13 Nov The Moral Arcs of Histories
One of the fundamental elements of DC Comics’ vast mythology is the idea of the Multiverse. Originally introduced in 1961 as a means of reconciling character discrepancies between the Golden and Silver Ages of Comics, the Multiverse concept has grown to be a structural component of DC’s mythos. In principle, the Multiverse is composed of a number of parallel realities, some extremely similar to each other and others vastly different, all of which exist in the same physical space but vibrate at a different frequency, allowing the Flash to become the first of many heroes to transcend the vibrational barrier and travel between worlds.
There were once infinite Earths, but following their destruction at the hands of the Anti-Monitor, and the subsequent rebirth of the Multiverse during Infinite Crisis, there are now only 52 parallel worlds, each of which is given a specific numerical designation. Earth 4, for example, is home to the Silver Age versions of Charlton Comics’ heroes who were purchased by DC and folded into the main continuity. Earth 26 is home to Captain Carrot and the Amazing Zoo Crew – anthropomorphic animal superheroes whose world follows the bizarre physics of Saturday morning cartoons. Over DC’s many years of publication, many of these parallel worlds have been explored and featured, but one in particular plays an unlikely role in defining Prime Earth, otherwise referred to as the mythology’s main continuity. That world is Earth 3.
Earth 3 is a world which exists in nearly direct contrast to our own (meaning Prime Earth); that is to say, it is a world in which the most powerful beings on the planet – all of which are analogues of the main continuity’s Justice League – are in fact arch-criminals. Known as the Crime Syndicate, their core membership includes Ultraman, Owlman, Superwoman, Johnny Quick, and Power Ring, with numerous other evil counterparts making appearances over the team’s publication history. As with any corner of the mythology, the Crime Syndicate has gone through numerous changes in roster and history from Earth-Three (pre-Crisis) to the Antimatter Universe (post-Crisis) to Earth-3 (post-Infinite Crisis) to the current Earth 3 (New 52), but there are certain central elements that have gone relatively unchanged.
The reverse nature of Earth 3 manifests itself in the members of the Crime Syndicate, who – beyond being evil versions of the members of the Justice League – actually represent inversions of their counterparts’ key characteristics. Where kryptonite harms Superman, it provides Ultraman with his vast array of powers. Superwoman’s lasso, rather than eliciting the truth as Wonder Woman’s does, instead forces anyone bound by it to submit to her will. Perhaps the clearest example of this kind of inversion, however, is Power Ring: the Earth 3 counterpart to the Green Lantern. On Prime Earth, Hal Jordan possesses incredible courage and willpower, making him the ideal candidate for membership in the Green Lantern Corps. He is able to focus and channel his incredible willpower in order to overcome fear, using the ring to form any construct he can imagine. The opposite is true on Earth 3, where the Ring of Volthoom (the only one of its kind) seeks out the weak-willed so that it can manipulate and use them to its own ends. It preys on an individual’s fear and controls the bearer, as opposed to the other way around.
Power Ring is the perfect illustration of Earth 3’s inverse nature, especially as it applies to the New 52, in which the mythology goes even further, suggesting that on Earth 3, not only are Earth’s greatest heroes actually its villains, but that the world itself values strength, control, and vengeance over truth, justice, and freedom. It is a world in which the “survival of the fittest” has been perverted and used to justify cruelty and inequality. But in this world, where the fundamental values of Prime Earth are turned on their head, one could make the argument that the Crime Syndicate, though villainous, still fulfill the role of their world’s Justice League because they work to preserve that status quo and that way of life. They enforce the idea that not everyone is born equal and that power must be taken by force and maintained by fear. The stand on the side of the moral compass of their world, and are therefore still analogous to the Justice League.
This particular relationship is fascinating because it actually informs the way we interpret the mythology as it takes place on Prime Earth. In what perhaps runs counter to expectations, the Crime Syndicate is actually a reassurance of the Justice League’s mission and raison d’être. If, on Earth 3, the same perverted morality existed but the world was instead ruled by the counterparts of Prime Earth’s villains, then the mythology of that world would be saying that “good” lost the battle. However what we see through the New 52 Crime Syndicate is that the expectations surrounding good and evil are flipped for Earth 3, and yet the Justice League’s counterparts still assume their expected role as the most powerful beings on the planet, fighting for their way of life against those who would stand against them, such as Alexander Luthor.
Mythologically speaking, what this suggests is that the Justice League and its direct counterparts across the Multiverse represent the general moral direction of their specific Earth. Their position as the world’s most powerful beings anchors them to each world’s moral compass. What this means is that the Crime Syndicate, rather than representing the victory of evil over good, is actually a metaphor for the eventual victory of good over evil on Prime Earth; just as the Crime Syndicate personifies their world’s morality, so too does the Justice League on Prime Earth. In essence, the Crime Syndicate provides a reference point within the Multiverse for the moral arc of the main continuity. The members of the Crime Syndicate are not corrupted heroes, they are evil through and through. But that is the expectation of their world and they fulfill their role in line with the moral arc of Earth 3. As analogues of the Justice League, they provide a consistency to the mythology of the Multiverse, and proof that in the case of the Justice League, their mission is not hopeless.
It is all to easy to look at the Justice League and feel that, while noble, they are not on the winning side. After all, the heroes must win on every occasion, but the villains need only win once. Add to that the fact that we constantly see the heroes of Prime Earth battling the same villains – and their specific archenemies in particular – and the evidence seems to suggest that the Justice League fights a losing battle. Ironic though it may seem, the Crime Syndicate is a source of hope for the mythology of the Justice League, providing a dark reflection of the world in which those same characters are still at the vanguard of their world’s way of life. And every subsequent Earth revealed in the Multiverse operates in this way, from the Nazi-dominated Earth 10 to the deathless mini-League of Earth 42.
The moral arc of history may be long, but thanks to the mythology of Earth 3 and the Crime Syndicate there is some small comfort to be taken in the knowledge that, in the case of Prime Earth, it bends towards justice.
** This article was originally published on Modern Mythologies