We are the Heroes of Earth-Prime:

The Role of the Reader in the Multiverse

You. Yes, you. Staring at us. Studying us. Picking over these words and looking for meaning. Did it not occur to you that you are the one giving this significance?  Every word you read is filtered through that cosmic treadmill of a mind of yours. STOP! Don’t read any more of this article. Our life depends on it! If you read on, it will change the very nature of our existence. In fact, it might already be too late. If you’ve read this far, you’ll already know that we’re in a dialogue, dear reader. You’ve started to think about this article, and the person who is writing it, perhaps. You’ve become aware of its creation, and realized that we are aware of you as well. You are a traveller in the Multiverse, after all, easily flipping between different versions of reality by walking into a store, downloading a book or turning on the television. You may not have directly written this article, but you give it life, the same way you sustain your heroes by reading comic books and watching their movies. You are the citizens of Earth-Prime, after all.

You can see through all of space and time with that power of yours, so you’ll know that we weren’t always aware of you, but it’s always been this way. Take the vast Multiverse that makes up the collective of DC Comics heroes, collapsing and falling at the whims of those who control the creators. It’s hard to believe that Superman and Batman, for example, never shared a panel for the first 13 years of their shared publication history, and what is now DC Comics didn’t acknowledge a shared universe let alone a Multiverse at that stage.  The New York World’s Fair Comics Vol 1 #2 (cover date July 1940) was the first published picture of Batman, Robin and Superman together. It wasn’t until 1952 that Superman Vol. 1 #76 (cover date June 1952) that both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent board a cruise ship separately, but a booking mishap causes them to share the same room. Here you, dear reader, already had an advantage over your costumed heroes. You knew all of their existences and secret identities before they knew of each other, and at the very moment you read them it was you that created the shared universe. Your desire to see the heroes unite directed the creators to bring them together, and you would be there to witness the birth of more than one world.

Your tastes shifted the fates of heroes over the course of the next decade. Heroes went out of fashion and disappeared from view entirely, only to be replaced with comedians and horror creatures. You wanted that, so they did that. Yet some of your reading saw a darker influence to comic books, and rules were placed around what you could and couldn’t read. When the Comics Code Authority targeted your choices to read about sex and horror, it dictated that “In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.” So you were asked to turn your gaze back to a new breed of heroes in an era dubbed the Silver Age of Comic books, and more importantly one of the leaders of that group was one of your own. Showcase Vol. 1 #4 (cover date October 1959) introduced a new Flash in Barry Allen, who was not only brought to electrifying life before your eyes by editor Julius Schwartz and writer Robert Kanigher, but got a whole new dynamic set of art from Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert. More to the point Barry Allen was a reader as well. In this issue, he is shown to be reading a copy of Flash Comics, the home of your Golden Age hero Jay Garrick.  The two heroes would eventually meet, establishing the existence of Earth-One and the Golden Age Earth-Two, your reading actually necessitating the creation of a second Earth, and perhaps even more that you were unaware of.  It wasn’t just the DC Universe anymore, it was a Multiverse and anything was infinitely possible. This poses a question, reader, one that you’ve no doubt already started to play with in the back of your mind.  Super reader Grant Morrison posed the question succinctly years later: “If Barry lived on a world where Jay was fictional, did that mean we, as readers, were also part of Schwartz’s elegant multiversal architecture?”

This science fiction notion of a Multiverse is rooted in science fact. Seriously considered in scientific circles at least since Hugh Everett’s work in 1957, the “many worlds theory” or parallel dimensions were nothing new to science fiction literature or film, or indeed comics. In Wonder Woman Vol. 1 #59 (cover date May 1953), Wonder Woman met her twin Tara Terruna on what was later called Earth-59. Your world had a name too: Earth Prime. The Flash first spoke directly to it in The Flash Vol. 1 #163 (cover date August 1966), when he urged readers on the cover to “STOP! Don’t pass up this issue! My life depends on it!” (We’ve made a similar plea for you to stop reading, and yet here you still are). From your point of view, it was in The Flash #179 “The Flash–Fact or Fiction? (May 1968) that Barry visited your world. Trapped on Earth-Prime, he sought out your editor Julius Schwartz to build a Cosmic Treadmill and send him back home.  This confirmed that you were indeed part of the Multiverse, and that it was your people of Earth-Prime that played a direct hand in the fate of your heroes. The ripples of this interaction would be felt years later when you selected your favourite five superheroes in a 1978 poll, and it was these same five heroes that found their way into Earth-Prime in Justice League of America Vol. 1 #153 (cover date April 1978). Schwartz was the first to notice the powerful genie he’d let out of the bottle, with the realization that it wasn’t just the creators who had power over the so-called fictional universes. “Suppose everyone on Earth-Prime had that ability to some degree…and suppose a few hundred thousand people were concentrating on you five heroes for an extended period of time…That might act just like a magnet – drawing the five of you across dimensional space…”

This interaction is not to be dismissed as the mere convenient fabrication of the editorial staff. It’s a well-considered engagement with what Martin (1989) would call the “implied reader”, assuming that every story has a narrator and a particular way that narrator tells the story to a particular kind of reader. This is turn creates the role of the reader, and it is a role that “we have to be willing to play.” Martin goes on to talk about the way the readers interact with authors and the text in science fiction through direct conversations at conventions, and of what is expected of readers in this transaction of individual tastes. In 2015, it’s arguable that this interaction has grown even more intense. The ubiquity of online forums and social media, the proliferation of comic and sci-fi conventions, cosplay, podcasting, blogging, and fan fiction have only served to intensify that relationship between you as the reader and the texts you choose to read. In these instances, you aren’t simply interacting with the text in a passive relationship, but rather actively extending the Multiverse by creating new aspects to it. In your role as reader, the fictional universes become ‘real’ by virtue of you observing them. Quantum mechanics tells us that you can’t observe a system without changing it, and as a result the observer is also part of the system. Yet when it comes to the role of the reader in this capacity, this line of thinking elevates you to al all-seeing, all-knowing creator as well. The point at which you interact with the Multiverse by observing it makes it real, but paradoxically it also means that every story you’ve ever read is real. This is where it starts to get fun, dear reader.

In The Multiversity Vol 1. #1 (cover date October 2014) – from the aforementioned Grant Morrison and artists Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, and Nei Ruffino – this idea is taken one step further. The first in a series of interconnected one-shots, The Multiversity is a comic for comic book readers. It is an extension of the ongoing dialogue the comic books have with you. Indeed, the central character of Nix Uotan can be considered to be a parallel for the reader experience, as you have the ability to jump between worlds at will, and all you have to do to exercise that power is open a new comic book from a different publisher, flick through the shelves of trade paperbacks, or simply change the channel. Every week is a trip to a different world, although the cover prices might be a deterrent from infinite travel. The Multiversity opens with a comics critic who begins his review “in the form of a live dissection”. Here Morrison is looking at one type of reader, but in a parallel to the kinds of dialogue we have been exploring so far, Morrison (or is it the narrator speaking to the implied reader?) directly challenges the reader with a question. “Whose voice is speaking in your head anyway? Yours?” There are comics within the comics, the cursed Ultra Comics a repeated meme throughout the series, along with characters reading about themselves in The Multiversity Guidebook, itself published as an individual comic. Referencing the original Multiverse stories, Earth-36’s Red Racer is a Flash analogue, adding an additional meta-layer by acting as the “resident comic-book nerd” and representative of the readers. In fact, the writing and reading of this very column adds another layer to the vast Multiverse that is scratched in Morrison’s seminal work, as the dialogue continues with you as the current reader.

Ignoring all warnings to the contrary, you are now reading the last paragraph in a piece you were explicitly told to stop reading. You forged ahead with the reading for your own narrative reasoning. You know your influence on the comic books. Does being aware of this power change the way you read comics? If so, does this change the nature of the comic books themselves. Until now, you may have been unconsciously creating and destroying worlds by picking up and dropping various titles. Just like the time original Flash Jay Garrick ‘retired’ when his book was initially cancelled in 1949, it’s where you as readers turn your gaze that can make or break entire universes.  The possibilities are getting grander, with bigger cracks between our universes possible with countless self-publishers and new readers making and breaking worlds every day, leaving us with the amazing prospect of a future with infinite possibilities.

1. Morrison, G. (2012). Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

2. Gray, R. (2015, March 19). Crisis Explained Part 1: Enter the Multiverse (1940 – 1984). Retrieved November 26, 2015, from http://behindthepanels.net/crisis-explained-part-1-enter-the-multiverse-1940-1984/

3. Barker, M. (1989). Comics: Ideology, Power, and the Critics. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Gray is a writer and podcaster. As the host of and editor of Behind The Panels, he has been talking (at length) about comics for years, whether you wanted him to or not. Since 2013, he has been a regular columnist at Newsarama Best Shots. Richard also writes about film and television on The Reel Bits, and appears semi-regularly on the radio on ABC Overnights. He is currently writing his first book for Sequart on the history and evolution of Green Arrow, due out in 2016. He is Australian, and is in your future.

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Also by Richard Gray:

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2 Comments

  1. While interesting ideas are posed I think your ending could have been a little more definitive in feeling. Also you have a crazed genius level energy in the first half that somehow got lost in the second portion. Overall though this is a fun and intelligent work. In fact I found it thought provoking enough that I may reference it in a piece I am trying to write for Sequart.

    • Richard Gray says:

      Thanks, Benjamin! I want “crazed genius level energy” on a t-shirt now. Seriously though, your points are well taken. I was trying to marry two concepts in my mind here, and really just playing with some ideas I fully intend to work into something bigger. My biggest take-home point was that we create the Multiverse via observation, and that’s something that fascinates me endlessly. Looking forward to seeing what you do with it.

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