A young man in a Guy Fawkes mask appears on TV to denounce his government as fascist and corrupt. Technocrats and spineless politicians run the United States government, more concerned with corporate backers than the welfare of their citizens. The youth remains isolated from the conventional world of politics, preferring to express themselves in the streets. These are all scenes from ‘80s comics: V for Vendetta, American Flagg! and Akira, respectively, but they also describe news feeds from 2017. In the aforementioned books, war with Russia looms, post-industrial capitalism has gutted the world and the American people have been stupefied into passivity. Sometimes satirical, sometimes deadly serious, these series were intended to depict the darkest of possible futures. So how did some of the most dystopian comics turn into prophecies?
Like most sci-fi stories of any worth, these comics reflect the times when they were made, and the 1980s were indeed turbulent times. Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. soared to power on the promise of privatizing their respective governments. The Cold War reached a fever pitch, and Latin American and Afghan militias received funding from the United States to combat Russia. The AIDs epidemic ran rampant through the decade, killing millions of gay men and women. As V for Vendetta co-author Alan Moore told MTV News in 2006, “When I wrote V, politics were taking a serious turn for the worse over here. We’d had [Conservative Party Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher in for two or three years, we’d had anti-Thatcher riots, we’d got the National Front and the right wing making serious advances. V for Vendetta was specifically about things like fascism and anarchy.”
While the major Western economies were booming and busting during this time, the Japanese economy was seemingly much more stable and healthy. As films and novels from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner to William Gibson’s Neuromancer attest, the West felt increasing anxiety over Japan’s emerging cultural domination. But while money and the arts seemed to flourish for the Japanese, their political and economic security hid some growing fault lines. As their economy grew, it moved from an agricultural and manufacturing-based system to an informational base. Telecommunications, computers, robotics and information processing were privileged—a hierarchy that would give rise to Japan’s reputation as a futuristic wonderland. This strained relationship with tech, and the hubris of technological progress, manifested itself in now classic books like Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed, Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Shirow’s The Ghost in the Shell—stories of technology run amok and the complications that unchecked development can bring.
These communities were riddled with tension, riding high on the untenable promise of infinite economic growth, under a tidal wave of social upheaval and international strain. Those common themes spread into comics: the bombastic corporatism, the fascist worlds, the meeting of man and machine that can either destroy us or elevate humanity. As President Jimmy Carter said, accepting his party’s nomination for the 1980 presidential race:
In one of the futures we can choose, the future that you and I have been building together, I see security and justice and peace.
But there is another possible future. In that other future I see despair—despair of millions who would struggle for equal opportunity and a better life and struggle alone. And I see surrender—the surrender of our energy future to the merchants of oil, the surrender of our economic future to a bizarre program of massive tax cuts for the rich, service cuts for the poor, and massive inflation for everyone. And I see risk—the risk of international confrontation, the risk of an uncontrollable, unaffordable, and unwinnable nuclear arms race.
American made its choice, electing Ronald Reagan by a landslide that November. And, unfortunately, the prevailing political philosophy that Reagan ushered—a conservative religiosity merged with a neoliberal economic policy and hawkish foreign policy—would prove Carter’s more sinister premonition right. As documentarian Adam Curtis traces in various works, most recently in the BBC production HyperNormalisation, the conception of the world prescribed by Reagan would precede an explosion in incarceration, the war on terror and the 2008 financial collapse. The world was not swayed by these warnings of the future; the politics that gave rise to Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Ronin were allowed to run their course and reach their inevitable conclusions. Now we have a president who feuds with consumer brands on Twitter and a generation of young people who appear disconnected from political life. Fiery protests against state violence have broken out around the world, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Paris, and the industrialist du jour remains convinced that the only future for humanity is cyborg transhumanism. One state is trying to strip women of all their bodily autonomy, and Congress just gave coal companies the OK to pollute streams. Making text out of sub-text, some outlets are even declaring “the ‘80s” the hot trend of 2017.
So if the authors of the that decade glommed onto the politics of the day and extrapolated outwards to make these worlds, what worlds are the authors of today extrapolating? Misogynist prison planets, zombie wastelands and war-torn interplanetary colonies. The satire and humorous hyperbole in the sci-fi fables seem to have been sucked out completely, replaced by an apocalyptic vision of total decay, of a place beyond hope, of a time when all of our imagined paths have lead to dead ends. The bleakness of these visions and the narrowness of their scope offers a worrying insight into our collective prognosis of the world. But the dearth of alternative vision, maybe even more worryingly, lends credence to literary theorist Fredric Jameson’s now-famous saying: “It is now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”