Multiversity: Alternate Universes vs. Alternate Timelines

As a sci-fi buff, I'm a big fan of dystopian future characters. Hence my love for Booster Gold, Spider-Man 2099, and Batman Beyond, among others. However, inevitably these future-bred characters become problematic when you try to fit them into the primary continuity, such as when Miguel O'Hara and Peter Parker switched places for a storyline (and then later for a video game or two). Such as when Booster Gold's future started not coming true in 52, and then he was made the protector of the DC Multiverse in his own title. And then the introduction of both Damian Wayne and Terry McGinnis causes problems with that timeline as well.

The answer seems to always be: "alternate universe." Thing is, there seems to be "levels" of alternate universe-ness. The out-of-continuity or alternate-setting story is handled very strictly by DC and absolutely bat-crap loosely by Marvel. Alternate timelines, by comparison, are wiped out when a storyline is over by DC and Marvel except when Marvel (if the story is popular) gifts these timelines with alternate universe status. This difference between an "alternate timeline" and a "altered timeline" (meaning, a timeline that is not as it should be) comes up constantly in books such as Booster Gold and Exiles where making sure timelines/universes are "as they should be" is their primary conceit.

These subtle differences, and the differences in how the two major publishers handle them between the Marvel Multiverse and the DC multiverse, are interesting to me and I'd like to explore that.

Starting Example: The Prolific Loins of Scott Summers Across Time and the Multiverse

To start, I'm going to just quote myself from a discussion about Azari--Storm and Black Panther's alternate future child from the Next Avengers universe--which prompted me to write this entry (and that post borrowed heavily from a previous discussion about Cyclops' various daughters):

@fodigg said:

@jhazzroucher said:

I see. Cos i was thinking their existence was really not canon cos when i watched the film, the avengers died. I don't think marvel would allow the avengers to die.

But perhaps they'll allow this young avengers to exist with their parents still living.

Exactly. Their "legitimacy" as a future timeline almost does not matter. If the character is popular but their timeline turns out not to be true, well the character stays but their timeline is just treated as either having been wiped out (e.g., Cable) or as an alternate universe (e.g., AoA Blink, AoA Sabretooth, Bishop). And we have all the Scott Summers' children as precedent for that:

  1. Rachel Grey, Phoenix (daughter of Scott and Jean; Days of Future Past timeline, called "Earth-811")
  2. Nathanial Grey, Cable (son of Scott and Madelyne; born in present, sent to an Apocalypse-ruled future timeline and returned--timeline assumed wiped out)
  3. Stryfe (clone of cable and his bitter enemy in the same future timeline, keeps coming back to haunt Cable in various versions of their shared future)
  4. Nate Grey, X-Man (son of Scott and Madelyne; from the official Age of Apocalypse universe, called "Earth-295")
  5. Ruby Summers (daughter of Scott and Emma; from Bishop's timeline, called "Earth-1191")
  6. Megan Summers (daughter of Scott and Emma; GeNeXt timeline, called "Earth-41001")
  7. Summers-Frost twin #1 (daughter of Scott and Emma; GeNeXt)
  8. Summers-Frost twin #2 (daughter of Scott and Emma; GeNeXt)
  9. Alex Summers (son of Scott and Emma; GeNeXt)
  10. Hope Summers (unknown "non-genetic inheritance" relation, but at the very least an adoptive daughter of Cable's; traveled deep into the future--something like 90,000 AD--after the Messiah Complex arc when on the run from Bishop--this far-flung timeline (called "Earth-967") assumed to be wiped out)
  11. Hyperstorm (child of Rachel Summers and Franklin Richards; from some timeline where sentinels have wiped out all other mutants and he rules the world with an iron fist--timeline assumed wiped out)
  12. EDIT: David Richards (another son of Rachel and Franklin, from "Earth-2600")
  13. EDIT: Dream Jeanie Richards (a daughter of Rachel and Franklin, from the Times Arrow trilogy of novels, called "Earth-9891")

---That's eleven, count 'em, eleven (EDIT: thirteen!) progeny--all in official canon (EDIT: Dream questionable without a comic book appearance) via the magical power of "alternate timeline/universe" listings--for Scott Summers. Seven of which are direct children of the Earth-616 (primary Marvel Earth) Cyclops (i.e., their timelines/universes branch from his). That's astounding, but hey, comics everybody!

Considering the above precedent, I think it's okay for Storm and Black Panther to have at least one future-kid who sticks around from--I dunno, have they given the Next Avengers' timeline a number yet? Oh hey, they have! Their Ultron-ruled timeline is officially known as "Earth-555326!" So Azari is now just as official as Rachel and Bishop and so on.

Now, you might say, "Well, if they're from alternate universes then they don't count," but see, there's a difference between "alternate universe" and "alternate timeline." There is actually another son of Storm and Black Panther from an alternate universe: T'chaka (the Panther), their son from Earth-1119 who appeared in Exiles.

The difference between T'chaka and Azari is that Azari's "Earth" branches off from 616 as a "possible future" and interacts directly with 616 characters. It depends on them to exist. T'chaka, by comparison, has never met nor interacted with 616 characters. His parents could be totally different from the 616 versions of Storm and Black Panther because his universe is an independent part of the multiverse, which is infinite.

For an illustration of how this "alternate timeline" thing works, look to Bishop and Cable, or more accurately, Bishop vs. Cable. They both come from different "alternate timelines" and went to war with each other because they are trying to prevent their particular dystopian futures from happening and they disagree on what brings about the end of the world. Bishop thought Hope caused his horrible future so he wanted to kill her while Cable believes she can prevent his horrible future so he wants to save her. But as far as anyone knows, their interference has created an all-new future where Hope makes her own choices that can be totally different from either of their timelines.

And yet, Cable is the "hero" there because Bishop's future has already split off into Earth-1191 and as far as we know cannot be prevented and will always exist as an alternate universe/timeline. Cable's future, meanwhile, is constantly in flux and seems more closely tied to the fate of the 616, possibly because he was born in the present.

I know just quoting that post outright was rather lazy but I didn't feel like retyping all that or trying to reformat the above post better for blog format. I do apologize. What I wanted you to get out of that post was 1) just how often future characters are brought into primary continuity, and 2) how there are indeed differences in how characters are treated when they come from alternate timelines vs. alternate universes.

So there seems to be two different questions here:

  • How do Marvel and DC handle "alternate universes" differently?
  • How do Marvel and DC handle "alternate timelines" differently?

Once we answer those questions we can put together how the two overlap, and more importantly, how they interact with each publisher's "primary" universe.

Alternate Universes


As stated previously, Marvel allows whatever writers want as far as their Multiverse is concerned. Anything and everything can and likely does exist in their Multiverse. This includes those that are relatively close to the primary timeline and those that are utterly different. However, not all universes are equal it seems. Some are treated as the typical one-and-done setting for a reality-hopping story. Some are home to ongoing monthly titles, such as the world of May "Mayday" Parker, Spider-Girl. Some are "uplifted" timeline stories because of popularity so they can be referenced later, such as the Age of Apocalypse and Days of Future Past settings. Some contain what DC would call "Elseworlds"--titles that have no correlation to the primary continuity but are instead reimaginings of it, such as Earth X. And finally, some are entire publishing lines such as the 2099, MAX, 1602, Marvel Zombies, and Ultimate lines. The rule of Marvel is that ALL of these various types of stories should--ostensibly--be treated equally with each given an "Earth" designation, a practice started by Alan Moore. Moore even set out to make the primary setting seem less, well, primary by giving it a higher designation than normal, Earth-616. These designations are given to alternate universes even if the planet Earth does not exist in them, such as with the New Universe setting. The advantage of this approach is that everything can be referenced by future writers. The downside is that it can get a little confusing at times (see the Summers clan list in quoted text above) and sometimes the stakes are not as high.


DC is less loosey-goosey with their designations and definitely do NOT put everything in the same bucket. After experimenting with various alternate universes early on they smashed everything down into one in the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline, a bold decision they've been running away from ever since. While the "one universe to rule them all" rule was in effect, however, they still allowed drastic retellings of the DC universe to be told with explicitly non-canon Elseworlds stories such as Superman: Red Son, Gotham by Gaslight, The Nail, and Kingdom Come. The problem is that these Elseworlds tales were frequently flipping awesome, including the two most influential modern DC storylines (or just comic book storylines generally), Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. This is a problem because the fans like seeing this stuff. They like interacting with it. They want the primary characters to sometimes rub shoulders with these characters and the creators to have some breathing room. Then there's the fact that DC owns entire other publishing lines--such as Milestone, Red Circle, Vertigo, and Wildstorm--and want to fold those into their primary continuity. Without a multiverse, they couldn't really do that without massive restructuring. Thus, 52, Infinite Crisis, and Final Crisis. And now we have 52 new universes to house some of these iconic Elseworlds stories and publishing lines. However, freely working with alternate universes is still verboten, and this means things like the relaunch--DC's new 52 after Flashpoint--happen instead of launching an "Ultimates"-style line for DC. What's interesting about this new multiverse is how different from their source material these universes will be.

Alternate Timelines


Because anything goes and everything is a universe with Marvel, one would think that a true "altered timeline" is impossible, right? That there are simply universes that split off from our own some time in the future (either didn't exist until a certain moment or were indistinguishable until a certain moment). However we are told explicitly that not only can time "go wrong" but, in Exiles, that a whole multitude of timelines are broken and must be fixed! And then we have characters like Cable, Nimrod, and Stryfe who don't come from official, numbered universes (as far as I know) but seem to stick around and fight over creating/preventing their particular futures, which are constantly in flux. Compare this to Rachel Summer's Days of Future Past timeline or the Age of Apocalypse timeline which seem to just stick around as separate entities. Meanwhile Bishop's future is somewhere in between. There are also "pocket realities" from time to time, such as with the recent Age of X storyline where the whole thing was just a fantasy or dream. What I find interesting about this setup is, when does a "possible future" become an "alternate universe?" The obvious answer is "when the sales are good," but what does that mean to the characters in the ol' 616? What does that mean to someone like Bishop, whose home is treated as a separate universe but still acts like he's trying to prevent a future? Is he just trying to spare the 616 a similar fate from his own home's, or does he really still think he can prevent his world--Earth-1191--from occurring at all?


This is where DC really shines. Because you have one tried-and-true past, you can assume that you have one true future that is being slowly revealed to us, chipped away from the infinite possibilities. They even go out of their way to explain away line-wide reboots within this framework, so that rewritten history is still incorporated into continuity--it existed, it just doesn't exist now. The fact that they've tied timeline anomalies with real-world changes in the books they're selling means that they're allowing timeline changes to affect the reader more directly than a general "what if?" This allows them to really sell the danger of a future gone awry, unlike Marvel where you have characters like Wolverine shrugging off dire warnings of the future because hey, he's heard it so many times before. It means DC doesn't have to face the awkward questions Exiles faced whenever characters wondered aloud how a multiverse of infinite--infinite--possibilities could ever have "wrong" universes, an question the writers never really had an answer for. Instead we have Time Masters like Rip Hunter and later (earlier?) Booster Gold. We have things like an out-of-time Batman racing toward the end of the universe with all of reality (and control of the Batman titles) at stake. We have three different versions of the Legion of Super-Heroes meeting each other and wondering who will survive as the "real" future and who won't. That's kind of cool. This setup means that stories have far more of an impact when characters go to, for example, a Trigon-controlled future and know it's not just another reality they've wandered into.


I think both approaches have pros and cons, but since DC relaxed their "only one universe" rule I find that I'm more excited by their approach than Marvel's "anything goes." And I say that as a fan of the Exiles title, a book that made full use (and some might say, abuse) of the Marvel Multiverse. The reason why I like DC's new status quo is because it allows them to have high stakes even with alternate universes. The problem Marvel faces is that, if another universe or some far-flung future timeline goes to hell, who cares? What are the odds that will actually be the future of the ol' 616? What are the odds saving that future will even matter? The crappy version of that future will still have to exist somewhere in the infinite multiverse, after all. And we know the characters have this attitude because we see things like Bishop literally destroying the entire planet just to inconvenience Cable and Hope because he figures he can just change it back later. The future does not matter, and neither do other universes. In DC's new setup, there's a finite amount of universes, each with their own intended (supposedly) timeline. When they get messed with, or when the whole multiverse is threatened, it can have real consequences, including direct consequences to the reader as shown in Flashpoint. I think that the 52 universes provide enough wiggle room to make use of those popular Elseworlds titles and with room for future growth without being totally open to anything. This is especially true if those who want to go further afield from the standard 52 can do so with new Elseworlds stories, such as the Earth One books, and readers can vote with their dollars to see which of those deserve to become a part of the official multiverse.

But what does everyone else think? Do you see a significant difference between "alternate universe" and "alternate timeline?" Or even more subtle, an "alternate timeline" and an "altered timeline?" Do you prefer Marvel's Multiverse or DCs? Let me know!

Posted by Jonny_Anonymous

Ooh good blog. I, like you, am a big fan of alternate timeline's and I'v got to say I prefer DC's approach. The fact that a timeline could actually be the right one and then watch it unfold is just much more intresting to me. I'm a big fan of the idea that Damian Wayne will become Batman then go on to take Terry McGinnins. 

"Go then, there are other worlds than these"


Edited by fodigg

@spiderbat87: Thanks for reading! Sorry it was so long.

I actually was knocking around editing and remembered another Richards/Summers kid from the Exiles book, and then I actually discovered that there was another future-child created for a trilogy of novels (Times Arrow trilogy) that featured "Dream Jeanie Summers," which is a horrible pun but there you go. She's not in any comics but this universe apparently has its own designation, "Earth-9891." So this adds a whole new level the Marvel's "everything in one bucket" philosophy--you don't even have to be in the comics to fit into the Marvel Multiverse. That's incredible to me.

Edited by BloodTalon

@fodigg: I like the way Marvel handles it a lot better than the way dc handles it

also I don't believe there is such a thing as an alternate time line there just alternate universes. The whole time line thing is a misconception of both the characters and the writers that write them. Now lets look at Bishop his "time line" has happened and will happen he can't fix it and the same goes for Cable at best they are stopping a similar thing from happening some where els

So now on to the Exiles who are a whole new ball of wax and the stakes are awfully high with them they are dealing with the broken Multiverse. In the last issue of the Exiles run Beast tells us that the whole Kang BS would eventually change and be replaced with some new BS so the only logical end is that when the Exiles fix all the broken universes that would be the last change and we would be left with the "real" and unbroken Multiverse.

This is just t my opinion. Nice blog.

Edited by KingofMadCows

The whole alternate universes/timelines doesn't matter. What matters is what the reader wants. It doesn't matter if there are an infinite number of alternate universes where everything is possible if you're only attached to a specific universe and the characters within that universe. For example, if you only like the DCAU and you don't care about the comics or Elseworld or the videogames, then why do you care what happens to the characters in those other continuities?

If you like multiple continuities, then it's a question of do you think that giving up something you like for something that you like even more increases the value of the item you kept. Let's say that you like both the Batman Beyond continuity and the Kingdom Come continuity equally. Would you like it if they were both possible futures of the same universe and that the next crossover/crisis/reboot will determine which future will take place, thus eliminating the possibility of the other continuity; or would you prefer it if they took place in separate universes, thus preserving both continuities? Do you think that the existence of one continuity diminishes the other and that sacrificing one continuity will make the remaining continuity have more "meaning," or do you think it doesn't matter and just like reading both?

Posted by Primmaster64

Too much to read man... But yeah I always found what's the diference between  Alternative Universes and Alternative timelines....Timelines as what if? Alternative Universes as what could have been?

Posted by tamabone

Excellent blog.  One of my favorite topics too.  Here's the way I see it.  Everything started with the big bang, then from that piont on everything that could have happened did happen in an infinite amount of ways in an infinite amount of universes.  Yes UNIVERSES.  Time always flows forward, thus when an action splits off, time continues to flow forward from the piont of the action in all outcomes from that action.  EXAMPLE:  I will type either the number 1 or the number 2.         1              Now in this universe time flows forward from the point of my typing the number 1 while in another universe time flowes forward from the point of my typing the number 2.  Both universes are valid and exist independently of each other for the rest of eternity.  So whenever an alternate to the accepted timeline apears in a story it is an alternate UNIVERSE that split off at some point in the past that we may or may not know of.   
Whenever someone in a comic travels back in time they are also traveling to an alternate universe, since in the universe that they left they did not exist at that piont in time in that form.  EXAMPLE: A twenty year old Franklin Richards goes back in time and imparts knowledge to a five year old Franklin Richards that the twenty year old Frankli Richards did not have when he was five.  The Grandfather Paradox dictates that the two Franklin Richards can not be from the same universe since the older one altered the younger one's history that his ouw history was not altered in before the trip through time.  EVERY TIME someone travels back or forward in time they are entering an anternate UNIVERSE, because time in the universe that they left continues to flow forward without them in it just as time continues to flow forward in the universe that they have traveled to.    
There can not be alternate timelines because every decision made creates its own universe.  Time is constant, reality is altered.  There is no way that time can be changed without creating an alternate UNIVERSE.  Therefore there are NO alternate timelines. 
Bishop cannot prevent his timeline from happening because if it didn't happen he could not come back in time to attempt to make it not happen.   TIME IS ETERNAL! 
Edited by fodigg

Bumping this way old blog just to post some insight Tom Brevoort shared on how he handles the issue for Marvel, on his personal tumblr.


There used to be a rule in Marvel time travel that you can't change the past, you just create alternate timelines. That rule is constantly ignored in modern Marvel, and it being acknowledged is the exception, not the rule. Characters constantly act like changing the past or knowing too much about the future will destroy the universe even though before they knew it wasn't the case. Why do you think writers don't use this rule anymore?


Because it was a dumb rule.

Mark Gruenwald in particular was a big proponent of this concept, because he liked things to be orderly, and he spent a lot of years hammering nails into the idea that this was how time-travel worked in the MU—invalidating several earlier stories in order to do so in some cases.

I on the other hand have now spend an equal or greater number of years prying all of those nails back out again. Because if any time-travel story just results in an alternate timeline, then no time-travel story has any stakes or any drama. It’s neat and clean, yes, but also bloodless. Time-travel should be dangerous, it should be risky, and there should be consequences, potential or otherwise. At least that’s my feeling.

So, my assumption is that there are several different methods of time-travel that exist within the MU. Some of them create alternate timelines, and some of them do not.

I thought it was interesting that Marvel's more fluid approach was actually a result of opposing philosophies being promoted by different editors. It certainly explains why so many recent time travel storylines seem to run away from the multiverse concept.