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Alternate Universe (AU) stories and artworks are a sub-genre of fan fiction, in which the author deliberately alters the original canons of the story, thus creating an entirely new world with the original characters. The purpose of creating AUs are to answer potential “what-if” questions, such as “what if the Simpsons met the Hills” or “what if Pikachu had been taking steroids.”
The concept of fan fiction precedes the history of not only the Internet, but of the written word as well. The Epic Cycle, better known as the poems surrounding Homer’s ancient Greek Epics the Odyssey and the Illiad, consisted of six other epic poems written by other authors using the characters and stories from Homer’s works.
In literature, the trend came back in the late 19th and early 20th century when fans penned additional stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. One in particular was written by an architect named Arthur Whitaker, who mailed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the manuscript, hoping to collaborate on a story.
Author Jane Austen also has a serious fan fiction following dating back to the 1850s. Someone once wrote a letter to Austen as Mr. Darcy, hoping she would write back as his sister, Georgiana. Fanlore notes that in the 1920s, stories were published in fanzines as well. A list of published “sequels” is available at Pemberley.com. Rethinking Austen’s work has not stopped either, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a retelling of one of her most famous novels in was released in 2009.
On the internet, sharing fandom themed short stories and art became a distinct online activity for many web users. Although the term did not appear on Urban Dictionary until 2003, Fanfiction.net, the largest website for such stories, was launched in October 1998. There are also fandom-specific sites like Star Trek Fan Fiction, Harry Potter Fan Fiction, The Force (Star Wars), and Lord of the Rings Fanfiction. There is also a fanfiction-specific glossary.
Examples of AU artworks can be found in a number of different contexts and forms:
- In the online game Second Life, personal avatars are often customized to resemble characters and celebrities recognizable in popular culture.
- Custom drawings of popular anime/cartoon/videogame characters have been regularly posted on 4chan’s /b/ board as well as /ic/ (artworks/critique) board.
- Pixeloo’s Untoons series can be considered an example of Alternate Universe artworks.
- In some Asian-language discussion boards, AU artworks of anime characters have been used in memetic contexts (ex: trolls/rickrolls/image macros) since the early 2000s.
Alternate Universe vs. Parodies vs. Lemons
AU artwork is not to be confused with parodies or satires often found in popular image macros and motivationals. While they are both imitative and derivative in nature, AU images of popular animes and cartoons do not necessarily reflect their original canons or reality, but projects a drastically different perspective (ex: personified South Park characters).
When determining whether or not a story is part of an AU, Wikipedia has a list of popular themes in this type of fiction. These include changing facets of the character’s personality or physical attributes, new timelines, bringing dead characters back to life, and more.