Comics and the Future (What There is of It)

The other night, I sat down to catch up on my comic reading, and within about twenty minutes I was despairing for the future of humanity.

Granted, these days that’s not a hard thing to get me to do. Jon Stewart can get me to do it. Virtually any given message board can get me to do it. That skeezy Katy Perry song they keep playing and playing as if it keeps evil spirits away does it within seconds. I’m a man who takes things to heart; depressing me is strictly amateur night. But lately, comics have really been stepping up to the plate when it comes to bleakness and fatalism; comics have seen the future, and it’s had its windows smashed.

As has often been the case in my reading history, it was the mutants who started depressing me first.

Last week, iFanboy’s always-excellent Pick of the Week review motivated me to stick with the current Wolverine series even though I share all of Josh’s reservations about writer Mark Millar and his ways. (The more time I spend at iFanboy, the more I begin to realize I may just be God’s backup copy of Josh.) I read the book and enjoyed it a lot — as I do the first couple of issues of everything Mark Millar does before he starts getting bored — but the more time I spent in its post-apocalyptic setting, spending page after page in a world where evil has triumphed over good and the system has broken down, I couldn’t help but wonder:

Does every future have to be post-apocalyptic?

Must the world come to an end?

Only moments before Wolverine, after all, I had read the recent issues of X-Factor and Cable. (The fact that I am reading a book about Cable is its own kind of story about the world coming to an end, but never mind. Keep it up, Mr.Swierczynski; you have done the impossible! Make me care about Iron Fist somehow, and you may be a write-in on my ballot in November.) In Cable, the main character has been keeping a baby safe by duct taping it to his chest and jumping through time with it (you had to be there) only to discover that every future he visits is more bombed out and Mad Maxed than the one before it. Meanwhile, one of my favorite mutants in X-Factor was inadvertently left in yet another possible future, this time in a mutant concentration camp surrounded by a lot of cities that fell down and caught fire. All of these plot points were fallout from the last world-changing X-Men mega-crossover event series, It X-Took Up Twenty X-Issues SiX Months Ago and I Already Can’t Remember the X-Title. X.

I should be nicer; I liked most of that story while it was being told. Still: for twenty-five years, those X-books have been all about the alternate histories and possible futures, but apparently the future where many people live into their sixties is not a possible one. No, if you and I were playing our own comic version of The $64,000 Pyramid, I would hint, “Comics that are set in the future!” to get you to say, “Things that have charred skeletons on the front of them!”

It’s not just the X-Men. Things seem like they’re going to end badly for The Hulk one way or another. Gotham City in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns has gone to hell on a carnival ride before the nuclear winter sets in. Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead is perhaps the most successful creator-owned book in the last ten years, and that damn book practically exhales hopelessness into your face like a rude smoker. And then there’s Watchmen, where the apocalypse is a best-case scenario, depending on who’s pushing the button. Just thinking about the ending of that book makes me want to take to bed. Very occasionally, you’ll get a Legion of Super-Heroes future, but that is definitely the exception. By and large, when writers look ahead, they see five clean guys in a compound full of monitors watching the rest of us scrounge for food in the ruins.

(Mark Millar has used the “bad guys win and wipe the good guys off the face of the earth” plot at least twice in the last five years, by the way. Clearly, he’s got something on his mind.)

Why is it that, when we try to imagine the future for our characters, we so often see a post-apocalyptic hellscape? (By the way, can there even be a post-apocalypse? I feel like one of us must not know what that word means.) Is it something in the current zeitgeist? I have a tendency to give everything a political reading — remind me to explain some day how World War Hulk is actually about Iraq… wait, on second thought, don’t; flames from the comments would quickly burn the site to embers — but I can’t help wondering if some kind of malaise has seeped into the ground water, and if maybe on some level we want our entertainment to start walking us through the nightmare scenarios we already have in the back of our minds as words like “terrorist attack” and “food shortage” start coming out of Brian Williams’ mouth on a regular basis.

Then again, fiction here in the aughts doesn’t have a monopoly on dystopia. There are your Terminators and Waterworlds and so forth. Maybe what we’re actually looking for is the ultimate problem for characters to face. They say the key to good drama is conflict, and nothing says “conflict” like the Statue of Liberty’s head bouncing down the street at terrified onlookers. They always said that the first few years of Star Trek: The Next Generation were unbearable to write because Gene Roddenberry insisted that humans had evolved past fighting with each other… so there was never anything else compelling for them to do except, you know, run from “anomalies” and what-have-you.

Or maybe we’re not just anticipating the worst. Maybe all these flaming landmarks and cannibalistic motorcycle gangs are something hopeful in disguise. See… when I was a kid, a movie named Escape From New York came out about a world in which Manhattan had fallen so far into the toilet that society just walled it off and abandoned it to the prisoners. When director John Carpenter was trying to make this movie, he quickly realized that it would be too expensive to transform the actual city of New York into a bombed out ruin, so he had to find somewhere else to film that looked convincingly apocalyptic and destroyed.

In the end, he filmed it in my home town.

You cannot imagine what it is like to see this movie under these circumstances. “Surreal” does no justice to looking at the screen and being able to say, “Hey, I recognize that! I grew up in that horror show, a plausible double for the failure and ultimate collapse of civilization! I think I see my house!”

But here’s the thing: that was 1980, and 1980 was a long time ago. Things were believably bleak, but the city dusted itself off and faced its problems. It undid its apocalypse. The abandoned train station where Snake Plissken had that fight in the wrestling ring is the kind of place where my friends have their weddings now. Every touring Broadway company comes through town and performs at that former husk of a theater. The real-world city has redeemed itself, and maybe that’s what we’re looking for in the comics-world as well. We get to see our heroes and their world go to hell, but only in the hopes of seeing them bring that world back out of hell with them. We visit that future not to see the world end, but to see it keep going.


Jim Mroczkowski is sticking with the “redemption” theory because it’s the least depressing. You can reach him at or stalk him more discreetly via or Twitter.



  1. First off, you basically answered your own question i think. I’ve asked this question myself and heres what i’ve come up with.Does every future have to be post apocalyptic? No but most do. You have examples where things turn out ok, another is Alan Davis’s the last fantastic four story. It came out in the lasts year or so it may have been called Fantastic four the end, i really dont remember but the point is it had a positive future. so again going back to why most futures have to be bad, well again you said it. conflict. A world gone to hell provides a writer with a lot of conflict that they can pull from, it lets the writer examine the best and worst about humanity. also if nothing else its the writer trying to say wake up you moron and do something to make the world a better place or do you want to live in a place like this?

    p.s. im glad someone wrote a article about this b/c well you and i cant be the only ones who have noticed this.

  2. Nice article.  I think you answered your own question, though, in your Star Trek: TNG example.  Conflict = story.  No conflict, no story.  If you’re telling a story in a comics, which is a genre that, at its core, is about people in colorful costumes beating each other up, then envisioning a setting for that story where conflict is not present (such as a Utopian future) will likely result in a boring story.  However, creating a DYSTOPIAN future allows writers to tell stories dripping with conflict, where society has gone straight to hell and people are at each other’s throats.  And in comics, where the writers can’t flat out destroy the universe in which an entire company’s characters live just to tell a compelling story for one character, the "alternate future" provides a great escape clause.  "This is what the world COULD be like… but we never have to get there."  (This is also why most of the Multiple Earths in DC are also so messed up.)  People don’t like stories about happy people.  That’s why we could care less if Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner have a pretty baby and nice family values, but we can’t get enough about the train wrecks that are Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse (and if those two get their lives together you’ll see a whole lot less ink about them, as well.)  As a general rule, humanity may want to LIVE in Utopia, but we want our STORIES to be about Dystopia.

  3. Now, a post-apocalyptic story where Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears are the two most together people left on earth is a story I… well, I don’t want to write it because of how much I’d love to read it.

  4. Very nice Jimski.


    Re: Amy Winehouse

    Does it seem like she was created by scientists who needed to know what would happen if scabs had scabs?  Talented girl, terrific mess.

  5. You’re definitely onto something.  My first instinct was to say that writers just want to write apocalyptic storylines and latch onto ‘it’s in the future’ as an excuse (you can just as easily do ‘it’s an alternate universe,’ as comics and other media frequently do and have done).   But then you made the comparison to ‘Star Trek’ with its optimistic view of the future, and I can’t think of anything out there right now like that, or even Babylon 5  — which is a somewhat darker show but still has the basic moral that the citizens of the galaxy have the potential to get along and make the universe better, blah-di-blah; the show Straczynski made *after* that one was, of course, post-apocalyptic.

    I’m not sure there’s a deep lesson here about the zeitgeist, or anything like that, but I don’t think you would have had the current ‘Battlestar Galactica’ series 10 years ago (I know that may not technically be ‘future’ but it’s both set in space and textually post-end-of-civilization).   Of course, the new ‘Star Trek’ might come out and do phenomenally well, and then everything will change again.

  6. Oh i just thought of another non apocalyptic "future" Firefly, yes things are rough but thats frontier/smugglers life for you, but over all civilization is intact.

  7. I think the "possible future" is defined by the character the story is about.

    Fantastic Four, Legion of Super-Heroes – Positive, bright, etc.

    Wolverine, Batman – Grim and gritty, "bombed-out"

    Escape from New York stars a tough-as-nails bona-fide bad ass, and so, requires a matching backdrop, whereas the movie A.I. was more polished and positive since the main character was a little robotic boy.  I love it when they flip that on its ear and throw a character into a totally contrasting background. You find it a lot in anime. In Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis, the two main characters are a young boy and robot girl modeled after a child, and much of the film takes place in the sewers amidst a revolution and political intrigue involving arson, murder, betrayal, and other conceptually violent themes.

    Good article though Jim. Keep ’em coming. 

  8. @ English~  I don’t know if you would call "Firefly" post apocalyptic, but it definitely has that feel.  I mean, it’s a universe where a major federation controls everything and pioneers are left to starve and die by major corporations.  It may not be dressed up as an end of all things, but there is a certain feel to that show that reminds you not everything is ok.

  9. It seems to me that most stories that revolve around the future have an undercurrent of distress or unrest.  Brave New World, 1984, Logan’s run, all idealized societies where, to achieve such a "utopia" sacrifices are required.  Sacrifices that seem completely unreasonable to anyone reading/watching.

    @actualbutt AI had so much potential, had it ended 20 minutes earlier…it’s like watching Spielberg go, "this Kubrick script is too thought provoking, a sad ending?  Nah, let’s write a happy ending and create another blockbuster!"  Obviously I don’t know that to be the case (for all I know Kubrick wanted a happy ending) but that’s how it feels to me.

  10. @ Neb sorry i should have clarified i ment to point out that Firefly was not post apocalyptic.

  11. ack fire fly is a example where the universe is not post apocalyptic.

  12. @ Jim – I don’t know, I’ve been to St Lo and Grant’s Farm is about as post-apocalyptic as you can get. "Cats and dogs… living together?" Also, the "baby" goats ate through my family’s clothes like a plague of locusts.

  13. @patio  And zonkeys, my God!  Zebras and donkeys breeding — it’s just unnatural.  *shudders*

  14. Grant’s Farm is exactly what it should be, exactly what it sounds like on paper: a private zoo on the property of insanely wealthy people. I imagine Adoplhus Busch in the 19th century saying, "And here! I want a collection of beasts. Eagles and camels and bears and elly-phants! All together, with no rhyme or reason. Perhaps we shall make them fight for the amusement of the children."

  15. I bet you can guess that I read that faux Busch quote in a certain accent to myself.  It’s funnier that way.

  16. Yeah, I’ve noticed just in general fiction that 85% of "future" stories is either some apocalyptic dystopia where somebody boned it real bad and everybody died in flaming chaos or some ironic utopia where the government took away that one basic freedom (logical thinking, living past 21, etc.) andeverything became relative sunshine and peaches.

    Either that or it’s the Jetsons where it’s pretty much the same as now except with flying cars and those conveyor belt things everywhere. 

  17. To be fair, the Future in Back to the Future 2 didn’t seem so bad, unless you were Marty.

  18. Without an Apocalypse, the future would just be like today. Except with flying cars. Booooooring. Gimme an apocalypse, or millions of zombies running around, or even talking apes.

    And according to the movies, we should have had Death Race 2000 by now, and we would all be going to our local sporting complex to watch Rollerball. I feel cheated!

    ps- I am totally against the idea of flying cars. The last thing I need is for some drunk asshole to come flying thru my bedroom window at 3 in the morning.

  19. The East Side of STL hasn’t been quite dusted off yet. Pretty sure if you hang around there long enough you can still cross paths with the Duke, or some crazy black guy dressed like a woman that gives great head – not that i’d know.. 

    btw: i’d f’n love to hear the equating of WWH to Iraq.    

  20. @Unoob– Hopefully, by the time we perfect flying cars, our houses will have force fields around them.  Then drunks will be like flies on a windshield.  Fun for all.

  21. I usually base the future of our planet with The Jetsons.

    Think about it: Flying cars with no gas, super computers, great technology, robots doing our work, and to top it off they live in the sky cause of obvious global warming from the past.

    All I want to know is……Where the hell is my Orbitity?

  22. I love Escape From New York

  23. You gotta admit there’s something inherently funny about New York not being crummy enough to portray itself.

    On a side note, there are some frightening similarities between the opening scene from Escape From New York and 9-11 if it’s equation you desire.

  24. What the hell is an Orbitity?

  25. @Actual: That little fuzzy creature…thing…..It was white and purple and had springs for feet. Plus it could also change colors on it’s mood.

    …..Hey I anit the one who did LSD and invented this thing. It was animators in the 70s…

  26. Is all this comic doomsaying just indications of some silly socio-political theory about how we lack faith in our own future?   Or is it just everyone loves them some zombie apocalypse? 

    In any event, I always loved me some Logan’s Run-esque candy-coated dystopia:  "Hey, look at all these hot 20 year olds!   What do you mean how old am I?  Why?  Life-clock?  Oh, I’m, uh, 19!  Yeah, naturally grey hairs.  It’s weird, I know."