Worlds Collide: A History of Marvel and DC's Multiverses

Marvel Secret Wars - H 2014
From Wonder Woman to the Avengers, a brief history of the superheroes who've crossed worlds

With both Marvel and DC planning to base their 2015 comic book events around the idea of the Multiverse, it’s worth looking back at quite how we got to a place where fans don’t just have to keep track of one fictional world filled with superheroes, but multiple such worlds in each universe. How in the worlds did we end up with two multiversal epics running at the same time?

Let’s start with the basics. The term “multiverse” was actually coined by philosopher William James for his 1895 essay “Is Life Worth Living,” but he didn’t have parallel worlds in mind at the time; instead, he was writing about the multiple possibilities available in everyone’s life. It wasn’t until Michael Moorcock used the term in 1970’s The Eternal Champion that the term took on the meaning it has today — but, as you’ll see, the idea had been around for awhile earlier.

Here, then, is a brief history of the superhero comics that would make even Erwin Schrodinger pause for thought about the nature of reality.

Wonder Woman No. 59 (1953)

While the origins of the DC multiverse are traditionally attributed to an early ‘60s issue of The Flash — we’ll get there in a second — the story “Wonder Woman’s Invisible Twin” by Robert Kanigher and Harry G. Peter is actually the first instance in a DC or Marvel comic where the title character manages to cross over into a parallel world. “Earth must have a twin world, existing simultaneously alongside it!” the Amazon princess helpfully explains towards the end of the story. “Everyone on it, is a double of everyone on Earth!” It turns out, though, that there was more than one alternate Earth out there…

The Flash No. 123 (1961)

Say what you want about Barry Allen, but the Fastest Man Alive certainly took the discovery of another Earth in his stride. “My theory is, both Earths were created at the same time in two quite similar universe! They vibrate differently — which keeps them apart!” he told the Flash of the world that would eventually come to be called Earth-Two. This story introduced the core concepts behind what later became formalized as the DC Multiverse, as well as the swiftly-abandoned idea that adventures on one Earth were chronicled in another’s comic books. Although, more than half a century later, that idea would make a comeback in The Multiversity, a current comic book series written by Grant Morrison.

Justice League of America No. 21 (1963)

Two years after the Flash first made it to Earth-Two, his teammates found themselves defeated by villains from that alternate world, necessitating their alternate-world counterparts in the Justice Society of America to come to their rescue. This two-part story (concluding the following issue) started an annual team-up between the two super teams that, each year, grew in scale by introducing new parallel Earths to DC mythology, including Earth-Three (where the Justice League is evil, and called the Crime Syndicate), Earth-X (where the Nazis had won World War II) and Earth-S (home of Shazam! and the original Captain Marvel).

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What If? No. 1 (1977)

Marvel’s take on the parallel Earth concept was somewhat different from DC’s, remaining unformalized (and mostly entirely separate) for years. The first issue of this series, which focused on alternate versions of popular characters and stories, changed that. “There are worlds within worlds — and worlds which exist side by side with your own, separated from it only by the thinnest web of cosmic gossamer,” explained the highfaluting Watcher in the opening pages, firmly setting out the conceptual framework not only of this series, but of the nature of Marvel’s fictional reality; these weren’t “imaginary stories” that didn’t count in the larger Marvel mythology — they were stories that happened on worlds as real as the one that Spider-Man, the Avengers and the X-Men all lived on.

Marvel Two-in-One No. 50 (1979)

Formalizing the rules of Marvel’s multiverse (as well as its time-travel rules) even more, this story revealed that attempts to go back in time and change history worked, after a fashion — it’s just that such efforts created a parallel Earth, while the “original” Earth was left unaffected. Think of it as Ray Bradbury’s classic sci-fi tale A Sound of Thunder mashed up with Schrödiner’s Cat. Only with more punching, because superhero comics. Years later, DC’s Animal Man No. 32 (1991) would go further down the Schrödinger rabbit hole by revealing that each choice ever made resulted in the creation of a parallel reality, which could be crossed over following a near-death experience.

The Daredevils No. 7 (1983)

Surprisingly enough, it took took a little-seen British series to insert an “Earth-One/Earth-Two” structure into Marvel mythology. Only Alan Moore (the writer responsible, years before his seminal Watchmen) was thinking bigger when it came to numbers: the “regular” Marvel Earth was Earth-616, and part of a multiverse ruled over by Merlyn of Otherworld and his daughter Roma, and policed by the Captain Britain Corps and… You know what, it’d just get too confusing to explain. Nonetheless; “Earth-616” was first mentioned here, a concept that would become increasingly important to Marvel mythology in recent years, especially in the Fantastic Four and Avengers work of writer Jonathan Hickman that leads directly into next year’s Secret Wars.

Crisis on Infinite Earths No. 1 (1985)

By 1985, DC had come to the decision that juggling multiple Earths was too confusing for fans (as well as some creators, who had trouble keeping their continuities straight for each world). The solution to the problem came in the form of a year-long series that not only merged the multiple Earths into one world, but also went back to the Big Bang and restarted the entire universe to boot. The solution worked, for the most part; DC toyed with parallel Earths a couple of times afterwards (A new Earth-2 was created, which existed in an anti-matter universe and was literally the opposite of the main Earth, and 1999’s The Kingdom introduced a concept called “Hypertime” that suggested that there was one main timeline that occasionally branched off and created temporary parallel worlds that were nonetheless as “real” as their parents and could at times overwrite the core reality— don’t think about it too much), but the multiverse as-was would remain gone for two decades.

Exiles No. 1 (2001)

While DC had moved away from its parallel worlds, Marvel continued to embrace the concept with this series that, for all intents and purposes, ripped off the concept of the 1990s tv show Sliders. A team of superheroes traveled from reality to reality, allowing a mixture of the original What If? concept and month-to-month continuity to bring readers back each and every issue. The series continued for three volumes, finally ending in 2009, but the central concept was revived for 2012’s X-Treme X-Men series.

52 No. 52 (2005)

After 20 years — and multiple reboots for its fictional universe — DC brought its multiverse back at the end of the fan-favorite weekly series 52. There was a twist, however; due to events in the series, the number of parallel Earths was limited to 52, and the differences in each world were explained away by different parts of each worlds’ histories having been “eaten” by extra-dimensional entities (Again, it’s perhaps better not to dwell on the details too much). This version of the multiverse has survived DC’s linewide reboot in 2011, and to mark the launch of the parallel Earth-centric series The Multiversity this year, DC even released a map of its multiverse to help readers keep track of which world was which. Clip and save before next year’s Covergence storyline, clearly.

New Avengers No. 1 (2013)

The final piece of the puzzle for Marvel’s multiverse ahead of next year’s Secret Wars, the current New Avengers comic book series suggests that, because of the contraction of the universe, parallel Earths are actually a very bad thing indeed — in fact, as the universe contracts, parallel Earths end up occupying the same space, which results in the destruction of both parallel realities. The solution? Why, one of the Earths has to destroy the other before the two collide — but, as you can imagine, that isn’t a solution that everyone involved is comfortable with.

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