Out of Many, One

How the multiverse of DC Comics collapsed and the universe of Marvel exploded

Long-time readers of comic books (a vanishingly small pool, to be sure) have an omnivore’s tastes when it comes to their colorful adventures: over time, the largest comic book publishers have put out everything from true crime to romance and westerns to monster epics. Today, so-called independent publishers release comic books about their day-to-day lives, generational family stories, movie adaptations and even continuations of long-running television properties. However, the “Big Two” comics companies — Marvel and DC — remain, as they have been since their inception, heavily embroiled in the adventures of gaudily costumed men and women in worlds where the U.S. government turned a 4-F into the greatest soldier in the world with an experimental serum and an alien baby launched to Earth in a missile became a titan for justice and democracy.

The evolution of the format of these adventures — from the comic books published in the 1930s and 40s to the rebirth of the superheroic genre in the late 50s and 60s to the present day — has been an incestuous one at times, and is in many ways defined by the desire to maintain control over a diminishing pie: DC and Marvel have gone so far as to jointly maintain trademark on the word “superhero” for the past two decades. Modern superhero comics are formed out of the tension between DC and Marvel themselves and the contrast between their formation.

DC Comics began as National Allied Publications and expanded by devouring several other small publishing concerns. Eventually renaming itself National Periodical Publications after acquiring All-American Comics, this hydra of a comic book company found itself featuring characters from several separate editorial offices and made only token efforts to combine them. Gardner Fox’s Justice Society aside, few of the characters owned by National Periodicals ever met, and there was no effort to square the events in one comic book against another as the decades rolled by. Upon the debut of the re-imagined Flash character in Showcase #4 in an attempt to maintain trademark on the name and character, DC began a process that would culminate in Fox’s heroic attempt to reconcile the many contradictions in established stories up to that time. They all happened ... just on different worlds. Parallel worlds, to be precise.

Fox had to contend with the accumulated detritus of over 20 years of comics published by a company that didn’t talk to itself. Editorial offices in National Periodicals, the Superman/DC company, didn’t care what was going on in other comics, especially as the lean times of the 50s hit and most superhero comic books died out. If Superman went to romance a mermaid in Atlantis — an Atlantis that clearly was inhabited entirely by mer-folk — it wasn’t considered particularly important if that story contradicted the origin of Aquaman, then a minor back-up character in More Fun Comics. (One of Aquaman’s creators was Mort Weisinger, who was the editor in charge of the Superman offices during much of the period, and even he didn’t care. Comic books simply didn’t worry about things like that at the time.) This policy, over the years, ultimately left Fox writing the adventures of a Flash who was entirely different than the one he had created in the 1940s.

Fox’s solution was to write a story where his new Flash crossed a vibrational barrier and met the original, who Fox had previously depicted as the inspiration for his new character through the medium of old comic books. Now that it was revealed that the real adventures of the classic Golden Age characters had been mere comic book stories to the then-emerging Silver Age ones; for the next twenty years, DC editors and writers built on the edifice of these parallel Earths. Soon Earth after Earth came into existence as Fox and his successors used the sprawling, inconsistent publishing history of DC Comics as an excuse to tell stories of cross-world adventure.

Meanwhile, publisher Martin Goodman ordered Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to do for his company what Julius Schwarz, Gardner Fox and numerous others had done for DC — reinvent the superheroic wheel. Lee and Kirby did so with the creation of the Fantastic Four, as non-superheroic a group of people as you could get and still call superheroes. Much has been made of Lee and Kirby’s new approach to the genre and how they brought in a whole generation of fans who were more interested in their soap-operatic tales of bickering, self-doubting superfolk, but unnoticed by many is the real innovation of the Lee/Kirby era — by starting totally anew and concentrating all their creations in one editorial office, it became possible to create a series of characters who all knew one another, interacted with one another, and did so without decades of contradictory stories to be explained. Since Lee didn’t have to worry about some other editor on some other comic creating an entirely new Atlantis somewhere else and populating it with fish-headed folk in total contradiction of his use of the Sub-Mariner, it was far easier for the average fan coming into comic books to follow Marvel continuity.

In essence, the DC Comics approach was tailored to the fan of a particular comic book character, as perpetuated by their divided editorial offices. The Marvel approach was to try and bring a fan into their entire line of comics. Rather than just buying and reading The Amazing Spider-Man, the average Marvel fan would be encouraged by multiple guest-appearances of that character in other comics to also purchase The Incredible Hulk or The Mighty Avengers by the prolific appearances of characters from those series in Spidey’s adventures. Since Stan Lee was involved, to a greater or lesser extent, in just about every comic book published by Marvel for the first decade or so of their Silver Age existence, it was fairly easy for the comics to establish a strong and dynamic sensation of correspondence: rather than having to cross the barriers of existence to team up with their fellow heroes, the Avengers could just run into the X-Men or Fantastic Four.

The people who grew up reading Marvel’s comics became writers and artists themselves, and worked first at Marvel before jumping ship to DC. In so doing, they brought with them a Marvel sensibility, the idea that all comic books under a publisher’s umbrella could and should be explicated and correlated with each other. Writers like Marv Wolfman were simultaneously gifted exploiters of the many worlds concept and disdainful of it, and eventually the idea of there being more than one Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and so on proved too offensive to be borne: the result was DC’s sprawling Crisis on Infinite Earths and the past two decades of stories that have attempted to convince readers that throwing Gardner Fox’s elegant scaffolding of infinite possibility away was a good idea.

Marvel, meanwhile, bought several other companies and set the characters from those purchases on other worlds (anyone remember the old Ultraverse comics? No one? Ah, well ... ). As it went along, the company established several parallel timelines, mainly through the device of their long-running What If? series, which (much like the “imaginary stories” of 1950s DC Comics) tended to answer the title question with the answer “everyone would have died so it’s good we didn’t do that. ” Readers who remember the stories where Superman was made a triple widower or was killed via Kryptonite by Lex Luthor know what I’m talking about. Despite themselves, then, Marvel underwent the same kind of bloat once seen from their rivals. Today, Marvel publishes two distinct lines of comics starring the same basic characters — their regular books and also the Ultimate books, where the origins of the characters are retold in a more modern setting (and with numerous changes).

And so the companies have changed positions: DC Comics, even through the Infinite Crisis event, have maintained their “one universe” policy bequeathed to them by writers brought up in the Marvel style, while Marvel today sports at least two distinct “universes” and publishes at least one comic book where characters travel from parallel Earth to parallel Earth. The more things change, the more they change back.