Hailing from the hinterlands of science fiction, the superhero genre has a history of asking speculative questions about the future. During the 1960s, a time when the promise of the burgeoning space age contrasted sharply with cold war nuclear fears, DC Comics pioneered the exploration of possible futures. Some of these
imaginary stories—an awkward term that DC used to describe stories set outside of canonical continuity—offer tantalizing glimpses into worlds that might, or might not, one day come to pass.
One of the more memorable of these appeared in Superman vol. 1 #181 (1965). Set in 2965, the story introduced Clar Ken, a direct descendant of the original Man of Steel. Ken, who bears an astonishing resemblance to his famous forebear, wears his ancestor's indestructible costume, and has even inherited some of his powers, such as X-ray vision. The latest in a long line of interplanetary policemen descended from the first Superman, Ken swears to use his super powers
to uphold the principles of democracy and the enforcement of the law
DC's Silver Age (1956–1969) was replete with such upbeat forecasts, a fact perhaps best exemplified by the Legion of Super-Heroes, a team of thirtieth-century superpowered teenagers that first saw action in Adventure Comics #247 (1958). The magnetic-powered Cosmic Boy, the electrically gifted Lightning Lad, and the telepathic Saturn Girl travel backward in time to offer a teenage Superman (Superboy) membership in their group. This encounter inaugurated nearly half a century of Legion stories, which depicted the peaceful, advanced civilization of Earth—and of the United Planets, to which it belongs—that holds sway a millennium hence (though this thirtieth century appears to be lateral to and separate from the one inhabited by the aforementioned Clar Ken). As Utopian as this world appeared, however, it still produced more than enough supervillains and would-be world-beaters to keep the Legionnaires (not to mention generations of comics writers) extremely busy.
DC's thirtieth century yielded a wealth of alternative-future stories. Adventure Comics #355 (1967) introduced adult versions of the Legionnaires, setting up prophetic expectations about the destinies of the teenage teammates. In a 1970s version of Legion continuity—the group's history is occasionally subject to retroactive revision (known as
retconning)—in Superboy vol. 1 #217 (1976), Laurel Kent, another remote descendant of Superman, tried unsuccessfully to join the team; her sole power, invulnerability, was considered redundant. In an earlier Legion timeline, a set of teenage twins descended from the Flash (a.k.a. Barry Allen) were offered slots on the Legion roster, but had to decline membership when their superspeed powers turned out not to be permanent (Adventure Comics #373, 1968). Much later, DC published an interstellar Arthurian epic set in a decidedly non-Legion-oriented thirtieth century: Camelot 3000, a twelve-issue miniseries (1982–1985) by writer Mike W. Barr and illustrator Brian Bolland.
The inconsistencies between DC's proliferating alternative futures became most apparent with the advent of Jack Kirby's Kamandi (1972–1978); inspired by the Planet of the Apes films, this series depicts a nuclear war–ravaged Earth of several centuries hence, where mute, bestial humans are ruled by sentient tigers, gorillas, and other nonhuman animals. Here, Superman's indestructible costume is a relic of an extinguished and all-but-forgotten heroic age (Kamandi #29, 1975), rather than a revered Kent family heirloom handed down from father to son for a millennium. In a similar super-dream gone sour, DC's twenty-fifth century was home to a time-traveling malefactor known as Professor Zoom; this self-styled
Reverse-Flash (who debuted in The Flash #139, 1963) wore a yellow-and-red Flash costume (the negative image of the original) during his many battles against the Scarlet Speedster. The mutually exclusive futures inhabited by Clar Ken, the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Reverse-Flash, and Kamandi serve to underscore the time-honored science-fictional notion that the future is fluid, and not fixed. In DC's far-flung future(s), anything is possible; for example, in the year 85,271 A.D., J'onn J'onzz the Martian Manhunter still protects the Red Planet from cosmic menaces (Martian Manhunter vol. 2 #1,000,000, 1998).
DC introduced yet another strand in its complex alternative-future tapestry in World's Finest Comics #215 (1973), in which the teenage sons of Superman and Batman debuted as a recurring feature. Although DC never specifically mentioned the time frame of these stories, the
Super-Sons were clearly the product of a possible future, since neither Superman nor Batman were then portrayed as old enough (or married enough!) to have nearly adult offspring. This wasn't the first time comics audiences read about possible future offspring of the Caped Crusader or his supporting cast. In Batman #145 (
The Son of the Joker, 1962), a future Bruce Wayne passed the cape and cowl down to an adult Dick Grayson, whose sidekick was the teenage son of the selfsame Bruce Wayne. Each member of this
Dynastic Duo wore a large yellow Roman-numeral
II on his chest as they chased a second-generation Joker. DC attempted to resolve its many incompatible might-be worlds with Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985–1986), a twelve-issue miniseries that hit the
reset button on vast swaths of DC's past, present, and future; the Legion of Super-Heroes was among the alternative futures to make the cut (with the retroactively eliminated Superboy shunted into an alternate
pocket universe), while Kamandi's dystopia did not.
Though rival publisher Marvel Comics took great pains to maintain a coherent, companywide continuity, it too presented several competing alternative futures. All of these were justified by the conceit of an infinitely branching multiverse capable of holding any number of possible worlds. But this tidy temporal resolution did not prevent the time-traveling Kang the Conqueror (a.k.a. Rama-Tut, who first appeared in 1963's Fantastic Four #19) from imperiling the entire skein of history. Like DC's Legionnaires, Kang originated in a possible thirtieth century, from which he traveled backward in time to conquer ancient Egypt (as Rama-Tut), and later subjugated Earth of 4,000 A.D. before attempting an assault on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, a superteam that fought to free humanity from the tyrannical yoke of the reptile-like alien Badoon, came from an alternate thirty-first century (Marvel Super-Heroes vol. 1 #18, 1969, and later series in the 1970s and 1990s).
Marvel's notion of an infinitely branching multiverse may have reached its apotheosis with the advent of the first What If? series (1977), which showed what might have happened had contingency caused certain pivotal superhero adventures to turn out differently. What If? asked and answered such questions as,
What if the Avengers had never assembled? (What If? #3, 1977),
What if Conan the Barbarian came to the twentieth century? (What If? #13, 1979),
What if Spider-Man's clone had survived? (What If? #30, 1981), and
What if Daredevil's girlfriend Elektra hadn't died? (What If? #35, 1982). What If? was renowned for stories depicting how small changes in past and present events might snowball into future catastrophes, sometimes leading to the destruction of Earth, or even the annihilation of the universe itself. The series concluded in 1984 after a 47-issue run, and a second What If? series replaced it in 1989, generating 114 issues until its cancellation in 1998.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the alternative futures that appeared in superhero comics became progressively darker and more sophisticated. In Marvel's Uncanny X-Men #141 and #142 (1981), writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne treated audiences (as well as the X-Men themselves) to a glimpse of a future in which the Earth's superpowered mutants (hero and villain alike) have been hunted to near-extinction by hysterical politicians and a relentless army of giant androids called Sentinels, a cautionary scenario (titled
Days of Future Past) which has been referenced many times since both in the comics and in the X-Men feature film series that that began in 2000.
In DC's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and its sequel The Dark Knight Strikes Back (2001–2002), writer-artist Frank Miller presents a future Gotham City so crime-infested that it draws a retired Caped Crusader back into action, with a vengeance; Miller's speculative dystopia not only transforms Batman and Superman from the amiable partners seen in decades of World's Finest Comics stories into adversaries and ideological opposites, it also lets slip the dogs of nuclear war. In Marvel's The Incredible Hulk: Future Imperfect miniseries (two issues, 1993), writer Peter David and artist George Pérez bring the Hulk into an alternative future in which an older, meaner Hulk (known as the Maestro) rules the world as a brutal dictator.
DC's Elseworlds publishing program, introduced in 1989 with a Victorian-era Batman tale titled Gotham By Gaslight, places familiar DC superheroes in unfamiliar times and places, both past and future. Writer-artist John Byrne tipped his hat to the speculative Batman dynasty first posited in Batman #145 (1962) in an Elseworlds miniseries titled Superman and Batman: Generations (1999). This story traces the crime-fighting careers and personal lives of both of DC's marquee superheroes, from 1929 until nearly a millennium later. By that time, Superman, Batman, and Lana Lang are all still alive, and dozens of generations of hypothetical future Kent and Wayne offspring have come and gone. Many of these super-descendants spend years wearing the costumes and performing the duties established by their legendary ancestors. (In the grand DC tradition of clashing continuities, Byrne presented yet another future Superman in Byrne's short-lived non-Elseworlds series Lab Rats . The eponymous team of unwanted teens sent on government suicide missions tests a time machine that brings them to a destroyed Earth dominated by a despotic, amnesiac Superman—who regains his memory in time to prevent the apocalyptic event which created his timeline: the very launch of the Lab Rats' experimental vehicle.) Perhaps the most significant Elseworlds alternative future is the Kingdom Come miniseries (four issues, 1996), in which writer Mark Waid and painter Alex Ross serve up an apocalyptic battle royale between two factions of an aging Justice League of America; though the climactic confrontation nearly destroys the world, the series ends on a decidedly hopeful, forward-looking note.
A number of new alternative superheroic futures have been advanced over the past several years, most of them taking the tone of Kingdom Come's grimmer sequences. Marvel's 2099 line (1992–1998) covered successors to several of the company's most popular characters in a corrupt and dangerous future. The occasional series The End (2002–present) fast-forwards to tell the sad final stories of various Marvel favorites. A more upbeat Marvel future is seen in the
MC-2 series of comics, which are rooted in a storyline about the daughter of Mary Jane Watson and Peter (Spider-Man) Parker (born in 1997's The Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #418, then relegated to an alternate reality by Marvel's 1998
continuity reboot), who inherits her father's arachnid abilities (What If? vol. 2 #105, 1998). In a subsequent series of her own, the girl—named May Parker in honor of her father's beloved Aunt May—grows up and enters the family business of costumed crime fighting (Spider-Girl, 1998–present). Like DC's revisionist Crisis on Infinite Earths more than a decade earlier, Marvel's 1998
reboot of its superhero continuity set up yet another new alternative future—one that is even now slowly mapping itself out, month by month and issue by issue.
For both Marvel and DC, the concept of alternative realities is something that goes both ways—and even sideways. Concurrent timelines have been prominent in comics ever since DC introduced
Earth-2 in the 1960s (with Flash vol. 1 #123, 1961) as a home for its heroes from the Golden Age of comics (1938–1954). This was followed by several other
Earths to house the heroes from companies that DC acquired over the years (including the original Captain Marvel and other Fawcett Comics characters). This profusion of worlds was another reason DC decided to clean things up with the Crisis storyline. Marvel has had its share of such worlds too, including the alternate Earth on which the Squadron Supreme (a clever pastiche of DC's Justice League) operate, and
Counter-Earth, a replica planet on the opposite side of the sun where the mystical hero Adam Warlock had an odd series of Christ-like struggles in the early 1970s. For the mid-1990s
Heroes Reborn event, a number of Marvel's characters spent twelve months in an alternate dimension not unlike the established Marvel universe, yet different enough to set up the year-long experiment of handing over several of the company's most famous features (including Captain America and Iron Man) to the star creators who had defected to form Image Comics a few years earlier.
These worlds overlap with Marvel's main continuity as did DC's many Earths, though Marvel also has had several stand-alone cosmos. These include the late 1980s New Universe line of comics about ordinary (and costume-less) people gaining strange powers (and, it must have been hoped, attracting audiences beyond the usual comics fan); and the Ultimate Marvel line (2000–present) of familiar heroes reinvented for the twenty-first century with a hip, Smallville-style spin. In 2001 and 2002 DC even broke its own taboo against such parallel presents with the Just Imagine line of DC stars overhauled by Marvel founder Stan Lee. The two companies have combined for an occasional imprint, the
Amalgam line, featuring one-shot appearances of characters spliced together from each stable's stars (Superboy plus Spider-Man equaling Spider-Boy, etc.), set in a mix-and-match parallel dimension and done in affectionate 1960s/1970s-pastiche styles. In 2003 Marvel even introduced a parallel past, in the Renaissance-era series 1602, featuring centuries-old versions of the Marvel cast with mysterious ties to the best-known incarnations.
As the twenty-first century loomed, Marvel advanced what is arguably its most ambitious alternate-future scenario: Earth X (thirteen issues, 1999 and 2000), followed by Universe X (twelve issues and several one-shots, 2000–2001), and Paradise X (another lengthy miniseries with its own specials and offshoots [2002–2003]). Earth X shows readers the world in the aftermath of a mutant plague, which gave everyone on the planet superheroic abilities as a side effect. But instead of ushering in a new
golden age, the phenomenon precipitates global famine, economic decline, and political upheavals that confound U.S. president Norman Osborn (Spider-Man's nemesis the Green Goblin back in the
real world); a widowed, overweight, unmasked Spider-Man; a good-guy version of Venom (who is actually Spider-Man's daughter May, bonded with her dad's old enemy the Venom symbiote); and a Captain Britain who now rules the British Isles as King Britain. These series chart a course into a fascinating-yet-frightening future that remains, for better or worse, merely one among many possible worlds.