This week I’m taking a break from the successors (and next week will be DC solicits, so heads up) to yap about the revival of DC’s Multiverse.
With the end of Matt Wagner’s “Dark Moon Rising” miniseries, and the start of Jeff Smith’s Shazam! miniseries, it seems appropriate to consider a creator’s influence on a franchise over the long term. Today, on an ostensibly monthly basis, we have the Grant Morrison Batman and the Paul Dini Batman. They’re a response to the past twenty years or so, when the template came from Frank Miller; and before that from Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams. Across the hall now there’s a Grant Morrison Superman to go along with a Kurt Busiek Superman, but Christopher Reeve still makes a pretty big impression. Arguably as influential have been George Pérez on Wonder Woman, O’Neil/Adams on Green Lantern and (with Elliot S! Maggin) Green Arrow, Alan Moore on Swamp Thing, etc. Indeed, we can argue about the particulars, but by and large, the maintenance of most DC and Marvel characters involves some sort of homage, conscious or not, to other creators.
In this respect, Marvel had it easy, because its early characters were pretty much the products of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and/or Steve Ditko. Stan wrote everyone’s dialogue, so when Spidey visited the Fantastic Four, he still sounded the same. By contrast, Julius Schwartz initially had to fight Jack Schiff and Mort Weisinger for the use of Batman and Superman in the Justice League. Later, when Kirby wrote and drew Jimmy Olsen, Jimmy’s and Superman’s heads were re-drawn to be consistent with the other Superman titles. The Fourth World characters would always be Kirby’s, but there wasn’t going to be a “Kirby Superman.”
Part of the appeal of “One Year Later” was the notion that these disparate books and their respective creators would be allowed to carve out their own little areas of influence within, and thereby impose particular styles upon, the larger DC landscape. I don’t mean just in terms of geography, although the Ivy Town of The All-New Atom and the undersea world of Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis have done their best to distinguish their environments. Instead, I’m talking about bringing a real sense of identity to these characters, so it becomes a big deal for them to interact: for example, a Joe Shuster Superman next to a Bob Kane Batman and an H.G. Peter Wonder Woman. Such an approach wouldn’t smooth out the characters’ differences, but acknowledge them in the service of the story. Heck, the Justice Society started out precisely this way, with the characters’ solo-book artists drawing their particular parts of the team stories. Today the Justice League is the all-star title, so it should showcase the superhero line’s diversity. That might make the marketing a bit too obvious, but what are crossovers anyway if not marketing stunts at heart?
I doubt that DC will adopt this somewhat patchwork approach for its superhero titles, but it could certainly work for multiversal stories. The revived Multiverse will certainly have at its center the current DC-Earth, so the issue then becomes how different to make the alternates. While I’d like to see some “What If?”-style parallel worlds, I’d also hope for recognizably different environments too, like the funny animals of Earth-C or the whimsy of Earth-S. The new Earth-2, or its equivalent, shouldn’t just be “the one where Flash wears a hat.” In fact, the new Multiverse should take its cue from the excellent World’s Funnest, in which the all-powerful Bat-Mite and Mr. Mxyzptlk wreak havoc across various planes of DC reality (and across a myriad of writing and art styles, of course).
Moreover, DC should use its rediscovered Multiverse to explore its characters’ pasts and futures. The rules for the old multiversal disparities were never really nailed down, but the lead story from Detective Comics #500 postulated that every twenty years, an heroic cycle starts to repeat itself. That story had the Batman and Robin of Earth-1 travel to an alternate Earth with no other superheroic tendencies, just before that Earth’s Wayne family made their fateful trip to the movies. With the current titles seemingly stuck around Year Thirteen, a new cycle — or better yet, a look at the Year Five or Year Six of a cycle — would be nice to observe. Yes, this could be a roundabout way of giving DC an Ultimate line, but I’d rather see a revival of Legends of the DC Universe. Legends of the Multiverse would give us more adventures on Earth-D, or with the Victorian Batman, or the “Nail” universe, and every Annual could be a crossover with the main Earth, or just an 80-Page Giant anthology….
I don’t think there will be wholesale relocations of characters from the main Earth. The Multiverse was around for 23 years, but the combined timeline just celebrated its 21st birthday, and will probably endure for a while longer. However, we know from the last Flash arc and JLA #0 that doppelgangers are out there. My hope is that DC will use these alternates as something more than cannon fodder, because that’s part of the point of having a Multiverse. The Batman of Earth-1 and Huntress of Earth-2 had one of the strangest “uncle/niece” relationships in comics, but it was oddly touching all the same. By showing Batman his daughter, and letting Huntress see what her father might have been like in his prime, it allowed each to experience a part of his or her own life that would otherwise be inaccessible, even through something relatively easy (for comics) like time travel.
Moreover, something like that allows for the comparing and contrasting of disparate styles. The Batman of Earth-1 apparently never had a goofy sci-fi phase, but the Batman of Earth-2 could have, and that could mean that Helena Wayne grew up in a slightly less grim and gritty household than the Earth-1 Dick Grayson did. The interaction of those different approaches (Dick Sprang vs. David Mazzucchelli!) fascinates me, and if World’s Funnest should be an example to the new Multiverse, then so certainly should the rapidly changing tones of the Planetary/Batman special.
Basically, it seems like the point of DC’s various reorganizations over the past twenty-one years has been to emphasize that There Can Be Only One version of a particular character, and that drove it away from the Multiverse in the first place. This is, in a sense, a pretty counterproductive strategy, because DC and its corporate family now rely on marketing different versions for different ages and different media, including the comics. The difference is that the Multiverse doesn’t necessarily dilute the value of a character by showing alternate versions – instead, it just allows those alternate versions to compete directly with, and thereby influence, the “main line.” A revived DC Multiverse should give its creators the freedom to exert that influence.