The year was 1997. DC Comics was looking to fill out their schedule for the last week of December. It was tradition to print a series of connected one-shot issues on the fifth Wednesday of the month, so to fill that gap, DC turned to the man who killed the Man of Steel, Dan Jurgens.
Jurgens came up with the idea of exploring a brand-new Alternate Universe with some familiar names where the presence of superheroes had had a much bigger impact on history than the standard DCU. This wouldn't be an Elseworld, though: The names would be the same, but the faces, powers, and backstories radically different. The Flash was now a teenage superstar with light powers, for instance, while Green Lantern was a mysterious woman who dealt with ghosts. To hammer home just how different this world was, DC dropped their logo from the covers and created a whole new imprint just for the occasion: Tangent Comics.
The Tangent Universe is a world not too different from our own, at least up until the 1960s. The Back Story goes that in 1962, the world's first super-hero, the nuclear-powered Atom, burst onto the scene, sending America into a super-frenzy and heralding the arrival of other costumed crimefighters. The Atom used his powers to help push the world's science ahead a few years, and by the present, technology is about ten years ahead of ours.
The Tangent Universe is no utopia, though. Around the same time the Atom first appeared, the Cuban Missile Crisis went down... and someone pushed the red button. In a split second, the Cold War turned hot as nuclear warheads streaked back and forth across the Gulf of Mexico, wiping Cuba and Florida off the map. World War III raged for seven years. But America scored an early victory in The Vietnam War, and finally brought the war to an end in Czechoslovakia in 1969, but not until the Russians' deadly Red Tornado bio-weapon killed millions, including the American hero Captain Comet. In the end, both super-powers settle back into another uneasy Cold War, but the possibility that war could erupt again remains very real.
Flash forward to the present day. Print has been almost completely discarded in favor of e-books. Super-celebrities like the Flash and the new Atom keep us safe. The shining city of New Atlantis has risen from the ashes of old Atlanta, while the mutant Sea Devils lurk in the trenches of sunken Florida. And the shadowy quasi-governmental agency Nightwing, its fingers in everything, keeps one finger poised permanently over the red button...
As mentioned above, the Tangent Universe took familiar names and completely reinvented the characters behind them. The characters introduced in the original round of Tangent books included:
- The Atom: Grandson of the retired original Atom and son of the murdered second, Adam Thompson struggles with his newfound fame, but quickly learns a dark secret hidden in his family tree.
- Metal Men: A squadron of unpowered army men prove to be the real heroes of World War III. Flash-forward 30 years, when one of them is the President of the United States and another plots against him as the director of Nightwing.
- The Flash: A teenage super-celebrity with sparkling powers and personality unwittingly foils the plots of her father, a nefarious but comically inept Nightwing agent.
- Green Lantern: A beautiful masked woman wanders the world's graveyards at night, conjuring up the souls of the deceased with her magic lantern to give them one last shot at finishing their unfinished business.
- Sea Devils: Deep beneath the radioactive waters of the Devil's Archipelago (once the state of Florida), a race of mutant Fish People struggle against the callous surface-dwellers. Only a group of young rebels can bring together the two peoples.
- The Joker: An acrobatic anarchist with a wacky sense of humor humiliates cops and robbers alike, but there's more to her than meets the eye.
- Secret Six: Flash, Atom, and Joker covertly team up with newcomers Manhunter, Plastic Man, and Spectre to take on Nightwing and the evil Aquaman.
- Doom Patrol: A group of time-travelers come arrive from 2030 warning of the impending apocalypse... but could they be the disaster they're trying to stop?
- Nightwing: The shadowy agency gets a wake-up call when several of their own go rogue, but who's really pulling the strings?
Tangent Comics proved popular enough to warrant a second wave of one-shots the next year, though as a result of going from 38-page issues down to 22, some of the new issues' quality suffered. The Flash, Green Lantern, the Joker, and Nightwing each received a new story, while a few more familiar names popped up:
- Powergirl: A living weapon created by the Chinese government whom the surviving Metal Men will do anything to obtain for the U.S... if Nightwing doesn't beat them to it.
- Wonder Woman: An alien warrior-philosopher arrives on Earth fleeing her creators, wondering about the meaning of her existence.
- The Superman: An average cop has a near-death experience that triggers something inside of him, giving him vast telepathic powers at the expense of his humanity.
- The Batman: A genuine Dark Knight and traitor to the Round Table of Camelot, cursed by Merlin himself to fight evil as an empty suit of armor until he atones for his sins.
- JLA: A covert ops group with technology-based powers working for the U.S. government tries to eliminate the world's superhumans.
Running through several of this second wave of stories was a plot that shook the Tangent Universe's foundation: When the rogue Nightwing agents try to rescue the Doom Patrol from the U.S.S.R.'s true leader, the vampiric sorcerer Josef Stalin, the Patrol's members are fused together with a monster beneath the Kremlin called the K.G.Beast (no, really) to create the Ultra-Humanite, a monstrous giant bent on world domination who proceeds to short-out every electronic device in the world. Joker, Superman, and Batman each respond to the aftereffects until the end of JLA, when the Humanite arrives in America and defeats the Secret Six. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the original Atom form their own Justice League to combat the menace...
...and that's where the story ends.
It's probable that Dan Jurgens had plans to conclude the storyline with the defeat of the Ultra-Humanite, but it never happened. Tangent Comics was never revisited and the whole world was left hanging.
Flash forward. In 2005, the Tangent Universe was established as part of DC's wider multiverse in a cameo in the Crisis Crossover Infinite Crisis, but lay fallow afterwards. But finally, in December 2007, the tenth anniversary of our first foray into the Tangent Universe, our Justice League of America stumbles across a paper lantern with strange mystic properties that opens a portal to a whole new world — nay, universe — of adventure.
In May 2008, Tangent: Superman's Reign #1 hit shelves as Tangent and The DCU intersected for the first time. We learn that the Tangent Superman single-handedly defeated the Ultra-Humanite, but as he grew more and more disconnected from humanity he realized his new purpose: not to watch over us as a hero, but to rule as a dictator. Using his vast powers to conquer all the world's governments, his rule goes unchallenged... save by a small group of his former friends and Nightwing itself. The heroes of two worlds come together to stop Superman's reign before he can set his sights on another Earth...
Tropes common to the Tangent Universe include:
- Alternate Universe: Identified as Earth-97 of the DC multiverse in Infinite Crisis, referencing its first appearance. When it was integrated into the post-52 and Flashpoint multiverses, it became Earth-9.
- Alternate Universe Reed Richards Is Awesome: Superman.
- Anthology Comic: Both Green Lantern one-shots told three short stories with the Lantern herself as the narrator.
- The Atoner: Batman. Also Manhunter, according to one of the possible back stories of the Green Lantern.
- Badass Normal: The Joker. The JLA are an evil version of the trope.
- Bat Signal: More like "Joker Signal." Heh.
- Beware the Superman: Literally. Most of the other superheroes are struggling against him, though.
- By the Power of Grayskull!: Wildcat, one of the Nightwing rogues, can turn into a monstrous werecat by saying (or hearing) the word "Shazam".
- The Cape: The new Atom. Superman started out this way before he lost touch with his humanity.
- Chest Insignia: Flash and Atom.
- Chrome Dome Psi: The Superman
- City of Adventure: New Atlantis.
- Collective Identity: The Joker identity was originally shared between Mary Marvel, Christy Xanadu and Lori Lemaris. Mary was the one who joined the Secret Six and was captured by Superman when he rose to power; he forced the identity of the other two out of her mind and then killed her. Lori was subsequently sent to jail and served a 10-year sentence, and as for Christy... No one knows.
- Comic-Book Time: Averted. 10 years passed both real-time and in-universe before Superman's Reign.
- Continuity Cameo: The Titans from Adam Warren's Elseworlds one-shot Scissors, Paper, Stone appear in costume as members of a protest group in The Joker.
- Continuity Overlap: This pretty much defined the original two waves of one-shots.
- Disability Superpower: Plastic Man was put in a coma by an explosion but gained the ability to project his mind into a malleable plastic body.
- Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male: It is blatantly implied that, because Black Orchid utilizes tantric magic, to recharge her energy she raped an unsuspecting mook off-panel.
- Elemental Embodiment/Making a Splash: Aquaman is a living ocean!
- Evolutionary Levels
- Fantastic Racism: There's two levels of this regarding the Sea Devils, amphibious fish people. For one, Sea Devils are scorned by humans as freaks, while most Sea Devils consider humans disgusting and barbaric. However, there are dozens of different tribes of Sea Devils (shark people, shrimp people, eel people, etc), and there's quite a bit of racial tension between them as well.
- Five-Man Band: The Sea Devils, though there are a few spares to be had. And the Secret Six, where, again, you have a little overlap.
- Freak Lab Accident: Plastic Man and Aquaman.
- Fun Personified: The Flash. Also the Joker, if you like anarchy and practical jokes.
- Gone Horribly Wrong: The Doom Patrol go back in time to try and warn humanity of what will happen to Earth in the future, while at the same time trying to prevent certain events that led to Earth's destruction. They wind up instigating said events instead.
- Heroic BSoD: Hex has one at the end of Nightwing: Night Force, after Nightshade is destroyed.
- I Love Nuclear Power: The Atoms, Flash, Superman, and the Doom Patrol's Firehawk all gained their powers directly or indirectly from radiation, though the original Atom had been twisted and shriveled by the experience.
- In Name Only: This trope is a deliberate unifying premise in the series. Unlike Elseworlds, which is a re-imagining of a DC character that usually retains most of the core elements, this series attaches the existing names to completely different characters with different powers, costumes, origins, appearances, and personalities — usually, the only common element is that they're metahumans in a modern setting. The Superman's Reign miniseries has quite a bit of fun with this.
- Intelligible Unintelligible: Nightshade, Hex's little flying robot familiar.
- Jumped at the Call: The Flash, like, totally loves being a superhero, for sure!
- Jumping the Shark: Discussed in-universe. Harvey Dent makes mention that the "Dick Van Super" show went downhill after they introduced a talking dog.
- Knight Templar: Superman. Sure, he's enslaved billions, but it's for the greater good, don't you understand?
- Lamarck Was Right: The Atom and Firehawk of the Doom Patrol gained their powers from their parents.
- Lampshade Hanging: The crossover had lots of fun with the various name-similarities, including DC-Batman being taken aback to learn that Tangent-Superman's real name was Harvey Dent, and taking a moment to glare at Lori when she says she used to be the Joker.
- Legacy Character: The Atom. Manhunter is this in the 2007 miniseries
- Light 'em Up: The Flash in this universe is a young woman with all manner of light powers the least of which is being made of solid light.
- Multiple-Choice Past: Green Lantern tells three separate, contradictory versions of her origin, implying that one, some, all, or none of them may be true.
- My Greatest Failure: It eventually surfaces that the original Atom inadvertently caused the nuclear war that destroyed Florida and Cuba and spent the rest of his life running away from the fact.
- Our Werebeasts Are Different: Wildcat is a teenage girl who transforms into a feral werecat when her handler says the word "Shazam".
- Personality Powers: It's only natural that someone as bubbly as the Flash should have light-based powers, don't you think?
- Phony Psychic: The Doom Patrol try to pass off Star Sapphire as a psychic instead of revealing they're from the future.
- Posthumous Character: Captain Comet.
- Secret Identity: Few if any characters have one.
- Set Right What Once Was Wrong: Green Lantern has the power to bring one person back from the dead each night to settle unfinished business. But the dead person won't go back until issues have been properly solved.
- She Is Not My Girlfriend: John Keel says as much about the Joker, repeatedly, in "The Joker's Wild"; evidently not only did word get out about her near-obsession with him, she deliberately acts like they're lovers when Keel's partner is around.
- Shout-Out: The whole universe is a Shout-Out, but a few deserve special mention:
- President Sam Schwartz is named after legendary DC editor Julius Schwartz.
- Superman's identity as a telepath who goes mad with power hearkens back to the original, rejected pitch for Superman in the '30s.
- Social Darwinist: Superman.
- Stable Time Loop: The Doom Patrol tries to save their future, but inadvertently cause the catastrophe that will destroy the world.
- Stage Mom: The Flash's mother, Celeste. She's constantly trying to elevate her daughter's profile (and with it, her own).
- Steven Ulysses Perhero: Arthur Thompson becomes the first Atom and was followed by his grandson Adam.
- Sunglasses at Night: Hex is never seen without his shades; he clearly thinks of them as part of his larger "image".
- Sunken City: The city of New Atlantis was founded atop the ruins of Atlanta, Georgia, after the Florida peninsula was destroyed in Earth-9's version of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- 20 Minutes into the Future.
- Villain Team-Up: The Fatal Five, who killed the second Atom.
- Warrior Poet: Wonder Woman.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Superman just wants to make his world a better place, and decided that being a totalitarian dictator was the most effective way to do it.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: No explanation is given as to what happened to Christie Xanadu (the third Joker), Wonder Woman, or the Sea Devils, in Tangent: Superman's Reign.
- They also never explain what happened with Clayface, though it's probable he'll be the only villain left for the Tangent heroes to fight.