8 Comic Stories Set in the Crazy, Way-Off Future of 2020
1. “The Debut of Superman III!” (Superman #354, 1980)
So what is it about the year 2020 that makes it pop up so often in comic stories over the years? I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation behind it, but I’m going to take that Occam fellow’s advice and suggest 20th-century writers in search of a near-future setting for their stories simply liked the repetition of the number.
In “The Debut of Superman III!” we get nary a glimpse of Richard Pryor or any bargain-bin Lex Luthors trying to corner the coffee bean market. Instead, in this story set in, well, 2020, we meet Kalel Kent, the grandson of the original Superman who is about to take his place beside Gramps and Pop as one of Earth’s super-guardians.
And what an Earth it is! Orbital cities, flying cars, Metropolis now a part of “the vast 21st-century megalopolis” that stretches hundreds of miles down the U.S. eastern seaboard (Dredd says, “The !@%$ you say???”), regular shuttles to the moon…. why, it’s as if Cary Bates and Curt Swan had a crystal ball to see right into our present day!
Alas, not all is well in this techno-utopia, for the public debut of Superman III has steeled the determination of racists belonging to “Operation Pure-Blood,” a fanatical group of humans who are determined to restore “the genetic purity of our glorious race” by ridding the world of those who welcome aliens into our midst. (At least the story got one thing about 2020 right.)
No spoilers on how Kalel dealt with these prejudicial poop-heads, who as it turns out weren’t the only ones not so hot on embracing a grandson Superman; the adventures of Superman 2020 ran in back-up strips in Superman books from 1980 to 1982 before his adventures were deemed “alternate Earth did it” and he quietly faded away.
2. “He Lives Again” (Machine Man #1, 1984)
“Enter the terrifying world of the near future! Enter the world of… MACHINE MAN! September 23, 2020 — deep within Baintronics Storage Warehouse #5, a massive metal creature prowls the floors…” So begins Tom DeFalco’s and Herb Trimpe’s (with finishes and colors by Barry Windsor-Smith) four-issue tale of Machine Man’s rebirth in the 20th year of the 21st century.
Debuting in Kirby’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1977, Machine Man was your standard searching-for-his-place-among-humanity artificial being who had been kicking around the Marvel universe for a few years (including his own short-lived series from 1978-81) when DeFalco swung for the fences with what was perhaps the most ambitious Machine Man story to date (and, arguably, ever) in this 1984 mini-series.
By the year 2020, Machine Man has been dismantled while his most persistent foe owns a robotics corporation with global influence. Discarded by computer error and retrieved by a plucky gaggle of tech scavengers, the now resurrected Machine Man leads an uprising against the company founded on his own stolen technology.
Interesting timing, this mini-series about a dystopian techno-future coming out in 1984 — a year when, thanks to Apple and Mr. Orwell, the media and popular culture were fixated on advances in computer technology and its social impact. I suspect the timing of this story was more than coincidental.
“I’ve had many names in my time, but the world knows me best as… MACHINE MAN!” “Sorry, but that name doesn’t light my telescreen.” Hee.
3. “It is the year 2020…” (Iron Man 2020, 1994)
From the book’s back cover: “The year is 2020. The times are desperate. When a cutthroat business rival approaches Stark with a lucrative offer to perform a rescue operation as Iron Man… is the price to pay too high? To save the weakened remains of Stark International, will Stark essentially sell out his services as Iron Man?”
Machine Man’s mini-series also saw the debut of Arno Stark, the Iron Man of 2020. Arno’s exact relationship to Tony Stark is unclear and has changed over the years, but the one constant in his appearances has been his more aggressive appearance and use of armaments, possibly because of his lingering doubts about being a worthy successor to the original.
In 1994, Marvel published Iron Man 2020, a 64-page one-shot that may have been testing the waters for a potential ongoing series. We find Arno brooding over the state of the economy and its impact on his company — “Thanks to the failure of the peace initiative in Riyadh, oil prices are about to skyrocket. Again.” — when a business rival seeks to hire him for a rescue mission.
It seems this rival’s daughter has been taken hostage by one of those gangs of Mohawk-and-spandex-sporting big-gun enthusiasts that were so prevalent in Marvel books in the early ’90s — but as you might guess, things aren’t always what they seem.
The story is pretty standard as these proving-myself-worthy stories go; for bonus fun, enjoy the little snippets of what life is presumed to be like in 2020, from self-repairing windows to floating robot drink servers to… no, no, I believe I’ll remain fixated on the stunning lack of floating robot drink servers in my life. GET ON THAT, ELON!
4. “Last Dreams Broken” (Marvel Graphic Novel #7: Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds, 1983)
February 2020? Why, that’s right now! First appearing in Marvel’s Amazing Adventures title in 1973, Killraven exists on an alternate Earth where the invading Martians from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds are real and return in 2001 to finish the job. With humanity’s enslavement complete, the remaining humans are kept alive either as collaborating administrators, livestock or gladiatorial entertainment for the conquering aliens. Three guesses where Killraven falls.
After escaping with the help of his “keeper,” Killraven joins the Freemen, a group of resistance fighters opposing the Martian occupation, and between 2018 and 2020 he and his companions make their way down the U.S. eastern seaboard to Cape Canaveral, where they meet someone who still remembers the old days… someone who still knows what it feels like to be called a hero.
Though Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, Gerry Conway and Howard Chaykin all played a role in Killraven’s beginnings, by the fourth Killraven appearance his adventures were taken over by writer Don McGregor, who worked with Herb Trimpe, Rich Bucker, Gene Colan and, notably, P. Craig Russell. Critic and historian Peter Sanderson wrote: “It was writer Don McGregor who transformed the Killraven saga … into a classic. Of all of Marvel’s writers, McGregor has the most romantic view of heroism. Killraven and his warrior band were also a community of friends and lovers motivated by a poetic vision of freedom and of humanity’s potential greatness. McGregor’s finest artistic collaborator on the series was P. Craig Russell, whose sensitive, elaborate artwork, evocative of Art Nouveau illustration, gave the landscape of Killraven’s America a nostalgic, pastoral feel, and the Martian architecture the look of futuristic castles.”
After the strip finished its run in 1976, McGregor and Russell teamed up again for Killraven: Warrior of the Worlds, a graphic novel-length story that continued the adventures of the Freemen. This is also when Killraven discovered his ability to project his consciousness into Martian minds — a handy skill as his saga went on.
5. “Day of Death” (Booster Gold #23, 2009)
“The greatest hero you’ve never heard of!” was the tagline for DC’s 2007 Booster Gold series — ironic, given that the glory-hungry hero was originally created in the 1980s as a spoof of that decade’s obsession with celebrity and fame.
At the start of his second ongoing series, a down-on-his-luck Booster is recruited by time traveller Rip Hunter to help protect the timestream by putting things right what once went wrong — the irony being that Booster is himself a time anomaly, having travelled from the 25th century to the 20th (or 21st, depending) with future tech to forge a new identity as a superhero.
One of the neater aspects of the series is how it allows readers to relive key moments in the DC universe. In this issue, Booster arrives too late to stop a time-skipping villain from murdering most of the New Teen Titans in their early years as a team, and so he and Rip convince a Wolfman/Perez-era Raven to travel into the future with them to take the battle to the bad guy “when he’s cocky, confident and not expecting an attack.”
And the nature of that future? “Welcome to New York, 2020.” What happened to the Big Apple with the Teen Titans removed from the timeline? Let’s just say climate change isn’t as big a priority in this altered timeline as it might be in others. On the plus side, finding a parking spot in downtown Manhattan has never been easier.
6. “Lust for Life” (2020 Visions, 1997)
“In 2020 Manhattan, if you’re not ‘accredited,’ you’re nothing. If your face doesn’t fit — if you’re not one of those privileged citizens, carefully selected to pilot the global electronic economy — you don’t get to live inside The Wall.” So begins the first issue of Vertigo’s “2020 Visions,” a 12-issue series featuring four self-contained stories all set in — you guessed it — the year 2020.
Jamie Delano weaves some intriguing if downbeat tales about life in the then-near-future year of 2020; his first story (with art by Franky Quitely) finds a former pornographer “trying to keep his decrepit body and twisted soul together” after the U.S. government outlawed “sleaze publishing” in 2008. But of course, you can always count on collectors behind The Wall to be interested in the outlawed “classics” from the old days…
You know, I’m betting that if someone did that in the middle of Manhattan on July 21, 2020, the crowd on the street below would probably look a lot like that. Except there would be a lot more smartphones out recording the moment he goes splat! than seen here.
7. “Grandpa Shows His Medals!” (Exciting Comics #66, 1949)
Nedor Comics (also known as Standard, Pines or Better Comics depending on who was asking) was one of the comic outfits that survived the Golden Age just long enough to get the four-color smackdown that so many other publishers suffered in the mid-1950s. One of its bigger draws was the Black Terror, your standard pharmacist who discovers “formic ethers” (DRUGS!) that give him superhuman powers, so of course he puts on a skull-and-crossbones outfit and fights crime with a sidekick named Tim (that’s it, just Tim) who wears an identical outfit. No super powers for him, though; those formic ethers pack quite a punch.
In this story, we start in the far-off year of 2020 where a man named Howie is telling his grandson about the time he won the soapbox derby and got an autographed photo of the Black Terror and Tim while he collected his trophy. (Don’t ask me why the Black Terror was hanging around soapbox derbies handing out autographed pictures when crime was afoot; I’m pretty sure none of the answers we come up with will reflect well on anyone.)
But — gasp! — soon after this meeting with his hero, Howie had the picture stolen by a gang of crooks! Why? Because they want a sample of the Terror’s handwriting in order to forge a letter to gain access to a bank, of course. Because they wanted to, you know, rob it. Being crooks and all. Well, that just seems silly, I can’t imagine how having a letter from a masked vigilante would gain you access to anythi–HOLD ON THE BANK MANAGER SAYS THE BLACK TERROR HAS AN ACCOUNT AT THE BANK? And the best part is after the robbery when the bank manager demands BT’s arrest as an accomplice. “I don’t trust anybody!’ he replies when the police chief assures him Black Terror is no crook. (Trusted him enough to give him a bank account, though, hashtag just sayin’…)
Anyway, the important takeaway here is we all now wear capes and finned helmets while enjoying some quality pipe-smoking time with the grandkids. Just in case you were wondering.
8. “Moscow. New Year’s Eve, 2020” (Chuck #2, 2008)
Premiering on NBC Sept. 24, 2007, Chuck was an action/comedy/spy/drama series starring Zachary Levi as our titular hero, a computer store technician who becomes a CIA asset when he accidentally gets the only remaining copy of a software program containing the U.S. government’s greatest secrets embedded in his brain. Not only does this give him access to classified intel, it also gives him the ability to “download” fighting styles, firearms training, foreign languages, and other skills useful to his spy handlers. It’s every bit of insanely fun as it sounds.
Despite critical acclaims, concerns about its ratings led fans to launch a “Save Chuck” campaign in the spring of 2009, with fans and TV critics co-ordinating efforts online to show NBC the support it had from its audience. NBC agreed to renew the show, which would last five seasons and 91 episodes until its finale in January 2012.
Shortly before the start of the second season, WildStorm published a six-issue comic series based on the show. It was mostly written by Peter Johnson and Zev Borow (series co-executive producer and writer, respectively) with art by Jeremy Haun and Phil Noto.
Maintaining the light tone of the show, the series’ second issue featured a back-up story that begins “Moscow, New Years Eve, 2020. SCR — Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.” We then follow Chuck posing as an onsite Nerd Herd computer technician to gain access to “the supercomputer vault.” Though the story ends before we find out if he completed his mission, we get a glimpse of Chuck and Sarah’s future life as husband and wife with two young children — one of who is experiencing his first “flash,” suggesting that Chuck’s downloaded knowledge and skills can be transferred genetically. That should make the first day of kindergarten fun.
The U.S. and Russia playing cyber-security spy games with each other… where do these writers come up with their crazy ideas?