The 25 most visionary visionaries of the last 25 years

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Lucas Siegel
Sep 1, 2017

September 2017 is SYFY's 25th anniversary, so we’re using it as an excuse to look back and celebrate the last 25 years of ALL science fiction, fantasy and horror, a time that has seen the genres we love conquer the world of pop culture. For us, that means lists! ALL THE LISTS! We’ll be doing two "25 greatest" lists per day all throughout September, looking back at the moments, people, and characters that shaped the last quarter century. So keep checking back. Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains. So keep that in mind when reading!

What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments!

With all the above said, let's look at the visionary creators who changed the way we saw the world (and still do today).

J.J. Abrams

In television, Abrams brought us sexy super-spies and alternate worlds “over there.” He even had an early hand in getting us to a mysterious island. With Alias, Abrams gave us a female hero who pulled off the kinds of things James Bond did, but with style. We also recognize him here for being the man that renewed two classic franchises for a new generation. After taking on Star Trek with a reboot that saw the original characters created by Gene Roddenberry put into new high-octane adventures, Abrams was the director chosen to awaken the Force, continuing the story of Star Wars. The Force Awakens didn’t just bring Star Wars into a new era, it catapulted the franchise into a public spotlight unlike any it had seen in its near forty year existence.

Octavia E. Butler

As the first science fiction writer to receive the Genius Grant (aka the MacArthur Fellowship), Butler’s work, especially on her two “Parable” novels (she sadly passed before she could do any more Parables), is a must-read for any science fiction fan. As a black, female writer of science fiction, she spoke of the need for more women and people of color to lend their voices to sci-fi, encouraging them to do it even though they don’t see many others doing so. Hopefully her Parable of the Sower isn’t prescient – it takes place in the 2020s, where climate change, wealth inequality and corporate greed has caused much of society to collapse. Uh-oh.

James Cameron

While recent comments haven’t exactly cast James Cameron in the most positive light, there’s no denying what he’s done to bring science fiction and fantasy to the masses. After conquering the 1980s with Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss, the 90s brought with them Titanic, his biggest (and most ambitious) project to that point. Then came 2009, when Avatar completely changed the game for 3D and CGI used in live-action film. Those two latter films alone grossed just under a combined five billion dollars worldwide. Avatar’s use of 3D launched the craze, which sees most major action films and blockbusters released in 3D today.

John Carmack and John Romero

In 1993, Doom took gamers to hell and back, turning the genre into the powerhouse that it is today along with a superteam of designers and programmers like John Romero and John Carmack. Romero’s new tools for level design made for inventive mazes, and they basically invented the Deathmatch, completely changing the First Person Shooter genre. Then along came Quake four years later, revolutionizing multiplayer, and put “bunny hopping” and “rocket jumping” into the vernacular. The franchise, and the game engines developed for it, have stayed immensely popular to this day (heck, there’s even an annual QuakeCon!). Did you love games and franchises like Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, Star Wars Jedi Knight, and many more? They literally wouldn’t exist without the Quake Engine, and thus without John Carmack and John Romero.

Suzanne Collins

Many people can say we need more female leads in action stories, or that we need more female writers of genre. Suzanne Collins made it actually happen. The Hunger Games trilogy is undeniably impactful, both as novels that had kids reading again and as a film series that helped make Jennifer Lawrence a household name. It also helped prove to Hollywood that yes, a woman can lead an action and sci-fi franchise, and yes, women like going to action movies, too.

Kelly Sue DeConnick

Sure, fans will know who Captain Marvel is in a couple years when Brie Larson plays her on the big screen, but the character wouldn’t be the hero she is without the work of Kelly Sue. The capper to her work-for-hire with Marvel, she made Carol Danvers fly higher, further, and faster than she ever had before. Captain Marvel’s popularity in the comics, and her dedicated fans of Carol Corps are the reason she’ll be Marvel Studios’ first female title character solo lead. Then, as if she’d just been waiting to be unleashed, she launched her creator-owned series Pretty Deadly and Bitch Planet, and went from well-loved superhero writer to burgeoning feminist icon. Horror, mythology, science fiction, parody, exploitation, straight-up superhero fun, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything DeConnick can’t write extremely well. And the good news is, she’s still at a relatively early point in her already incredible career.

Warren Ellis: "NORMAL: A Novel" | Talks At Google

Warren Ellis

You could ask ten Warren Ellis fans what his defining work has been so far, and you’d get ten different answers. From the cultural commentary of Transmetropolitan and Global Frequency, to take downs and deconstruction of superheroes in Planetary and Nextwave, to sci-fi superhero action in Iron Man (that got used as the basis for the movie Iron Man 3), and even looks into British archetypal story telling and shamanistic magic in Injection. There’s at least one Warren Ellis written comic for every fan of genre entertainment. On top of that, he’s written excellent digital series like G.I. Joe: Resolute, and just a couple months ago his Castlevania anime debuted on Netflix. Ellis changes the way we look at every licensed character he touches, and his influence in looking at superheroes through a critical lens continues to spread through today’s storytellers. Ellis is a fearless and dedicated writer of science fiction and fantasy horror, and his work is unmissable.

Kevin Feige

The president of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige is the guiding force behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With this year’s Thor: Ragnarok, the MCU will pass five billion dollars grossed at only US box offices. Sixteen films have been released so far, with seven more already on the schedule for the future. This juggernaut, with all the great actors and directors and writers it has attracted, all comes down to Feige. With every company and rights holder now trying to launch “cinematic universes” of their own, Feige’s influence isn’t just over his films, it’s over the entire film industry. Fun trivia: he's also a former assistant to Richard Donner!

Peter Jackson

We really only need five words here: The Lord of the Rings. Adapting Tolkien’s epic to film was a daunting task and one not many directors, especially with so little experience in massive productions, could handle. But Jackson didn’t just do it, he owned it. Fantasy on film was created in that trilogy so drastically differently, it was as if it had never been on film before. He truly brought fantasy as a genre to a new height and to a worldwide audience that may have ignored it before. Every high fantasy film since has been chasing the LOTR buzz.

Geoff Johns

Geoff Johns is currently president and chief creative officer of DC Entertainment, executive producer and co-head of DC Films, has written for Arrow and co-created The Flash on The CW, is writing and executive producing Titans, has helped on screenplays and oh yeah, engineered the Rebirth of hope and legacy at DC Comics at the same time. Johns, once an assistant to Richard Donner, loves the characters and worlds of DC Comics, and it shows in everything he does. He’s reinvented and added to the mythos of almost every character in DC Comics (but especially Green Lantern, The Flash, and the Teen Titans), and the entire landscape of DC-based entertainment wouldn’t be the same without him. Now taking on DC Films, he’s set out to inject some of his signature hope into that world, too.

Stephen King

King had been long-established before 25 years ago, but the writer who made horror novels as common on a housewife’s bedstand as on a brooding teenager’s basement has continued to push the limits of horror (and occasionally fantasy) storytelling. The majority of his Dark Tower epic was written in this time, plus stories like The Green MileDreamcatcher, Cell, Mr. Mercedes, and oh so many more. His book On Writing has helped inspire another generation of storytellers, and adaptations of his works, though hit or miss, continue to emerge and bring his stories to other audiences. King has continually elevated horror and its popularity.

Robert Kirkman

In 2003, The Walking Dead comic book launched and was a rare case where the second issue actually sold more copies than the first. Once the trades started coming out, they became staples of the best selling comics lists, and they never left. When the hit comic became an even bigger hit TV series, Kirkman became one of the most influential creators to ever come from comics. The Walking Dead spawned a zombie craze bigger than ever seen before, as the series became the number one show on TV. The series has spawned toy lines, a sister series, and even its own conventions, attended by thousands of people across the country. Now, his Skybound Entertainment is linking up with Amazon to create more TV shows and films based on his (and others’) works and we can’t wait.

Gale Anne Hurd

Gale Anne Hurd is one of the most prolific producers in genre history. In the 1980s, Hurd basically was mainstream science fiction on the big screen, with The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, and more. In the last 25 years, she’s had her hands on disaster epics, superheroes like The Incredible Hulk, and oh yeah, she’s been a producer on the #1 show on television, too. An early production addition to The Walking Dead, Hurd championed the series before AMC had any idea what a hit they had on their hands. Her passion for great science fiction storytelling brought the genre into a serious, dramatic, and respected light it had rarely been seen in before. As a woman in a male-dominated industry, she’s also broken through, with a governorship in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and as an officer for the Producers Guild of America. She has not only proven that women belong in Hollywood and in Sci-Fi and Horror, she’s dominated it while doing so.

George R.R. Martin

Dun duh da da dun duh da da dun duh da da dun duh…
Yeah, it’s pretty easy to see why George R. R. Martin and his Song of Ice and Fire are on this list. A cultural phenomenon thanks to the HBO adaptation Game of Thrones, Martin’s epic saga of Westeros, like Lord of the Rings before it, has brought high fantasy to the masses. The mix of mystical elements like dragons and the undead with very real drama between families, political rivals, and all those people trying to claim the throne for themselves strikes a perfect balance to make this one nearly every viewer can enjoy, even pulling in fans that don’t usually like fantasy stories – and getting that song stuck in their heads for months at a time.

Ronald D. Moore

After spending the late 80s and most of the 90s exploring strange new worlds with Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, Ron Moore teamed up with SYFY to bring Battlestar Galactica back with a reboot. The 2004 series was a defining moment for SYFY, and for science fiction in general, with gender swaps, political intrigue, riveting action, and deep philosophical conversation on just what it is to be human. It even won a Peabody award and, in the process, showed everyone that science fiction not only comments on our culture, but becomes part of it.

Hayao Miyazaki

Sometimes called the “Disney of Japan” (a comparison made even more fun by the fact that Disney now distributes his Studio Ghibli films in North America), Miyazaki’s films are masterpieces of animation, often telling deep and personal stories featuring environmentalism, feminism, family, and pacifism through sweeping fantasies. While Spirited Away made him an international name in 2001, becoming the highest-grossing film in Japanese history and winning the Best Animated Feature Oscar, films like Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo, and The Wind Rises sit right alongside it as masterpieces – and he wrote them as well as directed. His stories helped make anime mainstream in the US, and their themes showed audiences around the world that the medium could explore more than just martial arts fights and giant robots.

Todd McFarlane

This spot belongs to Todd McFarlane, but with a shoutout to his fellow Image Comics founders. Leaving Marvel at the height of their popularity to form Image in 1992, McFarlane started his tenure there with Spawn, a character that gained such incredible popularity, it’s been adapted multiple times and is internationally recognized. Writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and more worked with McFarlane on the series. Image Comics showed that creator-owned comics could not just work, but could sell, and reminded people that you don’t need Marvel and DC’s libraries to tell great stories. But while his legacy of Spawn and Image would probably get him on this list alone, his toy line, producing high-quality (but still affordable) figures based on everything from pro athletes to The Walking Dead cements his position.

Grant Morrison

Having already established himself in the late 80s, Grant Morrison took the 90s by storm with works at Vertigo and creator-owned books like The Invisibles. After reinventing the JLA in the mid-90s, and putting his stamp on their evil counterparts the CSA, he continued his reinventions into the 21st Century with his take on New X-Men and the eclectic Seven Soldiers. All-Star Superman is, to many, the definitive take on the character. But it all came down to Batman, and an epic run with the character that went 7 years. That run brought Batman into a new era, with a son, a death, a journey through time, and a franchise all his own. Morrison’s re-establishing of the Multiverse for DC Comics opened up literal worlds of story opportunities. He also had Superman sing reality back into existence, a power we’d love to see come to live-action.

Anne Rice

While many of her most well-known works predate this 25 years, Anne Rice’s creations of a world of vampires hit the big time in 1992 when Interview with the Vampire was adapted into a major motion picture with the likes of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt – you know, just those two little-known actors – involved. She continued to expand her Vampire Chronicles with the most recent novel coming out just last year, while also writing several other novels. Is the vampire craze entirely at her feet? No, but it certainly wouldn’t have happened without Lestat.

Ted Chiang

A Chinese-American science fiction writer is a rare enough thing; add in the fact that he’s won 4 Nebula Awards, 4 Hugo awards, and others, and his novella “Story of Your Life” was adapted into the immensely popular and well received film Arrival, and you have, demonstrably, one of the best science fiction writers of the last 25 years. His science fiction is intertwined deeply with philosophy and forces readers to consider deeply personal questions while reading. That got his most recent story, “The Great Silence” into The Best American Short Stories, something few genre stories have accomplished.

J. K. Rowling

When Harry Potter found out he was a wizard, it wasn’t just his life that changed, it was the world. We all went on a magical journey with Harry as we began to see the hidden Wizarding World expand in front of our eyes. Rowling’s creations inspired the imaginations of billions (and continue to do so), and they have gone on to inspire multiple theme parks, another film series, an online expansion of the world, and more. Her storytelling expertise is such that you constantly feel like this is just a secret world, hidden between the cracks of our own. Harry Potter also got people of all ages all over the world reading young adult fiction and made YA books a go-to for filmmakers to adapt.

Brian K. Vaughn

While his comic book writing career started in the mid-nineties, it was the early 2000s, with his own new creations, that launched him into the stratosphere. Y: The Last Man came in 2002, Runaways for Marvel Comics in 2003, and Ex Machina started in 2004, all of which showed very different sides to his creative ability. More recent series like Saga and Paper Girls have likewise explored more of BKV’s brilliant brain and creativity. On top of all that, he even came in as a writer on Lost when it was struggling in Season 3, and helped turn it around to keep it going through to its end. BKV’s use of feminist storytelling and his expert weaving of science fiction with relatable characters are a good go-to standard for people telling similar stories in any medium.

Lana and Lilly Wachowski

Collectively known as “The Wachowskis,” these sister filmmakers took the film world by storm with The Matrix, rewriting the way we look at black cats, deja vu, and the way Keanu Reeves says “Woah. The action sequences in the film dramatically changed the way Hollywood looks at action altogether, popularizing “bullet time” slow-motion sequences and insane over-the-top stunts while creating an entirely new version of reality. It’s something other filmmakers have chased ever since. With their latest project, Sense8 on Netflix, the transgender women brought LGBT characters and themes into a trippy and diverse sci-fi story, paving the way for increased representation.

Patty Jenkins

With Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins has broken down several barriers for female directors. It’s the highest-grossing movie directed by a woman, the best-reviewed film in the DCEU, and has put Jenkins, the character, and star Gal Gadot all firmly into genre fans’ hearts. It’s also the first modern superhero movie to have a female title character and star, no small note on its own. Jenkins is still building her legacy, but continuing to prove that female action movies, directed by women, can be both financially popular as well as critically acclaimed, is definitely in her near future.

Joss Whedon

Let’s do the list: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Astonishing X-Men, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods, Avengers, and with Justice League and Batgirl still to come. Yeah, it’s pretty easy to see that the work of Joss Whedon, as well as the talented people he kept around him, has built a fandom of its own. His penchant for the “strong female character,” even when that wasn’t much of a thing in action, pushed genre entertainment and how it treats women forward dramatically. With The Avengers, he fulfilled the promise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, finally showing fans what they didn’t know they’d been waiting for since the days of Lee and Kirby.

These were OUR choices. What'd we miss? Let us know in the comments which visionaries from the last 25 years you'd put on your list. And make sure to check out all of our "25 Greatest" lists here.