A blog from my dearly departed Marvel blog of a decade ago in which I discuss my dislike for the term Earth-616. Despite what I wrote here, the term 616 was invented by Dave Thorpe not Alan Moore.
I cannot stomach the current fannish tendency to refer to the mainstream Marvel universe as “616.” It bugs me, in a sort of dopey, exclusionary way.
The term originates in Alan Moore’s CAPTAIN BRITAIN stories from close to thirty years ago, but has only really come into popular usage in the last couple of years, as handbook-minded writers have begun to use it on Wikipedia and in similar information-based sites about the Marvel characters. Alan’s story postulated a multiverse in which our Captain Britain was one of hundreds of slightly-different Captain Britains across a string of parallel universes, each one slightly different in the manner of the classic DC Earth 1/Earth 2 scenario. And in needing some designation for our Captain Britain, Alan decided upon Earth 616. Different people have speculated on the source of Alan’s inspiration, but as far as I know, he’s never confirmed any of them.
To me, though, referring to the main Marvel Earth as 616 is counter-intuitive to the principles underlying the Marvel Universe as a whole–specifically, that while it’s a world of fantasy, there’s still enough of a semblance of verisimilitude that allows the average reader to relate these stories and events in a meaningful way to their own lives and conflicts and struggles. Marvel’s Earth is meant to be the “real world” far more than any fantasy construct. I have no problem with Alan’s use in his original stories, but thereafter calling it Earth 616 makes it feel all the more like a place of make-believe, of science fiction, of unreality. Which is it, of course, but acknowledging that in this direct a way shatters the illusion a bit too much for my tastes.
I also think it’s exclusionary. It’s the sort of term that means absolutely nothing to any reader who isn’t dyed-in-the-wool–even long-time readers don’t know where the tag comes from or what it signifies. And so the hardcore readers started to toss it around as a badge of honor, as a codeword that allowed them to identify one another. And from there, it simply began to grow.
I can tell you for sure that those of us actually working on the books virtually never use the term–and I kind of wince inside whenever I hear somebody use it. It just sounds so stupid to my ear, and so counter to the kind of mindset we try to foster in regards to the stories we create and the thinking we try to employ.
4 thoughts on “Blah Blah Blog – 616 411”
Love seeing this article pop up again from the archives.
I appreciate your explanations for your dislike of the term 616 — that the use of a peculiar numerical signifier calls attention to the Marvel Universe being a fictional universe, diminishing it of its verisimilitude (love that word) that writers labor to inject into the stories. Or put more succinctly, its use is at odds for making the world “feel real.”
For what its worth, as a reader, that notion had never entered my mind until I read your original blog entry. And even now in trying to see it from another’s point-of-view, I can’t even force myself into that mindset. For me, a peculiar number like 616 makes it feel MORE real!
Because on some level, the universe you and I live in is the “real” universe, and all that we know springs from ours. When DC refers to “Earth-1” or “Prime Earth” or any other designation that implies “the main one,” that is in direct contradiction to my own experience and automatically rings false. By contrast, seeing a fantasy world filled with superpowers seems like it COULD CONCEIVABLY BE 616 iterations removed from my own. Which requires less suspension of disbelief to conceive of the Marvel Universe as being a version of real life. I even suspect that this point-of-view may become more common as concepts of quantum theory continue to pervade into cultural consciousness.
On a more personal level: I’ve always interpreted using a weird number like 616 as a TEMPORAL version of the rejection of geocentrism, and even creationism(!) Just as Earth is not the center of the universe, and mankind is just one branch of the tree of animals, so too was this science-steeped universe not the center of all that was. It reflected the vastness of scientific phenomena and the realization that we’re not the center of it all. In that way, it always felt like a very mature and humble position to take.
I know all of this is all academic because apparently Secret Wars closed the matter for good. But I thought you might be interested to hear a 1st-hand account from a reader who saw an alternate reality from your own.
I feel like it’s Marvel saying we’re so secure the Earth we focus on out of the multiverse we’ve created doesn’t have to be Earth Numero Uno…
Kind of funny reading this now that the Disney-owned Marvel has leaned hard enough into “616” nomenclature to even name a TV series after it.
Welp, this blog post aged like milk.