Doctor Strange 2: The Origin of the Multiverse in Superhero Comics

In just a matter of days, movie fans will be treated to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the latest entry within the ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe. As the title alludes, the film will follow Stephen Strange / Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) on a wild and dire journey throughout the Marvel multiverse, which will envelop both new and familiar characters. The nature of the multiverse fully being integrated into the MCU has interested fans for years, after several years' worth of narrative fakeouts and an eventual introduction of it in the Loki Disney+ series and Spider-Man: No Way Home. With Multiverse of Madness, the concept will fully be brought to the big screen — and will be adding to a surprising tapestry of how it has existed within the world of mainstream superhero comics.

The first instances of alternate realities and the characters between them crossing over occurred in the DC Comics during the Golden Age. 1953's Wonder Woman #59 provided the first prominent instance of a parallel reality, when Wonder Woman crossed paths with a nearly-identical version of herself whose world was ruled by the villainous Duke Dazam. After superhero comics faded out of popularity for several years in the early 1950s, DC, under the direction of editor Julius Schwartz and editor Gardner Fox, decided to reintroduce and reboot many of its previous superhero titles. This began with a new version of The Flash in 1956, and eventually encompassed similar versions of existing characters (Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman), as well as entirely new heroes taking on existing mantles (Green Lantern, The Atom). As these new characters were introduced, fans lamented at the erasure of the previous Golden Age counterparts, who had unceremoniously faded into obscurity at the end of the original era.

Enter "Flash of Two Worlds," a 1961 The Flash story penned by Fox with art by Carmine Infantino, which chronicled a meeting between the Golden Age and Silver Age incarnations of The Flash, Jay Garrick and Barry Allen. To explain why the two had not met previously, it was established that Barry previously believed Jay and his counterparts were fictional characters in comic books, and that their universes could only cross over if they were vibrating at the right frequency.

"I allowed Barry Allen to pass into the alternate reality that he thought of as a fictional world by vibrating at superspeed, thus allowing his molecules to pass into the alternate reality that encompassed the same space as our world (remember: I studied physics in college) and actually meet and team up with Jay Garrick," Schwartz writes in his 2000 biography Man of Two Worlds: My Life in Science Fiction and Comics. "This established a comics precedent of having a character from one universe interact with a character from another universe, the ultimate in crossovers since it was basically Flash meets Flash."

As Infantino puts it, the idea of "Flash of Two Worlds" — and by extension, essentially the multiverse beginning in superhero comics — occurred when he was literally trying to stump Schwartz.

"I'd do a cover, and dammit, they'd write the story around it, so I was getting very upset by this, so I said, 'I'll fix you,'" Infantino told NerdTeam30 in 2007. "I did a cover with some guy in the foreground and two Flashes running up, he's saying, 'Help!' and they're both saying, 'I'm coming!' So I put it on his desk and I said, 'Here. Solve this!' and I walked out. By the time I got home my phone rang. He said, 'We got it solved. I went through hell.' I couldn't believe it. It was a great story, a terrific story."

Just a year later, Marvel Comics (who did not begin to have a prominent superhero output until the Silver Age) began to toy with the idea of alternate universes, when Johnny Storm visited the Fifth Dimension in 1962's Strange Tales #103. DC, meanwhile, took the success of "Flash of Two Worlds" even further, by having the Golden Age heroes of the Justice Society of America and the Silver Age heroes of the Justice League of America cross over in adventures every year, and designating that the heroes hailed from (respectively) Earth-2 and Earth-1. This string of crossovers not only showcased even more of the DC multiverse (including additional worlds), but created the opportunity for some meaningful character moments, such as Golden Age heroine Black Canary moving from Earth-2 to Earth-1 following the death of her husband in 1969.

On the Marvel side, the 1960s saw Doctor Strange have his first brush with the multiverse, when he fought Dormammu in the Dark Dimension in Strange Tales #126. The decade also featured more of the Fantastic Four dealing with dilemmas in alternate dimensions, culminating in the group specifically seeking out multiverse travel and getting lost in the deadly Negative Zone in 1968's Fantastic Four Annual #6. By the end of the decade, Marvel's Avengers crossed paths with their first prominent alternate Earth, when they met the Squadron Sinister (an analogue for DC's Justice League) in 1969's The Avengers #69.

By the middle of the 1970s, both companies had wholeheartedly embraced the concept of the multiverse, with Marvel introducing elements such as the Microverse, as well as the alternate reality-spanning series What If? In 1977. Early issues of What If? were the first to properly use the term "multiverse" within Marvel canon, with editor Mark Gruenwald (who was a diehard fan of both Marvel and DC) expressing a desire for comics to eventually be within an "omniverse", which would have encompassed not only the respective fictional universes, but potentially all of fiction, and even the real world. DC, meanwhile, made an effort to concurrently publish more stories featuring its Earth-2 heroes, as well as characters they later acquired from the Fawcett and Quality Comics publications (which resided on Earth-S and Earth-X, respectively).

A key element of Marvel's multiverse would be properly coined in Daredevils #7, a 1983 story that established Captain Britain and the Captain Britain Corps. That story confirmed that the main Marvel universe was dubbed "Earth-616", a classification still used to this day. The term was originally coined by previous Captain Britain writer David Thorpe, who came up with the number through numerology, and was later properly integrated into the Marvel universe when Captain Britain joined Excalibur in the late 1980s.

The last key puzzle piece in establishing the mainstream superhero multiverse would occur in 1985, when DC was aiming to create a landmark crossover event in honor of their 50th anniversary. The event, which would eventually become Marv Wolfman and George Perez's Crisis on Infinite Earths, sought not only to celebrate the many characters and stories under DC's arsenal, but to also streamline the continuity problems that had manifested with introducing the multiverse. Crisis would follow the wide number of heroes and villains in a fight against the Anti-Monitor, an omnipotent cosmic being whose origin was tied to the creation of DC's multiverse, and who sought to destroy all Earths within the multiverse by turning them into antimatter. Through twelve climactic issues, this then saw the entire multiverse be destroyed except for Earth-1, Earth-2, Earth-4, Earth-5, and Earth-X, all of which were eventually reformed into a single new Earth. While filled with destruction and some key character deaths, Crisis remained a profound showcase of what the DC multiverse had to offer — and proved that it was as easy to remix or take away parts of a superhero multiverse as it was to establish it.

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In the decades post-Crisis, both Marvel and DC have used the concept of the multiverse in some wildly different ways, ranging from massive, publisher-wide changes to smaller character moments. Both have created event titles that took the multiverse into an even more grandiose and metaphysical territory (Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis for DC, and Secret Wars for Marvel), and both have used the idea of parallel universes to justify controversial line-wide reboots (the Ultimate Universe for Marvel, and the New 52 for DC), with the parameters and specifics of each multiverse's existence changing along the way. The two publishers have even used the multiverse to cross their characters over several times, including in the beloved JLA/Avengers miniseries of the early 2000s. And while DC's live-action properties have played within the multiverse in recent years, most notably in a television adaptation of Crisis and in the upcoming The Flash movie, Multiverse of Madness will be the biggest instance yet of Marvel using the trope in live-action — and hopefully, it won't be the last.

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