Why’d you start reading comics?
Did an older sibling or family member gift you some old Spider-Man issues? Maybe you were a latchkey kid, and you clung to these titles like an old friend? Maybe it was just a natural progression from some other nerdy pursuit?
Regardless, a lot of us came to these stories during essential moments in our lives. These instances where we needed to see what the world could be, and not what it was, and then try and maintain a world where heroes mattered and we could understand the rules of the universe. In some way, we’re all still chasing these fantasies and aspirations every time we pick up a new book.
I think all of that speaks to this idea of innocence. Forget what the dictionary says; I’m talking about a certain kind of purity, one that feels better suited for life in our current hellscape. An innocence that feels like an acceptance of things and a stubborn drive to maintain some romantic simplicity regardless. Luckily, there’s a kind of guide book for this time being written as we speak:
Yes, I’m fully aware that the word “innocence” isn’t many people’s first associations when thinking about DC’s big event. In a world mostly run by a hugely fascist organization called the Magistrate, where heroes are hunted and justice and decency are relics, Future State does more to heighten our modern fears and anxieties than provide a path through the madness. But still, Future State can be just as uplifting if you know how to read it.
For one thing, take the timeline we’re working with across the event. For certain books, it’s only 30-40 years in the future, and as such, many of our favorites are still around. Sure, Bruce Wayne is playing Richard Kimble in Dark Detective, and Shazam is a twisted version of himself in that titular book. But having these familiar faces goes a long way to telling a specific kind of story. Namely, one that wants to push us toward a violent future but remind us that goodness and these pillars of virtue remain steadfast (even if they’re under attack somehow). It’s like your parents holding your hand before they push you into the pool the first time (or was that just me?) — it’s a way to make that terrifying drop feel a little safer.
Thus far, it’s been a hugely effective way to show us that some good things can’t die, or require added effort to extinguish, and that’s a really vital part about exploring not just the future and all those uncertainties but how we get there in (more or less) one piece and with (most of) our facilities intact.
But it’s not just familiar faces along for the ride; Future State also introduces a whole slew of new heroes and villains. Be it the new Aquaman (that’d be Jackson Hyde), Yara Flor (the new Wonder Woman), or even The Next Batman (aka Tim/Jace Fox), these newbies are an interesting development. On the one hand, change of any kind, especially in a place that’s become so deeply violent and unrecognizable as new Gotham, can feel hugely overwhelming from an emotional and psychological standpoint. It’s like, as if future fascists weren’t enough, now there’s a new Flash to get to know. Yet these new heroes also speak to a certain kind of “innocence,” one rooted in massive cross-title events from the ‘90s that introduced new and dynamic characters. The best example, for me at least, is The Death of Superman: sure, it wasn’t organic, and not a lot of “real” diversity, but it got readers thinking about characters in new ways and getting used to some big (albeit temporary) changes. Events like that were a way to shock the system a bit and put the emphasis on newness.
And more than that, these changes stemming from Future State are a clear embrace by DC of more deliberate diversity and inclusion as well as a means of exploring a larger canon of heroes across multiple spectrums. In that way, it’s a kind of innocence that doesn’t shy away from real problems in the industry but embraces them to get to something truly at comics’ beating heart: these books are for everyone.
And speaking of the ‘90s, there’s so much more of that era’s trademark “goodness” packed within the many issues of Future State. I realize in the past that I’ve said a lot of mean, yet totally true things about ‘90s comics, like how folks back then blew a boom period and almost destroyed comics, or their over-reliance on utility belt pockets. But if you’re like me and came of age in ‘90s comics, you may remember a few important things.
For one, there was a clear focus on immersion, and even as comic storylines already ran for decades by then, creators and publishers wanted to get people and buying issues ASAP. Luckily, Future State avoids the exposition-heavy dialogue of the era and works in a way to highlight accessibility. It doesn’t take much to understand A) these books aren’t related to modern canon but B) they’re reflective of something more essential about these titles/heroes. I’m thinking about something like Green Lantern: it pulls John Stewart into an alien world and a whole new way of battling evil, but it doesn’t get bogged down with overt explanations, world-building, or justifying narrative decisions.
Same goes for Swamp Thing: no matter your knowledge of the happenings of our plant-based hero, his place as savior of some post-apocalyptical “nightmare” is easy to slide into. I think in some ways, the titles in this event are a reaction to DC’s own tendency to climb inside itself when rolling out an event. That happened with things like Infinite Crisis; a great idea often got caught up in its own sense of history and telling as massive of a title as possible across every single title. Future State feels organic in that it’s in an inorganic “pause” of the action to tell something truly epic and meaningful, even if what that eventually proves to be isn’t meant to last. That feels like what all great events should do.
And in the course of many of these intersecting or related stories, there’s a lot of ‘90s-inspired, or at least ‘90s-leaning plots and storylines. Case in point: Robin Eternal, which sees the Boy Wonder getting doused with “resin” from the Lazarus Pit. Or, Catwoman, which feels like an episode of Aeon Flux as Cat breaks into a moving magnet train. I get that some of that might seem a little nebulous in terms of timeline; a great story doesn’t have to belong to any era, and these are still certainly fresh and relevant enough to feel relevant.
Still, it just feels like these are 1) a reflection of the “breeziness” I mentioned before that’s indebted to a ‘90s-style story and 2) there’s just a feeling that these are of a bygone era. Which is to say, using Catwoman as an example again, the story’s overall aesthetic (totally bummer dystopia), the sense of pacing (the train thing is expertly drawn out) and even the larger tone feel like they’re a weird combination of Point Break and Heat. Which is to further say, very much part of a specific kind of storytelling that is tied to so much of the ‘90s as a whole. Tubular, dude.
And there’s more evidence that I’d need a few essays to properly cover. Like, the direct narrative links between Wonder Woman as a kind of non-tank-owning Tank Girl. Or, how Suicide Squad culls a lot of the vibe and tone of John Ostrander’s legendary, late ‘80s run to feel really streamlined and essential. And even how there’s an actual, honest-to-goodness reference to Superboy’s leather jacket, which may be blunt and perhaps even too ‘90s-centric but still feels deeply wholesome. The point is, taking my definition of innocence, there’s heaps of examples. Some of them are a bit more deliberate, and other ones are a bit more understated, but the point is, this entire event is built as an homage to another time in comics, and one that’s rooted in a lot of nostalgia. Nostalgia and innocence are often intertwined, and I’ve certainly done my job here to conflate the two whenever possible. But why?
Nostalgia is, effectively, a deliberate focus on the past. This unblinking eye back to the “good old days,” when things were simpler and thus better. But innocence is all about a sense of purity, to strip things down to their most essential. When you marry these two ideas together, you get a kind of fascination with things of yesteryear, but maybe through a better filter. The ‘90s may have been fun, but they were also still a time of overt sexism and half-hearted inclusion practices. If we’re going to look back and delve into this nostalgia, as Future State does, it has to be in a way that is better and more inclusive and welcoming. That’s why this event has done things like include a black Aquaman and a black Batman, give an ample spotlight to female characters like Wonder Woman and Catwoman, and focus on issues like the rising threat of authoritarian/fascist entities and counter a lot of leftover rhetoric from the Trump administration.
If we want to look back at a better time, then it should be done in a way to embrace today’s main issues/concerns and present this nostalgia in a way that doesn’t just whitewash history or past proceedings. Rather, Future State shows us a better tomorrow by having us embrace sentiments and ideas and energies we’re all familiar with. In that way, it feels like a hugely essential bridge and a way to help work through some of these larger ideas like inclusion and how art helps us understand the world.
I in no way think it’s a perfect event, and even a lot of this is coming from my own context as an “older” millennial. Is it also a huge money grab and another ploy to get people to buy things? Sure is. And is it going to be the thing that saves the industry and rights all wrongs? Not even close; there are some real systemic issues here that not even 1 million great books could mend. But that doesn’t mean it can’t also present something of value. Like few other events, Future State has offered up something that goes beyond the adrenaline and excitement: a way to have a conversation about who we are, where we’re going, and what that really means. It’s a means to explore if we’ve lost our way as comic fans, or if we’re on the path to something better for everyone. A way to sort through life, art, and everything in between to see what value comics has in making us better or, at the very least, more self-aware people.
I don’t know about you, but that’s why I still read comics.
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