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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Crisis on Infinite Earths

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The past is a work-in-progress.

Look at dinosaurs. When I was kid, brontosaurus was a lethargic lizard so obese it wallowed in swamps to support its weight. Read Lost World—Conan Doyle’s, not Michael Crichton’s—and T Rex is an enormous bullfrog. Nowadays sauropods are lithe warm-bloods with whip-action tails, and the former King of the Dinosaurs is a queen of scavengers.

It’s sad to see the old guys go, but a revisable history is a good thing. It’s evolution in action. Old paradigms die out as newer, fitter interpretations replace them. And no one knows that better than the comic book industry. Back in the early 80s, DC was so bogged down in lost worlds—Earth 2, Earth 32, Earth 387, Earths A, B, C and C-, Earth Prime, Earth X, Earth Quality—their writers couldn’t move under the weight of the multiverse. Something had to give.

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Enter Crisis on Infinite Earth, king of all scavengers. The 1985-6 maxi-series chomped through decades of DC history, swallowing the Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages and spitting them back out as one shiny new Earth called, well, New Earth.

It was more than just a reboot. DC had already done that in the late 50s, evolving its old guys into new costumes and origins. But their new New Earth arrived with a whole history. Literally. I bought a copy from my college comics shop. Suddenly I was being told that characters I’d never heard of—the Question, Captain Atom, Peacemaker, Blue Beetle—had always been around, paling with the usual Justice Leaguers.

I thought: Captain who?

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The answer was simple. He and his friends were the scavenged imports from Charlton Comics, DC’s latest business acquisition. But instead of setting the new roster up on their own multiverse planet—Earth Charlton—they wove them in post-Crisis. And readers just had to swallow them.

And keep swallowing. Because Crisis was just a gateway drug. Soon DC was rewriting its past every decade or so, constantly reimagining character histories with forward-looking updates to satisfy new fans. But to get the old high—that euphoric sales boost—the dose kept climbing. So for their 2012 re-write, the newest of the New Earths restarted its titles on the rock bottom foundation of “No.1.” But not its history. That’s still a shifting swamp.

Maybe it’s the influence of comic books on larger culture trends, or maybe comics make explicit a process that might otherwise go less noticed, but superhero history is not the only history in crisis.

After a landslide election in Japan last December, New York Times commentator Paul Krugman wrote: “In Japan governments come and governments go, but nothing ever seems to change — indeed, Shinzo Abe, the new prime minister, has had the job before, and his party’s victory was widely seen as the return of the ‘dinosaurs’ who misruled the country for decades.” The Economist has since featured Abe as Super Yen Man:

The Economist

The flying dinosaur king has also returned with a revisionist pen. Prime Minister Abe wants to replace Japan’s 1995 apology for the suffering it caused in Asia during World War II with a “forward-looking statement that is appropriate for the 21st century.”

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That’s the assignment DC gave Mark Waid in 2002: “reimagining Superman for the 21st century.” But the secret mission behind Superman: Birthright was to align DC’s comic book continuity with the popular TV show Smallville. The same way Abe wants to align his nation’s apology—issued by a Socialist Party Prime Minster—with his newly repopularized brand of hawkish conservativism.

When Abe was Prime Minster in 2006, he revised an education law to “restore patriotism” in schools. That’s the same year China started writing Mao out of their own school texts. The Marxist template that dominated Chinese history since the 50s had grown too obese to support—and, frankly, a little embarrassing. Like Superman’s pet super-monkey from the 50s. Better if he’d never been there in the first place. Mao who?

U.S. textbooks are no different. Look at Texas. In 2009, their state board approved a science curriculum championed by a chair who said “evolution is hooey.” Their 2010 Social Studies guidelines were guided by a board-appointed consultant who opposed income taxes because they violate Scriptures. Every state in the country fights some version of these battles, with every subject in perpetual flux. Curricula keep evolving. They always have. Go back to the 30s, and most Biology and Social Studies textbooks preached eugenics, a fact conveniently missing from, say, my kids’ middle school and high school history books.

And, what the hell, Scriptures are revisable too. Last spring, the Mormon Church issued a new and improved edition of its book of Doctrine and Covenants. Turns out the ban on black priests wasn’t the will of God but a human misstep. Ditto for multiple wives, since monogamy is now God’s standard for marriage. It’s not exactly a reboot (Brigham who?), but certainly a refresh. The Mormon Church, like DC, is aligning itself with the 21st century. You could say it’s just another business decision, a way of grounding a fan base, but I wish the Catholic Church would revise a few scriptures too. Polygamy and racism aren’t the only dinosaurs that need to die out.

“What we’re seeing with these changes,” according to religion professor Terryl Givens, “is the privileging of history over theology. It’s a kind of acknowledgement that the Mormon Church is rooted in a past that is replete with historical claims.”

That means multiple and contradictory claims, a bog of them. Comic books are rooted in the same muck, but since all those histories are overtly make-believe, only fans feel it when the foundation shifts. But that’s useful training. Out here on the non-spandex-wearing Earth, we have pastquakes all the time. Our multiverse is pocked with lost worlds.

If we’re going to keep rebooting, we should be as upfront about it as DC and the Mormon Church. Change what you like, but don’t pretend you’re getting away with anything. And don’t forget the next breed of writers is waiting behind you, their whip-action pens uncapped.

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“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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