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May 3rd, 2007

In 1961, DC Comics introduced the concept of parallel realities to its readers with a classic story called “The Flash of Two Worlds.” The superhero known as the Flash accidentally crossed over into another dimension and met his older counterpart, whom he’d previously believed to be only a fictional character.

The real-world explanation for the two Flashes was that DC had retired most of its World War II-era superheroes by 1951, but later editor Julius Schwartz began to revive them with new origins. The Flash was the first, and within the context of his storyline, the inspiration for his superhero identity came from reading comics of the original, Golden Age Flash.

So, when writer Gardner Fox wanted the two Flashes to meet, his explanation was that they existed on two Earths which occupied the same position in space, yet which vibrated at different frequencies. “Earth Two” was born.

Later, it was established that all of the Golden Age heroes–including alternate versions of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman–existed on Earth Two, and meetings between the Justice League and their older counterparts in the Justice Society became an annual event.

The idea was popular enough that other parallel worlds were added to the cosmos, including Earth Three, home of evil analogues to the JLA, and even Earth Prime, where you and I live.

Eventually, as DC began to buy out other comics companies, their own pantheons of heroes were introduced on still more parallel worlds: Earth X for Quality’s Freedom Fighters, Earth S (as in Shazam!) for Fawcett’s Marvel Family, and Earth Four for Charlton characters such as the Blue Beetle and the Question.

Actually, by the time Earth Four vibrated into view in 1985, DC’s editorial team had decided that today’s kids found the multiverse–as it had been dubbed–too complicated. (It was never a problem for me.) So they held a year-long event called the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” which saw the destruction of the parallel realities and their eventual merging into a single Earth with a shared history.

And then the problems really began.

Turns out that one world really wasn’t big enough for all those heroes. While the duplicate Batmen and Supermen–which, unlike the various Flashes and Green Lanterns, were essentially the same character–were eliminated, that still left an awful lot of very similar characters in action, only now they were always tripping over each other. The Justice Society characters were retired and even exiled to limbo, but remained too popular to stay there.

And then there was Hawkman. No one could ever figure out how to reconcile the Golden Age Hawkman with his later counterpart, but oh, did they try. And try. Until no one could figure out what the hell Hawkman was anymore.

My beef with the loss of the multiverse was that it meant that my own favorite hero, Captain Marvel, had to rub elbows with Superman. There were a couple of problems with that. Not only did Superman’s presence make Cap largely redundant and essentially strip him of his “World’s Mightiest Mortal” mantle, but the Marvel Family’s whimsical world simply didn’t fit in with that of the more “realistic” DC characters. And so for twenty some years, Cap languished in the outback of the DC Universe, suffering under a succession of writers who simply didn’t know what to do with him.

Over the years, old-school fans complained about the missing multiverse, but DC was adamant that it wouldn’t return. (Despite this, they continued to publish any number of “Elseworlds” books featuring alternate versions of Superman, Batman, etc.) Then, last year, they teased with us a major crossover event called “Infinite Crisis,” which briefly revived the parallel Earths before squashing them once again into a single continuity. It struck me as another big “fuck you” to long-time readers.

Next came “52,” the just-concluded follow-up series, spread out over 52 weekly issues. While the number 52 was invoked in many ways throughout the storyline, the big reveal came this week in the final installment: for reasons I do not claim to understand, 52 parallel Earths survived the most recent squashing.

Initially exact duplicates of the primary reality, they were attacked by old-school Captain Marvel villain Mr. Mind, an alien worm who (again, for reasons that are beyond my humble comprehension) transformed himself into a universe-devouring monster. Each “bite” he took out of them somehow changed their histories, and this was the result:

Okay, it may be awfully convenient, but damn…the multiverse is back! Halle-damn-lujah! It’s twenty-two years late, but the sight of the Marvel Family on their redubbed “Earth Five” filled my heart with joy! And ironically, it was one of Cap’s old villains that made it possible.

Welcome home.

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