At DC Comics, "multiplicity" appears to be the new black.
Whether its multiple versions of the same character, stories set on multiple earths, or comics that traverse multiple timelines, DC's line-up is becoming more and more focused on highlighting the infinite number of settings and characters that populate the DC Universe.
It's an odd turn of events for long-time DC fans, who lived through the 1985 mini-series Crisis on Infinite Earths, which eliminated the DC Multiverse in an effort to simplify the company's continuity. At that time, the goal for DC editors and writers was to streamline the… well, infinite number of earths and characters that had made DC continuity a bit of a tangled mess.
But almost 30 years later, that doesn't appear to be the case — at all.
Ever since the Multiverse returned at the end of DC's 2005-2006 weekly series 52, there's been a potential for stories set on other earths. Countdown to Final Crisis, the company's 2007-2008 weekly, took advantage of those multiple earths in its storytelling, but there wasn't much use of the concept in the years following.
That's clearly not the case anymore.
The multiverse became a big part of DC's reboot when the company introduced the Earth 2 and Worlds' Finest titles in 2012. Both stories featured characters from an alternate Earth, adding a duplicate Flash, for example, and an alternate world version of Green Lantern.
In the months since, readers have seen more and more evidence of DC's Multiverse — and its "alternate versions" of DC characters — slipping into other titles. Action Comics featured a black version of Superman, who hailed from Earth-23. The crossover event Trinity War unleashed villains from Earth-3 on the main DCU earth. And Batman/Superman featured alternate versions of characters meeting each other.
But at no time in recent DC history has the idea of alternate earths and multiple characters been quite so obvious as it is right now.
Just look at how many versions of Superman are running around in DC comics these days. Or consider how many future timelines are involved in DC's weekly series The New 52: Futures End — and they're only possible timelines, mind you.
And it's not just in DC's print comics either. In the digital-first Beyond series, characters just finished dealing with a multi-world crossover featuring the classic Justice Lords. The storyline in the Smallville comic is called "Chaos," and it has Clark going from world to world trying to prevent a “crisis” and dealing with the Monitors (complete with red skies, an orrery of worlds, and an extradimensional Darkseid that lives in all multiverses). And of course, the whole premise of Infinite Crisis is the team-up between alternate versions of DC characters to battle a threat to the Multiverse.
But perhaps the strongest evidence of DC's embracement of its universe's multiplicity is Grant Morrison's August-launching Multiversity. DC just released Morrison's mind-bending map of the Multiverse, and the creator admitted the comic's concepts would "f*ck people up."
It all serves as evidence that we're in the midst of a trend toward stories that embrace what Morrison himself calls "the prismatic world of DC."
That word, "prismatic," has also been used in recent years to describe a much bigger — and even older than the New 52 — movement in superhero comics. Back in 2008, a blog post on the Mindless Ones website suggested that the title "Prismatic Age" would be a fitting descriptor for the latest era of comics. "The ideology of the Prismatic Age, what it insistently moves toward, is that all parts are active, all of the time," writer Duncan Falconer said.
Yet Falconer estimated that the "Prismatic Age" was "drawing to its close" — a supposition that most pundits would have enthusiastically supported at the time, and perhaps even more when DC rebooted its entire comics line three years later. With the "New 52" relaunch and renumbering of DC titles, the publisher looked to be moving back to basics, as they eliminated redundant characters and shortened the history of their now-younger superheroes to a mere five or six years.
When Marvel began similarly relaunching titles and de-aging characters over the next couple years, it was starting to look like the next trend in superhero comics and shared universes would be to simplify things for readers — to stick with easily understandable icons and move away from comic's more complex ideas, like criss-crossing timelines and alternate earths.
Three years after the New 52 reboot, however, nothing could be further from the truth — and eliminating continuity doesn't seem to have been the primary motivation for DC's move anyway.
Newsarama readers frequently comment that DC's relaunch was supposed to simplify continuity and eliminate the confusion that must certainly come from multiple versions of characters with different histories. Yet when the September 2011 relaunch was happening, DC was already planning to publish a comic set on Earth-2, with alternate versions of Green Lantern, The Flash and other characters.
An examination of pre-New 52 interviews also reveals that executives didn't name continuity clean-up as a motivator for the relaunch. Instead, their reasoning focused on the erosion of the print comics audience — hoping to reverse the negative sales trend by making DC characters and stories more modern, relevant and exciting.
The drive for "excitement" is still cited as a key factor in DC's current push toward stories that highlight the "prismatic" elements of the DC Universe. DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio was using the same language in February when he explained to Newsarama why DC was planning to publish three concurrent weeklies, set on multiple earths, and set during multiple timelines.
"Quite honestly, we felt, even between ourselves and other companies, it seems like the excitement is quieting down again, across the industry," DiDio said. "So we feel like it's time to crank it back up again and start to remind people about the big, bold and just craziness that we can bring to comics, that makes our storytelling so unique and exciting."
But readers often ask the question, does the "craziness" that DiDio wants to highlight attract new readers? Wouldn't the Multiverse — its different versions of Superman and strange costumes for Batman — actually confuse newbies?
Maybe not. Stories like The Dark Knight Returns and Kingdom Come, which both feature alternate versions of characters and variations on character costumes, are often cited by current comic book fans as stories that got them the most interested in the DCU.
In recent years, video games have found success with the Multiverse aspects of DC characters, such as Arkham Asylum's variant costumes for Batman, or the aforementioned Multiverse-hopping Infinite Crisis game.
Concurrently, mainstream media has been cultivating the public's understanding of what an alternate universe or timeline is, in TV series like Lost and Fringe, or even the rebooting of movie universes, like with the Batman and Spider-Man franchises, or the creation of an alternate timeline in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
According to Grant Morrison's recent interview with Comics Alliance (in which he uses "prismatic" to describe Multiversity), the writer believes new readers are the ones who will specifically enjoy the world-hopping comic.
"This one is for people who’ve never read DC before," he said of Multiversity, "but want to get into this gigantic maelstrom of characters and versions of characters; the prismatic world of DC."
But perhaps the biggest evidence of DC's commitment to timeline- and earth-hopping stories will come in April 2015, when many fans are expecting DC to launch a "Crisis"-type event (maybe even a reboot or reconfiguring of its line that incorporates even more universes?).
With all of DC's weeklies wrapping up in March 2015, and most of its storylines looking like they're also finishing that month, all eyes are on April — which just so happens to be the 30th anniversary of DC's 1985 mini-series Crisis on Infinite Earths. With DC Digital doing its many "Crisis"-focused stories, and many of DC's print comics existing in multiple earths and timelines, it does feel like the "prismatic" nature of the DCU could move even closer to center stage come April.