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 recently 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.
The skies aren’t turning red in this pandemic. There’s been no sudden boom, nor flash of light. Instead, our apocalypse is slow, sometimes boring and often very lonely. This resonates with the one true horror of superhero comics: an empty page. DC Comics’ ground-breaking crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985) shows whole worlds eaten away by nothingness, returning the page to pure white. Witnessing this, a being named Pariah exclaims:
Don’t you people understand that there is no hope in running? Or maybe they do understand. They see their world fraying, fading away before their terrified eyes. Ten thousand years of civilization stolen without explanations or alternatives.
A 1989 issue of the often meta-inclined Animal Man even had a character reduced to inked outlines, then pencil scratchings, and finally erased entirely, his word balloon popping as though by a pin.
However, it’s Daniel Clowes’ superhero satire The Death Ray (2004) that pushes this logic to its inevitable end. Deaths are tucked into the gutter between panels, leaving only a bloodless there-one-moment, gone-the-next.
The current pandemic has outdone the Death Ray, stopping DC and Marvel from releasing monthly new issues. That may not sound remarkable until you consider that not even World War II had managed to impede publication.
Of course, this won’t be the end of the superheroes’ world, nor ours. Not for long. New comics are already on their way and new days dawn for us too. In The Financial Times, novelist Arundhati Roy used a distinctly comic-book terminology to remind us this crisis is a ‘chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves’. Disease, poverty, and isolation are nothing new. Individuals face apocalypses every day, most often with no one to save them.
This is the inconvenient political truth of the superhero. They are agents of the status quo: always reactive, never proactive. In fact, attempts to become proactive usually result in the hero becoming a villain. When Superman – and an army of robot doppelgangers – destroy all nuclear weapons in the ‘King of the World’ storyline (1999), it’s soon revealed that he was acting under the influence of the villain Dominus. Superheroes aren’t allowed to change the world. They can only keep it spinning.
There are some exceptions, however. Comic book apocalypses like Crisis on Infinite Earths and its spiritual sequels Zero Hour (1994) and Flashpoint (2011) offered the opportunity to reboot superheroes, tinkering with their continuities. They let them slough off the weight of their old stories like dead skin and return to first principles. Comics writer Grant Morrison recently described a similar process: ‘I’m kind of trying to get the essence of a figure. […] It’s almost like extracting the song out of a long ballad that’s been going for fifty years or more.’
That’s the real lesson of these barely averted comic book apocalypses. Our songs are long, and complicated, and sometimes out of tune. Take this opportunity to find a new melody.