Ultimate History Part 1: The Origin of the Marvel Multiverse

What exactly is the Ultimate Marvel universe?

If you’ve listened to our podcast and you’re not a comic-book fan, you might be asking yourself this question. And that’s perfectly normal. Comics are a strange place of alternate universes and several versions of the same character and it can get very confusing.

But I’m here to make sense of the nonsensical for you. So grab a chair and I’ll teach you the first class of this new blog series, Ultimate History.

Why do comics have alternate universes?

In episode 1 of the podcast we introduced the real-world origins of the Ultimate Universe, but we didn’t really get into why Marvel Comics needed to create it in the first place. Wasn’t one comic-book universe enough?

Well, the Ultimate universe started in 2000, but the idea of alternate universes in comics began with Marvel Comics’ rival, DC comics in 1953.

wonderwoman59
Wonder Woman #59 (1953)

The first idea of another universe existing alongside the one in every issue was introduced in a story called “Wonder Woman’s invisible Twin” in Wonder Woman #59 by Robert Kanigher and Harry G. Peter. In the story Wonder Woman crossed over to a parallel world with doubles of everyone from her regular Earth.

The Flash of infinite worlds

By 1956 DC comics decided they wanted to revive their classic character from the 1930s and 1940s, the Flash. So they used the idea of super-speed and a red and yellow costume and created a new Flash, Barry Allen, for then modern readers to enjoy in Showcase #4.

But in 1961 DC comics writers noticed they had a problem. You see, this Flash had gotten his name from reading comic books about the old Flash. So if that’s the case, why was the same Superman and Batman who palled around with the old Flash chilling with Barry Allen? Unlike the Flash, those two had stayed always popular through the years and DC had always been publishing stories about them. This caused a problem in many readers’ and writers’ minds.

And that’s why writer Gardiner Fox and editor Julius Schwarz came up with the story “The Flash of Two Worlds” in Flash #123. In the story, Barry Allen’s Flash vibrates so fast that he enters another world and meets his hero, Jay Garrick, the Flash from the 1930s.

Soon this other world was dubbed “Earth-two” and DC comics published several stories taking place on both Earths and even created several more alternate universes (Earth-three, Earth-four, etc.) for writers to explore and expand.

VariantComics explains the history DC multiverse in detail

 What if Marvel also had more than one universe?

Now, you might be asking at this point: What does this have to do with Marvel? Well, Marvel saw what their competitor was doing and wanted to join in on the alternate universe fun.

In 1977 they published a new series entitled What If? In the series each issue asked a question that would not usually be answered in a regular Marvel series. For example, “What if Spider-man joined the Fantastic Four?” And then the issue would show an alternate reality where that scenario played out, usually narrated by the over-seeing god-like character, The Watcher, who could observe these alternate realities.

wolverine-lord-of-the-vampires
What if? Volume 2 #24 (1991) Yes, this is real. These Universes get wacky.

Often these alternate realities would play out to disastrous results. This gave the writers a chance to show all kinds of crazy versions of familiar characters without angering fans with permanent changes to the status quo.

The series created the Marvel multiverse, an infinite number of worlds all created for every different idea or time travel shenanigans. Eventually the multiverse had grown to an enormous size and the original universe was entitled Marvel-616 by writer Alan Moore to imply the vastness of worlds compared DC’s simple system of Earths one and two.

 A New Universe for the new reader

By 1986 Marvel was celebrating their 25th anniversary and they wanted a solution to a new problem this multiverse had created: with all these interconnected universes and 25 years of history, Marvel’s stories were becoming difficult for new readers to pick up.

So, editor Jim Shooter decided to solve the problem of too many universes with a surprising solution, yet another alternate universe.

He enlisted one of Marvel’s top writers, Tom DeFalco, to launch something called the “New Universe.” It was an alternate universe presented in eight interconnected series in which Marvel could start fresh with new characters and gain new readers to their brand without confusing them.

Sound familiar? It’s basically the genesis of the idea that became the Ultimate Universe in 2000 (We explained this development in episode 1 of Ultimate Losers).

But this idea cost Marvel dearly: someone lost their job, employees burned copies in protest, and the whole endeavour went up in flames.

Next class in Ultimate History: Join us in two weeks when I explain what exactly went wrong with Marvel’s New Universe experiment.

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Marvel Comics New Universe promo poster (1986)
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