clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A beginner's guide to DC Comics's multiverse

DC's Multiversity #1
DC's Multiversity #1
DC Comics
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

With Marvel dominating the box office and launching crass, anthropomorphic raccoons to superstardom, most people with an eye on comics are wondering what its chief rival DC is up to. And DC faces so many questions. Who's going to be in the Batman vs. Superman movie? How is it treating its gay characters? How is it treating its female characters?

All of these questions point to a concern that the home of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman might be kicking rocks while Marvel produces hit after hit. But DC has a trick up its sleeve.

The comics giant's Multiversity — a comic eight years in the making, that's as much superhero action as it is quantum theory — is, according to critics, easily one of the best stories to come out of comics in the past year — and also one of the most confusing.

Here, then, is a basic primer on the textual acid trip that is DC's and Grant Morrison's Multiversity and the DC Multiverse in general:

What is the DC Multiverse? What is the Multiversity?

When people talk about the multiverse, they're referring to a theory that multiple universes exist and that most of these are parallel or hidden universes that we just don't know about. There's an ongoing debate as to whether or not this could be true.

The theory of other universes is also played out in entertainment — frequently in the sci-fi genre. This is particularly true for DC Comics. Multiversity, an eight-issue — six one-shot comics, and two bookends — miniseries by creator Grant Morrison examines these parallel universes in the DC Comics world.

In DC's Multiverse, 52 Earths, all occupying the same space, are separated because they vibrate at different frequencies. Each one of these planets has its own set of heroes and villains. This summer, during Comic-Con, DC gave out maps detailing exactly how the Multiverse is laid out:


Click to enlarge (DC Comics)

That's overwhelming.

It's meant to be. Creator Grant Morrison has been talking about DC's Multiverse and the Multiversity comic since 2009DC Comics says it's been eight years in the making. Both have put plenty of work into illustrating how these worlds are connected to one another.

Back in 2009, Morrison said Multiversity was only going to look at seven worlds. Since then, that number has nearly octupled. In order to keep your brain in your skull, DC released this explanatory video:

How are these worlds different?


The different Earths in DC's Multiverse feature twists on the stories and heroes we're used to.

For example, on Earth-23 (right), Superman is president, and major heroes like Wonder Woman and Green Lantern are black. Earth-7 is a ravaged war zone where all superheroes are dead. And Earth-10 is a world where the Axis powers won WWII, and Superman's insignia is a swastika.

And there are worlds in the multiverse that haven't even been revealed yet.

Why does it matter?

DC is banking on the comic to help bring some clarity to what's going on in its comics universe now. It's supposed to show who the gods are that Wonder Woman prays to, where inter-dimensional travelers come from, and where cosmic beings live.

Most of all, it gives DC a chance to build out its world. Multiversity opens up the door to new heroes, new stories, and the possibility of new comics for DC to pursue. And it's been a huge success. According to Bleeding Cool, it was the top-selling comic the week it was released.

This is also a story that doesn't focus on DC's big three — Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman — as we know them (though there are variations of these characters on different worlds). These three superheroes drive DC's comics and have mainstream recognition, much like The Avengers and X-Men drive Marvel's popularity. By focusing on characters other than the big three, DC is making a bid to expand its pool of big names.

What's most impressive is that Multiversity is something more conceptual than a rock 'em, sock 'em comic book. There's something bigger going on, and Morrison is mixing philosophy and theory in equal parts with action and adventure. One of the themes he's playing with is the consumption of comic books, comic readers, and our relationship to fiction:


(DC comics)

The meta-reading of this panel is that Morrison is showing how comics reflect stories from different world. That different world is, of course, someone's reality. And it wouldn't be a stretch to think that he could be commenting on how authors and creators take real-world stories and conflicts and put them and their perspectives on the pages of comic books. He's no stranger to this. During his late '80s/early '90s run on the comic Animal Man, Morrison built his values of animal rights and vegetarianism into the comic.

If you want to get weirder, Morrison could be making a point that imagination is really just a gateway to a different world. That different world could be something we have total control or zero control over.

Morrison also plays with breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly at various points. What Morrison is doing is not unlike what Steve Gerber did with Howard the Duck in the 1970s. Those issues featured commentary on comics, the comics industry, and even subtle jabs at Marvel. Morrison is tapping into that same counter-culture vibe.

In this panel from Multiversity #1, he riffs on Marvel's Reed Richards, the leader of the Fantastic Four, and super villain Dr. Doom (Morrison has worked for both Marvel and DC, and has even written for the Fantastic Four characters):


(DC Comics)

What's the deal with Grant Morrison?

Morrison is one of the premier comic creators and writers in the industry. He's known for his work on X-Men, particularly for turning antihero Emma Frost into one of Marvel's iconic characters. He's also known for his runs on DC Comics like Swamp Thing, Batman, Doom Patrol, and the aforementioned Animal Man.

On his Multiverse work, it's easy to notice his philosophy on comics and superheroes. Morrison put his view of the modern-day superhero and the 75 years it took to get to this point into words in his book Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human (2011).

"We can fly across the Atlantic in hours, access any information instantaneously, see the world from space or zoom in on our own rooftops, like Superman home from a mission," Morrison wrote. "We have online secret identities, other lives, missions. Everyone is special; everyone is a superhero now."

This is definitely a shift that's been happening. Superheroes, as comic writers have depicted them, have shifted from being fantastical creatures, to flawed outsiders, to regular folk like the characters of Kick-Ass, and now back to surrealism. But where do superheroes go from here?

Morrison believes the next step is changing reality, and living out our own stories. His example is his own life and how superheroes taught him morality, gave him a career, and inspired him.

"By offering role models whose heroism and transcendent qualities would once have been haloed and clothed in floaty robes, they nurtured in me a sense of the cosmic and ineffable that the turgid, dogmatically stupid 'dad' religions could never match," he writes. "Words can electrify us or make our blood run cold. And the idea of Superman is every bit as real as the idea of God."

Morrison believes that the next step, is tapping into this powerful potential. With our technology and advancements, he argues that we are flanked by evidence that we live out our own stories. If that's the case, then we're in control of our own futures, and superheroes — who have reflected history's biggest travesties and victories — can be a way to write new ones for ourselves:

The superheroes, who were champions of the oppressed when we needed them to be, patriots when we needed them to be, pioneers, rebels, conformists, or rock stars when we needed them to be, are now obligingly battering down the walls between reality and fiction before our very eyes.

There are echoes of this passage in Multiversity, where readers are turned into the ultimate heroes and entrusted to keep the universe safe:


(DC Comics)

At it's core, Multiversity is an embodiment of Morrison's superhero theorem wrapped in a vivid and entertaining comic book. It's a culmination of many years of work, yes, but it's also a culmination of lessons and philosophical tenets that Morrison has spent his life obtaining.

That's kinda deep. 

Yeah. But don't mistake deep for lacking silly or funny, because there's plenty of that.


DC Comics

How do I get started? Do I need to read anything else beforehand?

No. Being familiar with Morrison's work lends itself to some Easter eggs and inside jokes, but so far, Multiversity is operating with new characters and a storyline that works well on its own. DC has also picked out specific comics that Morrison pulled storylines from, if you are the studious type.

Multiversity #1 came out last month and is available in stores or online. The next part of the series, The Multiversity: The Society of Super-Heroes: Conquerors of the Counter-World #1, comes out on September 17. The series will wrap up next year.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.