Superman, et al seek to cancel the apocalypse

This week, Marvel announced the new “Old Woman Laura” storyline. In it, we see Laura–you may know her as the “New Wolverine”–in a future that is actually pretty chill. Having superheroes, it seems, has actually improved things.

It is an interesting idea because most futures in comics–and alternate universes–are apocalyptic in nature. Part of that is, of course, comics are a dramatic medium. “Things are horrible!” will always be inherently more dramatic than “things are better than they were.” It’s why most of the utopian futures that have occurred in comics are eventually revealed as inherently rotten at their core.

However, I assert that there is more to our attraction to these narratives than mere drama.

A sliver of Old Woman Laura
(Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

Admitting My Truth

I will be honest, I love me a story about heroes facing incredible odds and not everyone making it out alive. I also hate when my favorite characters die. So, you know, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic superhero comic book stories are more or less made for me.

Growing up, I devoured a friend’s longbox of WHAT IF…’s. I’m not sure I’ve ever bought one myself, but I know I read at least the first 100 issues of the Volume One leaning against my friend’s bed while he played some submarine computer game.

This was despite being onto WHAT IF…’s game by around issue #4. The answer to the implied question of “What if…” was always “most if not all people would die.” Somehow, WHAT IF AUNT MAY FAVORED BUTTERMILK PANCAKES OVER WHEATCAKES would end with Spider-Man impaled on a metal rod by Mary Jane. Also, MJ would’ve ended up as that universe’s Dr. Doom for some reason. This may be hyperbolic, but just barely.

I also fell in love with Elseworlds shortly thereafter. “Batman as Green Lantern? Oh hell yes, thank you very much.” But even amongst the Elseworlds, my favorites were the ones that set about destroying the DCU, like KINGDOM COME and AT EARTH’S END. So know when I’m discussing comic fans who love this sort of thing, I am also discussing myself.

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Defining the Term

Apocalypse, in the common parlance, tends to refer to an ending or near ending of all that is. Here I’m mashing up the feeling I often get from these–things have gone horribly wrong–with the historical definition. That is an event that triggers a significant change in how the world works.

Thus, the END stories from Marvel would fit here–the more colloquial understanding of apocalyptic. So too can say, WATCHMEN — a story in which New York City is decimated but the rest of the world continues to exist, psychologically changed but physically unaffected.

Similarly, the “utterly depressing for heroes but not that different for everyday people” RUINS would fit well under the umbrella. Meanwhile, the “things start dire but get significantly better” Elseworlds tale THE NAIL can slide in too.

I do not, however, include the likes of, say, SPIDER-GWEN. Their elements have changed but the universe remains largely similar in terms of balance and state of being. Similarly, SUPERMAN: SECRET IDENTITY exists in a superhero free world about to get its own Superman. However, it does not frame it as destroying that world or being a threat to destroy that world soon.

Batman stalks Jack the Ripper
(Courtesy of DC Comics)

Defining the Parameters

When it comes to comics, there are several varietals of post-apocalyptic worlds. The first is your typical “sometime in the future, this all goes bad.” Books like FUTURE IMPERFECT and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS fit into this category.

The next is what I call “what if apocalypse but the recent past.” The entire whole of WHAT IF’s are these. They essentially take one moment, alter it, and the result is a cascade of events that significantly alter the MU. DC was less likely to offer this kind of story over the years. Recently, though, they released arguably the highest-profile one of the past five years. FLASHPOINT saw Flash going back in time in an attempt to save his mom’s life. His attempts lead to things like Bruce Wayne dying but his parents living and Superman not being discovered by the Kents.

Finally, we have “what if apocalyptic but alternate universe.” These include your farther pasts like the GOTHAM BY GASLIGHT or SUPERMAN: RED SON Elseworlds where the change has less to do with alterations in comic continuity and more of a “hero appeared much earlier,” combined with elements of history. The alternate universe offerings also encompass basically present-day apocalypses like MARVEL ZOMBIES or INJUSTICE where seemingly everything is the same until the very moment of the story which roughly corresponds to the same time as the main universe.

 

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Human Nature

A friend has long said that people feel an attraction to the idea of living at the end of the world. For a particular kind of religious person, this desire is bundled up with a belief in a final salvation. If you live in Earth’s last era, the idea goes, you can be first to enter the new Kingdom of Heaven. No waiting, if you will.

However, the desire is not just the stuff of End Times theologians. Again, frame it less as a literal snuffing out of everything and more as a “moment that changes everything.” It’s why, since as long as the United States has existed, there have been people worried that it was moments away from it over. Many are repulsed by the end but feel utterly drawn to it as well. They can’t stop looking for signs no matter how fearful it makes them.

There is also something to be said for the outsides matching the insides. Again, most don’t want to feel like the Earth is ending. However, some already do. To have that feeling inside you but the outside world continues to turn unabated is a very uncomfortable and psychological distressing place to be. Think Michael Shannon’s character in TAKE SHELTER and how much more disturbed he was when his visions did not come true than he was experiencing those terrifying visions.

Finally, there is that all-too-human desire to see the story end. We don’t actually want, say, our children not to grow up and have their own kids and grandkids and so on and such of. Of course, we want that. But our heart aches at the thought of not getting to see it. We don’t want the end but we are terribly scared to miss things.

Avengers defeating everyone
(Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

Nature Meets the Four Color World

The draw of these stories is that it lets people explore buried, dark, uncomfortable plot wishes in a consequence-free space. If a prognosticator is right about the end of the United States, then they get to see the fall of America. This is not the kind of right that feels particularly good, even if it is your obsession. Meanwhile, comic fans can witness all sorts of atrocities and come out unscathed, secure in it being an “imaginary” story.

Fictional apocalypses allow us to glimpse characters enduring horrible outcomes we could not tolerate in a book that “counted.” We need not fear Spider-Man really becoming bonded to the Venom symbiote because, in the “real” continuity, he ditched it. However, in a post-apocalyptic tale you can still witness it. You can see the thing you don’t want to, but a part of you, somewhere down deep, thinks, “It might be kind of cool if…”

Comics also let us explore our dark dream of seeing the end of a character. At the same time, we can see Batman’s last stand against the Joker, we can simultaneously pick up a book about Joker’s latest escape from Arkham the same month. We can see the Avengers heroically fail to stop Thanos while making mincemeat out of Gravitron six rows down the wall.

Finally, it can help fans face fears. Recall the person unsettled by their internal conviction that a bad event draws near while no such event occurs. In comics, it is more of an ongoing conviction that your favorite character is going downhill fast. To have another book where you can experience the end of said character and still feel ok after can help. They can remain convinced Marvel hates all mutants and also realize they can deal with that.

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Putting a Bow On It

Comics fans, like the majority of humans, want and hate change all at once. Ask someone who repeatedly self-sabotages if they want to change and they will insist they do. Moreover, they are not lying. However, some part of them also is wary of changing. They hate derailing themselves but know exactly how bad it feels and in what way. What they don’t know is how it feels to it do it all right still and fail. What will the pain be like then? How bad will it be? How long will it hurt?

We comic fans hate the same old stories. We are sick of Batman fighting Joker; he oughtta just kill the grinner. We are bored of the Avengers battling Kang and have eight reasons why. Again, we absolutely mean it too.

However, change is also terrifying. If Spider-Man dies, we don’t have him anymore! If Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman get divorced, what happens to the FF’s family vibe? Could good stories come from those occurrences? Maybe. But they’ll be new so how can we know for sure? At least the stories we know, when they let us down, we know exactly how they will.

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories, therefore, are a release valve of sorts. We get the new we feel like we crave. But if the new is bad or dumb or too far afield from what we love, the familiar still exists. If we love that new approach, we have that story now. And if we love it tons, the company might just bring it into the mainstream as they have with Old Man Logan and stories of Batman and Superman having kids that also team-up.

None of us truly want the end, the upheaval, but we sure love to visit it.

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