I’ve been asked a few times over the years why I keep track of all these different nerdy universes. Why read Halo books rather than play the game? Why remember a Batman cartoon that only got one season? Why have enough Star Wars memorized to have an itemized list of things The Clone Wars buggered up through continuity errors? Simple — because tie-in fiction is powerful, in the right hands.
Whenever a franchise gets big enough, you inevitably hit a point where the tentpole entries become limited in what they can do. The central pillar — whether it’s movies, shows, games, or comics — often serves a less creatively exciting role, lest it alienate too many fans. It’s through tie-ins and experimental offshoots that franchises can finally try something new. Ideally, there’s lower pressure and more artistic freedom to see what lands.
For instance, Harley Quinn was famously born out of a bit character first written up for a single Batman: The Animated Series episode. For decades, Joker never had a consistent sidekick like her. Now Harley Quinn stands on her own as one of DC’s mainstays. Having space to experiment and add characters gave Bruce Timm and Paul Dini the chance to really flesh out Batman’s rogues’ gallery, creating defining portrayals. Their show could’ve just been a glorified toy commercial like Batman & Robin, but instead it’s celebrated as an amazing work of tie-in fiction.
Tie-in stories also grant room to explore themes, characters, and ideas that wouldn’t fit the central content. It’d be a pretty hard sell to get people into theaters for a Star Wars treasure hunter, but Doctor Chelli Aphra has stolen the hearts of many through her two comics runs. Plus, unlike certain other parts of Disney’s megalopolis, Aphra is a protagonist who is allowed to be openly gay — something I expect a Disney movie character will probably get to be by 2050.
The same can be said for Halo’s novels, which took the games’ favorable portrayal of the UNSC to task, criticizing the ethics of the military-industrial complex and ruthless intelligence agencies. You might know who Catherine Halsey is now, having seen her in more than a few Halo games, but for years, she was just text on a page, nothing more. And the more you learn of her work, it’s all the more sobering to realize that Master Chief isn’t simply a strong, silent type, but a person robbed of his agency and personal liberty.
You don’t get stuff like this from the biggest blockbusters. In a world of risk-averse executives and most major IP being held by a handful of companies, the best fans can hope for are spinoffs that carry the creative spirit that birthed these stories in the first place. The next live Transformers isn’t likely to delve into spirituality and trans identities, but IDW dove in hard with its comics aimed at older readers. A black woman as Captain America might’ve taken another decade or more were it not for the lower stakes of Spider-Gwen. A Star Wars epic starring a hapless fool with a heart of gold instead of a badass getting into tons of lightsaber fights? Not likely.
It’s typically only by digging into tie-in fiction that you can find tales like this in mainstream universes. Though certain IP holders are starting to treat their spinoffs purely as content, there are still those willing to boldly go where the story, not simply a balance sheet, takes them. Sometimes, you’ll get a misfire — an Ultimate Marvel or maybe a really bad holiday special. For every mix-up though, you get something wonderful, sometimes even being afforded the opportunity to fix past creative decisions that haven’t aged as well.
I mean, really — if The Sims can have lore deep enough to keep people’s attention, why not explore the potential in others? That goes for audience members as well as creators. Sometimes, a spinoff, however adjacent, can be the best damn story you’ll experience in quite some time.
Despite all the insinuation that learning about fictional settings is weird or uber-nerdy, it can be an effective way of finding out about new favorite heroes and villains. There are wonderful worlds out there, more than I could possibly hope to share if I could write a hundred columns in an instant.
Explore and enjoy. Embrace the weird. Fear not if something’s strange if it fascinates you. There is so much out in the expanse of fiction just begging to be experienced. I know there are those who would just take a brand and slap it onto something else for easy profit, but there are creators out there worth engaging with. You can’t sample everything, but to try even a fraction and discover something great that builds upon something you love? That’s a gift. Take heart, be bold, and never settle for empty content.