Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is now in theaters, and in its exploration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or should that be Marvel Cinematic Multiverse these days?), well-read viewers may have noticed that the core MCU reality is referred to in the film by the number “Earth-616” – terminology that comes straight from comic books.
And though the MCU’s core timeline has been referred to as “Earth-616” onscreen before, notably in 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, in which the villain Mysterio falsely claims to be from another world while stating that the mainstream MCU reality is “Earth-616.” Multiverse of Madness actually makes it official.
(And kinda also raises a question about where Mysterio picked up that number for his lie…).
Despite Mysterio using the Multiverse terminology as part of his web of illusion and deceit, Marvel Studios has gone on to fully embrace it in the recent Disney Plus streaming series Loki – which wound up being a healthy appetizer for the Multiverse-centric pandemic-defying mega-hit Spider-Man: No Way Home. That movie in turn set the stage for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, as well as the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and of course the in-development second season of Loki for Disney-Plus.
But where did the designation Earth-616 come from, and when did the Marvel Universe become a Multiverse in comic books?
With all the current and upcoming Marvel Multiverse preoccupation in film, TV, and comics, Newsarama thought it high time we dive into the origin and history of the original comic book concept to answer some basic questions and explain the semi-obscure numerical designation referenced in Far From Home (which wasn’t just a random invention of the screenwriters) – as well as how Alan Moore, co-creator of DC’s seminal story Watchmen (opens in new tab) may be involved.
The Marvel Comics Multiverse
The roots of Marvel’s Multiverse go back to the earliest days of Marvel Comics itself, in the ’60s. Though it wouldn’t be formally named till later, the core Marvel Universe’s first brush with another reality happened all the way back in 1962’s Strange Tales #103 (opens in new tab), in which Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four is transported to an alt-universe called the Fifth Dimension, later designated Earth-1612 of the Multiverse.
After that, 1963’s Fantastic Four #10 (opens in new tab) sent Doctor Doom to the microscopic realm of Sub-Atomica. And that same year in Fantastic Four #19, the team found themselves sent back through time to face Rama-Tut, a time-traveling villain later revealed as one of the many identities of Kang the Conqueror, progressing the idea even further by showing the so-called ‘Other-Earth’ where Kang resides. Again, ‘Other-Earth’ was later incorporated fully into the Multiverse under the numeric designation Earth-6311.
Then, 1964’s Strange Tales #126 (opens in new tab) ramped the concept of Marvel’s alt-realities up again by sending Doctor Strange into the Dark Dimension, home of his arch-foe the dread Dormammu – an alternate world full of non-euclidean geometry, and incomprehensible cyclopean architecture rendered to psychedelic perfection by artist Steve Ditko.
From there, Reed Richards led the Fantastic Four to pioneer Multiverse travel again in 1968’s Fantastic Four Annual #6 (opens in new tab), in which he built the first machine designed to travel between realities, taking his family into the Negative Zone, an antimatter universe full of deadly horrors.
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And in 1969, The Avengers took the leap, traveling to ‘Earth S’ (later numbered Earth-712), the home of the Squadron Supreme, analogs of DC’s Justice League who later went on to headline their own title set on Earth-712 – and who recently played a key part in yet another alt-reality tale in this summer’s Heroes Reborn limited series.
Then the ’60s became the ’70s, and a new crop of writers came to the Marvel Universe with more outlandish, cosmic visions than even Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had already pioneered, and with that, the Marvel Multiverse broke wide open.
Throughout the decade, writers introduced numerous alt-realities as elements of new stories, and many previous concepts, like Sub-Atomica (which became part of the Microverse), were revisited and expanded upon. All of this culminated in 1977’s What If? #1 (opens in new tab), which launched a whole ongoing title showcasing alternate versions of the Marvel Universe where characters and events that readers knew took on wildly different identities or outcomes.
Though by the ’80s the Marvel Multiverse was technically in full swing, with writers free to come and go from any universe they could dream up for their characters. But this created something of a creative double-edged sword, where Marvel’s Multiverse was wide open to writers, but the rules that would later define it – and even the term ‘Multiverse’ – hadn’t yet been codified. A multiverse of madness, so to speak.
So how did the Marvel Universe become Earth-616, and how did the other Earths get their numbers?
Though the Marvel Comics Multiverse was wide open for creators by the ’80s, unlike Marvel’s closest rivals DC’s version of the concept, the mechanics, specific worlds, and implications of the Multiverse hadn’t been cataloged and codified (and been totally broken) by the publisher yet.
This started to change around the time Marvel kicked off What If? (the inspiration for the 2021 Disney Plus animated series) in 1977. Editor Mark Gruenwald (known for inspiring Mobius M. Mobius of the Time Variance Authority or TVA, also adapted in Disney Plus’ Loki show) laid out a concept that included a nested version of multiple realities, which incorporated most of Marvel’s alt-realities and dimensions up until that point, using the term ‘Multiverse’ for the first time.
Gruenwald’s structure extrapolated past the Multiverse into what Gruenwald coined an ‘Omniverse,’ which, in Gruenwald’s estimation, branched out past just the worlds of Marvel’s multiverse to encompass all possible worlds of fiction – even from other comic book publishers – as well as the actual real world that we all live in.
The numbering of the Marvel Multiverse has a separate, somewhat mysterious origin all its own, which starts in what may as well have been another reality for Marvel Comics at the time – the UK.
In the ’60s, ’70s, and into the ’80s, most Marvel Comics were not directly imported to the UK and other overseas markets on a one-to-one basis. Instead, overseas publishers would license Marvel’s stories for republication, sometimes localizing, re-editing, or collecting the stories in different ways than US fans got them. Over time, Marvel UK became something of its own separate side-branch of the Marvel Universe, with its own unique characters and titles that were tied to their US equivalents, but who very rarely crossed over in their early years.
Numerous British and UK-based creators who went on to become top names in the mainstream industry got their start working with US publishers through Marvel UK before branching out across the pond – including none other than Alan Moore, co-creator of Watchmen, known for his knack for breaking down, rebuilding, and redefining superhero concepts through a more nuanced lens.
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In fact, it was partially Moore who named the Marvel Universe ‘Earth-616,’ in 1983’s Daredevils #7 (a Marvel UK anthology title that had no relation to the singular blind hero Daredevil) in a story featuring Captain Britain, who had been established as just one of multiple heroes guarding their home realities across the Multiverse as part of the Captain Britain Corps.
However, there’s a bit of mystery and controversy around how the Earth-616 designation first made it into Captain Britain, and why that particular number was chosen. Alan Davis, the story’s artist, claims it was Moore’s predecessor as Captain Britain writer David Thorpe who first coined the term, though Moore maintains he came up with it himself.
According to Moore, the number 616 was chosen at random to avoid using the terms ‘Earth-One’ or ‘Earth-Two,’ as used by DC. However, there are alternative ideas about how the worlds of Marvel’s Multiverse get their numbers. A common belief is that the number 616 was chosen to honor the year and month of Fantastic Four #1 (opens in new tab)‘s 1961 debut, which launched the Marvel Universe – and indeed some of Marvel’s numbered worlds get their designations from this formula.
However, in a 2020 interview, Thorpe himself seems to settle the entire dispute on some level, agreeing with Davis that he is the one who invented the term ‘Earth-616.’ Thorpe states he came up with the number through numerology, of which he was a student at the time, subtracting the number 50 from the number 666 (a number tied to Christian theology) to arrive at 616 as the home reality of the Marvel Universe – though he also accedes that it was indeed Alan Moore who first put the term in print, leading to the term being adopted on a larger scale.
Whatever the nuances of its true origin, the term ‘Earth-616’ was taken as canon into the broader Marvel Universe just a few years later when Captain Britain became a core member of the US-published Marvel mutant team Excalibur, with none other than Alan Davis helping codify the concept’s relation to the wider Marvel Universe as the artist of Excalibur alongside longtime X-Men writer Chris Claremont.
From there, Marvel’s other realities were mapped out and numbered behind the scenes, with realities that have debuted since getting numbers derived by their creators. And though there have been attempts to alter the Earth-616 designation along the way, it’s stuck around as canon – apparently even into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, at least on some level.
In the years after the 616 became mainstream Marvel lore, whole separate universes of continuity sprung up, such as the Marvel 2099 line, which took place in a possible future timeline, and the Ultimate Comics line, which was an entire parallel Marvel Universe based on Earth-1611.
And for the most part, the Marvel Multiverse and its numbered realities have stuck around – more or less…
The modern Marvel Multiverse
In 2014, Marvel Comics launched a limited series titled Secret Wars (opens in new tab), which took its name from a Marvel event 30 years earlier (opens in new tab). In that story, all the worlds of Marvel’s Multiverse are essentially destroyed one by one, with the last shreds of existence saved by Doctor Doom, who uses his mastery over science and magic to pull the remaining pieces of the Multiverse together into a single hodge-podge reality called Battleworld.
When the dust cleared on Secret Wars a year later, the Marvel Multiverse had been totally demolished, not too different from DC’s 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths (opens in new tab). However, instead of rebooting its continuity or shying away from a reborn multiverse the way DC did for decades after Crisis, Marvel immediately rebuilt its multiverse, taking the opportunity to incorporate aspects of alt-realities, such as the Ultimate line which ended with the collapse of the Multiverse, into its core Earth-616 continuity.
Interestingly, however, some of Marvel’s top creative executives at the time, chief creative officer Joe Quesada and executive editor Tom Brevoort, also took the opportunity to divest and downplay the term ‘Earth-616’ and the other numeric Multiverse designators from use on the page, having publicly stated their own distaste for the terminology.
Though the change has stuck around somewhat on the page, with the Multiverse numbers rarely getting any references these days, the 616 terminology has become more prevalent than ever outside of Marvel Comics thanks to its use by Marvel Studios – who have not only namechecked the concept on film and TV at this point but who named a whole behind-the-scenes documentary show Marvel’s 616 after the idea.
Now, the MCU is diving straight into the Multiverse concept in a big way. Loki opened the door, which What If…? walked through, and then Spider-Man: No Way Home knocked down completely. And oddly, that means that the MCU origins of the Multiverse essentially mirror the way the concept came to the page in comic books.
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There’s one big, odd MCU/Marvel Comics coincidence (or planned synchronicity?) between the kick-off of the MCU Multiverse and its comic book counterpart. As in the MCU, one of the first characters from another reality introduced in Marvel Comics was a variant of Kang the Conqueror. In comics, this variant was Rama-Tut, while in the MCU, it’s He Who Remains (himself a bit of a mash-up between the comic book character of that name and Kang’s comic book variant Immortus).
Kang’s reality of Earth-1612 was one of the very first alt-realities explored in Marvel Comics, though it wasn’t numbered until many years later in What If? Vol. 2 #39, in a story titled ‘What if the Watcher saved the Multiverse (opens in new tab)?”
In that story, Uatu the Watcher – the cosmic observer who is but one of many Watchers who catalog the Multiverse, vowing never to interfere – breaks his oath and steps in to stop a war between Kang and Immortus that causes wild, branching realities to spawn.
Sounds quite a bit like the premise of the MCU Multiverse laid out in the final episode of Loki, in which countless variants of Kang are vying for multiversal conquest, doesn’t it?
With Loki having introduced the Multiverse to MCU fans in earnest, and What If…?, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness going full-steam ahead, and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania set to follow up directly on the story of the Multiverse, it looks like the MCU is about to get a whole lot bigger – maybe a full-on MCMU?
Kang gets mentioned a lot when it comes to the Marvel Multiverse, and he’s going to play a big role in the MCU probably for years to come. We explain exactly who Kang is and what his powers are to get you ready for Marvel’s next big-screen big bad.