Do Comics Predict the Future, or Create It?

A Team Human Conversation with Shawn Kittelsen

Douglas Rushkoff
5 min readJan 24, 2024

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I worked with Shawn Kittelsen back in the early 2000s. He was a student in NYU’s screenwriting program, and I think he actually approached me by email looking for an opportunity to work as an intern. He eventually became a paid assistant, and he helped a whole lot on my graphic novel ADD, after which I suggested him for a job at DC comics, and the rest was all him.

He’s a fascinating character — a lifelong comics fan, Superman in particular, who even named his son Clark. He’s best known for writing the stories for video games — like Mortal Kombat 11, and Injustice 2. But I know him better as a comics writer, particularly the series Heart Attack, which he finished shortly before getting a heart attack, himself. Coincidence?

Probably, yes. But it does at least hint at what we ended up talking about, which was the role of these delightful media forms in changing how we play with reality, what we consider possible, and where we find the high leverage points for systemwide change.

Plus, he’s just a really sweet guy. So here’s my conversation with Shawn Kittelsen.

You can listen to the full conversation by streaming Team Human wherever you get your podcasts. To listen to an ad-free version of the show you can become a patron of the show on Patreon.

Douglas Rushkoff:
Grant Morrison always talks about how he would write things in a comic that then manifest in his life. Did you feel there was anything magical or occult-like that you write a book…

Shawn Kittelsen:
called Heart Attack and then have one? Yeah, actually. Well, there’s a lot in Heart Attack that was really spooky. Not even in a supernatural way, but when I started writing it, I was doing all this research into the militarization of police and looking at criminal justice in Brazil and South and Central America and thinking we’ve got the same trends up here. We’re just a few years behind. Those mass demonstrations, it’s like, what if Occupy had gone wrong and someone brought knives or bricks to Occupy?

Douglas Rushkoff:
Sometimes they do, after us though. Like the Capitol storm after the election. It ping pongs.

Shawn Kittelsen:
Oh yeah. I saw that. The book is about a world where a pandemic has been beaten back by genetically modified therapies and given rise to a generation of kids who are born different with DNA. Other people think the children are not human anymore because they have variant DNA so we can deny them human rights. They become this subclass.

I set the book in Austin because Austin has a really awful history of segregation. I was like, okay, what if we just segregate Austin again and put a wall up along I-35 where there was a redline between West and East Austin between the white and black neighborhoods back in the day. What if we put our wall there and that’s where they keep all the people that they don’t want mixing with “normal people” out.

The sixth chapter of the book ends with a protest at that wall that turns into a massacre at the hands of the police. Within months of that coming out, we had all the George Floyd protests and I saw footage of people at I-35 protesting being beaten back by police and shot with rubber bullets. I just thought it was all too real. I don’t know about the supernatural, chaos magic, Grant Morrison side of it as much as I just feel like I had my finger on a pulse and the reading that I got was pretty accurate to where it was going.

Douglas Rushkoff:
Casting out a comic is a little bit different than writing words. It’s a weirder thing. I think that process does open you at least to the zeitgeist. At least to the pulse.

For me, it got to the place where last August I was getting really depressed. I got to the place where I said I don’t feel like my depression and feeling of mourning was appropriate to the moment. It’s like the notion of “pre-mourning” from Succession. I feel like it was some kind of retrocausality happening where there is a bad thing in the future rippling back and I am feeling it now. It’s not like predicting the future. It’s feeling the future. Because the future is so obvious when things are cooking up. I feel like with everything happening in the Middle East now, this is so big. What’s happening now is so much pain of so many people. Wow. Of course, if we were open, we would feel it before it happened, you know?

Shawn Kittelsen
I think this is a more recent phenomenon that there people who just won’t read the news. It’s not that they want to be ignorant, but they’ve just decided that news is bad for them. Too much trauma, too much triggering, it’s messing them up.

You’ve got the people who you’ll ask, do you have any idea what’s going on right now in the Middle East and they’ll say I don’t want to talk about the news. I don’t read the news. I know it’s the same old thing and you’re like, well, yeah, but it’s kind of escalating. There are levels to this.

Douglas Rushkoff:
There’s a Don’t Look Up quality to that. I’ve told people — even when we were kids — the news was not online and all the time. Even CNN wasn’t around when I was a kid. You would tune in at 6:30 and Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw, or Walter Cronkite would tell you what happened.

There was almost some sense of mental health responsibility exercised by the networks. The networks needed to tell people what was happening, but in such a way that they didn’t drive people crazy.

Shawn Kittelsen:
When I was growing up Desert Storm was happening. I know a lot of people trace CNN’s nonstop coverage and news as entertainment instead of information to that, but I’d give anything to go back to those days, which seemed far more balanced, at least in terms of what we get now where it’s almost like cable news is playing to social media. It’s playing to that new medium and trying to be more relevant.

Douglas Rushkoff:
It’s television in a digital media environment. It’s not TV anymore.

Shawn Kittelsen:
No. It is fodder for content. It’s 24-hours of clickbait.

Douglas Rushkoff:
And it does feed back. I mean, this is all from Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda and good old media studies — it feeds right back into the culture then. I mean, not to say I’m going to blame war on social media, but we can blame certain kinds of violence and confusion on this feedback loop.

Shawn Kittelsen:
Oh yeah. The hysteria is a direct outcome of systems that are biased toward driving people toward hysterics. They’re there to make you feel like, you know, they’re there to give you the present shock.

Listen to the whole conversation on Team Human!

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Douglas Rushkoff

Author of Survival of the Richest, Team Human, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://teamhuman.fm