My Love-Hate Relationship with DC’s Multiverse
The multiverse is one of my favorite aspects of DC Comics, but it’s also one of my least favorite. I found myself thinking about this after yesterday’s post on Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.
My first exposure to the multiverse was in the 1979 issue Justice League of America #171, “The Murderer Among Us: Crisis above Earth-One!” The comic was a gift from my older sister and I must have read it a million times. It was one of the first superhero comic books I ever owned. Remember being seven years old and reading the same comic over and over until it literally fell apart? I watch my kids do that nowadays and it brings a smile to my face.
This issue was one of those classic JLA/JSA annual crossovers by Gerry Conway and Dick Dillin. Having watched numerous episodes of the Super Friends, I was already familiar with most of the JLA. However, these strange doppelgangers called the Justice Society of America were confusing to me. I didn’t understand why there were two guys both named Hawkman. They looked similar and had the same powers, but were different folks. Hmmm… now what about these Green Lanterns and Flashes? They didn’t look similar at all and yet they shared the same name and powers. Weird. So I went back and re-read the first page several times until I began to grasp that two parallel Earths existed at different vibrational frequencies. Once I got it, I thought that was pretty cool!
In this issue, Golden Age hero Mr. Terrific was murdered! After an investigation it was determined that the murder was committed by a member of the JLA or JSA! But who?!?! I was kept in suspense for nearly 15 years. It took that long before I managed to get my hands on a copy of issue #172. Sorry, I can’t tell you who the murderer was. I don’t want to spoil it for you.
So there I was, officially indoctrinated into the philosophy of the multiverse. In particular, I was fascinated by Doctor Fate and the Alan Scott Green Lantern. Sadly it would be another six years until I encountered a multiverse crossover again. It was 1985 and I was buying some comics for a long road trip. I was already a Marvel zombie by this point, having read Secret Wars, Uncanny X-Men, Power Pack, and many more. The only DC comics I was buying at the time were The Fury of Firestorm and Blue Devil. While looking for road trip reading material I spied Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 on the shelf of the local drug store. It featured both Firestorm and Blue Devil on the cover so I decided to give it a try. Little did I realize at the time that I was opening a door into a whole new level of comic geekdom.
I was instantly hooked. As we made our way across the country, I searched for other issues of Crisis at every stop. I began making lists of all the characters, categorizing them by the Earth they came from. While Secret Wars vol I #2 may have started me on the path of collecting comics, Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 started me on the path of comic book fanaticism. It was my gateway drug into the DC pantheon of characters. Then I started picking up Who’s Who, devouring each issue and learning more about obscure characters and further worlds in the multiverse. There was no turning back after that.
Crisis on Infinite Earths brought the multiverse to a close in 1986. Around that time I began buying back issues featuring old cross-world adventures. In particular the All-Star Squadron and the annual JLA/JSA crossovers were some of my favorites. The story “Crisis on Earth-Prime” which ran through both Justice League of America and the All-Star Squadron is still one of my all-time favorite multiverse stories. Curiosity drove my interest in these old adventures. I was starting to appreciate the legacy of the Golden Age to the Silver Age, so I was intensely curious about the JSA. Also, it was fun to read some of those kooky Silver and Bronze Age tales. A fair number of the multiverse stories were just plain far-fetched and the resolutions were sometimes hilariously out of left field.
Since I started with DC hardcore in 1985, I was pretty much a post-Crisis reader (or a Tween-Crisis reader if you like). Any story I read featuring the multiverse was a back issue and was read with the benefit of hindsight. I grew comfortable with the idea that the multiverse was a thing of the past. When DC started publishing Elseworlds in the late 1980s, I was fine with it. After all, these were basically DC’s answer to Marvel’s What If. By the mid-90s I was reading the majority of DC’s superhero line. I felt invested in the DCU as it existed at that time. Many of my favorite titles used formerly-multiverse aspects incorporated into the singular continuity like the JSA, the Shazam family, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Huntress, Power Girl, and more.
After thirteen years in the grave, Mark Waid resurrected the multiverse in the 1999 mini-series The Kingdom. This time around they called it “hypertime” instead of the “multiverse”. I was ticked! How dare they bring back the multiverse after all this time?!?! Were they simply throwing away the past 13 years of continuity and resetting everything to the Pre-Crisis status quo? It quickly became obvious that wasn’t the case. Hypertime was introduced simply to provide some freedom to the writers to tell different stories. While hypertime was used occasionally (i.e. Superboy in “Hypertension” and the graphic novel JLA: Earth-2), it quietly faded into the background. I eventually accepted the seldom-used hypertime and became comfortable once again in my Post-Crisis dominion over the DC Universe.
Then in 2005 Infinite Crisis came along. Here we were again, 19 years after saying goodbye to the multiverse it was being dragged back into existence and to a place of prominence in the DC Universe… oh wait, I guess I gotta say DC Multiverse. Once again I was ticked. I felt like the writers were coping-out by resetting everything to the way it was when they started reading in the 70s and early 80s. They were bringing back the elements from an era they felt comfortable with. Didn’t they understand, this wasn’t about their comfort zone, it was about mine!
Admittedly my outrage was over the top. While my emotions were strong, I had my reasons. First, I felt betrayed. I felt the past 19 years I invested in reading DC Comics was wasted. The universe I’d come to know in-and-out was being chucked in favor of a multiverse that existed back when Loni Anderson was a sex symbol and disco was cool. Second, while I love the old multiverse stories, many of them really don’t hold up under a critical eye. My love for these multiverse adventures comes from a sense of nostalgia rather than from the quality of the writing. Often the old multi-Earth plots were outlandish and more for fun than serious storytelling. Third, I was concerned about the quality of new stories that would be written using the multiverse concept. If the old ones were often weak, what guarantee existed that new ones would be any better?
Okay, so the last 19 years of DC continuity didn’t get chucked. However, given the quality of Countdown and Final Crisis stories and tie-ins, I feel my concern about modern multiverse adventures was merited. Countdown was an abysmal train wreck of a series. An overall direction for the series was non-existent, the individual stories were weak, and it was far too dependent upon multiverse-hopping. Like any series, there were certain moments in Countdown that were good, but those moments were few and far between. In all fairness, not all modern-day multiverse stories have been bad. Geoff Johns has written some really good Justice Society of America multiverse adventures, like the one featuring the Justice Society Infinity. However, those good stories are the exception and are heavily outweighed by the bad ones (who isn’t sick of Superboy-Prime?).
So far, the modern-day multiverse stories have been a let down. Would the DC Uni-/Multi-verse have been better without the reintroduction? Has the return of the multiverse really brought anything fantastic? Sure I’m glad to see Earth-2 Superman up and around again, but have they actually told any really good stories with him since bringing him back? I don’t think so.
Call me a stick in the mud, but I’m really disappointed with the return of the multiverse. However, the old school multiverse stories will always have a place in my heart, even if it’s as ridiculous as the Super-Sons of Superman and Batman.