Infinite Worlds: A Brief History of the Comic Book Multiverse

Map of the Multiverse
A map of the new DC multiverse

Both DC Comics’ Multiversity series and Marvel Comics’ Edge of Spider-Verse event showcase characters from multiple parallel universes (that is, a “multiverse”).  These two series are not the first time that the multiverse concept has been used by DC and Marvel.  Over the years, the publishers have each established a multiverse of parallel universes in their respective comics, and the concept has become a popular element of superhero comics.

Multiverse Earths
A multiverse contains many parallel worlds.

The concept of “parallel worlds” – defined by The Science Fiction Encyclopedia as “another universe situated ‘alongside’ our own, displaced from it along a spatial fourth dimension” – has a long history that predates science fiction.  The parallel world concept can be found in ancient philosophy (for example, Platonism), religion, folklore, and myth (Heaven, Hell, and Asgard can be described as parallel worlds), and literature (Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass).

Captain Marvel Land of Surrealism
In CAPTAIN MARVEL ADVENTURES #80, Captain Marvel will soon journey to a parallel world where the artist’s surreal creations are real.

Stories featuring parallel worlds were popular in pulp science fiction magazines and the concept was also used in comic books.  For example, in Captain Marvel Adventures #80 (1948), the comic’s titular superhero travels to a parallel world where a painter’s surrealist creations are real.  More significantly, in Wonder Woman #59 (1953) Wonder Woman is transported to a parallel Earth when her lasso is struck by lightning.  There, Wonder Woman encounters her twin, a superhero named Tara Terruna.  For the first time, a superhero met another version of herself on a parallel world.

Tara Terruna2
Wonder Woman meets Tara Terruna.

In 1956, DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz oversaw the revival of the comics character The Flash.  First appearing in Flash Comics #1 (January 1940), the original Flash was Jay Garrick, who gains the power of super-speed after inhaling hard water vapors. The character’s adventures continued through the 1940s, the period labeled by comics historians as the “Golden Age of Comics”, and ended in 1951, when superhero comics lost their commercial appeal and were replaced by other genres like Westerns and horror comics.

Flash Meets Flash
The Silver Age Flash (left) meets the Golden Age Flash (right).

Schwartz kept the superhero’s name and superpowers, but changed The Flash’s design and alter-ego.  The Flash was now Barry Allen, a police scientist who gains super-speed when he is soaked in lightning-charged chemicals.  The new Flash debuted in Showcase #4 (October 1956).  Significantly, the comic acknowledges the original character’s existence; indeed, Barry Allen is inspired to assume his superhero identity because he reads the fictional comic book adventures of the Golden Age Flash.

Flash Reads Flash Comic
Barry Allen reads the comic book adventures of the Golden Age Flash.

The new Flash was commercially successful, reviving reader interest in superhero characters and comics; The Flash was the first superhero of the period comics historians label the “Silver Age of Comics”.   At DC Comics, The Flash was soon joined by Silver Age superheroes The Atom, Hawkman, and Green Lantern; all of these heroes were based on past Golden Age superhero characters.

Flash 123
Cover for THE FLASH #123

Comics fans were eager to see the return of the Golden Age Flash, and DC Comics obliged.  The two Flash characters first met in The Flash #123 (September 1961) in the story “Flash of Two Worlds”, using the parallel world concept; the Silver Age Flash vibrates his molecules at a different frequency at super-speed and is accidentally transported to a parallel world, where the Golden Age Flash fought crime in the 1940s and is now retired.

Earth X
Earth-X was the home of Golden Age characters like Uncle Sam and Phantom Lady.

This parallel world (identified as “Earth-Two” in future stories) was the home of Golden Age characters like The Flash, The Spectre, and The Sandman, while Barry Allen’s world (“Earth-One”) was the home of the modern DC Comics superheroes.  Soon, DC Comics added other parallel worlds, like Earth-Three (the home of supervillain versions of the Justice League of America), Earth-S (the home of Captain Marvel and other Fawcett Comics characters purchased by DC), and Earth-X (where the Quality Comics characters purchased by DC – Uncle Sam, Black Condor, etc. – fought the Nazis, who won World War II on that world).  DC Comics soon had a robust fictional multiverse.

Captain Britain Corps
Marvel’s Captain Britain Corps guards the multiverse.

While DC Comics’ multiverse grew to include many parallel worlds, DC’s primary competitor, Marvel Comics, was slow to utilize the concept.  Although Marvel featured stories with parallel worlds (such as the Negative Zone in Fantastic Four, Asgard in The Mighty Thor, or the dimension of the Squadron Supreme – superheroes based on DC Comics characters – in The Avengers ) it was not until 1983, when writer Alan Moore created the Captain Britain Corps in the pages of the Captain Britain strip, that a multiverse of parallel worlds – protected by the Captain Britain Corps – is identified.  The strip’s titular hero is the Captain Britain of Marvel’s primary Earth, identified as Earth-616.

Multiverse Flash Image
The many Flash characters of the DC multiverse.

In 1985, DC Comics destroyed its multiverse in the crossover event Crisis on Infinite Earths, which revised DC’s narrative history so that there was now only one Earth; the Golden Age characters appeared in the 1940s and retired in the 1950s, but inspired the modern superheroes that came after them.  However, DC Comics revived the multiverse concept in its weekly 52 comics series (2006) and the subsequent Flashpoint crossover event (2011), so that there are now 52 parallel Earths.  These parallel Earths will be explored in the upcoming Multiversity series.

UC Spider-Man
Miles Morales is the Spider-Man of Earth-1610.

Marvel Comics’ multiverse continues to be well-utilized by creators.  Earth-1610 (identified as the “Ultimate Universe”, the home of 21st century updates of the classic Marvel characters) has been the setting of several popular comics titles.  Marvel’s upcoming Edge of Spider-Verse series will showcase versions of Spider-Man from across the Marvel multiverse.

Darwyn Cooke Rip Hunter
DC Comics time traveler Rip Hunter addresses concerns about potential reader confusion caused by stories set in a multiverse.

The comic book multiverse is a narrative convention that allows for a huge range of fascinating stories, often featuring altered versions of familiar characters.  Although some might argue that a comic book multiverse is confusing to new readers (as some DC Comics editors argued in the 1980s), the multiverse remains a popular concept among many comics fans.

Darwyn Cooke Rip Hunter1
Rip Hunter explains the real science behind the comic book multiverse.

The images above are the property of their respective owner(s), and are presented for educational purposes only under the fair use doctrine of the copyright laws of the United States of America.

17 thoughts on “Infinite Worlds: A Brief History of the Comic Book Multiverse”

  1. Good article. I don’t think that the idea of a “multiverse” is any more off-putting to new readers than any other trope superhero comics. In fact, my impression is that the concept of parallel worlds/dimensions seems to be enjoying an increased popularity in the general. It’s almost as if inter-dimensional travel has replaced conventional space as the new final frontier — just look at Black Science for example . . .

  2. Thanks. I like reading stories set in a multiverse, and I don’t think it was ever confusing to readers (despite arguments to the contrary). I’m glad DC brought back the multiverse, although I think it’s not a great idea to be so limiting on the number of parallel worlds you can have. A multiverse should be as unlimited as the human imagination. If DC creators want to craft a story where Batman travels to a world where his parents were never killed and Detective Chimp is the greatest crimefighter on Earth, they should be able to do that without worrying about which of the 52 Earths they can use. (Seriously, I really want to read that “Earth-Chimp” story in a future comic). 🙂

  3. I absolutely adore the multiverse concept. The more parallel worlds, the better, I say.
    I agree that limiting the number of parallel worlds isn’t a good idea. I think DC has an unhealthy obsession with the number 52. An intervention may be in order.

    1. YES! What is up with the number “52”? It’s like DC is an obsessive Batman villain – ROBIN: “Holy cow, Batman! Fifty-two banks have just been robbed in Gotham City!” BATMAN: “Hmm. With that number of robbed banks, this could only be the pernicious practice of that pilfering publisher, DC Comics!”

  4. If I was honest, frankly I’m pissed. In the 80’s the whole reasoning behind Crisis was that it was too confusing for the comic book reader so lets get rid of the multiverse. By doing that they had to shoehorn new origins of some of my favorite DC heroes like Power Girl,Huntress and LSH based on this reasoning and they were never really the same, just a watered down version of the originals.

    Now it’s okay and not confusing to have a multiverse? Thanks DC.
    To me it’s just a vicious cycle DC is creating. The new 52 was created because the old universe was too inaccessible to new readers after 30 years of existence. By creating a multiverse, unless you are on the ground floor for it now, in five to ten years this new DC universe will also be inaccessible to new readers. Will we see another reboot again?

    1. Jeremy – amen! I think DC’s justification for reboots/eliminating multiverses on the grounds of “accessibility” is an excuse for its creative stagnation. The company should spend more time recruiting and retaining quality creators (in addition to the great creators that it already has) and letting them tell bold, engaging stories. DC’s past claims that its books weren’t selling because they are “too complex for new readers to understand” doesn’t show a lot of faith in both its creative talent and its readers.

      1. Strictly speaking, I think that DC would argue that it wasn’t the multiverse itself which was confusing readers pre-Crisis as much as all the tangled back-stories involved therein. But still, I’m splitting hairs. If the story is well-written, not knowing what came before it shouldn’t be a problem.

        However, we should remember that despite all its dubious logic, the post-Crisis DC was a high point for the publisher. Miller’s Year One, Byrne’s Man of Steel, Giffen/DeMattheis’ Justice League, O’Neil’s Question, Morrsion’s Doom Patrol, Gaiman’s Sandman and so on. DC allowed creators to take advantage of the blank slate and do something different with it . . .

        1. That’s a good point. There were some great stories that were published post-Crisis, just as there are some current DC comics that are great post-Flashpoint/New 52. I think the post-Crisis DC Comics shift towards stories that focused on legacy (like in the Flash and JSA comics) were great, and probably could not have been achieved without a “one Earth” narrative. For me, the frustration is that DC Comics seems keen to have these massive (Crisis on Infinite Earths, Flashpoint) and minor (Infinite Crisis, Zero Hour) reboot events that throw the baby out with the bath water and that frustrate and alienate veteran readers without attracting new readers in any significant numbers, and also utilize rules (“we can have a multiverse, but only one with 52 Earths”) that are nonsensical.

          1. That’s where I’m at Reed, a frustrated veteran reader. I’m having a hard time picking up any DC book because in the back on my mind I’m going “What’s the point in getting invested in these characters?”, if you know in a few decades, nothing they do really matters because it’s all going to be restarted again. I was upset when Ted Kord, Sue and Ralph Dibny got killed but now they’ll just be reintroduced without anyone knowing they died to begin with.

        2. DC post crisis is like the greatest thing ever. I think I’m going to write about it for the entire month of September.

        3. I agree. I love Bryne’s take on Superman and Perez’s Wonder Woman, etc.
          I just think DC could have handled it differently. Maybe just introduced a brand new universe completely separate from the old universe where Miller’s Batman, Giffen/DeMattheis JL can exist separate from the pre-Crisis universe. The old universe still exists but we are no longer telling stories on that universe’s Superman or Batman and are moving their focus to this new universe’s heroes.

          1. In other words, create a new Bronze Age Earth, similar to how there was a Silver Age Earth (One) and Golden Age Earth (Two)? Could’ve worked . . .

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