Friday, August 26, 2011

The Biggest Not-So-Natural Disasters in Comics

It's hard to be a New Yorker and not look for deeper meaning in having an earthquake and a serious hurricane strike our humble metropolis in one week. And by deeper meaning I obviously mean 'There's probably a supervillain trying to get to me by attacking my city.' It's rather merciless to be cursed with my powers of logic, but there it is.

To take my mind off of my inevitable showdown on a rainsoaked roof, cape billowing in the furious Irene winds, one man against spectacular odds, fighting for survival and Judeo-Christian values, lamenting the lack of superhero protective underwear budget, I've decided to take a look at some of the biggest comic book storylines to feature natural disasters.


Recently in Marvel, during and after the Civil War, Brian Michael Bendis gave us one of his more militaristic team lineups in the Mighty Avengers. Working with S.H.I.E.L.D., both the organization itself and agents like Black Widow, the team was mostly comprised of major powerhouses, such as Ares, the Sentry, Wonder Man and Ms. Marvel.

Their first mission, after fighting some Mole Men monsters, was the mysterious outbreak of natural disasters all over the world, which was quickly explained to be the work of a returned Ultron. Not only was the psychotic robot back, but he transformed Tony's extremis armor into his new body, that of a silver, robotic, naked, female who exactly resembled Janet van Dyne.

Somehow a female Ultron is scarier than the regular, handelbar-helmet guy who froths at the mouth, partly because of the intensity of emotion possible but mostly due to the twisted oedipal reasons for giving itself the body and face of its creator's wife.

So not only does Ultron possess all the Avengers' weaknesses, as well as an extremely advanced crossdressing app, but he/she can trigger catastrophic weather-related events all over the globe at the same time. Not. Scary. At. All.


It's quite possible this doesn't count, but considering we're talking about comics, I think it's fair to stretch the definition of "natural" when it comes to disasters. And in a world overrun by zombies, who are never referred to as zombies (so one can assume this reality never had zombie fiction) and whose existence, the cause of the advent of zombies, is never revealed, disaster is everywhere.

The ultimate survival story, where no matter where you go, who you're with, and what you've accomplished, you are never safe. Either the zombies will eventually find a way to eat you or the other surviving humans will inevitably snap and reveal their evil tendencies unchecked by any society. Sadism, self-preservation, and the lesser of multiple evils abound in this consistently upsetting tale of a world gone mad.


Speaking of plagues that change the world forever, imagine that every man on the planet (except for one) falls down dead at the exact same moment, leaving women to inherit the earth. Whether it's a promiscuous gay man's nightmare or a celibate one's dream, the truth of this particular disastrous world is that women can be just as dangerous and violent as men when normal society crumbles.


Krakoa was the threat responsible for the formation of the second generation of X-Men, and retroactively the short-lived interim team that included the third Summers brother, psychotic Vulcan. Originally a normal island in the pacific, nearby nuclear bomb testing mutated Krakoa into a living island capable of controlling its entire ecosystem and draining mutants for food. It captured the original X-Men and necessitated the recruitment of a new team to rescue them. Seemingly unbeatable, the threat was finally removed when Polaris (thanks to the powers of her teammates) magnetically launches the island into space.


The most obvious natural disaster in mainstream comics is the giant earthquake that strikes Gotham City (or, to be exact, about 10 miles north of the city, just by the non-quake-proof Wayne Manor) in the long Bat-title crossover called Cataclysm.

In an era where the Bat-crossover was ubiquitous and beloved (at least by me) Cataclysm takes place after the harrowing events of Contagion and Legacy, which saw Gotham City being decimated by the outbreak of the Ebola Gulf-A virus, or The Clench. Of course the plague wasn't entirely natural, as Ra's Al Ghul was revealed to be the one who released it as a form of biological warfare against Batman, enjoying the idea of making the hero fight something he's helpless to stop. Similarly, and true to comics form, a villain was revealed to be behind the Cataclysm in the form of the Quakemaster, who turns out to be a new puppet of the Ventriloquist's.

Still, the perpetrator is incidental. In Batman comics when disaster strikes, rather than just showing a world in crisis, the focus is on the individual instead; what can one man do in the face of overwhelming force. In Cataclysm we don't just see Bruce Wayne struggling with the meaning behind his lifelong chosen role and the futility of trying to fight nature and helplessness of seeing his city in flames, we see the experiences of each separated member of his extended family. Catwoman struggles with her conscience and the unexpected horrors of losing her city, Robin's own lessons of futility have grown too much and instead he earnestly seeks the source of the horrors, Nightwing returns to his hometown and tries to find meaning in each individual life he can help, and Barbara Gordon steps up to organize and control the entire city-wide rescue efforts.

While our heroes give us the best examples of humanity in times of great misfortune, and often the writers show us some man-on-the-street who aid in efforts and are heroes in their own way, it wouldn't be a disaster story without a large percentage of the Gotham population resorting to their most base, primal instincts. Much like in Contagion, and in the epic follow-up to Cataclysm, No Man's Land, there are looters, gangs and psychos running wild, riots at the island prison of Blackgate, fires and parties and scum who see the opportunities available in a city brought to her knees.

By removing the standard setting of all our stories, the once seemingly incidental and unalterable Gotham City, the writers have taken away the typical supports for all of their characters (including the suspiciously absent aid of someone like Superman) and exposed the truths inherent to them all. Crystallized conflict and massive adversity show whether they are the kind of person who will fight, help, manipulate, or break down entirely. It makes for some fun storytelling .

So unless you're a hero looking to test your moral fibre and strength of character in battle with unopposable forces and unhinged humanity, I recommend staying indoors this weekend. Tape your windows, stock up on wine (it doesn't need to be refrigerated) and buy a stack of old back issues to entertain you. Here's hoping the real world can't be as scary as the crazy things comic writers come up with.

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