Wildstorm: World’s End is a “change in the status quo” event for that particular universe: global apocalypse happens, and doesn’t get immediately fixed. We are promised an ongoing fiction where superheroes cannot restore the universe to order after transformative chaos. Which is both a refreshing change of pace and a somewhat grim elaboration of trends that have been happening in comics for a while.
A few years ago, DC Comics fairly obviously decided they were going for a “more mature” demographic, and ratcheted up the violence and “edgy” content in their mainstream comics. This has led to a monthly fiction that better depicts what adults are thinking about, such as anthropomorphized crocodiles eating people etc. It has also led to an increased tone of horror and angst, which I’ve written about before. It’s also led to a thematic fascination with the destruction of civilizations and apocalypse.
In the series 52, the Shazam! villain/anti-hero Black Adam builds his fictional native country, Kahndaq, into a utopia with the partnership of his wife, Isis. Isis is then killed by a group called (yes) the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In rage and grief, Black Adam kills the horsemen, commits genocide by wiping out the fictional nation of Bialya, and kills hundreds of thousands more before being stopped.
Black Adam is one of the most intelligently laden characterizations in recent comics: he is a Middle Eastern supervillain who nonetheless, with his strongly-held and comprehensible principles, invites our sympathies. (Like Magneto, if Mags is more familiar.) He is an emblem of our ambivalence regarding cultures we fear and struggle to understand. In 52, he is also us, at least those of us in the United States: focused on building a better world until an unexpected tragedy drives us blindly to a further tragedy of violence and destructive response. The fact that he is so compelling as a character, and the ease of revising away inconvenient narratives in comics, might cause us to quickly forget: he was depicted as killing millions of people. And is still kind of an anti-hero. What kind of world system is capable of performing that sleight of hand?
It’s the same system that has generated cataclysms with regularity in the past decade: Coast City, Bludhaven, San/Sub Diego, the deaths of Infinite Crisis. The revival of the multiverse in DC Comics has allowed for a designated dimension, Earth-51, which is called the “Graveyard” and is apparently intended as a place for apocalypses to be exercised and re-exercised. These kinds of cataclysms have bloodlessly happened in superhero comics for years, of course. But these have been portrayed with an increasing realism: body counts are released. Irradiated killing fields become recurring locales for future adventures.
What doesn’t get portrayed as realistically is what this must mean to a fictional culture. What does it mean to be a human being in the DC Universe? Can you really take any solace from these creatures that are supposed to be your figures of transcendent order? Or by catastrophic trauma #5, have you concluded that this place is just a mess?
Marvel Comics investigated this with Civil War, a mini-series where, in the wake of the destruction caused by superhero battles, heroes were mandated to register with the government. Likewise, comics like Marvel’s Front Line series investigate street-level psychology in this incongruous human world of gods. We don’t get this in the DC Universe: the street-level heroes of Gotham Central were turned into superheroes themselves. The only psychologies we are presented are the fantastic ones of the heroes, and these profiles read as increasingly alien and aloof. Still: Civil War hasn’t really slowed down the pace of destruction in the Marvel Universe. We’re currently seeing a catastrophic alien invasion coming off the “quiet” event of New York being destroyed in World War Hulk.
I’m sure this is a personal reaction, but these days it all feels like a desensitization exercise to me. We exist in a world where we must increasingly confront the fragility of the way we live. It’s natural to want to deal with this through art, and from nuking cities to zombie apocalypse to Joker terrorism, we are using our fantasies in an attempt to deal with the anxiety we share about our civilization. What I’m concerned about is that comics (and not just comics) are evoking these anxieties while trying to resolve them with the patterns of past narratives, and that these patterns aren’t adequate any more. Maybe World’s End represents what BSG represents for sci-fi television: an attempt to bring in meaningful new patterns, an attempt at studying through fantasy what happens to psyches when they have to work through unresolvable traumas.