|A map of the Multiverse|
One of the key aspects of the DC Universe (DCU) is the Multiverse. An idea of a Multiverse is not unique to DC and some scientists have even hypothesized that we may even be living in a Multiverse. A Multiverse is basically a parallel universe where things are different; for example, there could be a reality where an alternate version of you got your dream job. Some scientists, like Ethan Siegal, have argued against the idea of alternate universes. DC comics has had a long and complicated history with alternate realities so the purpose of this post is to make it simpler. Due to how complicated DC's Multiverse has been this will be more of an overview so if you've noticed that I've missed something it's likely intentional - although feel free to mention it in the comments. DC's Multiverse originated as a way to justify a retcon...
Real World Origins of the Multiverse
DC originated in the 1930s and 1940s and its cast of characters, with a few exceptions, were largely magic based. Of course there were exceptions, such as Superman, but heroes were largely magic based. These included Wonder Woman, Doctor Fate, the original Green Lantern (Alan Scott), and Hawkman. They proved to be so popular that in 1940's All Star Comics #3 a precursor of the Justice League, called the Justice Society of America, was made out of some of the more popular characters - however Batman and Superman weren't apart of it and 1940s sexism made Wonder Woman the JSA's secretary. After the Second World War interest in superheroes decreased. This did not just affect DC, Marvel's precursor Timely also faced this issue. Throughout the late-1940s and early-1950s comic book companies instead sold stories about horror (which crashed thanks to the Comics Code of Authority), romance, teen drama, Westerns, and war. Until the mid-1960s Archie Comics actually sold more than Marvel! With the exception of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and a few others superheroes were out. By the mid-1950s the Space Race had begun making a new generation interested in sci-fi so DC thought to bring back superheroes. Largely magic was dropped in favor of science, or science merged with magic. In 1956 Showcase #4 remade the Flash with Barry Allen as the titular hero; as a bit of meta ingenuity Barry Allen loved reading the Flash comics from the 1940s so chose that as his moniker. In 1959 Green Lantern received a sci-fi makeover in Showcase Presents Green Lantern #23. Soon enough the JSA was remade into the Justice League in The Brave and the Bold #28.
Fans weren't entirely on board with these changes. Of course it was very popular - after all it restarted the love for superheroes which only dipped thanks to the 1990s Comic Book Crash which you can read about here - but some long time fans weren't happy. Many older readers were wondering what happened to the older stories? Why are Alan Scott and Jay Garrick comic book characters but Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman 'real' in this continuity? What happened to the JSA? Something that can be compared to modern comics some Flash fans hated Barry Allen initially. After a while they did grow to like him but many were upset that the Flash they grew up with had just become a fictitious character in a comic. So in 1961 they decided to answer this question and create the Multiverse. Flash fans buying Flash #123 saw Barry Allen and Jay Garrick on the cover.
|The Flash #123|
In this story Barry Allen vibrates at a different frequency and accidentally travels into a different dimension where Jay Garrick lives. Garrick has aged in real time and inspired by Barry comes out of retirement. Thus the Multiverse was born. Throughout DC history we find out that each universe vibrates at a different frequency and when we dream we sometimes see different universes; the Gardner Fox and Harry Lampert of the DCU therefore saw Garrick's universe as they slept. The Flash #123 received a ton of positive fan mail. Longtime fans who liked both Garrick and Allen were thrilled to see them together; Garrick fans who disliked Allen loved that they paid respect to the character; and new fans who knew nothing of Garrick were eager to find out more about the interesting 1940s characters (comic guides wouldn't come around until the late-1960s). Barry Allen would occasionally go to Garrick's reality but in 1963 with Justice League of America #21 and #22 the Justice League met the Justice Society. The most recent universe, from the 1950s, was named Earth-1 while the older universe was named Earth-2. Until 1985 there would be at least one JLA/JSA crossover a year.
Expansion of the Multiverse and Crisis on Infinite Earths
With the Multiverse now created DC had fun with it. Earth-3 was introduced in Justice League of America #29 which is an 'opposite' world: Columbus discovered Europe, England rebelled against the USA etc. Instead of a Justice League we have the Crime Syndicate of America featuring Ultraman (Superman), Super Woman (Wonder Woman), Owlman (Batman), Johnny Quick (Flash), and Power Ring (Green Lantern). DC had also purchased Captain Marvel (now Shazam) - who at one time was even more popular than Superman - and Plastic Man from other companies so DC designated their old universes Earth-S and Earth-X respectively. When Marvel powerhouse Jack Kirby moved over to DC he expanded the Multiverse with New Gods beginning in 1971. The New Gods of New Genesis and Apokolips exist outside the Multiverse and figures like Darkseid interact with the Multiverse, mainly Earth-1, via portals called Boom Tubes. We also see the Source Wall which is a structure separating the Multiverse from the 'Source' - the literal origin of all knowledge and everything that exists. Since the 1970s the Multiverse continued and continued to expand. Power Girl is one just example. Power Girl is the Earth-2 version of Supergirl - older than her Earth-1 counterpart she got trapped on Earth-1 so created her own identity as there was already a Supergirl there.
|Destruction of the Multiverse|
By 1985 DC decided that a change was needed. After decades of stories they were worried that new fans would be turned off by the mountains of stories, and the Multiverse did not help. Even normal fans were confused about which stories were in which universe never mind new ones. Plot holes started to appear and with general confusion DC decided a clean slate was needed leading to 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths. Writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez were tasked with this story and to this day this story marked the key dating point when discussing DC's history. An ancient being called the Anti-Monitor attacks the Multiverse causing all the heroes to unite and fight it. One key thing to note: Barry Allen died in this story. The character who introduced the Multiverse died with it. Despite the heroes defeating the Anti-Monitor the Multiverse is destroyed forming one new reality: New Earth.
|Gotham by Gaslight, the first Elseworlds comic|
DC treated Crisis as a new start. A few characters, like Wonder Woman, received entirely new origins and some aspects of characters were rewritten to make more sense. For example, Bruce Wayne hired Alfred after becoming Batman and he discovers that Wayne is Batman when Alfred finds him injured. Post-Crisis rewrote this so that Alfred had always been with the Waynes and had always knew that Bruce was Batman. The Justice Society was active during World War Two but disbanded due to McCarthyism. DC planned that there were to be no Multiverse at all - alternate realities were allowed but it had to be clear that there would be no interaction with New Earth. Many of these were published under their darker imprint called Vertigo which featured Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing and Hellblazer. In 1989 DC launched Elseworlds to cover alternate reality stories so fans would not get confused where the first to be published was Gotham by Gaslight featuring Batman living in the Victorian era tracking Jack the Ripper who had come to Gotham. Meanwhile, characters intimately tied with the Multiverse had to have rewrites. Some were simple: instead of existing outside the Multiverse the New Gods exist in a galaxy which cannot be reached via normal means. Attempts to reboot Power Girl were not well received. She was changed to be descended from an Atlantean sorcerer and fans hated it. Some parts of the pre-Crisis continuity remained. Barry Allen's death was one and he remained dead for decades with Wally West acting as the Flash since then. John Constantine could also remember the pre-Crisis timeline.
Since 1985 DC had published several alternate reality stories and some are the best from comics. The Dark Knight Returns featured an elderly Bruce Wayne becoming the Batman once again; Superman: Red Son featured Superman landing in a collective farm in Ukraine in the 1930s and years later he becomes a key figure in the USSR; and Kingdom Come tells the story of a retired Superman returning to show the new violent heroes how to be a hero. The stories from Vertigo were considered semi-canon: if something contrasted with the main reality then that story didn't officially happen. There was no Multiverse, discounting the sequel crossovers to Kingdom Come called Hypertime, until 2005 with Infinite Crisis by Geoff Johns. We find out that following Crisis certain heroes, such as Earth-2 Superman and Lois Lane, following the destruction of the Multiverse were trapped in a pocket universe. However, many of them were unhappy. Compared to pre-Crisis heroes the post-Crisis heroes failed, they were flawed, and they argued so the surviving pre-Crisis heroes viewed them as false heroes. One was Superboy-Prime, a version of Superman where all DC heroes are comic characters, manages to punch his way out of the universe! This caused ripple effects causing heroes to come back alive or change their backstories. We even find out that Power Girl was actually from Earth-2 but she became trapped in New Earth instead of Earth-2. Barry Allen also came back in Infinite Crisis. Following Infinite Crisis the Multiverse came back. Now Hypertime, Vertigo and another imprint called WildStorm could actively crossover.
Flashpoint and After
In 2011's Flashpoint Barry Allen wakes up in a world completely different to his own and we find out that he accidentally caused this: he had ran so fast that he traveled through time to stop his mother's death but the Butterfly Effect reshaped the world. One good example of this is Bruce Wayne being shot instead of his parents and his mother becomes the Joker while his dad becomes an ultraviolent Batman. When the Flash reversed this it destroyed the Multiverse once again and New Earth, the Vertigo universe, and the WildStorm universe merge together forming Earth Prime. The Multiverse was recreated to form 52 new realities - one even got its own comic series, Earth-2. The New 52 had a mix reception mainly as DC said this was an entirely a new start, they wanted readers to act as if DC had never published a story before. Except DC kept referring back to older stories and now no one knew what was canon or not. After that tangent we get to Multiversity by Grant Morrison and I would highly recommend people read it. Morrison mapped out the Multiverse (at the top) and explored some of them. My personal favorite is shown in The Just. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are dead but before they died they made sure injustice, crime and alien invasions died with them. Now their children, and some retired heroes, act as celebrities doing battle reenactments. The later Convergence event, which Multiversity helped set up. The heroes of Earth-2, and a few others, go on a journey to stop Brainiac who has been collecting people from destroyed realities with the intention of putting them together to study what happens.
Finally I'm going to mention DC Rebirth, Dark Knights: Metal, and Doomsday Clock. As they are still currently happening and I haven't fully caught up with each one this shall be a broad overview. In DC Rebirth, a half-reboot to rectify somethings disliked in the New 52, we find the Comedian's button from Watchmen in the Batcave and we find out that Dr Manhattan has been intervening in the DCU leading up to Doomsday Clock. Here Ozymandias, the new Rorschach and a criminal duo travel to the DCU hoping to find Manhattan. Meanwhile, with Dark Knights: Metal we find out that there is a 'Dark 52'. These were universes destined to be destroyed and are invading the 52. This invasion is being led by the Dark Knights - basically evil versions of Batman.
|The Dark Knights|
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