Dear Patrick Willems,
It’s worse than you think. Here in our reality, DC is just fiction. That’s where we should probably leave it. To quote from MST3K, “just repeat to yourself it’s just a show (or comic) and you should really just relax.” However, this rabbit hole goes down way further than even fifty-two alternate worlds. To properly explain this it’s important to go back to September of 1961 with The Flash Of Two Worlds. Prior to this point there had been a Flash in the golden age but his origins and how he got his powers were kinda vague (something about hard water. i never understood it personally). So they rebooted Flash, changed his name and came up with explanations for his powers that were a little more grounded in reality (tho still fantastical. this is comics after all). Some still remembered the old Flash tho so Gardner Fox, Carmine Infantino, and Julius Schwartz decided to tell a story that explained what happened to the old Flash without making him a part of the present continuity. Long story short: The Many Worlds Theory in Quantum Mechanics was introduced into the DC Universe. There were now two universes, one where the present day stories of the 1960s were being told, and one where the stories of the 1940s had been told. Flash of Two Worlds proved to be a popular story with fans, and it allowed stories to be written about the “golden age” of comic book characters without upsetting what came to be known as the “silver age” of comic book continuity in DC. Soon after this the Justice League comic book had “Crisis on Two Earths” which introduced the idea of a third Earth, home to villainous equivalents of DC’s beloved characters. Over the years many writers hopped on board this train and it went barreling down the track at breakneck speed for twenty five years, creating alternate versions of worlds from Earth S (Shazam universe) to Earth C (Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew). It was a lot of fun but also totally insane. It was difficult to get new readers interested in what was going on because explaining it became such a chore. The editors in the mid 1980s decided to try to streamline everything and Crisis on Infinite Earths was born. April of 1985 witnessed Marv Wolfman tackling the problem head on by trying to take all these alternate realities and coalesce them after a tragic story in which countless worlds died, and only one remained. In this new reality, Superman was not one of the first superheroes who had been around since the 1930s or the 1960s. Now Superman was a product of the 1980s, but he was one of the last of his kind and young Clark Kent’s origins were now obscured by a backdrop of countless other lesser heroes that came before him.
What happened to all these other universes? Well it was believed they had been gobbled up by The Anti-Monitor, never to be seen again. Problem was, continuity glitches reared their ugly heads again, so there must be more than one universe. The editorship changed soon after Crisis on Infinite Earths came and went, and each new editorial group tried in their own way to tackle the maelstrom of DC’s inconsistent continuity. Infinite Crisis gave way to Flashpoint and on and on. The New 52. All that. For a time it was explained there were alternate realities but that they were finite. Use of the number 52 was often used as an inside joke that I don’t personally get, but after awhile even that large of a number was not enough to house the maelstrom, and even the most recent efforts of DC utilizing the Watchmen series in some fashion just seems to be adding more bandaids to a severed limb.
What’s evident is laid out before us. Take any comic book in your possession and flip through the pages. Look at each panel. What do you see? They are windows. Static glimpses into a fantastical realm of the imagination where heroes and villains fight for what they believe in, for better or for worse, and then maybe occasionally go get a cup of coffee at Jitters. We assume all these glimpses are into the same world, and tell a cohesive story that is linear and narrative consistent. If a panel on page four of issue seventeen contradicts something on page twelve of issue three hundred and seven, we demand a rational explanation, but what if these two panels are glimpses into slightly alternate realities? Alternate realities in which most of the things that matter for purposes of the storytelling are the same, but slight variations are revealed upon close examination, because these panels – these windows into other worlds, are not looking into the same world.
Infinity is a funny thing. You can take a whole number, take one one hundredth from it, and then follow the decimal places to an infinity of .999…s and you’ve found another infinity inside the previous infinity. And then you can divide that infinity in half and now you have two more infinities. And so on. That’s math. You can say Anti-Monitor gobbled up an infinity of DC universes that were available to him at that time, but perhaps that’s just exaggeration, and The Anti-Monitor was only able to gobble up the ones he could see from his near godlike vantage point? Maybe he only got to gobble up fifty-two alternate realities and he just told his enemies he had swallowed them all until there were only five, and then three, and then one, and then fifty-two..? He divided by the decimal point, and gobbled up that infinity. Maybe he found more than one of those infinities but he had to stop eventually to fight everyone trying to stop him. Whether Anti-Monitor only gobbled up the realities we saw blink out of existence in the windows revealed to us by George Perez’s pencils, or he got to eat several more off panel, in the years since it’s been revealed he didn’t get to finish. He simply bit off more than he could chew.
And now.. When you look in your comic book, what’s looking back at you are many different alternate realities, like flash cards each representing different realms. They look almost the same, but what’s off panel could be revealing if we could only reach in and look around with a neck like Plastic Man. Maybe Belly Burger is the food chain everyone knows about in the first panel on that page, but perhaps in that second panel Burger King is king, and then in the third panel just out of your view, it’s a world where there’s a frog leg chain that many prefer over either Belly Burger or Burger King. Perhaps in the fourth panel it’s an alternate reality in which burgers have been banned by the federal government, but that little detail isn’t important in the telling of the story you’re currently reading about, so you’re oblivious to how each of these panels is a glimpse into another of infinitely infinite numbers of fifty-two alternate realities coexisting on slightly different vibrating variables: endless possibilities that only appear to have cohesion due to how they are presented to you. Perhaps in each of these endless alternate glimpses, things happen differently after that panel, or the events leading up to the next panel were slightly different in that reality. Maybe sometimes it’s more than slightly different, but it’s all the same to you because you’re not shown that. You’re left to presume each comic book is a glimpse into the same world. Truth is every time a creative team changes, so does that infinite of worldview possibilities, and then there’s infinite numbers of other variables in real life and fantasy that change things from one issue to the next, one panel to the next, perhaps even one stroke of a pen. Maybe sometimes panels reveal to us many alternate realities at the same time, cobbled together like a strange collage or mosaic.
It can drive a man absolutely insane, if you look into the abyss too long. It starts looking back. So just repeat to yourself it’s just a comic book. None of this is real. You should really just relax. Have some coffee.