Of the three weekly series DC Comics is releasing this year, Futures End is arguably the most “important.” It spans the entire superhero line, bridges the gap between Forever Evil and 2015's Big Event, and promises to change the New 52 irrevocably.
None of that apparently is deemed sufficient to attract new readers, because Futures End’s preview issue kicks off with 20 pages of your favorite characters either turned into, or slaughtered by, giant killer spider-bots.
To be fair, maybe the folks behind FE wanted to attract those readers already interested in a certain other let’s-prevent-the-robot-holocaust storyline from their crosstown rivals. But it’s not just X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Terminator or even Star Trek: First Contact (where you can hear the Borg Queen gloat “Watch your future’s end”) that Futures End echoes. Just off the top of my head, evil and/or assimilated versions of our heroes appeared in Final Crisis (remember Wonder Woman’s Female Furies?), in the Swamp Thing/Animal Man crossover “Rotworld” -- which, by the way, I seem to be alone in liking -- and in Flashpoint’s dog-eat-dog timeline. A future ruled by OMACs was also part of the Justice League: Generation Lost miniseries. Back in the day, “changing the bad future” was the plot of 1991's summer crossover Armageddon 2001 and the unrelated JLA arc “Rock of Ages,” and 1992's Eclipso: The Darkness Within featured “heroes turned bad.”
While these sorts of dystopian developments are good for shock value, the bigger the shock, the more likely it’ll be reversed. Here I’m thinking of Star Trek’s tendency to link its Giant Reset Buttons to the destruction of our favorite starships -- just when it can’t get any worse, it all goes away -- but no doubt we would each make different lists. (Compare the works referenced at TV Tropes for the Assimilation Plot and the Bad Present.) Indeed, Futures End gives us two less-than-ideal futures, the nightmare of “35 years from now” and the not-so-sunny-mare of “5 years from now.” Whatever happens in either one, we can be pretty sure neither will be realized, at least not fully. In this regard I might look again at 1996's Kingdom Come, which tried to build a hopeful tale out of its grim “25 years from now” backstory ... but that’s a topic for another week. Today it’s enough to note that by going early and often into the “that’ll never happen” material, Futures End isn’t doing itself any favors. Who wants to read about a different set of superhero deaths every week?
Ironically, I thought the strongest part of FE #1 was a sequence demonstrating Brother Eye’s power. The ubiquitous symbol might seem like a rip-off of Sauron’s tower from the Lord of the Rings movies, but having it carved into the Moon is a genuinely scary image; and the thought of something with that much power headed for the Earth is an ideal superhero-story catalyst. Unfortunately, the rest of Issue 1 is uneven, because it relies on stakes with which we’re as yet unfamiliar. The art (by Patrick Zircher, colored by Hi-Fi) is good, but the writing sometimes falters. It’s not a Countdown-sized mess, but neither is it as assured as 52 was.
SPOILERS FOLLOW for Futures End issues 0 and 1.
After the horrors of the zero issue, FE #1 adopts a more compartmentalized structure. Following four pages with Batman Beyond, it goes into six pages with Stormwatch, then four pages with Grifter and six pages with Firestorm. None of these episodes overlaps -- that is, the Stormwatch episode stops on Page 10, and the Grifter one starts on Page 11. Surely that won’t last for long, but for now it makes the reading experience somewhat choppy.
The short episodes also don’t offer much in the way of narrative, and are mostly character studies. Batman banters with ALFRED, his suit’s built-in cyber-companion, and kills the cyborg that came back through time with him. Brother Eye kills Apollo, and by blowing up The Carrier apparently wipes out the rest of Stormwatch (including future members Hawkman and SHADE’s Mermaid). Grifter’s characterization involves him hunting down and killing a bunch of aliens hiding in human form, including what Late Night With David Letterman once called “a sweet little cupcake ... BAKED BY THE DEVIL!” Whether these aliens have any bearing on Brother Eye’s plans is still a mystery, but Grifter’s crusade has surely prepared him for the inevitable “you have to kill your friends/those aren’t your friends anymore” moments. Finally, Firestorm’s vignette finds his bickering halves too late to save Green Arrow from a brutal death. There are mysteries aplenty, including the Google Glasses Guy watching Batman, the “war” that Firestorm mentions, and just how Mr. Terrific managed to invent Brother Eye “seven years ago,” before his New 52 series even started.
Honestly, Issue 1 feels like as much of a preview as Issue 0 did. It’s an improvement over the one-note zero issue, but there’s just not that much to the individual sequences. Again, the Stormwatch scene was probably the most effective -- not least because it actually showed Stormwatch participating in a big crossover -- but it worked mostly to show Brother Eye’s effectiveness against a Justice League-level team. Part of me thinks Stormwatch isn’t really dead, because we don’t see any corpses, and DC sure hasn’t been shy about showing corpses. Speaking of which, I think I understand why the Grifter sequence played out like it did, but the way it was staged (especially culminating with Grifter shooting a “little girl”) made Grifter come across as worse than the Punisher. Although we know Grifter will be crucial to the overall story a) because he was pretty prominent in Issue 0 and b) because he’s the most prominent character on the cover of Issue 1, having him gun down a house full of normal-looking people is like saying “here’s your hero, folks; take ‘im or leave ‘im.”
Meanwhile, the climaxes of the Batman and Firestorm sequences didn’t come off as well as they could have. The Batman sequence culminated in a mysterious man watching the Tomorrow Knight, and actually ended on a joke about Bruce Wayne set against a shot of a seemingly random clock tower. It made for a muddled conclusion. Likewise, the Firestorm sequence involved Green Arrow’s death, which admittedly is a big deal for GA fans; but in terms of this story, FE readers don’t know exactly why they should care it was him, as opposed to any number of familiar heroes. Is the point that Firestorm’s a screwup, or that Green Arrow is dead, or some combination of both? Why should we have to wait even a week to find out?
Issue 1 also suffered from some clunky dialogue. I have no idea whether these four sequences were divided among the four writers (Brian Azzarello, Dan Jurgens, Keith Giffen and Jeff Lemire); if so, I’d say Jurgens probably did the Firestorm sequence, because he wrote the last chunk of New 52 Firestorm, and as it happens the first chunk of New 52 Green Arrow. The Grifter sequence felt like terse Giffen dialogue, while ALFRED’s loopy musings sounded like Azzarello, and the Stormwatch sequence reminded me of Lemire. However, except for the Stormwatch sequence, each vignette’s script had some distracting quirk: First it was ALFRED’s unfamiliarity with human idioms, then Grifter’s ultra-serious narration, and then the overly explanatory back and forth between Ronnie and Jason, the two halves of Firestorm. Again, this may be a function of first-issue requirements, but it didn’t help me get into the story.
I realize I’ve been talking a lot about Issue 1, and not so much about Issue 0. That’s because the zero issue was a parade of unpleasantness designed to push various emotional buttons over the course of 20 pages. On that level it was mordantly effective, but I didn’t enjoy having to read and re-read it in preparation for this post. Similarly, while Issue 1 might reveal more in hindsight -- and is much more pleasant to look at, between Zircher’s invitingly hazy style and Hi-Fi’s complementary colors -- I just keep coming back to how thin it is. Virtually by definition, Futures End is a big story, but Issue 1 hasn’t quite broken away from a few narrow viewpoints.
That brings me to the last point, and it’s something I’ve wanted to explore for a while: Because the miniseries’ proper title is The New 52: Futures End, you can read that either as “The New 52,” the current umbrella title for DC’s superhero line, or “The New 52,” as in DC’s first year-long weekly miniseries. 52 also started with four disparate storylines and used them to tell a sweeping, compelling account of a unique year in DC’s shared superhero universe. However, its first issue started among a crowd before focusing on its main cast. Futures End started with a survey of killing fields, but cut more abruptly to its initial cast, and that’s been ... not quite disorienting, but a little unwieldy. That’s part of why I found these issues so frustrating to read -- that, and the total lack of any optimism for “Five Years Later” DC-Earth. 52 was about recovering from the massive traumas of a big crossover event. Futures End uses a similar event -- “The War” -- as part of its backstory. 52 had its share of heartbreak, but in the end it pointed the way to the regular, nominally sunny, status quo. Futures End will undoubtedly get very bleak before it turns optimistic, but I think it needs to have some of that. After all, it’s about preventing a dark future, not wallowing in one.
[Finally, here are some selected, random, possibly inaccurate or misleading statistics about the first two installments of Futures End.]
Futures Index, Issue 0
Story pages: 20Story pages featuring at least one death: 7Featured characters from already-canceled series: Hawk, Frankenstein, Blue Beetle, Amethyst, GrifterCanceled series featuring those characters: 5Story pages featuring those characters: 7Story pages featuring Bruce Wayne/Batman: 8Total superhero (non-bug) characters featured: 8Number of those characters killed or assimilated: 7Total (identifiable) bug-ified superheroes shown: 14Number of Justice Leaguers (bug-ified or otherwise) shown killing or assimilating another character: 7Number of Justice Leaguers shown with long, scraggly beards: 1
Futures Index, Issue 1
Story pages: 20Story pages featuring at least one death: 7Featured characters from already-canceled series: Stormwatch (Jack Hawksmoor, The Engineer, Apollo, Midnighter, Hawkman, Mermaid), Grifter, FirestormCanceled series featuring those characters: 5Story pages featuring those characters: 16Total superhero characters featured: 10 (not counting the corpse of Green Arrow, and counting Firestorm twice)Total superhero deaths: 7 (assuming Stormwatch is all dead)Number of Justice Leaguers shown with long, scraggly beards: 1