Once and Future State: Revisiting DC’s LEGENDS OF THE DEAD EARTH

With characters from DC Future State comprising a not-insignificant amount of DC Comics’ publishing slate — from Superman: Son of Kal-El and Superman and the Authority to I Am Batman, Wonder Girl, and Aquaman: The Becoming — I thought it’d be interesting to look back on one of the other times DC had their books jump ahead into the future.

In 2014, there was New 52: Future’s End leading up to the Convergence event, and in 1991 the Armageddon: 2001 event.

In the case of Future’s End, we were given an incredibly bleak look at the New 52-era five (and 35!) years in the future and how almost everything that could’ve gone wrong DID go wrong. It led to a grotesque apocalypse where sentient A.I. Brother Eye took over by converting most of the heroes into robotic abominations.

Cover art by Ryan Sook

DC paused their ongoing titles to release Future’s End-themed one-shots tying into every book. Gail Simone famously used Batgirl: Future’s End to finish her Batgirl run, while sneaking in appearances by Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain. Beyond that, most every other respective one-shot felt lackluster at best — or appallingly depressing at worse.

Over twenty years earlier, Armageddon: 2001 was an early DC event which got hopelessly derailed when fans learned prior to publication that the true identity of villain Monarch — the series’ central mystery — was Captain Atom. Editorial’s subsequent last-minute attempt to change Monarch’s identity from Captain Atom to C-List Titan Hawk (of “and Dove” fame) did little to salvage the storyline.

House ad art by Dan Jurgens

To accompany Armageddon: 2001, nearly every ongoing DC title had an annual issue showing where characters might be in ten years’ time, in the year 2001. While not necessarily as bleak as Future’s End, the only things of note to happen in this event were Hawk’s transformation into Monarch, which led to his transformation into Zero Hour’s Extant in 1994, and the introduction of the Team Titans. The Team Titans would remain a presence in DC’s Titans books for a few years before being written out by Zero Hour.

Future’s End was met with dismal reception due to its overall oppressive atmosphere, while Armageddon: 2001 was ruined by spoilers and a poor attempt to rectify the leaked ending.

However, all future visions were not created equal!

In 1996, DC released another annual event that explored the future of the DCU, but with a greater sense of optimism. Following 1994’s Elseworlds themed annuals and 1995’s Year One themed annuals, 1996 saw the release of Legends of the Dead Earth.

The concept was relatively simple: each Annual looked at the survival of a character’s legacy in the far future long after the death of the Earth itself. The annuals were stand-alone stories, which didn’t rely on continuity or multiple purchases for readers to fully appreciate any given issue. There was no set year for when the stories took place, so long as they took place thousands of years into the future. The stories didn’t focus too much on what caused Earth’s destruction. All we knew was that sometime between the 30th and 75th centuries, Earth died and humanity had spread across the universe finding homes on new worlds.

The Legends of the Dead Earth annuals came in two flavors. You’d either see a hero and/or villain’s legacy reaching into the far future, or you’d see a hilariously and/or grossly warped interpretation of the past. A few of the annuals such as Supergirl or Guy Gardner: Warrior would have more than one story and feature both. Every creative team imagined their own vision of the DCU’s far future.

Cover art by Phil Jimenez

Inhabitants of the DC Universe either lived in stereotypically advanced futuristic cities, or in medieval societies or rundown scrapheaps trying to pass themselves off as civilizations. For example:

Superboy Annual #3 by Barbara Kesel and Anthony Williams: The city Aztlan was founded by Earthlings stranded on another planet after all space travel stopped. Five hundred years later Aztlan is a veritable Metropolis inspired by the ancient Aztecs.

Batman Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #6 by Alan Grant, Barry Kitson, and Vince Giarrano: Gotham is a somewhat medieval society — a church/police state — founded five hundred years ago after a generation ship crashed on the planet. The people are fully aware their ancestors arrived from outer space.

Supergirl Annual #1: In its third story, “Shootout at Ice Flats” by Joe R. Landsdale, Neal Barrett Jr., and Robert Teranishi, the story features Bonechill IV, an icy ball made up of shoddy huts where people try to utilize ancient Earth appliances and tools as weapons.

Wonder Woman Annual #5 by John Byrne and Dave Cockrum: The passengers of a generation ship have been stuck in space for so long they basically turned into two different cultures, the “Unremembered” and the “Ratbats,” an entirely new species.

Cover art by Dave Cockrum

Meanwhile regarding the legacies of Earth’s heroes, some have remained consistent throughout the centuries, while others have been largely misinterpreted.

Superman Annual #8 by David Micheline, Kevin West and Tom Grindberg: Superman’s legacy has survived mostly intact thanks to a digital version of his personality recorded before his death by Doomsday. He oversees a league of men and women separately empowered by one of his abilities.

Guy Gardner: Warrior Annual #2: The volatile and hotheaded Guy Gardner is revered as the legendary “Big Guy,” while Hal Jordan’s descendants are still demonized by his time as Parallax.

Catwoman Annual #3 by Joan Weis and Michael Dutkiewicz: Batman and Catwoman were believed to be a “Bonnie and Clyde” type of duo who fought the heroic Commissioner Joker, and had a son named Dick Grayson Wayne who eventually turned against his parents.

Aquaman Annual #2 by Peter David and Ed Hannigan: Aquaman’s seen as either the benevolent king of a desert planet or a terrorist who ruled Earth’s oceans from a floating fortress. Both stories are told by men who each claim to be Aquaman’s last descendant.

The tone varied in every issue. What remained consistent were humanity’s determination to survive long after Earth’s death and the sheer power of every hero’s legacy throughout the ages.

Cover art by Adam Warren

As it so happens, only a small number of the annuals tied directly into current DC continuity while the others could be viewed exclusively as Elseworlds-type stories. And because New Titans was newly cancelled at the time, Adam Warren repurposed his Legends of the Dead Earth Annual into a separate one-shot titled Titans: Scissors, Paper, Stone directly under the Elseworlds banner.

One of the Guy Gardner: Warrior stories had Guy of the present day DCU mentally transported to the far future and encountering the kid counterparts of his supporting cast.

The Starman Annual featured the Shade, still immortal, regaling children with tales of the past Starmen such as Ted Knight and Prince Gavyn, a tale fully meant to remain in continuity.

The Green Lanterns introduced in their annual were confirmed as canon members of the Corps in the Green Lantern/Sinestro Corps Secret Files much later on in 2007.

Appropriately enough, the Legion of Super-Heroes Annuals had the most direct ties to DC’s regular titles.

Thunder, a future Captain Marvel (remember when that was a thing?) from the Power of Shazam Annual, was later made a member of the Legion. Thunder could travel from the Legion’s era to her own time and vice versa by saying “Captain Marvel.” In the Legion’s era, she’s Thunder. In her own time, she’s a young woman named CeCe Beck (in honor, of course, of original Shazam Family creator C.C. Beck. The Legion of Super-Heroes Annual would later be confirmed as canon by the events of Legion of Super-Heroes and Legionnaires #1,000,000 (part of ANOTHER future-forward DC event that concentrated on the 853rd Century.

Meanwhile, the Legionnaires Annual focused on future Flash and Legion member XS being lost in time, travelling to the past and meeting her grandpa Barry Allen — and later the 100th Century — before returning home.

Legends of the Dead Earth has pretty much been forgotten by DC fans in the last 25 years since it was published. The only characters introduced who are remembered are Thunder and Tris Plover, the female Robin introduced in the Robin Annual. Though humorously, Batman: Shadow of the Bat Annual #4 by Alan Grant and Brian Apthorp was discussed on Tumblr a few years ago due to the identity of its Batman.

Interior art by Brian Apthorp

The big twist of the story is the Batman we’ve followed up until a certain point was actually Richard, a counterpart of Dick Grayson. Rereading the story, fans realized this was obvious due to the artist Brian Apthorp’s blatant hints of Richard-as-Batman having several prominent shots of his prominent rear end. Just like Dick Grayson’s famously sculpted ass.

Some of the annuals still aren’t even included on Comixology or DC Universe Infinite, but I’ve been lucky enough to find all of them. I feel they’re especially relevant in today’s comic culture, due to what they say about the future and the ways in which they were crafted.

Many of these annuals have aged fairly well in the last couple of decades, and the two that’re especially prominent in my mind are Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #7 and Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #6.

Cover art by Alan Davis

Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #7 by Tom Peyer and Mike Collins uses classic Legionnaire Wildfire as its focus character, even though Wildfire hadn’t been reintroduced in the Reboot Legion at the time of publication. As the last remaining original Legionnaire from before the destruction of the United Planets, Wildfire tried to keep the Legion’s spirit alive against all odds.

Unfortunately, Wildfire’s new recruits are constantly dying in battle because they’re too prejudiced to work together. Nervosa the Bismollian hates Graft the Durlan; Phase the Bgztlian accuses Metrox the Coluan of deliberately trying to hurt her. The only new Legionnaire who remains dependable is Membrain.

Wildfire grows increasingly upset at the constant failures of the Legionnaires because their worlds remain isolated not just by space, but fear and distrust. All that fear does is go into planetary military budgets, which starves the populaces and does nothing to really stop who or what’s blowing up stars.

Interior art by Mike Collins

Wildfire is at a loss for what to do, fearing he’s drifting further and further away from what made the Legion so powerful. Membrain assists in a sensory deprivation experiment allowing Wildfire to connect to his older memories. In doing so, Wildfire realizes the reason the Legionnaires worked so well together was because they were all young.

Instead of recruiting adults, Wildfire begins to reach out to teenagers. Wildfire reasons his teen recruits are less likely to be embittered by racial tensions as the older Legionnaires were (a hope we often share in America, alas). While it does turn out Durlan recruits Shape and Shift are moles for aforementioned Durlan terrorists, the two claim humanoids hate and distrust them because of their abilities. While it doesn’t necessarily excuse their actions, the reality of a cycle of repeated victimization and internalized prejudice is hard to deny.

The story ends with Wildfire being able to reach out to the worlds once part of the United Planets, announcing the U.P.’s rebirth with help from the Legion.

Cover art by Vince Giarrano

Meanwhile, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #6 focuses on a medieval-style Gotham founded on another planet. Here, the Batman legacy is upheld by the Kane Family and instead of being a super-hero, Batman is an executioner who works for the church/police state. Katherine “Kathy” Kane is shocked when she discovers her father Robert has committed suicide and is even more perplexed when she learns why. It seems Robert found out Aaron Zsasz, a man he beheaded a few days prior, was innocent. Robert hung himself, seeing his own punishment as justice for the dead man.

Kathy decides to investigate further, donning temporary armor for herself as Batwoman to figure out who framed Aaron Zsasz. Tracking down a supposed witness named Zulina Kyle, Kathy is unable to stop Zulina’s assassination. But before she dies, Zulina uses her strength to admit she was paid to set up Aaron Zsasz as a scapegoat. And he wasn’t the only one.

Digging deeper into this new information, Kathy learns Gotham has been founded on a legacy of police brutality. The Mondial Family — the people who’ve upheld Gotham law since its creation after Crashdown — have systematically murdered hundreds of innocent people. These innocents were framed as criminals and murderers, their executions used to scare Gotham’s citizens into obeying the law. Kathy is horrified as she realizes her ancestors were unwittingly manipulated into killing innocent people for centuries.

The story ends with Batwoman confronting and exposing the latest Commissioner Mondial, who refuses to admit doing anything wrong. Kathy refuses to perpetuate the cycle of executions and doesn’t kill Mondial. However, she exposes Gotham’s government as corrupt and fallible and takes it upon herself to transform the symbol of the Bat into a symbol of justice, not death.

Interior art by Vince Giarrano

Within the context of today’s society, the Legion of Super-Heroes Annual and Legends of the Dark Knight Annual both explore the concepts of internalized racism and police corruption.

Wildfire’s endeavors to unite the galaxy are undermined by how deeply prejudices have been ingrained into other worlds. However, his success at reuniting the galaxy seems more likely when Wildfire reaches out to those young enough to not be so narrow-minded.

Batwoman discovers the police and government running Gotham have exploited the trust and faith of its people to slaughter them for “the greater good.” Commissioner Mondial claims these are necessary sacrifices even though it’s clear his men are thugs who have no issue traumatizing and framing innocent people to serve their own ends. Batwoman calls for reformation of the government and publicly denounces Mondial’s values, taking it upon herself to change things for the better.

Several of the annuals published under the Dead Earth banner also discussed these themes in similar ways — particularly, those concepts of corrupt power systems and leaders exploiting the people they are supposed to serve at the expense of the innocent.

Interior art by Anthony Williams

Superboy Annual #3 featured the city of Aztlan essentially ruled by a dynasty of Supermen who each chose a Superboy as their inheritor. Quetzal, selected as the newest Superboy, is legitimately shocked and disturbed when he realizes the current Superman is a corrupt, greedy, misogynistic creep who overthrew the last Superman for the sake of power.

Not only that, but we learn that women are forbidden from having superpowers in Aztlan society. Allied with the previous Superman and Chala, a young woman with the power to manipulate water, Quetzal seeks to expose Superman’s corruption and end his reign before more people suffer. While the story ends with the current Superman defeated, Quetzal is humble enough to admit he still has a lot to learn before he can become the new Superman.

As a sidenote, it should be mentioned the corrupt Superman is also taken down by the power of the real Quetzalcoatl. While Quetzalcoatl’s name and image were invoked by the metahuman Sanson in his well-meaning plot to motivate Aztlan’s foundation, the god himself turned out to be real and vocally disgusted by Superman’s exploitation of his name.

Interior art by Ron Wagner

“The Surrogate” by Chuck Dixon and Ron Wagner, the first story in Supergirl Annual #1, focuses on a woman named Cryssia having her mind forcefully uploaded into a robotic unit known as a “Tooljerk.” Cryssia’s one of many people who are treated as expendable resources for an intergalactic mining company, and those who are converted through the process cannot have it undone. Fueled by childhood memories of the original Supergirl’s legend, Cryssia manages to overpower the system by completely uploading her mind into her new body. Reshaping her metallic form into Supergirl’s image, Cryssia inspires the other workers to do the same and rebels against the overseers who used them as slaves.

Cover art by Jerry Ordway

Superman Annual #8 focuses on the League of Supermen, a group of men and women who volunteer to receive one of the original Superman’s powers. The League is led by a digital copy of Superman’s personality, downloaded before his death by Doomsday.

While there are unfortunately some drawbacks to receiving these powers (like being unable to shut them off), the League is still dedicated to protecting their world and upholding Superman’s legacy. When Superman’s behavior seems erratic and oddly cold, new recruit Sara Shane uses her recently gifted speed to hack into the files and learns the digital Superman wants to take over. The “Gauntlet” project the League’s been working on features space cannons aimed directly at their planet to keep the populace in line.

Even though they believe in Superman’s legacy, the League turns against their digital leader because they know the real Superman wouldn’t advocate fear and violence for order.

Interior art by Tom Grindberg

The League is able to stop the Gauntlet project and destroy Superman’s A.I., which it turns out was what he wanted. The A.I. realized it was slowly being corrupted but couldn’t end his programming by himself. He wanted the League to shut him down before he hurt anyone, leaving the planet in the League’s protection. The League of Supermen demonstrate a willingness to uphold values like truth and justice while actively questioning and fighting against their leader if said leader is willing to commit immoral or unjust actions to justify his ends.

Interior art by J.H. Williams III

The Flash Annual #9 by Peter Tomasi and J.H. Williams III focuses on brothers Bryan and Tristan Mallory, and a religion that seems to have been built around the Flash on an icy, post-cataclysm world. Bryan’s a nonbeliever of this faith while Tristan’s a self-obsessed and hypocritical fanatic, willing to kill his own father just to receive glory as the “true believer.” When Bryan is struck by lightning and given powers, Tristan loses it when he sees the “holy light” has aged him like it did his father Stevan. Upon seeing that Bryan’s new powers can restore the plant life beneath the snow and ice, and can also restore his age, Tristan clocks Bryan and proceeds to exploit his brother’s power.

For three hundred years, Tristan used Bryan’s energy to supposedly save their people. Constructing a domed city protected from the Arctic world around them, Tristan’s led their people by keeping Bryan’s existence a secret. Not only that, Tristan empowered others (including children and babies) to keep them in stasis just like Bryan so he can drain their power to keep himself young.

Deborah, one of Tristan’s followers, eventually has enough and frees Bryan to stop Tristan from sacrificing more children to keep himself young. The Annual ends with Tristan dying and Bryan choosing to go back into stasis to keep the city alive, but no more people are sacrificed to serve Tristan’s egomania and betrayal of faith.

Adventures of Superman Annual #8 by Tom Peyer and Derek Aucoin focuses on two alien races, the Sarkons and the Curatti. The Sarkons claim that generations again the Curatti tried to enslave their race, so the Sarkons now treat the Curatti as less than nothing. At this point, the Curatti have been broken enough they genuinely believe themselves to be worthless and act as slaves in atonement for their ancestors’ supposed evil. One Curatti, Willigig, is exposed to an ancient device that fills his mind with information about Krypton and Superman. Willigig’s led to believe he’s really the child of Jor-El and Lara and thinks he’s actually Superman.

Interior art by Derek Aucoin

With help from a Coluan researcher named Zurl Dox, Willigig learns the Sarkons have indeed been lying this whole time. They invaded the Curatti homeworld, took over, and spent generations gaslighting and abusing the Curatti into believing the opposite. Not only that, but the Sarkons try to present themselves as benevolent and heroic to lure other cultures into a false sense of security so they can take those over too.

With the truth revealed, Willigig lets go of his self-hatred and comes to understand he’s NOT the son of Jor-El and Lara but still uses the mantle of Superman to liberate his people. Though Willigig dies at the end of the story, he’s remembered as Superman for bringing the truth to the Curatti and thus overthrowing the Sarkons. Willigig’s people have been subjected by vicious colonizers and beaten into submission until Willigig, as Superman, helped reveal the truth and reignite faith in themselves.

Wonder Woman Annual #5 is a story told without spoken dialog, expressed solely through thought captions, about the people living on a generations ship. Our focus character is AlyXa, a humanoid young woman part of a group named “The Unremembered.” AlyXa’s considered intelligent, curious, and brave, but unfortunately women in the Unremembered are treated as property of the men. In this paternalistic society, the Unremembered don’t even understand how babies are born and most believe it’s because of some innate function of the women to give birth just because.

The enemies of the Unremembered are the Ratbats, animalistic humanoids who’re considered feral savages and must be destroyed. They are thus “The Other” to the Unremembered. As AlyXa travels further through the generation ship, or “the world,” then she’s done before she comes across a chamber with technology she doesn’t understand. However, AlyXa spies on a female Ratbat who seems to understand how the machinery works. The Ratbat activates some sort of information device and AlyXa is hit by residual thoughts of the exploits of the original Wonder Woman.

After the Ratbat leaves, AlyXa tries to activate the device for herself and experiences the exploits of Wonder Woman on Earth, saving lives and standing as an equal in the Justice League. Now you assume, even based on the cover, AlyXa will become the Dead Earth’s Wonder Woman. However, AlyXa also experiences the memories of the Ratbat and learns the startling truth. The Ratbats are a sophisticated, peaceful society more advanced than the Unremembered. In fact, men and women in the Ratbat culture are considered equal.

Interior art by Dave Cockrum

When the men of the Unremembered set out to violently attack and wipe out the Ratbats once and for all, the female AlyXa saw emerges wearing a variant of Wonder Woman’s costume. This Wonder Woman fights to protect her people but stops them from killing the Unremembered. ValXan, AlyXa’s intended “husband” and leader of the Unremembered men, sees an opening and tries to fight back. Wonder Woman stands her ground and shows no fear at ValXan when AlyXa emerges forward and pulls a blade on him.

AlyXa calls out the Unremembered for the genuine wrongness of their culture, stating the Ratbats have figured out the ways of true society and thus they need to learn from THEM. It’s this condemnation of both the Unremembered and their designation of the Ratbats as the others that leads to an understanding they must work together if they are ever to find an actual world to call home.

Not every story followed with these themes, though they were still enjoyable regardless. Overall, Legends of the Dead Earth produced a myriad of interesting character designs and settings by playing around with pre-existing themes. Some of the stories featured characters of the present day DCU being combined with one another thanks to errors in historical research.

Interior art by Vince Giarrano

Batman Annual #20 by Doug Moench and Vince Giarrano included “Cat-Fem,” a researcher named Selina Kane who experimented on herself with lynx DNA and become a thief. Kane’s feline motif and name are references to Catwoman, while her role as a scientist and color scheme harken to Poison Ivy.

The opening of Detective Comics Annual #9 by Chuck Dixon and Flint Henry featured bizarre and intriguing combos of different Bat villains such as Jokester, Firecat, and Bane-A-Gator.

Interior art by Dick Giordano

Supergirl Annual #1’s “The Legend Lives On” by Barbara and Karl Kesel, Dick Giordano, and George Perez was an amusing mash-up of the histories of Kara Zor-El and Matrix, the original and post-Crisis Supergirls. Supergirl is misremembered as “Lo Slane,” protoplasmic shapeshifter, wife of the weaker Superman, mother of Superboy, member of the Legion of Titanic Heroes, and having briefly went insane trying to destroy the world during “The Crisis.”

Interior art by Robert Teranishi

Supergirl’s memory is further warped in “Shootout at Ice Flats” when sheriff Eileen Garrett’s given a necklace bearing a familiar “S.” Eileen’s mom states it stands for “Sardine Girl,” who was made from scientific mud and had telekinetic (water) powers. Eileen is not impressed, though the necklace does in fact give her power to win a fight against a local gang of criminals (not that Eileen realizes it).

Ultimately, the creators behind these stories gave us a bevy of unique legacy characters, including multiple inheritors of the Batman, Superman, and even the Supergirl name. It’s a shame that, aside from Thunder, none of these characters were ever re-utilized by DC Comics going forward. It’s especially glaring in the case of Batwoman, who debuted a decade before the inception of Kate Kane and was for years the only prominent reemergence of the Batwoman concept.

But in the end, Legends of the Dead Earth gave us multiple stories about fighting back against corruption and abuse of power, the perseverance of mankind’s spirit, and the overall importance of storytelling and symbols. The bulk of the villains are all corrupt leaders or fear mongers willing to exploit faith and fear for the sake of their own power.

Our protagonists are men and women inspired in some way or another by the lasting legacy of Earth’s heroes, even if those legacies have been mildly or ridiculously warped so far into the future. They fight for what’s right, question authority and internalized hatred, and are even willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

That’s a future worth aspiring to.


Related posts