Marvel has just launched their Marvel 616 documentary TV show on Disney+. The Dan Slott episode will need the most unpacking, for sure. There's being self-deprecatory and there's self-assassination.
But what does the Marvel 616 term actually mean? You will find lots of explanations online, but only one website, Bleeding Cool back then, actually thought to ask the man who invented it, Dave Thorpe. Even though he never actually put it into print… he gets a Thanks credit on the show.
He did got an interview on Marvel.com a few days ago, where they only used illustrative pages written by Alan Moore. We'll get to that.
Once upon a time, in 1981, Dave Thorpe was writing original Captain Britain comic strips for Marvel UK's monthly Marvel Superheroes title, drawn by artists Alan Davis and Paul Neary. A world away from previous Captain Britain stories, these were surreal, satirical, allegorical and political tales, which weren't that appreciated at the time. He lasted a year, before he was replaced by Alan Moore who amped up the weird – but Thorpe did create a number of concepts on the Captain Britain comics which were then taken up by Alan Moore, such as Mad Jim Jaspers, Saturnyne, The Crazy Gang who have all been recently revived in the X-Men comics – and the idea that the Earth that Captain Britain was fighting on, was numbered 616.
It was a joke. DC Comics had Earth One, Earth Two and Earth Three – so this Earth that Captain Britain was on was Earth 616, further down the dial.
Previously I'd only heard Alan Davis paraphrase what Dave Thorpe meant by the numbers. So I thought I'd ask Dave directly. Talking to me, he explained where it all came from.
616 was the worst of the parallel Earths that was holding the others back from achieving the shift forward to the next evolutionary stage, which is why Saturnyne turned up to administer the evolutionary fluid to its population. 666 = number of the beast (Crowley). It would have been too obvious to use that. I chose 616 = 666 – 50. Why 50? a nice round number, but the school in the world's coldest town in Siberia closes when the temperature reaches -61.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It's an extreme tipping point.
So Marvel 616 was named after the shutdown temperature of a town in Siberia. From the man himself. Well maybe. He tells Marvel,
Well, for years, I'd [gotten] emails from fans who say, "Why did you come up with 616?" And to be honest, I gave them each a different story. But, obviously, it's got something to do with 666, the number of the beast: 666 minus 50.
I like Siberia though. Dave Thorpe currently has a young adult SF novel, Perfect Girl in the works, and you can find more of his more recent work here.
The phrase 616 wasn't published in the comic when he wrote it, but this was meant to be the parallel universe in which his Captain Britain was fighting. When Alan Moore began writing the Captain Britain strip, he took on the idea of the Omniverse and created the Captain Britain Corps. In the issue of UK comic book magazine Daredevils #7, he used the numbers for the first time, now stating that the parallel universe Dave described above was to be designated 238 and that the Marvel Universe, in which Captain Britain originally resided and returned to, was to be 616.
Chris Claremont was a big fan of Alan Moore's work. putting Alan's version of Sir James Jaspers into Uncanny X-Men #200, alongside Roma – though his plans for The Fury and James Jaspers changed into Nimrod and The Adversary over copyright disputes. But when he put together the comic Excalibur with Alan Davis and picking up on a number of characters from both the X-Men and the Captain Britain worlds, he included Dave Thorpe's Crazy Gang and Saturnyne. With the pandimensional Cross-Time Caper, the numbers 616 began to pop up. And other Marvel Comics engaged in dimensional travelling storylines used the same number for the Marvel Earth.
Decades on, this had become quite the trope, editorial had spoken out their hatred in using it, despite many creators' love for the phrase. So a few years ago, creators were given a last hurrah, to use it, get it out of their systems on stories such as Dan Slott's event Spider-Verse (which led to the movie) and Infinity/Time Runs Out, culminating in the Secret Wars comic that destroyed the 616 Universe and then recreated it as Prime Earth.
But you can't keep a good number down. It keeps popping up – it was all over the Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse movie, it's was stated (erroneously) as the designated MCU dimension by Mysterio in Spider-Man: Far From Home and now the new Marvel TV series.
"Marvel's 616"is an anthological documentary series exploring the intersection between Marvel's rich legacy of stories, characters and creators and the world outside your window. Told through the lens of a diverse group of filmmakers, each documentary will dive into the rich historical, cultural and societal context that has become inseparable from stories of the Marvel Universe.
You can't keep a good 616 down… but no credit for Dave Thorpe, sadly.