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Grumpy Old Fan | Events’ End, part 1: The penultimates

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Events’ End, part 1:  The penultimates

The last New Comics Day of March 2015 is also the final “normal” ship week of the New 52. Next week, each of DC’s three weekly series will publish its final issue (although in Batman Eternal’s case, “final” only for Volume 1) and Convergence will begin with a zero issue. Multiversity is set to wrap up next week as well.

Therefore, I want to look at the next-to-last installments of Batman Eternal, Futures End, Earth 2: World’s End and Multiversity: Ultra Comics. As you might expect, there will be SPOILERS, not just about these issues but about the series themselves. These comics collectively just got a little more meta, and not necessarily where you’d expect, either …

Ready?

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We begin with Batman Eternal, the only weekly in the Class of ‘15 which will reach the magic Issue 52. It’s also the odd series out because it only affects the Bat-books, and not the larger DC cosmos (although admittedly, that could always change. You know how popular Batman can be). This week’s issue #51 was plotted by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV (with Ray Fawkes, Kyle Higgins and Tim Seeley “consulting”); scripted by Tynion; penciled by Alvaro Martinez, inked by Raul Fernandez; colored by June Chung; and lettered by John J. Hill.

The issue itself is structured around the main villain’s monologue — I’ll remind you again about spoilers before I give a proper name — and it calls back directly to the first issue’s opening flash-forward. We’ve come full circle, with Batman chained to a smashed spotlight and the villain taunting him about losing everything. For a while I thought the flash-forward would be a fake-out, with Hush (who once gave himself Bruce Wayne’s face) in this uncomfortable position; but no, it’s the real thing. He’s unmasked, his costume shirt is in tatters, and his utility belt is gone. Looks bad, right?

Well, keep that word “tatters” in mind, as — spoilers! — Cluemaster explains how he and his band of D-listers conspired to capitalize on Batman’s snobbery. He figured that a series of small-scale events (“it didn’t matter what,” he says, although he mentions Gordon’s frame specifically) would be enough to set the ol’ Bat-brain thinking about an A-list adversary. Indeed, that’s probably where a lot of readers’ minds went too: Rā’s al-Ghūl? The Riddler? The Roman? Catwoman? Penguin? Each was spotlighted and subsequently disqualified. It’s not a bad setup for a weekly comic, since it leaves the A-listers free to star in other Bat-books (or in Catwoman’s case, her own title) while preserving the appeal of a play-fair mystery.

[Just to digress briefly: it does make me wonder if the writers ever considered using Two-Face, or if the character — in whatever form, since it wouldn’t be that hard to make a new one — has been permanently retired since Harvey’s apparent death over in Batman and Robin.]

The free-form nature of Cluemaster’s plan apparently facilitated Eternal’s free-form structure. First it was a mystery about Gordon being framed and the Roman taking over the GCPD. Later, it veered into side plots like magical goings-on under Arkham Asylum and nanobots infecting Gotham’s teens. Finally, Catwoman became Gotham’s kingpin, Hush gave a handful of Bat-villains power upgrades, and Batman landed a fighter jet on Bane. I would say Eternal lost focus, but now I’m not sure the focus was ever a priority. According to Cluemaster, the goal was to keep Batman off-balance, but the reader also had to keep up with a bunch of Bat-associates, including new ones like Bluebird and Spoiler. It’s made Eternal somewhat shaggy, even without this issue’s final twist.

See, hidden in the tatters of one Bat-sleeve is a metal file, which Bruce uses to free himself while Cluemaster orates (and while the issue returns Gordon to power and checks in with Catwoman, Bluebird and Spoiler). Bruce and Cluemaster fight, but Cluemaster — now rocking a cool pair of “Clue”-inscribed goggles — observes that his punches aren’t as powerful as they used to be. Cluemaster comes out ahead, and is ready to execute our hero, when someone slips up behind him and cuts his throat. One last spoiler, for the last page — it’s Owlman, of the Court of Owls, ready for a final battle with his “brother.”

Now, I appreciate that the current Batman brain trust has used Gotham City itself as the “villain,” both in the Owls storylines and in this miniseries (and before that, in the Gates of Gotham miniseries). I think that’s a clever inversion of the traditional “this is my city” trope. Due to his involvement in the earlier storylines, Owlman is also a cut above Cluemaster, at least for now; so that lets Eternal have its “marquee villain” while not diminishing Cluemaster’s overall plan. Nevertheless, bringing in Owlman this late in the series feels like one swerve too many, and I think Issue 52 needs to justify his involvement very carefully.

* * *

Speaking of penultimate-issue swerves, this far into the Multiversity miniseries-slash-experiment, it’s hard to say what effect The Multiversity: Ultra Comics issue 1 will have on the overarching plot. Back in The Multiversity #1, a rag-tag group of superheroes from across creation squared off against the Gentry, an omnipotent lot bent on … destroying wholesome, fun comics, I suppose. Ultra Comics seems to be the linchpin of writer Grant Morrison’s conceit that all the Multiversity issues are themselves multiversal artifacts, each channeling a story from a different parallel world. This time, though, the “parallel” world is Earth-33, aka Earth-Prime, which is supposed to be our own Earth, where Multiversity is being published by the same DC Comics whose westward move will soon bring two months of Direct Market-killing nostalgia.

Thus, Morrison and his collaborators — penciler Doug Mahnke, inkers Christian Alamy et al., colorists Eltaeb and David Baron, and letterer Steve Wands — have put together a “haunted,” or perhaps “infected” comic, telling the origin story of Ultra Comics, which is also its hero’s name. In fact, if I understand correctly, the hero is the comic, and his mind is fueled by the imaginations of everyone reading. Ultra exists to do superheroic things, like saving lives and fighting bad guys, but basically he exists to be a superhero comic book.

As such, he/it contains references aplenty, starting with the cover’s steal from 1966’s The Flash Vol. 1 Issue 163. He’s got Superman’s basic color scheme, but it’s also Miracleman’s; and his blond hair makes him look more like the latter. His symbol isn’t quite a “U,” but more of a double-V, not unlike Miracleman’s or the Multiversity logo’s 51-dot V-shape. The first page’s splash panel, with Ultra announcing “We’re back!” against a burnt-orange, energy-crackling backdrop, is also strongly reminiscent of Garry Leach’s Miracleman #1 cover.

Of course, Miracleman, neé Marvelman, was based on Captain Marvel, a normal boy whose magic word transformed him into an adult superhuman. Both characters suggest plenty of metatextualism, just ready to be mined, but Multiversity has already told its Captain Marvel story in the Thunderworld issue. Ultra Comics looks at it from the other, more “realistic” side. Although Ultra has (ill-defined) super-powers, his costume is drawn to resemble the pleather armor of today’s live-action super-folk, with an assortment of seams, buckles, and unnecessary pockets. While he’s programmed with the full spectrum of superheroic behavior patterns, from the Golden Age forward, he soon upgrades his thought balloons to first-person narrative captions, and dismisses “all that good-and-evil crap” in favor of “a sliding scale of what civilization will tolerate.” I suppose it’s because we readers “have become part of a living cross-time cybernetic network in the form of a comic book,” so Ultra takes on our collective characteristics, but it’s still rather convenient under the circumstances. This also means Ultra contains his own criticism, in the form of third-party comment-section-style interjections.

Moreover, Ultra spends most of the issue fighting against the “Oblivion Machine,” which context suggests is a tablet computer or similar electronic device, upon which a good bit of his readers are likely encountering him. As Intellectron of the Gentry intones towards the issue’s conclusion, “[t]he Oblivion Machine eats yur precious mortal hours. Grows fat on yur wasted time. Absorbed in its picture shows, yu grow old.” Not surprisingly, the setting is a “generic post-apocalyptic urban wasteland,” where Ultra encounters freedom fighters like Red Riding Hood, Boy Blue, the Neighborhood Watch, and a handful of other super-folk also named “Ultra.” This includes the semi-obscure Golden Ager called Ultra-Man, the Silver Age Ultra the Multi-Alien, and the Bronze Age hero of the original Earth-Prime — think about that designation for a while — known as Ultraa.

Ultraa and the others have been working on a “Transmatter Cube,” a giant Rubiks-like affair which in the old days transferred the Justice League and/or Justice Society back and forth to their respective Earths. However, Ultraa turns out to be the main villain of this Earth (which isn’t Ultra’s Earth-33, since it has superheroes and supervillains), and he wants to use Ultra’s power to get back to his home planet. It’s all fairly standard stuff until Ultra reveals that he’s poisoned the power that Ultraa stole. Ultra gets free, but so does “the thing in the box,” namely Intellectron. With an assist from Red Riding Hood, Ultra escapes back in time, back to the beginning of the issue, but it’s too late — somebody out there’s reading this via Oblivion Machine. Intellectron devours Ultra, the stars wink out in his universe, and the comic intones that its readers have been infected.

If Morrison’s goal was to involve readers deeply in the mechanics of reading comics, this issue certainly does the job. Overall it demands a reader’s attention as much as the structure-heavy Pax Americana issue did. However, that demand comes from the reader’s need to figure out just what in the world(s) is going on. The early pages are the most effective, as first Ultra and then a mysterious well-dressed man — a combination of Bob Dobbs and Criswell — break the fourth wall trying to guide the reader through newly-strange territory. This is Morrison’s most obvious attempt to create a comic book which gazes directly upon the events of a parallel reality (even beyond issues of Animal Man and Seven Soldiers) and to the extent that it doesn’t go completely off the rails, I think he’s succeeded. Mahnke and company do a lot of heavy lifting in this regard, portraying Ultra’s fantastic exploits and the “behind the scenes” moments with clean, uncomplicated work. The only place the issue falters, unfortunately, is at the climax, when Ultra ostensibly travels back to the beginning. At that point it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to go back with him and read the comic over again, like a piece of music with a D.S. al Coda, but the gist is still the same. Ultra’s been consumed by the Gentry, the details are secondary, and you’re next. One thing’s for sure, though: I’m ready for Multiversity #2 to help make sense of it all.

* * *

Easier to understand — but in the end still a little surprising — is Earth 2: World’s End issue 25. Written by Daniel H. Wilson, Marguerite Bennett, Mike Johnson, and Cullen Bunn (from a story by Wilson), it features breakdowns from Scott McDaniel; pencils from Eddy Barrows, Robson Rocha, and Eduardo Pansica; inks by Eber Ferreira, Guillermo Ortego, and Dan Green; colors by Andrew Dalhouse; and letters by Travis Lanham.

Essentially, World’s End has spent the past six months bridging the gap between the end of Earth 2 and the five-years-ago backstory of Futures End. In the latter, we learned (a while ago) that the main DC-Earth was ravaged by the forces of Apokolips, who had destroyed Earth-2 and followed the fleeing refugees across the vibratory barrier. Accordingly, WE was always going to be full of destruction and gloom, punctuated by only the occasional glimmers of hope. It began with Apokolips invading Earth-2 and it’s set to end with a) the refugees jumping across dimensions and b) a big battle between Earth-2’s Green Lantern and Darkseid. Apart from those details, this issue isn’t much different from the two dozen which preceded it. There’s a lot of running, shouting, flying, and fighting. Characters discuss stakes appropriate to their particular situations — E2 Batman wants to save his granddaughter, E2 Huntress; while E2 Dick Grayson wants to save his young son — while others set various plans in motion.

This issue features Power Girl fighting Darkseid, followed by the rest of the proto-Justice Society taking their turns. It’s all portrayed fairly well. Darkseid’s pretty brutal, but the action is choreographed in such a way that the brutality is mitigated; and besides the heroes are powerful enough to hold their own. In terms of the larger story, the fights are appropriate escalations which aren’t necessarily foregone conclusions. Put another way, we know the Earth-2 heroes escape, because we’ve seen them in Futures End and in solicitations for Convergence; but we don’t know what kind of escape they had. Heck, thanks to the Multiversity Guidebook, we don’t know if they’re fighting “Earth-2 Darkseid” or some other Apokoliptian avatar, although that’s a little beside the point.

I’m not going to spend too much time on the details of E2:WE #25, because for me the whole series has been rather underwhelming. Its battalion of writers and artists have produced six months’ worth of relentless carnage, in various degrees of grotesquerie (the exploitation of Huntress being the most egregious example), without adding much of substance to the stories of these characters. For that matter, this week’s issue of Futures End now calls into question the entire point of E2:WE, which is the fate of the Earth-2 refugees. I have a feeling it will all lead directly into Convergence — would you expect any less — so without further ado, let’s cruise on.

* * *

And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 47.

  • Story pages: 20
  • Batman/Atom/Terrific pages: 3
  • Batman/Tim pages: 4
  • Tim/Firestorm pages: 3
  • Pages preparing for time-jump: 3
  • “Now” pages: 5
  • “Back to the future” pages: 2
  • Pages on which Tim/Batman Beyond II appears: 17
  • Pages featuring the Earth-2 refugees: 2
  • Likelihood that the Futures End future has been changed: 100%
  • Likelihood that the end of next week’s Earth 2: World’s End will also have to change: 95%

NOTES: So let me get this straight …

  • According to issue #21’s extended flashback on Arrow Island, after coming through the big Boom Tube, Mr. Miracle sacrificed his escape craft to distract the Apokoliptian fleet. The Brother Eye satellite then teleported him and a handful of other heroes (including Power Girl, Dr. Fate, Red Tornado and Hawkgirl) aboard. They lashed out at Brother Eye, damaging it, but a shuttle from Cadmus docked with Brother Eye and captured them. Cadmus then started experimenting on Earth-2 superheroes. When Team Arrow destroyed Cadmus Island, Brother Eye escaped to the mainland. Meanwhile, Mr. Terrific — who was in another ship, and who, along with Batman, had already created Brother Eye — used the artificial intelligence to help his business. In that capacity, Brother Eye reached out to Brainiac and brought him to Earth. Presumably, in the timeline Terry sought to prevent, the superheroes fought off Brainiac with Brother Eye’s help, but without Terry to tell them otherwise, Brother Eye took over the world.
  • Therefore, by going back to “the present” to stop the Earth-2 refugees from arriving, Tim has both stopped another Apokoliptian invasion and destroyed the Brother Eye satellite. He’s also prevented Mr. Terrific from becoming the next Steve Jobs, which will presumably deny Brother Eye at least one way to contact Brainiac. That’s all well and good, but I’m still concerned about Brother Eye existing as part of another network. This issue makes it sound like Brother Eye is just totally giving up and self-destructing, which would be a rather drastic step.
  • See, when Brother Eye detects the Earth-2 refugees, he’s about to act benevolently. Because he knew about Earth-2 from Mr. Terrific, he was prepared to welcome the Earth-2 refugees. Futures End treats this as its timeline’s critical point. However, Tim essentially convinces Brother Eye that his original act of kindness — sending out the beacon — would actually be more harmful in the long run. Consequently, Brother Eye “destroy[s] himself to save millions,” as ALFRED puts it. We can rationalize this as a product of Brother Eye’s super-fast data extrapolation, but the way the issue portrays it makes it sound like he just rolls over for Tim. (And no, I’m not going to say that Tim’s affinity for computers makes him more persuasive, because that’s not something Futures End laid out.)
  • This leaves Futures End with at least two unresolved plot points: the possibility that Brother Eye still exists somewhere (not least because Brother Eye escaped Cadmus Island’s destruction); and the Earth-2 refugees being stranded in their home dimension. I suspect the former is a “the end … for now!” situation, and the latter will be addressed by Green Lantern’s newfound ability to see into the Multiverse. (There’s also the Earth-2 “codex,” which Futures End made into Fifty Sue’s DNA safe; but that’ll probably wait until the new Earth-2 series starts in June.)

In non-Brother Eye news, now I see why Madison/Firestorm got so much buildup in the past couple of issues. Odds are she’ll be part of Tim’s supporting cast in the new Batman Beyond book.

As for the merits of this issue, I thought it worked well, apart from the convoluted plot logic. Andy MacDonald turned in another fine set of pages, and I was glad to see Alberto Ponticelli contribute as well. Allan Goldman and inker Dan Green rounded out the artistic bullpen, meshing nicely with their colleagues. The issue started with a scratchy, gritty feel as the Terrifitech crew fought off Eye-Zombies (or Zomb-Eyes, as Caleb Mozzocco suggested we call them); and then got “cleaner” for the sequence aboard Brother Eye’s satellite. The change of scenery made the artistic transition easier to handle.

NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Big finish! Jazz hands!

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