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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

“Thinkers who entertain the possibility that there are lots of universes,” explains science writer Jim Holt, “use the term ‘multiverse’ (or sometimes ‘megaverse’) for the entire ensemble of them.” Holt writes for The New Yorker and is the author of the new book Why Does the World Exist?, so by “thinkers” he means physicists, mathematicians, and philosophers.

He does NOT mean comic book writers.

Though he should.

The multiverse was invented by physicist Hugh Everett in 1957. He called it MWI, or the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum physics. Because things get weird and literally unmeasurable at the sub-atomic level, the multiverse offers a way of explaining paradoxes like Erwin Schrödinger’s 1935 thought experiment in which a cat can somehow be both dead and alive.

Everett made that impossibility possible by splitting the cat into two universes.

But, unknown to both Everett and Holt, DC editor Julie (stands for Julius) Schwartz had produced the same model a year earlier. Only instead of a cat, he used a superhero. DC’s Showcase #4, cover dated October 1956, introduced the Flash, the Big Bang event of the Silver Age of Comics.

The Golden Age Flash had dropped out of circulation in 1949, and though this new Flash resembled him (same name, same symbol, same superpowers) he was not the same character (different costume, different secret identity, different origin). Schwartz followed up with a new Green Lantern in 1959, and split the old Justice Society into the new Justice League in 1960 as well.

1960 is also the year Andy Nimmo, a vice chair of the British Interplanetary Society, first used “multiverse” to describe Everett’s clunkier-sounding many-worlds theory. (American philosopher William James actually coined “multiverse” in the 1890s, but that multiverse is a very different animal.)

So how could there be two Flashes? Or two Green Lanterns? Or two anything?

Easy. The new characters lived on Earth-1, and the 1940’s characters on Earth-2.

Schwartz even provided empirical evidence for his theory in 1961, when the Earth-1 Flash vibrated his way into the Earth-2 Flash’s universe. It turned out that events on Earth-2 had entered Earth-1 through the dreams of Golden Age comic book creators. (Which weirdly matches Holt’s description that “quantum field forbids these parallel worlds from interacting in any but the ghostliest of ways.”)

Schwartz’ research was duplicated by physicist Richard Feynman who used it to win the 1965 Nobel Peace Prize. Feynman, like Schwartz, argued for the existence of not just multiple worlds but multiple histories. Apparently, new universes pop into existence at every fork in time. When, for instance, Schrödinger’s cat both did and did not die. Or when the Flash  did and did not vibrate into a neighboring dimension.

Feynman used the less catchy phrases “path integral formulation” and “sum over histories,” but DC didn’t adopt the actual word “multiverse” until 1976. Writers desperately needed a term for Holt’s “ensemble” of universes they’d spent the last two decades spinning into existence.

Earth-3 (where everything is an evil mirror of Earth-1) bubbled up in 1964, as did Earth-32 (indistinguishable except for Green Lantern’s girlfriend agreeing to marry him). The next year a supervillain created Earth A (stands for “Alternate”) in order to eliminate the Justice League. In 1966, after buying Quality Comics, DC decided that subset of superheroes’ Golden Age adventures took place on Earth-X, where World Ware II still rages on. They gave Captain Marvel his own universe too. Starting in 1973, he and all of the 1940’s Fawcett Comics characters (DC loved buying up competitors) lived on Earth-S (stands for “Shazam”). Since they couldn’t buy Marvel, DC had to create Crossover Earth for team-ups with those characters (Superman and Spider-Man were the first in 1976), and they even designated an Earth for us (Earth Prime).

The list is longer (Charlton Comics ended up on Earth-4, the New Gods on 14), and that’s not counting all the “Imaginary Stories” that took place in universes left unlabeled because they never came into contact with Earth-1 characters. So, for instance, on Earth-Whatever Clark and Lois marry and raise superbabies. And on Earth-Whatchamcallit the infant Superman is adopted by the Waynes, and Clark and Kent grow up as brothers.

Basically any “what if” can spawn a parallel world. A theory Marvel literalized with What If? in 1977. The first issue (my eleven-year-old self bought it from one of those rotating 7-Eleven racks) asked: “What If Spider-Man Had Joined the Fantastic Four?”

Instead of killing cats, the omniscient Watcher used a hit-and-run example to illustrate how a single event leads to multiple realities. The accident bystander a) does nothing and the victim is killed, b) pushes the victim to safety but is struck himself, or c) gets both himself and the victim to safety.

Or D. All three. Which is also what Feynman said happens. (Apparently, our reality is the average of all the events.)

But the What Ifs and the Imaginary Tales are not the same. In fact, they reveal how deep the DC/Marvel divide runs. Marvel’s multiverse looks like a quantum theory multiverse, while DC’s fits the inflationary model because Earth-S and Earth-4 and Earth-X were not created at points of divergence. Those worlds were just floating out there all along. Which, oddly, is the more impressive theory because it has actual data to back it up. I’ll let Jim Holt explain: “measurements of the cosmic background radiation—the echo left over from the Big Bang—indicate that the space we live in is infinite, and that matter is spread randomly throughout it. Therefore, all possible arrangements of matter must exist out there somewhere—including exact and inexact replicas of our own world and the beings in it.”

A variation on the inflationary theory goes even further and posits isolated pocket universes, each born from its own Big Bang. Eventually each universe (ours included) will collapse in its own Big Crunch. Or, possibly, a Big Bounce, causing a new universe to be born its place.

At least that’s the theory. Except in comic books where it’s a verifiable fact. It happened to DC back in 1985. The 12-issue series Crisis on Infinite Earths ended with all the surviving worlds of the DC multiverse imploding and reforming as “New Earth.” Only this time there were no additional pocket universes connected to it.

No more multiverse.

Sure, DC couldn’t resists a few Imaginary Tales (newly termed “Elseworlds”), but superheroes from Earth-1—or I guess it would just be “Earth”?— never (okay, almost never) interacted with their counterparts from parallel Earths. Which is why DC cleaned out their multiverse in the first place. All those JLA and JSA team-ups were getting tedious.

DC prefers the term “reboot” over “Big Bounce,” which is fair since physicists didn’t start using the second till 1987. DC has hit the refresh button a few of times since, most impressively last year when they restarted all of their magazines at #1. So now there are two Action Comics #1. One published in 1938, and one published in 2011. Physicists have yet to coin a term for the phenomenon. Perhaps the many-markets interpretation of quantum publishing?

But don’t worry, multiverse fans, guess what bubbled back into existence last May.

Earth-2!

Or, rather, a newly rebounced Earth-2 in an infinite range of Earth-2 variations. All of which DC will eventually publish. Though not necessarily here on Earth Prime.

And you thought physics was confusing.

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