What comic books taught me about the end of the world
First published in Overland | June, 2020
In a recent article for The New Yorker, Kim Stanley Robinson acknowledged sci-fi writers can’t see the future. ‘Still,’ he says, ‘if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen.’ If you regularly read superhero comics, however, you’ll be primed for the present crisis in somewhat different ways.
Superhero stories are propelled by the need to avert ever-approaching apocalypses, although it wasn’t always this way. In his earliest tales, Superman fought foes like corrupt politicians, domestic abusers and slum lords. But serialised stories require a constant raising of stakes, with each new threat more dire than the last. Soon enough, superheroes found themselves saving the world on a monthly basis.
A few examples: the cosmic being Galactus was threatened with the Ultimate Nullifier and prevented from destroying the earth in Fantastic Four #48, 1966; the Sun-Eater – yes, of course – ate the sun so another had to be created from scratch in in Final Night #4, 1996; the mutant Kitty Pryde rendered a giant space-projectile intangible so it wouldn’t shatter our world in Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1, 2008. Always, it’s the superheroes who fly into action and save the day.
Writing in The Guardian, Noah Berlatsky says that superheroes are ‘ill-equipped’ to battle this current pandemic. ‘The [Marvel Comics Universe]’s vision of empowerment via teaming up to blast things to smithereens seems woefully inadequate,’ he mourns. Superheroes are creatures of action above all else, so demands to self-isolate and stay home would be their kryptonite. If you can’t use your powers, do you even have powers at all? You may as well be mortal.
In superhero comics, there’s something known as a ‘red skies crossover’. That’s an issue that purports to be part of a larger story, but only references it in the most oblique fashion – for instance, by the skies turning red. That’s how most of us experience catastrophic events. We’re not the protagonists, fighting impossible battles. We are most often spectators.
You can also read: You have new gods now: the radical vision of X-Men comics.