- Navigating Infinite Earths:Readers, Mental Models, and the Multiverse of Superhero Comics
In a recent study of multiple worlds in physics, philosophy, and narrative, Marie-Laure Ryan argues that our "private encyclopedia" is deeply rooted in the classical notion that there is one world in which we live and through which we think—rather than many such worlds. As Ryan puts it, "[f]or most of us, the idea of parallel realities is not yet solidly established in our private encyclopedias and the text must give strong cues for us to suspend momentarily our intuitive belief in classical cosmology" (Ryan 2006: 671). Cognitive-psychological research on mental models, that is, scenarios we mentally develop in order to reason, also stresses that situations triggering the creation of multiple mental models are difficult to process (see Jarvella, Lundquist, and Hyönä 1995), and that we construct mental models in order to eliminate alternatives and create coherence (Johnson-Laird 1983; Garnham [End Page 39] and Oakhill 1994). Thus, when reading fiction, interpreters construct "a three-dimensional model akin to an actual model of the scene" (Johnson-Laird 2006: 37) in order to locate the characters in a story, monitor the events and project the narrative's progress (see Herman 2002). In such contexts readers' mental model is called a "storyworld," and it relies on the same one-world ontology that Ryan associates with "our intuitive belief in classical cosmology."
Readers of contemporary superhero comics, however, seem to be less fully invested than others in this classical cosmology—a cosmology that favors singular over multiple realities, in narrative texts as well as everyday life. The stories of heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have been published for decades on a weekly or biweekly basis, written by ever-changing authors. As a result, inconsistencies emerged in the different storylines and encounters involving these characters, and continuity, or the coherent and consistent development of the characters and their storyworlds, became a problem. In response, superhero comics made a virtue out of necessity and presented their storyworlds as part of a larger "multiverse," in which a variety of mutually incompatible narrative worlds existed as parallel realities. Villains aim to turn the entire multiverse into their dominion, and superheroes unite to maintain the status quo across storyworlds.
Insofar as it involves a set of incompatible storyworlds, the multiverse of superhero comics differs from other narratives that cluster storyworlds. Ryan outlines several strategies through which multiple worlds are accommodated in narratives, in a way that can be reconciled with classical cosmology: they can be explained as the product of a character's imagination (mentalism), as a computer-generated world (virtualization), as a symbolic world (allegory), through reference to the author (metatextualism), through magic, or through an explicit invitation to the reader to choose his or own story (2006: 669-71). Superhero comics, however, take a multiworld model of reality—the multiverse—largely as an ontological given. The storyworlds of the superhero multiverse involve not just plural private worlds or "subworlds," that is, the imaginings, hopes, and beliefs of characters (see Ryan 1991: 116-23; Ryan 1992; Werth 1999: 210-58), but rather fully parallel, equally actualized realities. And even though these comics feature metareferences outside the [End Page 40] storyworld to authors and readers (see Kukkonen 2009), these are not always used to reduce the multiplicity of comics storyworlds. At issue in the superhero multiverse, rather, are mutually incompatible realities—unrelated (or at least highly distinctive) narrative worlds featuring different sets of superheroes as well as counterfactual scenarios involving alternative developments of the story of a known superhero. These cannot be reconciled as subworlds within the larger storyworld, and a baseline "textual actual world" (Ryan 1991: 113) is not always established. In superhero comics, multiple scenarios are the case, and it can be a challenge to determine when and how storyworlds of the multiverse form a set of counterfactuals, that is, "what if" alternatives departing from what is the case.
This article explores the sometimes labyrinthine complexity of the superhero multiverse, as well as the means by which readers navigate that ontological labyrinth, via three tutor texts: Marv Wolfman's Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985...