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Unpacking Grant Morrison’s Map of the DC Comics Multiverse

multiversity map 1000x767  Unpacking Grant Morrison’s Map of the DC Comics Multiverse

This year, San Diego Comic-Con was primarily dominated by announcements and sneak-peeks related to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC’s upcoming Dawn of Justice. But for this writer, the most exciting reveal was Grant Morrison’s map of the DC Multiverse.

This detailed, fastidiously constructed image represents over sixty years of mind-bogglingly complex DC comics continuity, as filtered through Morrison’s supergodly cerebral cortex. The map ties into Morrison’s upcoming project The Multiversity, which he describes as “a culmination of everything I’ve been doing since I came back to DC in 2003.”

The Multiversity is a nine-issue trip through the newly refashioned DC Multiverse, which has been left largely unexplored since 2011’s New 52 reboot. Seven of the nine issues will focus on one particular parallel universe, with alternate versions of DC characters and certain dimensions housing DC sub-groups like the Charlton Comics characters (from which Watchmen derived) and the Captain Marvel Family.

Interestingly, The Multiversity hits just as Marvel is busy diversifying its own cast of characters; the difference is that while Marvel’s strategy is intra-universe, DC is going back to its trademark inter-universe approach. As a result, Morrison is able to take a much more radical approach to reimagining the DC characters, similar to what he did recently with Batman (which I write at length about here!).

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What’s especially great about the map and Multiversity itself is that they simultaneously capture what’s so special yet so aggravating about DC comics. To a DC continuity junkie, this map is a visual feast, depicting the layered interlocking spheres that make up the Orrery of Worlds first introduced in Morrison’s 2008 DC crossover event Final Crisis. The vision is heavily influenced by the ancient philosophical concept of Musica Universalis, appearing throughout the millenia in the work of Pythagoras, Plato, Boethius, Kepler, and Grant Morrison himself.

Morrison diagrams a well-integrated cosmic structure, with the Rock of Eternity at the center and the entire system enclosed by Jack Kirby’s Source Wall. The map also incorporates DC concepts like The Bleed, the Speed Force Wall, the Monitor Sphere, and the duality of the The Sphere of Gods. The symmetry of the layout is gorgeous, with counterpart worlds like New Genesis and Apokolips appearing on opposite sides of the construct.

Here we have the baffling beauty of the DC Multiverse in all its cruel beauty; its belabored history and near-constant revision distilled in a manner at once intriguing and repellent in its formal intricacy. Of course, it’s this kind of convoluted overthinking is precisely what has kept new fans out for so long. Traditionally, new fans are put off by the DCU’s intimidating inaccessibility. As Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire once put it, “I hate DC, it’s too confusing to me.”

But if the density and rigor of DC continuity is what alienated a lot of readers from getting into DC, it’s also what caused a lot of fans to stick around for so long. The balancing act between streamlining the DC cosmos into an organized, navigable space while sustaining meaningful cross-title continuity has been a tortured and fascinating destroy-and-rebuild process spanning decades.

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The DC Multiverse was born in September of 1961, with a story by Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino called “The Flash of Two Worlds.” The Silver Age Flash (Barry Allen) vibrates his molecules and unwittingly ends up on Earth-2, inhabited by the Golden Age Flash (Jay Garrick) and the Justice Society of America. The twist on this was that in Barry Allen’s universe, Jay Garrick was the fictional comic book character on which he based his real-life super persona. So, what Barry thought was just a comic book was actually Jay’s reality. And meanwhile, here we were reading a comic book about this in our own dimension, the one we perceive as reality.

Things were already that meta in 1961.

The stories continued on like that, forming a convoluted tapestry of crossover events eventually termed the “Crisis on Multiple Earths” stories. But after 20 years of absurdist interdimensional gallivanting, the multiversal paradigm had grown bloated, labyrinthine, and utterly incomprehensible to just about everybody. In 1985, DC elected to essentially burn the cosmic house down with Crisis on Infinite Earths, a twelve-issue epic space opera that’d redfine superhero comics for decades.

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Writer Marv Wolfman endeavored to both pay tribute to and annihilate 50 years of fictional history, skillfully concocting a frenzied cosmic apocalypse, a kind of kinetic eulogy that the Golden and Silver Ages of Comic Books deserved. It was an elegiac clusterfuck that witnessed the death of The Flash and Supergirl, two comic book characters that actually stayed dead for 20 years.

But the true achievement of the book is George Perez’s absolutely perfect pencils. Like no one else could, Perez constructed impossibly dense pages featuring dozens of characters. Each page contains enough action and story to fill out an entire issue, and by the end Perez had squeezed in literally every single DC comics character ever created.

Though much of Crisis may appear impenetrable to anyone less than erudite in Silver Age comics, it’s really a fantastic story. To this day, Crisis on Infinite Earths stands out as perhaps the most ambitious and superbly executed project in the history of superhero comics.

The new, leaner DCU was a darker one. By the early 1990’s, the conceptual legacies of Frank Miller and Alan Moore had firmly taken root at DC. A series of traumatic events peppered the post-Crisis landscape, including Batman’s paralyzation, Superman’s death, an infamously grisly murder of Green Lantern’s girlfriend, the disturbing events of Brad Meltzer’s divisive whodunit Identity Crisis, and eventually the ultimate moral transgression by Wonder Woman.

The depressive atmosphere had taken its toll emotionally on readers and creators alike, prompting Batman to tell Superman, “The last time you really inspired anyone was when you were dead.”

Cold, but all too true.

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As a response to this, in 2007 Geoff Johns penned Infinite Crisis, a sequel to the original Crisis. Johns wrote a fun and thoughtful update that was well in tune with Wolfman’s original intentions, and Phil Jimenez produced pages of wonderfully detailed character clusters that made him a worthy successor to the thrilling busyness of Perez’s work.

Infinite Crisis was followed up by the groundbreaking and quite fantastic weekly series 52, helmed by DC’s four top writers: Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, and Greg Rucka. 52 culminated in the rebirth of the very multiverse that Wolfman and Perez had purportedly put to rest over 20 years earlier, and was followed by a (really crappy) weekly series called Countdown to Final Crisis that explored the new multiverse and brought somewhat exhausted readers into the next cosmic catastrophe.

In 2008, Grant Morrison wrote Final Crisis, which was to be the third act of the so-called “Crisis Trilogy” and a tribute to the unfinished DC comics work of Jack Kirby. Final Crisis departed significantly in tone and narrative style from Wolfman and Johns’s two preceding chapters, with Morrison having been given essentially carte blanche to employ his metatextualist approach to superhero comics. That aspect of Morrison’s writing isn’t for everyone, and at the time Final Crisis was heavily criticized as being boring, obtuse, and conceptually impenetrable.

The art was also a major change, with J.G. Jones providing pages that were smooth, subtle, and decompressed. Aesthetically, one can’t get much further from the traditional comic-bookiness of Perez and Jiminez. Eventually, Jones had trouble staying on schedule and was replaced by Doug Mahnke (whose wonderful talents tend toward the horror rather than sci-fi genre), yet another radical visual shift.

Ultimately, many fans thought Final Crisis was a mess. But in retrospect, the story is actually quite brilliant and deserves another look by fans that may have written the story off. It takes a bit of figuring out, but Final Crisis is truly a landmark of Grant Morrison’s career and easily the most intelligent take on the superhero crossover event one is likely to find anywhere.

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Only a few years later, DC decided yet again to upset the applecart, rebooting every single title in its repertoire and essentially abandoning 30 years of incredible storytelling. The reboot certainly aspired to be the kind of brand-wide game-changer that Crisis on Infinite Earths was, but it wasn’t carried out with nearly the same measure of skill or respect for the historical material.

Where Crisis was truly thoughtful, lovingly executed, and creatively innovative, Flashpoint (the inciting crossover event for the New 52 reboot) felt mailed-in and narratively superfluous. Worst of all, the modern reboot came off as seriously disrespectful to the decades of work that preceded it. The renumbering of Action Comics remains a major offense that DC needs to correct one day (they did it and re-did it with Wonder Woman several years ago).

But perhaps the most serious original sin of the New 52 reboot was the removal of the Justice Society of America as an essential aspect of DC’s historical framework.

Considering the fact that crossover adventures between the Justice League and the Justice Society laid the very basis of the DC Multiverse to begin with, it’s just terribly ironic that the present DC editorial staff still hasn’t figured out a way to properly integrate them into the rebooted continuity. This represents a major defect in DC culture that hopefully, The Multiversity will begin to help ameliorate.

All of this is to say, that perhaps slowly but surely DC comics is getting back its identity as an innovative company that provides the wacky sci-fi alternative to Marvel’s more grounded “realistic” approach. The company’s willingness to embrace Grant Morrison’s consistently experimental techniques is a very good thing that should be commended by DC fans, frustrated though they may be. Truthfully, it’s the one major thing the company has going for it, as the contemporary comics-cultural landscape feels increasingly dominated by Marvel.

The Multiversity #1 hits stores August 20th.

 

 

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