How Alan Moore (And Satan) Named Marvel's 'Earth-616'
The term "Earth-616" used to be the sort of arcane knowledge you'd only see in heated message board debates between uber-nerds arguing about stuff like "Who can do the most butt crunches, Thanos or Galactus?" -- but now, like every other piece of Marvel Comics trivia, "616" is going mainstream. Recently, Disney+ released a documentary series called Marvel's 616, and Jake Gyllenhaal became the first person who has had more than two sexual partners to say the term out loud in Spider-Man: Far From Home.
For those still unfamiliar, "616" is the official designation for the main reality in the Marvel Multiverse. The regular Spider-Man comics take place in Earth-616, while the all-ages issues your nephew uses as coloring books (or worse) probably take place in Earth-12236428427 or whatever. But how did Marvel settle on that number? As it turns out, it all started as a bit of a satanic in-joke by a legendary comic book writer and novelist from England who also dabbles in the dark arts: yes, THE Dave Thorpe.
See, in the '70s and '80s, Marvel had a British branch called Marvel UK that mostly just reprinted stories from the American comics (with less revealing clothes) but also included all-new material by some of the local talents. One of those original series was about Captain Britain, who's like Captain America but powered by magic instead of steroids.
In 1981, Thorpe was writing a Captain Britain storyline where Cap visits other realities, each of which had a different number. Thorpe decided to use 616 for "the worst of the parallel Earths" because 666 would have been too obvious. Also, he liked that "the school in the world's coldest town in Siberia closes when the temperature reaches -61.6 degrees Fahrenheit" -- in other words, Earth-616 was supposed to be the absolute butthole of the multiverse. It was what certain websites ending in "chan" are to the rest of the internet, down to the fact that it was ruled by genocide-loving mega-trolls.
In the middle of the storyline, Thorpe was fired by Marvel, so the first to put the now-famous number in a comic was the writer who replaced him: a fresh-faced upstart called Alan Moore. However, Moore decided to use "616" for the regular Marvel U instead of the dumpster fire reality, just because he disliked how DC always talked about "Earth-2" and such but "never any higher numbers." After all, if there are truly "Infinite Earths" as DC liked to say, what are the chances that all the ones the heroes run into would be in the top 10?
It's possible that this was also Moore subtly letting Marvel know how he felt about them after the accounting department jerked him around over unpaid invoices. In fact, one of the reasons the "616" designation didn't catch on right away was that Moore refused to allow Marvel to reprint his Captain Britain stories in the US, not because they're terrible but because Marvel is. In the '90s, the 616 number popped up again in Excalibur, a comic about some of the X-Men moving to England and shacking up with Captain Britain. By the next decade, the number had spread among other writers and fans, even as Marvel's higher-ups talked about how much they hated it. That didn't stop movies like Thor: Dark World, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, or the aforementioned Far From Home from referencing it.
It's kind of funny that throwaway Alan Moore lines would become massively important in companies he despises, like when DC based two major crossovers on a couple of eight-page Green Lantern stories Moore wrote over 20 years earlier. Also, for the record, it's Thanos. Thanos does the most butt-crunches. Come on.
Top image: Marvel Studios