How Many Worlds Are Enough?

The Early Days of the Comic Book Multiverse

In the beginning, there was a universe populated by ordinary humans, and a smattering of superpowered mystery men and women. Actually, each comic book company had its own universe with super-powered persons, but they never bothered each other. For the creators and characters at DC Comics (aka National Periodicals) and their associated publisher, All-American Comics, all was well for a little over a decade, as they went so far as to have several of their characters form up into a team, called the Justice Society of America.

Justice Society of America

By 1950, interest in superhero comics had dropped sharply, enough so that DC had canceled most of their superhero books. For a few character, their final year or two of appearances was solely in All-Star Comics, as members of the Justice Society, which ended in 1951. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Green Arrow were among the few that continued to appear. After a break of four years, a new wave of heroes started to appear. J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, appeared in the pages of Detective Comics in 1955. The following year, after starting out with tales of firefighters and explorers, DC’s Showcase comic book anthology started featuring new superhero characters in short try-outs. Some of these were existing characters, some were new creations, but the first superhero featured in Showcase set the stage for a new era of superheros. Issue number 4 of Showcase featured a “new” hero called “The Flash.” The catch was, DC had already published the adventures of the Flash for nearly 10 years, throughout the 1940’s. The original was a college student (later scientist) named Jay Garrick who gained his speed from the fumes of “hard water.” This new Flash, complete with a sleek new costume, was a police forensic scientist named Barry Allen, who was struck by lightening while standing in front of shelves full of chemicals. Not really a big deal. Aside from a few enthusiastic fans who frequently wrote to DC, who would remember the older Flash, right?

Golden Age & Silver Age Flash

Then, they did it again. Almost 2 years later, Showcase featured a new Green Lantern. Instead of the tall, blonde radio broadcaster in a garish red, green, yellow and purple costume who got his power from a magical lantern, this upstart was brown-haired and swarthy, a test pilot in a skin-tight green and black uniform of the intergalactic police corps from which he received his power ring. And not a year later, a new Atom appeared, one who could actually shrink down to the size of an atom, rather than simply being a small man packing a big punch.

These new heroes were popular. They went on to star in their own books. And in 1960, t the Flash and Green Lantern joined forces with the Martian Manhunter, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman to form a new super team, the Justice League of America. The Silver Age of comic book superheroes was in full swing. Most of the audience for comic books by this time, being relatively young, had no idea there had been earlier characters named Flash, Green Lantern and Atom.

The Justice League of America

Julius Schwartz and Gardner Fox Toss a Monkey Wrench

Then, in a 1961 issue of The Flash, something strange happened. Within the story, the modern-day Flash (Barry Allen) found himself in a parallel world, in which lived a now-retired hero called the Flash, whose real name was Jay Garrick. In this story, it was revealed the Barry Allen had, as a child, read comic books featuring the first Flash. Ignoring the creepy aspects of having your whole life published in a comic book on another world, the ramifications of this revelation were huge. All of those “forgotten” comic book stories from the 1940’s could actually have happened! DC’s editorial staff was apparently caught off-guard by the popularity of this concept. The letters column (that’s how comic fans expressed themselves before the Internet) was filled with requests for more about this older Flash.

When Worlds Collide

It took nearly a year for a follow-up story to appear, and another year after that for other members of the older hero community to appear. In a 1963 issue of the Flash, the Justice Society of America appeared for the first time in 12 years. Two months later, they joined up with the younger Justice League of America for the first of what would become an annual event – a summer crossover story featuring the two teams. These stories would continue for 22 years, and would introduce several new alternate universes to form what would come to be known as the “multiverse.” It allowed for an easy explanation of conflicting stories, something that was becoming a problem in the 1960s as comicbook readers were becoming more sophisticated, and started to demand consistency and continuity in their stories.

A Tale of Two Teams

However, there were a few problems with this concept. Coming up soon: Just How Old Are Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman?

How Do You Get Your Game On?

Sorry folks, but computer-based role-playing games have never done it for me. Not that I won’t play them. I have, and I’ve even enjoyed some of them. But they are momentary diversions at best.

Break out the paper and dice! Dust off those rule books!

I was a little bit late to the D&D party. A friend and I tried for 2 years in high school, to find out about this mysterious new game. We took a bus ride from the suburbs into the city to the local “science fiction book shop” and bought a copy of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook. Then we spent the next couple of weeks, swapping off, reading through it, trying to figure out how to play the game. And failing. We found out, right about the time we graduated, that a friend of ours had a weekly D&D game running at his house. Who knew? Those were the days when “geek” was most definitely not chic, and you didn’t publicize your interest in things like the “evil” Dungeons and Dragons. It wasn’t until a year after I graduated high school, and my friend was home on leave from the military, that I actually had a chance to play the game. He’d found a group at his duty station, and learned the game. Once I got to see how it was actually played, I was hooked.

The original AD&D Player's Handbook

What is it about this type of game that appeals to me? It’s the unlimited choices, the ability to define how your character acts and reacts to every situation. You can try things that no videogame designer ever anticipated, and a good game master can just go with it. I’ve dropped anvils on castle towers, I’ve smacked unruly merchants with sledgehammers, I’ve forced evil knights to undress with a single word, all because a game master was flexible enough to let my character act as I saw fit. You can’t do that in a videogame.

Over the past 35 years, I’ve taken a couple of breaks from gaming. But I’ve never gotten rid of my books, and I’m always hopeful of finding some folks interested in playing. I’ve branched out, trying other games such as Toon, Paranoia and my favorite, the long-gone Lords of Creation from Avalon Hill. Different settings, as well as attempts at simplifying some of the game mechanics, made these games appealing to me and to others. I have played the successor to AD&D’s popular 3rd edition rules, the Pathfinder system, and I like it, but it is extremely complex. This has been, in my opinion, a weakness for role-playing games from the early days. The games are great, but there’s a steep learning curve for them. And I’d like to do something about that.

Stick around. In the weeks to come, I’ll talk more about my proposed solution.

Toon, Lords of Creation & Paranoia

So, What’s It All About?

Wow, another geek culture blog. Ho, hum. That's what, number twelve thousand?

Okay, maybe it's not quite that bad, but yes, there are a lot of them out here on the Internet. And that's a good thing. Thirty years ago, if you were a nerd or a geek, you had to hunt high and low to find your fellows. If you were a college student and very lucky, you had a gaming club on campus. I was an early (can't quite claim founding) member of the Rochester Wargamer's Association and Guild (RWAG) at Rochester Institute of Technology, back in 1984-85. I'm happy to see that they are still around three decades later. The same was true for comic book fans, science fiction/fantasy enthusiasts, and re-enactors. There have been groups around for these interests, but they were hard to find and, let's face it, most people thought we were a bit odd.

Now, things are different. We're everywhere. And why not? After all, some would say it was the geeks who brought us the World Wide Web and social media. Geek has gone mainstream, and you can see its effects everywhere from television and movies, to the clothing on the racks at the stores, from the explosion of cons to the naming of babies. Geek culture is going strong and apparently here to stay.

So, why another geek blog? Because everyone gets their geek on in a different way. My interests aren't necessarily the same as the geek next door. But there will be some commonality. My main interests are comic books (particularly DC comics, mostly up through the mid 1980's), role-playing games in the tradition of Dungeons and Dragons, medieval re-enactment, and science fiction/fantasy novels. Not to say I won’t talk about other topics, but those are my core interests. And like my medieval persona, I’m a bit of an anachronism. My interests lie in my youth: old comics, old-school gaming, and the classic stories. And that’s what I want to talk about here. More to the point, that’s what I want others to talk about here. I want this blog to be an open community for geeks to talk about their interests. I’ll be posting links to other blogs and articles that interest me, as well as pontificating on my interests. I hope you’ll join in.

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