Five Great Superhero Dystopias

October 11, 2012
The first issue of "Daredevil: End of Days" hit newsstands last week, and it lived up to the deserved hype from fans of Brian Michael Bendis's initial run on the Daredevil title. I won't recap the plot or even the setup and execution, since that would ruin what is a fascinating and delightful read. But the premise did get me to thinking about some of the other forays that superhero comics have taken into the dystopian futures of its most iconic characters.

There was a time when every comic had to have a happy ending. Usually all the loose ends were tied up within about thirty pages, adjusting for testimonials from graduates of the Charles Atlas course and advertisements for x-ray spectacles. With the onset of the 1970s and 1980s, however, hope gave way to uncertainty and cynicism in mainstream culture. That's when we saw Iris Allen die in the pages of "The Flash," Jean Grey bite the dust in "Uncanny X-Men," and the Dark Knight returned…and we realized that might not necessarily be a good thing.

Unlike many other forms of entertainment, comics can get away with this more frequently because they employ serial storytelling. The overarching tales of these characters continue in perpetuity. You might not get a happy ending to the current story arc, but there could presumably be one down the road. Either that or an editorial edict will come down to reverse or undo what you just read.

Yet there always seems to be one thing that is certain: the future is awful. Whether it's the outcome of the mutant struggle or global tensions, the lesson seems to always be that we need to make some major changes now or we're all either going to be dead or wish that we were.

And somehow, it's still enjoyable.Here, then, are the 5 best Dystopian futures in mainstream superhero comics.

1. X-Men: Days of Future Past

Originally published in Uncanny X-Men (vol. 1) # 141-142, January – February 1981In one of Chris Claremont's most memorable stories, the mind of an adult Kitty Pryde temporarily possessed the teenaged member of the X-Men in order to thwart an assassination attempt on Senator Robert Kelly. Through time jumps and flashbacks, it's revealed that failure to prevent the assassination would lead to increased mutant persecution and one of the most iconic dystopian futures in comics.

With the story, Claremont was able to incorporate two key concepts: the idea that specific events in the present can radically alter the fate of the future and the over-arching theme of mutants as a hunted and hated minority.

Although other comics may be more critically revered, few can match the fanboy reverence for this story. It certainly wasn't the first time a superhero comic dealt with a possible future, but there's a reason why this tale pre-dates every other story on this list.

Perhaps most telling of the importance of the story is that it's still not only referenced in popular culture, but the effects of it are still being felt in the current X-Men books and continuity. The fact that it continues to shape not only the X-Men but the form as a whole is particularly astounding considering that as epic as it was in scope, "Days of Future Past" is only two issues long.

2. Hulk: Future Imperfect

Originally published in Hulk: Future Imperfect #s 1 & 2, December 1992 – January 1993The 1993 mini-series came halfway through Peter David's twelve year seminal run on "The Incredible Hulk." After various incarnations, a new Hulk had been developed that combined all the aspects of previous Hulks, but with Bruce Banner's intellect calling the shots.

In the two-issue mini-series "Future Imperfect," Banner/Hulk travels to the future and finds it ravaged by a nuclear war and ruled by a despotic tyrant named The Maestro, who turns out to be The Hulk himself.

At the time, many still adhered to an old sci-fi trope that prevented a person from interacting with a past or future version of him/herself. "Future Imperfect" was one of the few stories at the time to buck that trend, resulting in a fun battle pitting a Hulk that was smarter and arguably more powerful than he'd ever been against the only real match he had: himself.

It also solidified the idea that the problem isn't the Hulk, it's Banner and the psychosis stemming from childhood abuse. This story posits that the problem isn't the Hulk's temperament; it's the power Banner yields when he transforms into the Hulk.

3. The Dark Knight Returns

Originally published in The Dark Knight Returns #s 1-4, February – June 1986Frank Miller's tale of a borderline elderly Batman coming out of retirement is held as the gold standard of not just dystopian fiction in superhero comics, but of comics as a whole. It allowed not only for a darker edge to be given to mainstream characters, but also served as a precursor to "Watchmen" in that it presented a superhero story that could almost be seen as literature. This presented a major shift from the standard view of comics as disposable pulp.

For Batman in particular, it put an exclamation point on the character's transition from an adventuring detective to a brooding control freak whose heroics may not be rooted in good intentions and addressed issues the character had with identity.Towards the conclusion of Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill, Vol. 2", the antagonist Bill delivers a monologue about Superman and Batman that posits that he and the film's protagonist are like Superman in that their mask is actually the civilian one. It's an intriguing concept, but what makes it so interesting is that Bill's wrong. Despite all his power, it's actually Superman who's the more human of the two. He was raised on Earth by Earth parents, and though he eventually learns about Kryptonian culture, he only knows Earth ideals and human ways of dealing with problems. It's the drive to be human that makes him more human than Bruce Wayne, whose vengeance for his dead parents has led to a lifetime of him training to exact vengeance on invisible forces and vague concepts. And so, in all modern interpretations, it's Bruce Wayne that's the mask.

Miller didn't invent this approach, but his tale cemented it into an inseparable part of the Batman mythos.

4. Kingdom Come

Originally published in Kingdom Come #s 1-4, May – August 1996"Kingdom Come" will long be remembered for the event that it was in its time and also for Alex Ross's highly stylized art and character designs. Yet it's also, at its heart, just another in a long line of great yarns spun by writer Mark Waid.

The story begins with The Spectre choosing an unassuming pastor to bear witness to the events leading up to a cataclysmic battle between the old guard of DC super-heroes and the young, dangerous mavericks that replaced them. In the future, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and others have largely retreated from the world as they grew older and more cynical towards society's prospects. They are replaced by the modern breed of anti-hero, all style and no substance. When Magog (one of those new anti-heroes) recklessly attacks Parasite in the Midwest, the resulting explosion irradiates much of the area and causes an immediate global food crisis. The old Justice League comes out of retirement, with Superman at the helm, and war seems imminent.

Although the allegory to the industry as a whole is obvious, it's often overlooked in hindsight. As is the fact that unlike so many other comics released that same year, "Kingdom Come" still holds up. That wasn't an accident and isn't just due to the fact that Waid was (and still is) very good at writing comics. He made a statement with "Kingdom Come," which is that while superhero comics may at times stray into morally ambiguous and ultraviolent territory in a sometimes pathetic attempt at appearing "edgy," it is always the standard-bearers that readers – both hardcore and casual – will gravitate back towards. Their moral certainty may at times seem outdated, but will always be necessary.

5. Old Man Logan

Originally published in Wolverine (vol. 2) # 66-72, June 2008 – September 2009With all the headiness in these stories, it might be surprising to see Mark Millar's eight-issue run on "Wolverine" (Vol. 2) on this list. Not because it isn't an enjoyable read, but rather because unlike the other stories mentioned, this one is at times absurdly silly.

Which is exactly why I included it."Old Man Logan" presents a bleak, depressing, and dangerous future, yet that world is shaped by super-villains actually taking over the planet and dividing it up into regions. It also includes redneck descendants of the Hulk and Logan driving around a post-apocalyptic landscape in the Spider-Mobile, that ridiculous dune buggy from the 1970s that had been all but forgotten until Millar dusted it off.Yes. The Spider-Mobile.

If you were to cherry-pick certain elements of this story and pitch it to an editor, it'd seem almost offensively dumb and absurd. Yet Millar was able to combine all these elements into a fascinating and, most importantly, entertaining pastiche of Marvel's history. In some ways it's a high concept piece that imagines the modern propensity towards providing bleak dystopian being applied to the sillier, carefree Silver Age. It makes a statement about the obsession many creators, editors, and especially fans have with portraying superhero comics as sober, serious ruminations on culture, society, and justice. Yet while the form can be more than people once thought, it no longer needs to constantly prove itself by trying to compete with real-world cynicism.

Sure, they can convey important literary themes from time to time, but they are also, ostensibly, pulp reads that are meant first and foremost to be fun. You can have Wolverine find that no matter how hard he tries, he'll always have to go back to a life of violence and chaos. Yet you can also have him driving around in that damn Spider-Mobile. And that, in a nutshell, is what makes comics great.

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Source: DC Comics/Marvel Comics