If you've found DC Comics hard to understand over the past year, chances are it's because of the multiverse. DC used to have tons of alternate universes, but they collapsed into one nice, tidy universe in 1985. Until last year, when suddenly DC had 52 different realities to play with again. I decided to hound DC super-editor Dan Didio for an explanation as to why DC's writers and editors are so obsessed with alternate timelines. Here's what he said the second and third times I asked him, plus some info on multiverses in science fiction.
Physicists disagree violently as to whether more than one version of our universe may exist. The usual fantasy of alternate universes comes from shows like Star Trek or Doctor Who, where you visit another universe and everything's the same except evil, and with more eyepatches or different facial hair. Here's the evil Worf from an alternate universe enjoying some fun leash-play with Garak, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
DC's current weekly comic, Countdown to Final Crisis, featured a long backup feature called "History Of The Multiverse," in which a group of identical men with weird hair tried to summarize every comic in which someone had visited an alternate universe.
For some reason, in DC Comics, the only people who are different in the alternate universes are superheroes, so that Batman is married and has kids, or is a pirate, or was around during World War II. We never see an ordinary person who has different versions in different universes, except maybe for the mail-carrier who starred in that weird crossover between the Milestone and DC universes in the 1990s.
So I was super curious to hear what DiDio, who masterminded the return of the multiverse, would say about its appeal. Is there a philosophical background to the obsession with seeing how things could have turned out differently? The first time I asked DiDio, at the DC Nation panel, he said "Good question" and then didn't really answer. I pressed him a bit more, and here's what he said:
The DC Universe has been built on the multiverse concept. We wanted to bring it back to show the strength of that concept and the multiple interpretations of the characters. And now we're going to focus on the current universe and the current versions of the characters.
Mike Carlin added that Julius Schwartz, DC's super-editor from the 1960s to the 1980s, originated the idea of multiple universes, with increasingly complicated and bizarre meetings of different versions of Earth. (Including one in which a DC Comics writer crosses over from "our" Earth to the comic-book Earth, and becomes a supervillain.) DiDio added that a lot of DC's current writers grew up reading those multiverse stories, and had a lot of affection for them. The writers really wanted to explore that nostalgic territory, so DiDio let them.
These answers made sense (especially the part about nostalgia) but they didn't really satisfy me. I wanted to know what it was about alternate timelines that so fascinated a group of writers and editors in their thirties and forties. Was there some intrinsic appeal to the idea of being able to see how your life might have shaped up if you'd made a different set of decisions?
So I cornered DiDio in the hallway a while later, and asked him again what he thought was so intrinsically fascinating about the multiverse. This time, he said it's all about business. He hadn't wanted to give that answer on the panel, because it's boring, but it's also true. DC Comics went on an acquisition binge during the Silver Age, buying up Charlton Comics, Fawcett Comics and a host of other publishers. Because each publisher had its own stable of superhero characters (like Fawcett's Shazam), who barely fit in with the DC characters, it made more sense to pretend that each cast of characters came from a different universe. And then, as the crossovers between the different acquisitions' "universes" became more colorful, they became a fun thing in their own right. As for why DC is revisiting the idea of different universes now, it still seemed to come down to nostalgia, and trying to recharge some old properties.
I never quite got the answer I was hoping for, about the reasons why alternate universes might seem glamorous and exciting to the DC crew. But maybe if I corner Grant Morrison or Dan Jurgens next time, I'll have more luck.