Even though we as comic book and superhero fans really want Iron Man, or Superman, or Squirrel Girl to win the day, there will always be a piece of us that wonders just what would happen if the Big Bad succeeded, if Galadriel took the One Ring, if all our base did, in fact, belong to them.
Brandon Sanderson’s new book Steelheart, out on Sept. 24th from Delacorte, explores what it would be like to live and grow up in the kind of world that would result. And although depicting the villain winning seems like a classic idea, it’s rare that one gets to linger in such a world, even in a serialized format such as comics.
Which is odd, considering how memorable that experience can be! Below, we’ll look at 5 comics that made the most of their crappy worlds.
Empire by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson
Although this 2004 mini-series plays out much differently than Sanderson’s Steelheart, the world that results in both books is very similar. Empire concerns itself with Golgoth, who wrestled the world under his control over the course of the last two decades and against the efforts of the world’s now-vanquished superheroes. (The fate of Golgoth’s main Superman-esque foe Endymion comes as a particularly gruesome twist.)
Like the eponymous Steelheart, Golgoth sees the world as if it is a machine with only a few broken parts, and not the constantly evolving, multifaceted beehive of oddities that we know it as. The more order Golgoth imposes, the more the rebellious or unclassifiable sectors of society come into focus, and the harsher that imposition of order becomes. Golgoth provides security and sustenance, but only just enough. These are livable days, but they are not good days.
As the series begins, the tediousness of rule has long set in for the villain. As Golgoth becomes less concerned with day to day activities, his court and his family get more opportunity to scheme against him and each other, further muddying his desire to rule such people. It becomes apparent to the reader and to Golgoth that what he actually cares about is conquest, and not the prizes he obtains from it.
Although it doesn’t outright state it, Empire does a good job of mapping out just how boring ruling the world would be to a supervillain. As conquest peters out and the pull of administration takes hold, Golgoth’s prize becomes a cage—one where the only escape is to admit that even though he conquered the world, he still failed.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and David Gibbons
The story of Steelheart and the now-iconic Watchmen are vastly different from each other, yet there is an interesting tonal similarity between the two. When you consider the world as its sketched out in Sanderson’s latest book, you find yourself reminded of the other, even if you’re not entirely sure why.
It could be that both books center on the actions of vigilantes pushing forward against greater powers with only their own ingenuity and technology. It could be that they both share a general sense that society is crumbling inwards at an increasingly rapid rate. It could be the division on display between the haves and have-nots in both worlds.
But while Steelheart makes it obvious that the world has been ruined because of a supervillain, the villain in Watchmen accomplishes the same task without ever letting anyone know he’s already won. The techniques are different, but the end result is the same: a world that is a dismal, hardscrabble, and selfish place in which to live.
(Although Steelheart, being a young adult novel, is very much minus the darker portions of Watchmen. And also minus the climactic giant squid. Foiled again, apocalyptic squid fans!)
Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar
This three issue alternate reality mini-series gets a lot of mileage out of the question of what the DC Universe would be like if Superman’s capsule had landed in the Soviet Union instead of the U.S.
Instead of growing up humble and dedicated to the pursuit of “truth, justice, and the American Way,” Supes becomes dedicated to the ideals of the Russian state and Communism, eventually proceeding Stalin as its head. The Soviet Union’s expansion out into the world is shepherded by a Superman who remains compassionate but is willing to eliminate those he sees as permanent foes to the Soviet way of life. He is similarly willing to curb the personal liberties of the individual in the service of his greater good and, since this is Superman, the reader knows he literally has his eyes and ears on the world.
The main bad guy in Steelheart is similarly outfitted in terms of powers—super strength, invincibility, steely handsomeness—and a lot of the book concerns itself with our heroes trying to suss out his one weakness. (All the Epics in the world of Steelheart have one, although sometimes they’re just impossible to intuit.)
Superman: Red Son eventually comes down to President Lex Luthor trying to determine the same about Superman, as the Soviet world closes in on the U.S. In the end, Superman is stopped not by other superheroes, or Kryptonite, or a passionate plea to his conscience. Instead it’s…well, it’s worth reading about. Suffice to say, like Steelheart, it’s not something you’d expect but it is something that makes a delightful amount of sense, considering the circumstances.
Wanted by Mark Millar
Comics writer Mark Millar would depict another world ruled by supervillains in 2003, the same year that Superman: Red Son was released, in assassin action drama Wanted. (Soon to be a major motion picture! Wait… seriously? With Morgan Freeman? Come on.)
This one features the world as we know it, full of iThings and viral videos and officemates who burst out singing Queen’s greatest hits, and completely devoid of superheroes or superpowers.
Except it’s not supposed to be like that. Supervillains long ago teamed up and got rid of the superheroes, and all traces of their existence. As tends to happen when you keep a secret this big, one superpowered kid eventually figures out the truth. But what proves more entertaining is the idea that we’ve always been living in a world of supervillainy and that, you know, things are actually mostly okay and we haven’t lost the need or capability to strive for better things. Do we need a hero to save us? Can a villain become something more multi-varied once they prove capable of running the world?
Wanted doesn’t address these questions (or really even notice that it brought them up) but it’s fun to consider a world where the supervillains win and that’s…alright?
X-Men: Age of Apocalypse
Of all the supervillain-runs-the-world scenarios presented in this article, X-Men: Age of Apocalypse is possibly the least complicated but is also by far the most fun.
For four months in the late 1990s, the entire multi-title X-Men comics line became an alternate reality storyline where an ancient evil by the name of Apocalypse emerged to conquer the world in the absence of the X-Men. What followed was an exceptionally dark tale of an Earth spiraling towards extinction as both superheroes and supervillains familiar to us battled to hasten and/or prevent that extinction. Familiar characters showed up in different guises and with different personalities, sparking “nature vs. nurture” questions by the truckload, all of it ratcheted up by a huge mess of do-or-die scenarios. There were brave sacrifices, entire issues full of Crowning Moments of Kick-Ass (Blink vs. Holocaust!), shocking betrayals, and monumental failures (Generation Next!). Then, in one epic battle with everyone giving their all…it was over.
Forget serious considerations on whether evil is really evil, or if conquering something you don’t really want is another form of failure. Magneto just tore the bad guy in half. Sometimes having the villain in charge is just an excuse for everyone else to up their game. And sometimes that’s all you want.
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and is history’s greatest monster.