I’m not much of a cook, so it was a big enough deal when I recently bought a crock pot. With a nervous tension hanging over my kitchen, I whipped up some pulled chicken… that turned out so-so. Sure, the spices and barbecue sauce were tangy AF, but I cooked the poor bird too long.
This, dear readers, has been a boring, roundabout sort of way of telling you that details truly, deeply matter. Specifically, it takes a certain consistency among the many elements of any one thing – be it a chicken dinner, a comic book, or a friendship – to make something truly great.
That explains why Deviations just doesn’t prove to be as tasty as it conceivably could.
The brainchild of IDW, Deviations is a book/collection with a simple but devastating concept: take your favorite characters and stories, put them in the hands of creative writers and artists, and enjoy a smorgasbord of alternate takes dripping with nerd magic. In the collected Beta edition, we’re treated to a genre-spanning collection of rehashes featuring Judge Dredd, My Little Pony, The X-Files, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But if all that’s the hook – the extra spicy sauce in my chicken analogy – then the resulting stories are the less than savory meat, representative of the pronounced downsides of Deviations and its overall approach.
The ultimate challenge of rebooting a beloved series is choosing a point in which to change up the canon. Too inconsequential, and nothing really shifts. Too overt, however, and things feel wildly unfamiliar. In the case of the Judge Dredd story, choosing to make Dredd a werewolf just feels needlessly tiny. Sure, it’s a delight to watch this lupine lawman tear into bad guys and robots, but it doesn’t really do anything to the story. Dredd is still basically Dredd – save for using canines instead of a gun – and we’re denied a chance to see how Dredd may be a different character under other, more meaningful circumstances. That should be a driving point for this entire series: showing us how small changes can have a massive impact, and what that tells us about these characters that are so essential.
If you’re looking for more substantial changes, then the Star Trek tale should send a proton missile into your sensibilities. Here, we get a reimagining of the First Contact film, with the Romulans altering the timeline and sending mankind into a hellish existence of endless servitude. Yet despite the massive universal alterations, the story still finds our beloved Enterprise crew working together, even after Picard’s imprisonment, Worf becoming a pacifist, and Riker’s turn as Mad Max 3000. Canon-shattering though it all may be, it’s just wish fulfillment, as if no amount of history or context can keep your faves apart forever. If you’re going to muck around with a universe in such a grand fashion, then authors need to commit to trashing relationships and editing a character’s wants and needs. By not going all the way, we’re left with the same story as before – only much more complicated and convoluted.
Speaking of wish fulfillment, that’s also the downside of the My Little Pony saga. Except, it feels all the more damaging because there’s no spark. In this version of Equestria, our hero isn’t Twilight Sparkle but the irksome Prince Blueblood. Cue an entire story of him basically ruining everything in Ponyville, and being more annoying than all the Bronies in the known world. Wish fulfillment is fine – it’s why something like fan fiction is so great, and people need that kind of connection to stories. But it can’t be done for the sake of inciting chaos or sharing a lame joke, and there needs to be some greater ploy to rewriting canon. Dropping Blueblood in as the new “protagonist” is an XL shift, but it doesn’t have the mechanisms to alter the rest of the story in a meaningful way. The story feels far too self-contained, and without the forces to make the reader question why this version is better or worse than “reality,” and what it is about Twilight that makes her such an effective lead. Unlike great fan fiction, this story doesn’t seem to put in the effort to dive deep into the larger Pony universe.
Unlike The X-Files story, which seems to ignore key pieces of the mythos entirely. In this tale from the fourth dimension, it was Fox Mulder who was abducted as a kid, leaving his sister Sam to partner with Dana Scully and solve the world’s weirdest crimes. On the one hand, it’s another way in which people try to create the same story with different parts, like making PB&J with jelly and gasoline. More damaging, though, is that it denies the Mulder siblings anything resembling a personality, as both are pigeonholed into “kooky conspiracy theorist.” Sam may not have gone the way of Fox, as the actual series makes clear that Mulder is as much a reaction to his trauma as an inquisitive and obsessive person who drives the series with his intense devotion to annihilating conspiracies and finding truths. Making this just another good cop, crazy cop story feels hackneyed – these are real people to so many readers, and we’re denying them respect by repeating ideas and motifs that might not be possible in this brave new world.
It dawned on me that while I wanted this book to be a hearty meal a la pulled chicken, it only reaches cupcake status. That is, something meant to fill me with a sugary afterglow and keep my brain churning in delicious frosting. My limited cooking skills aside, why can’t this be both? As is the case with the mind-numbing sweetness and extra savory bits of IDW’s previous “continuation” series (namely CSI and Angel). If something is worth whipping up and slamming down one’s trap, there should be more deliberate thought as to how these stories work to comfort and challenge consumers. Otherwise, we’re just gorging on empty calories.