can flip through much faster to track down titles, dates, and summaries of your favorite characters on a handy-dandy timeline that attempts to reconcile everything?
That’s where these books come in. Volume 1 covers from the Dawn of Time to 1939, while Volume 2 covers 1940 to all points in the Future. Compiling books like these is a daunting task, one that can only come from the heart of one who plays The Game. These volumes were released in 2010, so anything released since then is obviously not in here, and I can only trust that what actually is in here is anything but exhaustive as to what’s out there. But I can say that what is in here is lovingly pieced together into one (more or less) cohesive whole where the whole is far larger than the sum of the parts. It’s world building on a level that perhaps only Professor Tolkien could pull off single-handedly, stitched together like Frankenstein’s creature from the stories and characters that were truly never designed to be put together in the first place.
For myself, I’ve been playing around in the WNU since long before I knew what that was. Odds are good that you have too. I discovered this idea in college, over 20 years ago, and not only has it enriched my fictional life, but it’s taken my appreciation of such things to new levels, with the side effect of making me quite a bit pickier in what I spend my time and money on. As much as I love history, the history of the great fictional characters is just as important to me, and just as rewarding. These Crossovers books are invaluable to me when it comes from everything to researching my favorite characters to simply figuring out what I might like to discover next.