Eleven years into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with previews for Captain Marvel and the next Spider-man movie and the wrap-up to Infinity on the way, shared universes are all the rage. Well, it was just announced that the DCEU is cancelled, but that’s not due to the lack of appreciation for crossover universes, but rather the lack of appreciation for DC’s attempt at creating one.
Anyways, shared universes, there are many, and while some have mistakenly credited Marvel with popularizing the concept, these manifold, fictional universes have been a recipe for success for a long time now.
On the silver screen, shared universes date at least as far back as 1931, when the debut of Dracula launched a universe that would come to encompass that film’s titular character, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and others. The success of these movies proved the model, and the coming century would bring the universes of Godzilla,Star Wars, Star Trek, “versus” crossovers ala Alien vs. Predator and Freddy vs. Jason, and of course Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse (which, incidentally, will soon be expanding thanks to a new Jay and Silent Bob feature).
…shared universes date at least as far back as 1931, when the debut of Dracula launched a universe that would come to encompass that film’s titular character, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and others.
We won’t go too deeply into shared universes on TV, because we would be here all day. A few of the biggies include Cheers, Law & Order, ER, The Simpsons, and of course the Buffyverse (of which I have no firsthand knowledge of but must mention lest I risk invoking the ire of Buffyheads everywhere).
As for literature, this is where we see the concept of shared universes take on entirely novel (see what I did there?) echelons of complexity.
The Stephen King Universe is the undeniable grand champion among its contemporary contenders from both page and screen. I’m not sure how many of his (as of this writing) sixty novels and countless short stories are woven into it, but it’s safe to say that most of them are at least tangentially linked. In fact, perhaps we can say that all his stories count, as King himself appears as an important character in The Dark Tower saga – the series that establishes the central framework for the Kingiverse – meaning that not only is everything he’s ever written at least somewhat associated, but that he has managed to rope in our universe as well.
But while King may be the most prolific living universe-builder, he is by no means the first. By the time King was born, William Faulkner was nearly finished with his Yoknapatawpha County sprawl. Set in an almost-unpronounceably named Mississippi county of Faulkner’s own invention, it encompasses dozens of classic titles such as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Flags in the Dust, and Light in August. The novel Absalom, Absalom! even includes a map of the fictional county that was hand-drawn by Faulkner himself.
To get to the origin of the shared universe concept, however, we must retreat still further through time to the first half of the 19th Century.
The Origin Story of the Shared Universe
By the end of 2019 the MCU will span twenty-three films. While certainly impressive, that number is vastly eclipsed by Honoré de Balzac’s la Comédie Humaine, which includes an extraordinary ninety-one finished volumes, not to mention forty-six that were never completed.
Set just after the French Revolution, Balzac began this madness with the modest goal of portraying the entirety of French society. Each novel or novelette under the Comédie Humaine umbrella was created with the intention of illustrating “scenes” from various aspects of life – private, provincial, Parisian, political, military, and country – or delving into a range of philosophical questions.
…Balzac began this madness with the modest goal of portraying the entirety of French society.
Balzac populated these stories with an astounding range of overlapping characters and instances. There was Eugene de Rastignac, the dandy and financier who made major appearances in nearly thirty works. There were the tragic figures of Lucien Chardon and David Sechard, whose downfalls were portrayed in the epic Lost Illusions before Chardon made his way into other stories. And of course there was the arch criminal Jacques Collins, a.k.a. Vautrin, who served as the figurative devil in many a tale.
What made Balzac’s France so real was not these looming protagonists and antagonists, but the fact that he placed them amidst a massive cast of familiar minor players. Time and time again we see the same names emerge, usually in bit parts, and while it is often inconsequential whether we recognize these financiers, publishers, doctors, salon leaders, courtesans, marquises, actresses, and dandies in the context of a single story, the repetition of their appearances is essential in making the universe cohesive and believable.
Think about it—your own universe is made up of a lot more than the major figures. It’s the people you see every day bagging groceries, pumping gas, at the bank, in the news, and on the screen. This was the brilliance of Balzac. He realized that a fiction is most believable when it most resembles real life.
Time and time again we see the same names emerge, usually in bit parts…the repetition of their appearances is essential in making the universe cohesive and believable.
That isn’t to say that a fantasy or sci-fi story can’t harness that same familiarity. Star Wars might take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but it feels recognizable because Lucas and Co. tended to do a pretty good job of packing it with reoccurring minor characters and situations.
Balzac developed the concept of the shared universe some two-hundred years before the MCU. He even included fantastic, almost superhero-like elements (see Seraphita, in which the protagonist has the ability to alternate between genders, having been born to parents who transcended their humanity).
So what can future creators of shared universes learn from Balzac? That a universe is composed by the details.