Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Superhero Apocalypse Problem

Superheroes are a problem.

Well, actually, they cause lots of problems (the biggest complaint being that they’re inherently silly), but the one that concerns me most is their intersection with the Post-Apocalyptic genre.

These two genres don’t mix. They can’t mix. The whole purpose of a superhero is to save the world, or at least some part of it. By their very nature, they mitigate against an End of the World scenario.

But at the same time, the genre invites the apocalypse to its door, again and again. Superheroes who save the world need to save the world from something. And therefore every superhero universe is constantly flirting with disaster. The apocalypse is permanently looming just over the horizon, far closer than in a sane and sensible world like ours (well, okay, a relatively sane and sensible world like ours).

But it never actually happens. At least, not for long. This is not to say that dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories haven’t been told in the superhero genre, it’s just that there’s always a way to hit the reset button, and it always gets used. The basic structure of some of these stories have been used so many times that they’re instantly recognisable. Here’s a classic example:

The hero or heroes are propelled forward into the future, and discover that something went horribly wrong at about the time they left, and now their world is a horrible wasteland/dictatorship/playground for alien invaders/whatever. They fight the enemies in the future, ally themselves with the last surviving heroes who didn’t get zapped into the future, convince them to help them get back to the past, and then make sure the problem never happens when they get home.

Every now and then someone tries to buck the trend – for example, the Wildstorm Universe had the above happening and then showed what happened when the superheroes failed to solve the problem, but even that’s about to be wiped away as the last bits and pieces of the cancelled Wildstorm imprint are folded into the DC Universe. On those rare occasions when an apocalypse does last, it’s always off on the side somewhere, like the Marvel Zombie world, or “Angor”, a world that suffered nuclear destruction mainly so that various survivors could cause problems for the Justice League. And even that one was rebooted a few years ago.

The superhero genre flirts with the apocalypse, but never marries it. Which is strange, given the attitude of the superhero genre to most others: one of utter inclusivity. It grabs bits and pieces from fantasy, science fiction and horror as and when it needs to, and is flexible enough to plunder almost anything else. Perhaps most delightfully, the Justice League was once turned into a situation comedy for a few years, both acknowledging the inherent silliness of superheroes and revelling in it (who can’t love the idea behind the one-shot Justice League Antarctica: getting rid of some annoying incompetent supervillains by placing them in a position where they can do no harm – protecting a virtually empty continent. Until they get attacked by penguin-piranha hybrids, of course...)

There’s one thing most superhero stories can’t do: come to an end. They go on, month after month, year after year, changing and modifying and telling the same basic stories to each generation as it comes, rebooting whenever things get too complicated. And because they never end, there’s one genre they can never really get hold of: Post-Apocalyptic. This is a strange paradox, because a superhero universe is, as I said above, constantly on the brink of apocalypse. Aliens are always ready to invade. Other universes hold worlds full of potential genocidal maniacs. Mad scientists are always inventing ways to end the world, even if only by accident. Brooding villains plot against the world. Disillusioned heroes can go off the rails at any moment. And let’s not forget how horrifying normal people can be when confronted with a wave of superhumans in their midst: the parallels between the Holocaust and treatment of “mutants” in Marvel comics are intentional and deliberate.

There are more than enough ways to achieve an apocalypse even in our world: how on earth do they manage it in a superhero universe when there are so many more, even given all the people trying to prevent it?

The short answer is: because the story must go on and must keep selling, or else all those people who work for Marvel and DC will be out of a job, and the shareholders of their parent companies won’t get the benefit of the constant reselling of these properties into other media. On the level of the story itself, there’s a strong impetus to show the good guy beating the bad guy, and morality winning out, however tenuously. Because, y’know, kids read these things.

This leaves an uncomfortable status quo for the superhero genre, at least for those of us whose interest has outgrown the youthful fascination with people in costumes hitting each other. Many of us are driven to look at stories outside the mainstream universes, which have the opportunity to come to a conclusion. But even then, they have a tendency towards a hopefulness that I don’t think reflects the true nature of a world that must suffer the presence of superhuman beings. Watchmen and Miracleman/Marvelman are probably the most obvious of these, both of which end up showing streets washed with blood and spattered with corpses. Despite this, both stories end on a more or less hopeful note as the terrible massacres provoke a response of rebuilding and co-operation. Both stories are, in different ways, inversions of the superhero-saving-the world story, but nevertheless, the world is saved. I think the fact that the number of superhumans in these stories is relatively small helps bring this about; a world with a wider flowering of superhumanity – such as in the mainstream superhero universes – would be in a lot more trouble.

So what might a world constructed upon the basic premise of a superhero universe be like if it actually happened? What is that premise, anyway? I think it’s this: A world roughly like ours begins to see superhumans created on a large scale, by some uncontrollable and random means; some superhumans use their powers to help people, and some use them for more selfish ends.

(note that this isn’t the premise of a superhero story; it’s the premise of a superhero universe. Also, there will be variation depending on how long ago this started happening, but I’ll leave that to one side for now as it complicates things unnecessarily)

I think that if you have enough superhumans in the world, it ends up being doomed, simply because the kind of power to destroy that we normally reserve for parliaments and presidents is given quite randomly to ordinary human beings to use and abuse at will. Of course, the world will do its best to prevent this – I expect there would be pogroms and genocides in some places, intensely strict legislation in others, and at the very minimum a registration process for anyone with a superhuman ability – but in the end, it’ll be like trying to hold back the tide.

I doubt that it would necessarily be some massive cataclysm that ends it all in some sudden way, but rather a series of smaller disasters that erode the capability of the world to sustain life. Say, for example, a melting of the icecaps. Or a disease that wipes out a huge part of humanity, or makes them sterile. Or something that wipes out the crops that feed millions. Or disperses the ozone layer, letting in a UV flood. Or wipes out a nation with grey goo. Or the destruction of the moon, wrecking the normal tidal cycle, destabilising the earth’s spin and causing multiple asteroid strikes from bits and pieces of the smashed moon. All of these things can probably be moderated or contained, and maybe even reversed in the long term, given the power available to those trying to save the wold. But it’s easier to destroy than create, and with enough people carrying these kinds of powers, I don’t hold out much hope for a world suffering the affliction of superhumanity as it's usually depicted in a superhero universe.

As much as I still love the genre, this is one reason why I haven’t read a lot of it lately. Like most people who were alive at the time, I survived the Cold War, although I had a residual and constant fear of apocalypse. Living in a superhero universe would be like this, but vastly magnified: you wouldn’t know where or how the end of the world might happen, let alone by what method. A world that could kill itself in so many ways would be a world of constant nervous terror, even among the wonders that superhumanity could bring about. Plus you’d be witnessing the constant erosion of the life you knew as more and more of it was destroyed by calamity after calamity. Definitely not somewhere you would want to live.

Which would make it an excellent place to tell a story. If I ever get round to doing it properly...

(astute readers of my work have doubtless already recognised such a world. Astute readers of the reviews of my work will likely realise this is an oblique response to some (perfectly valid) criticisms of the work. I suspect that the above is something I did not make entirely clear in my novel. Either that or a) I'm completely wrong, or b) some people don’t like superheroes at all. Oh, well...)


  1. Critical reviewer here. I thought Liss's world was awesome and I'd be interested in a book that explores that superhero crapsack world concept further. What I felt like was lacking were more rational explanations for the specific acts of destruction or craziness. Liss hand waves the people on her world as "scientists are crazy!" and that's not developed further.

    I like nightmare fuel images, crapsack worlds, etc. but stuff like that half-plant half-cow, while interesting nightmare fuel, struck me as an impractical creation, so that's the sort of thing I'd like more elaboration on.

    On superheroes in general (not necessarily to do with apocalypses), I have mixed feelings about them. On one hand, I really like vigilantes/masked men/superheroes and I'm attracted to stories with them. On the other, I can't follow the big DC/Marvel superheroes, follow them closely and such, because like you said, they need to save the world at the end of the day to keep on going. I can appreciate them as summer blockbuster movies, but not as stories that I follow closely issue-by-issue.

    I can't follow the big superheroes because I feel like so much of what they do is meaningless and will just be eventually retconned, and everything goes back to status quo. I like stories where important stuff happens and there's change that will affect the characters permanently. I can't help it. I can't get attached to big superhero characters because I'm never sure what development will be long-term canon. Big superhero comics all became wall-bangers for me when Cassandra Cain went from interesting to why-did-they-do-this-to-you, and I read too many girlfriends get blown up/stuffed in fridges. I'm sure there's still good stuff out there, but unless someone recommends me a series where I feel like every issue is worthwhile and the writing is *tight*, I'm not reading big superhero comics any time soon.

    I think the requirement to have an ongoing series, with the superhero acting more as a symbol than as a character, has serious limitations for where the stories can go. Stories need an end to feel meaningful, or I think so anyway. It reminds me of this Cat and Girl webcomic strip: Many of us can say that the Watchmen was an awesome comic because the writing was tight, it stands alone beautifully, it made its point, and it ended. I feel like stories that don't end are stories that can't get to the point. Okay, rambling thoughts from this geek over.

  2. Yay! debate!

    "What I felt like was lacking were more rational explanations for the specific acts of destruction or craziness. Liss hand waves the people on her world as "scientists are crazy!" and that's not developed further."

    Of all the exposition I failed to include, I failed to include that bit. Gah! Still, it leaves me something to expound upon if if I get back to Liss's world. I suppose the thing I failed to explain was that the most dangerous superpower (in my opinion) is intelligence - or at least, intelligence in a narrow direction which takes little or no account of other issues than the solving of some fascinating problem that keeps the superbrain happy, just as another superhuman might be gifted with excessive strength but have no idea how to use it without breaking things (or even caring that they got broken). I'd definitely want to get more into how that kind of highly unnatural distension of human ability would screw things up. It would end up being more complex than the very simple portrait I gave in the novel, but that would make for interesting dramatic possibilities.

    "I like nightmare fuel images, crapsack worlds, etc. but stuff like that half-plant half-cow, while interesting nightmare fuel, struck me as an impractical creation, so that's the sort of thing I'd like more elaboration on."

    That was actually a completely different universe and intended as a quick horrific image to show how one particular species had gone way too far in their experiments. Perhaps I should have gone further into how little respect for life people can have when they go too far down a certain road - but then I'd have to get into the political situation on a world which was never meant to be a primary focus in the story. I suppose the main point I was trying to make was that scientists can be thoroughly bad and horrendous people when they treat their test subjects as mere playthings for the advancement of learning. We've seen it often enough on our world. Far too many scientists went overboard when given free rein by the Nazi government (even when not using people for test subjects but only for slave labour - see Von Braun and Peenemunde for details). And for sheet bodycount, there's always Trofim Lysenko to look at on the Soviet side. Meanwhile, in the allegedly goody-goody free world, we were happily giving people syphilis and radiation exposure for altogether too long, just to see what happened.

    Perhaps that's a little too much background to assume, though. Maybe it would make more sense if it were an alien race with less emotional attachment to things like cows, who treat them much as we treat drosophila fruit flies - with complete abandon.

    Or maybe, in a fictional universe based as far as possible on plausible solutions to science fictional problems, extraordinary horrors require extraordinary explanations, and I've just done a great big fail on the expositional requirements. Oh, well, something to bear in mind next time...

    "[The rest of the comment]"

    I kinda think we're agreeing here. Although it occurs to me that you can still find good superhero writing if you're willing to take short bursts of the monthly comics in isolation from what comes before or after them. More often than not, these are composed of a brief run by a particular writer. Sadly, that writer often doesn't get to completely finish the story they were trying to tell, or rapidly finds much of their work thrown away as the next writer tries to put their stamp on the comic (good or bad).

    (I might give some more info on some of my favourite runs of comics at some point, but it's late now and my brain hurts. Suffice it to say that some of these helped to influence me deeply when I was younger, and I'm sometimes very disappointed in what the creators are doing now)

    Anyway - thanks for the debate and making me think!

  3. Also, I like the word "crapsack" and want to use it more in daily conversation.

    (it's not common in the UK)


  4. Hey Paul, thanks for the response! As I really enjoyed The Last Man on Earth Club, it's neat to learn about the background and the ideas beyond the text.

    I apologize if that paragraph of my review wasn't clear enough. I didn't have a problem with the superpower world, and yeah, intelligence without ethics is a destructive force and I think that part was conveyed well with Liss's world and with that alternate universe (don't remember their name, but I know it was with another civilization). I like the idea and concept and that part was conveyed well, but I just scratched my head at the specific examples that took place on the different earths. I thought, "What's the point of a half plant half cow?", or "How is triggering a geological disaster is a good idea? What kind of experiment were they doing anyway?" I felt like my brain was too busy going "?" which detracted from the the horror of those instances. Again that's just me, I don't think the other reviews made a note of that. It's all minor criticism anyway. All books have quirks, but those quirks are more interesting than most.

    I'm going to get a lot of flak for this, but I feel like the universe of the big superhero comics is basically a fanfiction community where the politics between the writers actually affect canon. Shared universes can be done well, but big superhero comics… like you said, brief runs can be good, but the quality of the whole… eeeenh. I like writers to have a sense of ownership over their characters and stories, and have the pride in a completed work. Readers generally like fictional universes to be consistent and not schizoid. For this reader, reading big superhero comics is an exercise in frustration. Even the ridiculously long serial comics by Japanese manga writers do better on that front, because while sometimes they drag it out longer than they should, it remains under the coherent control of a single creator and the story comes to an end (or at least, the creator does…)

    We don't use "crapsack" often in Canada, but is the fiction wiki that knows no international boundaries ;D Someone needs to put an entry for The Last Man on Earth under Crapsack World… since there's at least six of them.

    (P.S. I've got nothing against fandom and fanfiction, I'm a giant geek and I'm active in those circles too.)

  5. I was going to continue the conversation earlier, but the mention of created a timesuckvortex which eliminated three days from my personal timestream. :-)

    (I didn't add LMOEC to Crapsack World, though. Not really my place to do that sort of thing)

    Possible scientific justification for the plantcow: like all mammals, cows meet their carbon and energy needs by munching on other things. Therefore they have to move about a lot, and require large areas of open land for pasture. Plants, on the other hand, draw carbon from the air and get their energy from light. If you could get a cow to derive its needs from such sources - perhaps by a sort of vine network running throughout a field into which the cows could be plugged via the root system - you cut down on the amount of land required to keep the cattle, therefore making the land more space efficient. The same mentality that leads to battery farming but potentially far more horrifying...

    (not that you need this explained at this point, but I couldn't help thinking about it)

    Meanwhile, I find myself wondering if comics wouldn't benefit from the Showrunner system that TV series have: one person (or sometimes two or three) acts as a sort of overal director for the writing of the series, while individual writers come in for individual episodes, usually assigned according to their strengths. DC and Marvel have this to some extent with their overal editors, but series writers retain most of the control over their respective titles - which is great when it's Grant Morrison or someone of equal skill, but creates a terrible unevenness among many others. On TV, though, you can have multiple writers and yet retain a certain consistency - you have to wonder what's different about the two processes that produces such different results.