The Old Gray Geek

How Many Worlds Are Enough?

Written on January 25, 2017   By   in Comics

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?

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