“I suddenly find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse.”
—“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
The end of the world is a matter of perspective, one person’s dystopian future is another’s utopia, and some apocalypses are just another bad day. You have to wonder what the Mayans were really hinting at when their 5,126-year-long cycle long calendar ended in December 2012. Was it the false end of the world or just something we today would call an inconvenience? A minor event now, such as flooding from a coastal storm system, causes problems for us, but for a society like the Mayans it could have spelled unimaginable disaster. It’s a matter of perspective, a matter of degree.
I find myself thinking about perspective, degree, dystopian futures and apocalyptic literature as I read Marvel’s All-New X-Men and Dark Horse’s The Massive. While on the surface the main thrust of All-New X-Men—the original X-Men brought to the present—is a fish(es) out of water story with a self-confrontation chaser, there is this rather strong subtext of a dystopian future for Cyclops, Beast, Jean, Iceman and Angel. The dream of a better life for mutants is seemingly dead and what the five have gone through is so much more terrible than they could have imagined. By comparison there is nothing “sub” about the text of The Massive. The ongoing struggles of an environmental activist group in a post environmental crash, post economic crash (post everything crash) world is just as horrible as it sounds, reflecting a path many experts would suggest we are heading down. The narratives of these two books offer us different takes on the idea that the future might turn out to be a very bleak place. They reflect a fear for a future that is very different from our hopes and desires.
“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
Fear of totalitarianism is the main reason behind George Orwell’s 1984, arguably the most well known piece of dystopian literature, something the author experienced firsthand during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. While we cannot be certain of All-New X-Men writer Brian Michael Bendis’ fear, The Massive writer Brian Wood’s fear of environmental catastrophe is well documented.
“When I was writing the pitch [for The Massive] it was right in the middle of the BP gulf oil accident,” Wood said to me at New York Comic Con 2011. “That was definitely on my mind. Then there were the Japanese Tsunamis. There’s definitely stuff that keeps happening.” Much of Wood’s work can relate to fears over the military–industrial complex, to varying degrees Channel Zero and DMZ among others, and his tendency to personalize apocalyptic fear, whether rooted in urban strife, censorship or the slow destruction following ecological disasters, brings prominence to activist based sub-cultures. Just as steampunk and cyberpunk have categorized various literary and cultural identities related to technology, Wood’s apocalypse punk or dystopian punk has brought voice to the comicbook world of a 99% perspective. A perspective rooted in fear of (and anger over) the present and the possible future.
This is not to give credence to any notion that climate change, global warming or other environmental concerns are a matter of perspective, it is to say that the degree to which they will affect us in the future is a matter of perspective. The environment is at risk, especially if concerns are not addressed immediately, but the matter of whether it is as awful as Wood details in The Massive is certainly a perspective on the present course of geo-politics.
“Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”
Just as world-views shape belief in perceived media bias, generational conflicts and political disagreements, perspective shapes notions of apocalypses and dystopian futures. As I mentioned, we cannot be sure of Bendis’ fear in All-New X-Men. There is certainly a fear for the present as illustrated by Beast indirectly addressing Cyclops’ most recent actions by bringing to the future his past self. But that conflict, according to Bendis, is more rooted in facing the truth.
“I’m a big fan of these kinds of stories, ‘Pleasantville’ or ‘Peggy Sue got Married,’” said Bendis during a Marvel Q&A last August. “Where a character faces the truth about themselves and what their life can mean versus what it does mean.” The juxtaposition of past and present versions of a character in a face-off is fundamentally complicated in the sense that they are of course the same person, but somehow different for whatever set of circumstances have befallen them. It’s an interesting place to begin a compare and contrast. And while that is the basic foundation for All-New X-Men there is this sense of dystopian perspective.
The mutant predicament of the present for the original five X-Men is a vastly different place from where they were and what they hoped to achieve. The road to the future is paved with compromises and consequences, and these teenagers are certainly discovering that facet. This is a terrible future for them, a dystopian future, where their dreams for mutantkind have been squashed by conflicting agendas, war, otherworldly events, personal strife, clones and so much more. It’s also a heavy burden for the teens to bear, lacking the wisdom we can gain from experience. They are shocked and afraid, just as Angel’s actions at the end of All-New X-Men #8 illustrate. Jean’s actions represent something else entirely, as there is a heavy amount of generational conflict subtext, but that’s an argument meant for another day. In terms of reaction to their future, if they didn’t see the present as a nightmare or dystopian future that would be the more provocative story…and perhaps the most existential ever attempted by mainstream comicbooks.
“Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing.” - George Orwell
What we all dance around, what we all try to ignore, is that our future may be completely disappointing, if not wholly disastrous. All-New X-Men and The Massive are addressing this possibility head-on, much as 1984 did so many decades ago. The Massive shares a much heavier burden, just as 1984 did, but the generational issues, metaphors for prejudice that the X-Men books have always addressed are not to be regarded as less than. They are part of the ongoing struggle that will always infect humanity. While the fight against totalitarianism will always have its place, the historical context of the work, similar to the context of The Massive, gives both works a weight beyond their narratives. Their perspectives on the direction of humanity, the dystopian futures and apocalypses, are the fears born from our present, the degrees of each future nightmare rising with the stakes.
Cyclops was right. So was Callum Israel.