The concept of parallel universes may sound like dorm room stoner talk, or a Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown book, but casual comic book fans have recognized it as a bedrock of the DC Universe for decades. Hatched in the 1960s as an easy way to explain why the Flash and Green Lantern of the sci-fi Silver Age were radically different from their original Golden Age predecessors, parallel universes have been a regular theme running throughout writer Grant Morrison’s work with the company, stretching back to his first ongoing DC writing assignment — 1988’s Animal Man. Morrison’s newest miniseries, Multiversity, is his first serious attempt to catalogue the shape of DC’s sprawling realities at length, exploring several different worlds within the DC multiverse over the course of its eight oversized issues.
“It’s a really primal kind of thing, you know,” Morrison says about the enduring power of the concept. “When I was a kid I loved the Flash costume, but then I saw Professor Zoom who has a yellow Flash costume, and there’s just something about that when you’re a kid and you’re using pens to color things in. I think it’s just a primal thing, seeing the variants of characters — seeing the versions of things. What would Superman be like if he were a vampire, or Batman be like if he were a werewolf. We’re so familiar with these archetypes and these characters that just giving them a little twist seems to be one of the basic thrills of comic books. The whole idea of the ‘road not taken’. We’ve often thought of alternative versions of our own lives, so I think people like to read about these characters having alternative lives and taking different paths and making different choices.”
Multiversity was announced in 2009, originally scheduled to debut before DC’s continuity-wiping reboot in 2011. As Morrison worked on the scripts, though, the project expanded beyond a travelogue of the 52 different universes that currently exist within DC’s superhero line. Even if he knew he couldn’t include every universe at length in the series, he had to know what set each one apart and how they related to one another. The Scottish scribe created a map of the multiverse, which was released to convention visitors at last month’s San Diego Comic-Con. Morrison also wrote a detailed concordance that keeps track of the signifying nature and major characters of each universe. Excerpts will be published in each issue of Multiversity, providing DC readers with reference material for these new pocket cosmos.
“Initially it was just going to be a bunch of comics, each set in a different parallel universe. All came with different types of storytelling, just like as a kind of exercise,” Morrison says. “But then I decided I had to tie them together somehow. I wanted the series to work as a whole, as well as parts. Once I started working on the bookends, it determined how big of a story [it’d be], and that’s when I needed maps and I needed the concordance. I needed to know where everybody lived and where everyone came from. I was creating the framing device when this thing got really big for me.”
Morrison wasn’t building these universes simply for the story told in Multiversity, though. Ideally, these ideas will inspire DC stories for years to come. “We tried to make all of them interesting,” he says, noting that “the steampunk cowboy world or the Nazi world of Earth-10 have really great potential for a long-running series. Everything that we did, we tried to make sure that it would all work, but those two I’d certianly like to see somebody try. And even the pulp stuff or the universe with the bored children of superheroes would make a great series as well.”
Openly inspired by super string theory, which strives to find a scientific explanation for the very nature of existence, Multiversity is the latest step in Morrison’s mission to define the relationship between DC’s universe and our own, between superheroes and the real people who read and watch their exploits. These are ideas he’s revisited repeatedly since first introducing them in Animal Man, touching upon them in the Flex Mentallo miniseries, the tiered Seven Soldiers project and in his classic All Star Superman work with artist Frank Quitely.
“The DC universe exists within our own universe,” he explains. “The map is actually showing you where I think the DC universe is, which is a two dimensional playground. The ground of being of the DC Universe is the white page before anything’s drawn on it. And then the white page suddenly uses its pristine unselfconsciousness and suddenly realizes, oh my god, somebody’s put a mark on me. What does the mark mean? The mark can mean any story, and suddenly this gigantic consciousness starts to imagine what stories would be like, and it sets up a barrier to protect itself from all this. The map of the multiverse is almost like a Buddhist map of the cosmos.”
“For the DC universe, it’s quite simple,” he continues. “You don’t need grand theories. The universe exists on the second dimension and we can read their adventures with Superman going back to 1938, and you can put them all together and look at them from above. We can line up the future Superman with the original Superman and they can see each other, but we can see both of them. For me, all of the interesting stuff, this super string stuff, is happening between me and the same dimension as this material.”
Superheroes might inspire and excite us, but our act of reading directly impacts them, even if they’re fictional characters. Essentially, it’s the uncertainty principle as applied to comic books. Morrison promises that Multiversity will implicate the reader in a way that no other work ever has. He blanches at the conceit of the “fourth wall”, though.
“There is no fourth wall between us and the substance of the comics page where all these things happen,” he says. “It might just be ink and color and people’s work, but when we read it, it comes to life. I’m interested in what goes on in that space. It’s not about breaking the fourth wall: it’s about how there’s no barrier, and the comic’s really about that. It gets deeper than any previous comic, and it does so in quite a frightening way. I want people to have a genuinely weird experience with this one.”
When discussing the power a comic book can have over a reader — how superheroes can inspire us and how foolish it is to strive for so-called “realistic” versions of these characters — Morrison points to a lesson from one of his most-loved works. “All Star Superman was a completely unrealistic version of Superman, and that character saves people’s lives, like real kids’ lives who didn’t commit suicide because they read the scene in All Star Superman where he saves the little girl. For me that’s how it works. I don’t need a realistic Superman who gets beaten up because no such thing will ever exist; the real Superman who does exist is made of paper, and can be a pure absolute ideal because he’s not real. He actually saves kids’ lives.”
Morrison’s ideas might sound grandiose on paper, but he articulates them modestly and with minimal pomp. He’s a comic book writer, but for Morrison “just” writing comic books means tapping into the boundless reservoir of emotional, intellectual and spiritual power found in storytelling. He’s an artist and a philosopher who works primarily with the four-color mythic totems of our collective childhood.
“You can expect the greatest superteam of the entire multiverse,” Morrison says about Multiversity. “You can expect to see a giant talking rabbit, mass universal destruction, several parallel Earths, and a Rubik’s Cube used in an usual way. You can expect a comic that talks to you and tries to hypnotize you.” You can expect, in short, a Grant Morrison comic.