“It’s suicide. No, it’s worse. It’s genocide!” ~ Jor-El (Superman 1978)
“It isn’t that they question your data. The facts are undeniable. It’s your conclusions *we find unsupportable*” Vond-Ah (Superman 1978)
The history of superhero comics, and so much of pop culture as we know it today, is defined by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster’s Action Comics #1. Although it’s retroactively baked into that debut (Krypton is named in Action Comics #1, but Kal-El’s home planet would take a decade to become what we know), the origins of Superman are some of the most well known in all of modern myth. Indeed, Superman’s origins are so ingrained, that it took Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely all of 4 panels and 8 words to summarize on the first page of All-Star Superman #1.
[Some spoilers for X-Men comics since 2019 follow]
The “Doomed Planet” is taken as inalterable history in the story of Superman, but as Krypton’s destruction unveiled through story and across mediums, we’ve become increasingly aware that it was not always so. Kal-El’s father, Jor-El is a renowned scientist of Krypton, who warns the governing council that his data warns of impending planetary explosion.
The scene is memorialized in the Richard Donner directed Superman (1978), with Marlon Brando in the role of Jor-El.
And so, the legacy of ignored doomsayers in comics takes root. It’s a story as old as Superman; a warning of extinction, and inaction due to a lack of convenience.
In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, originally published as a collected work in 1942, Hari Seldon plays a similar, if significantly more advanced, role to Jor-El. Hari Seldon is a galactically renowned psychohistorian, Asimov’s branch of science concerned with human psychology and behavioral trends that effectively allow Seldon and his Foundation of scientists to predict the future of the Galactic Empire (and beyond). And in so many words, Seldon makes it known that his psychohistory not only ensures the collapse of the Galactic Empire, but also that his predictive models clarify it’s already too late to do anything to stop it.
Much like Jor-El, we again have a Doomsayer, that particularly unwelcome sort of scientist who shows up to the party to pragmatically tell everyone that no matter what they do the rest of the night, they’ll wake up tomorrow with the worst hangover and biggest regrets of their lives. Thanks for coming, Uncle Hari!
Of course, in both cases, the scientists championing truth establish their own escape hatches. For Jor-El, it’s a baby on a rocket, and for Seldon it’s a wildly more sophisticated, generations-long plan for a new Foundation of humanity across the galaxy. To say Seldon makes Jor-El look like an amateur is an understatement, but that’s not the point. While on trial, Seldon eloquently gives voice to the awe-inspiring scope of an empire’s rise and fall:
The psychohistoric trend of a planet-full of people contains a huge inertia. To be changed it must be met with something possessing a similar inertia. Either as many people must be concerned, or if the number of people be relatively small, enormous time for change must be allowed…
I do not say now that we can prevent the fall. But it is not yet too late to shorten the interregnum which will follow. It is possible, gentlemen, to reduce the duration of anarchy to a single millennium, if my group is allowed to act now. We are at a delicate moment in history. The huge, onrushing mass of events must be deflected just a little – just a little -… it may be enough to remove twenty-nine thousand years of misery from human history. ~ Hari Seldon, Foundation
Either way, the ruling bodies deny the science, ostracize the doomsayer, and sit idly by as their world implodes (In the case of Krypton it’s literal; In the case of Trantor and the Galactic Empire it’s centuries in the making). The bearers of bad news are left to their schemes to escape.
Across Science Fiction and Superheroes, our modern mythologies make it clear that advanced institutions do not trust, or cannot afford to trust a Doomsayer.
Why is this? And what does it say about where we’re heading?
To be quite honest, finding climate change parallels in famous science fiction is not especially compelling, or unique. Many have done it, and done it well, for whether we’re talking Jor-El or Seldon the similarities are abundant, and the results (or the lack of them) are always the same. I’m not just interested here in comics that discuss the environment (You’ll find no conversation here related to Moore/Bissette/Totleben’s Swamp Thing, Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk, Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow, or even the more recent X-Men Green). Likewise, it’s no great revelation to observe a rising openness of climate disaster at the heart of video games, novels, comics, and movies.
Instead, I’m most interested in this legacy of ignored Doomsayers, and what these stories tell us about our fate as a human collective.
As I experienced Asimov’s Foundation for the first time in 2021 (and to be clear, was astounded by the scope and influence of the work), I was immediately struck by the similarities to another burgeoning comics mythology dear to my heart: Jonathan Hickman and company’s X-Men: House of X / Powers of X.
Across Asimov’s Foundation, and Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men epic, you have individuals in Seldon, Destiny and Moira X who are able to predict future trends with shocking accuracy. In the case of Moira X – Longtime X-Men ally Moira MacTaggert retconned in House of X #2 to be a mutant with the power of reincarnating with full memory of her previous lives – these “predictions” are a result of literally living through the events previously. Seldon perfects the science of predicting the future, Destiny’s mutant gift is seeing possible futures, and Moira walks through them until death and is then born again with the memory of what’s happened.
(If here you’re thinking there’s another giant of science-fiction with even closer parallels, I agree! Jonathan Hickman’s never been secretive about his love of Frank Herbert’s Dune, and the Atreides (first Paul, but moreso Leto II’s) visions of The Golden Path just as thoroughly apply, if not more accurately. Nonetheless, I’m a mere Dune Dunce, and simply do not have the extra 3,000 words it would take to properly engage with those themes!)
Where Moira and Seldon align is in the interpretation and presentation of their findings. For Moira, it’s telling Professor Charles Xavier mutantkind always loses, that no matter the actions she takes, mutantkind is exterminated or subjugated by the man-machine counterthreat. Seldon’s predictions are similarly dour, as he makes it very clear the grand Empire of the galaxy is destined to fall, and is in fact, already fallen in all but official result.
The particular challenge of Moira and Seldon’s claims are that they play out over the course of generations, but the actions of the now (establishing a Foundation, creating the nation-state of Krakoa, etc) are crucial in building towards delivering a centuries in the making strategic recovery. By comparison, Jor-El’s simplified warning is even more outlandishly ignored. All the Kryptonians had to do was evacuate; Those aware of Asimov and Hickman’s predictions have to live with the weight of their impending dread forever.
Their doom is eternal.
Advocates on the front lines of climate disaster and the impending ruin of planet Earth face similar challenges. It’s one thing to consider how recycling can help preserve our forests, or your individual carbon footprint; it’s another thing to convince the world’s leading nations that we are living through a once in 100 million years extinction level event.
What I find so frustrating about all these challenges is how directly it mirrors fandom’s well worn mythologies. We know exactly how these stories play out because we’ve seen Krypton blow up, we’ve seen the Galactic Empire reduced to a relic, and we’ve heard repeatedly that mutants always lose. Yet when faced with the exact same predicament, in actual reality, humanity continues to elect enough Vond-Ahs of the Kryptonian council to ensure disaster.
Our fictions teach us to pay attention to the Doomsayers, yet how many comic fans heed those warnings?
Now, there are loads of reasons human psychology is poorly equipped to the handle the realities of climate change. In George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change, the author explores dozens of reasons, from the power of emotions to the long term nature of climate change to pessimism driven inaction. As Marshall says:
“Through our long evolution, we have inherited fundamental and universal cognitive wiring that shapes the way that we see the world and interpret threats and that motivates us to act on them. Without a doubt, climate change has qualities that play poorly to these innate tendencies. It is complex, unfamiliar, slow moving, invisible, and intergenerational. Of all the possible combinations of loss and gain, climate change contains the most challenging: requiring certain short-term loss in order to mitigate against an uncertain longer-term loss.” ~ George Marshall
Or, there’s always George Carlin:
For those who acknowledge the Doomsayer, though, there’s a clear trap of overwhelming horror at the truths they’re accepting. Climate change can absolutely fill you with grief. As environmental author Carolyn Baker puts it:
‘Collapse forces us to march in a funeral procession toward the end of life as we have known it – and the end of ourselves as we have known them. And who, I ask, would willingly sign up for this?”
For me, this is the modern challenge for storytellers and sci-fi maestros, the ability to move past the climate parallels that are so ingrained through the history of story, and to consider realistic yet hopeful proactive outcomes. I don’t look to X-Men to solve climate change, but I do hope that comics and sci-fi can ask us to consider what solutions could look like. Frankly, if the Doomsayers of our narratives are purely insistent on nihilistic extinction outcomes, with no chance of redemption, then no, I don’t want to sign up, even if they’re right!
In a lot of ways, this is why I find the twist of Hickman’s Inferno so fascinating. Who among mutantkind better understands the “funeral procession toward the end of life” than Moira X? Her great secret is that much like Captain Kirk in the Kobayashi Maru, she’s changing the rules: No longer will Moira march to the grave for mutantkind. Instead, she’ll find a path out through the only options she hasn’t tried yet: Joining the man-machine ascendency through whatever means necessary. This manifests first through trying to “cure” all mutants, and ultimately through the comically heavy-handed transformation into Evil Robot Moira.
I said I wasn’t going to get deep into Dune, but this is (yet another) strikingly similar approach to defeating the long reach of prophecy. In God Emperor of Dune, we spend an entire novel with Leto II who has straight-up turned himself into a big ol’ worm over the course of centuries to ensure the eventual Golden Path of humanity. Of course in doing so, much like Moira, Leto II in many ways transforms from Doomsayer to villain (albeit much more subtly!).
In Moira’s case, her motivations perhaps best capture the biggest hurdles facing climate scientists: self-interest. Even if intellectually we can get to the point of connection in these stories, it belies the realities of self-interest, profit motives and the wide array of political posturing that makes climate action a Gordian Knot. Moira may be telling herself she tried to save the mutants of Krakoa (by taking away their gifts!), but if we cut to the core, that feels like a much smaller goal than her desire to achieve immortality, and to for once win a lifetime! This Doomsayer was believed, and still couldn’t get out of their own way, avoid political rivals (Mystique and Destiny), and become the very threat they’d been fighting.
Regardless of the rightness of the approach, though, every instance, every mythology we open our minds to, is committed to doomsayers who could easily give up! It would be so much easier! But that’s not what these mythologies do. There’s a father preparing a rocket for his son. There’s a mathematician calculating the survival of the species. There are mutants building nations that can withstand a machine apocalypse.
They have heard their Doom, and then they have said No More.
Perhaps the best start is to stand up and say the same.