Thursday, 8 May 2014

Futures Unpleasant - The Worst Trend In Comics

Can we talk about something, dear reader? I usually use this space for reviews, for analysis, for something that at least pretends to be objective and informative. Today, I'd like to unload some junk, to have a quick rant about something that bothers the hell out of me.

I am sick to goddamn death of possible futures, alternate timelines and dimensional whatevers whose only purpose is to show our heroes getting brutally killed.

Escapist adventure in Kingdom Come
Comics are a weird, recursive field, and this is one of the most bizarre trends that could have come out of it. Think about it, though, and I bet that you can name a whole bunch off the top of your head. The Incredible Hulk: Future Imperfect, where the Hulk rules like a king and the heroes have all been killed. Batman: Red Rain, where Batman becomes a vampire and everyone gets killed. Kingdom Come, where the heroes have been supplanted by a new breed of violent assholes and...well, you get the idea. The worst of the bunch is almost definitely Punisher Kills The Marvel Universe, a book whose title gives away the entire plot and is basically Garth Ennis wallowing in all of his worst, most shock-tactic tendencies. Not to mention that fact that essentially every Marvel "What If..." story can be answered by the question "EVERYBODY DIES BECAUSE REASONS."

What's wrong with these stories, you ask? These people lead violent lives, surely a story that won't be a part of continuity has the freedom to show the logical conclusion of that? That's true enough, but the fact of the matter is that the books mentioned above, as well as the rest of them (Justice League: Rock of Ages, Old Man Logan, Ultimatum, Flashpoint, Age of Apocalypse, that weird issue of Spawn where he goes to hell and Batman and the Hulk are there, Wanted for all intents and purposes) is that they don't actually tell a story. They're nothing but gratuitous shock-fests, catering to the giggling 14 year old boy who wants to see Poison Ivy get beheaded or Spider-Man get shot in the face while pleading for his life. The readers who think that that makes comics ‘adult’ or ‘edgy’ when all they really are is gross and exploitative. They don't take the characters in any sort of interesting, alternative directions, and many of them (like Punisher Kills...) don't even tell a coherent story. They're exercises in shock and excess at the expense of character and story, also referred to as “THE THING MOST WRONG WITH COMIC BOOK STORYTELLING FROM THE EIGHTIES TO NOW.” 
The Dead Hero Pit of Old Man Logan

I don’t want to paint myself as some shrinking, hand wringing Pollyanna. I love gore, and violence, and horror. I thought that Animal Man was one of the best new series coming out of the New 52, precisely because it was so sticky and bloody and gross, and I love the blood drenched pages of American Vampire and Locke and Key alike. Thing is, those stories have violence that contributes to the story, violence that actually makes you feel something besides occasional disgust. The story is served by the fangs and dismemberment and carnage, rather than existing as a delivery mechanism for them.

There's one story that I haven't mentioned yet, firstly because it's the story that all of these others are ripping off, and secondly because it's actually not terrible. That story is Uncanny X-Men: Days of Future Past. Yes, it's angst-ridden and overblown and totally Claremont in all the best and worst ways, and yes it hasn't dated very well, and yes we see various heroes (including the normally unkillable Wolverine) get killed. But here's the thing: it matters. Days of Future Past is the most well-known appearance of the Sentinels, the villains who best  represents the mindless bigotry and hatred that the X-Men fight. It's the origin of multiple X-Men characters who would go on to play major roles in future comics, including Bishop and Rachel Summers. Most importantly, though, it's a really powerful and entertaining story, one that adds real stakes and gravitas to the X-Men setting in a way that readers hadn’t seen before, and in a way that virtually every other story listed here is trying to emulate. Hell, Age of Apocalypse is basically the exact same thing, using the exact same characters, only in reverse, so that it's about the bigotry of mutants and not humans which dooms the world. Way to miss the point, guys.
The original and still the best: Days of Future Past

To my mind, Days of Future Past is powerful because it says to the reader - "here is what happens if the heroes fail." It’s set in a worst case scenario, a world where all the major X-Men are dead or on the run and the foulest sort of human bigotry has taken charge of the world. Released in 1981 and set in the not-too-distant future of 2013, this grim vision of a possible future placed the characters under a cloud that would motivate their struggle for years to come. All of these other possible futures - Old Man Logan, Future Imperfect, Kingdom Come - are just things that kind of happen. Yeah, they can be prevented by stopping Superman from flapping his wings and starting a hurricane or whatever, but that's it. They don't provide an ongoing vision of the terrible future for the heroes to push back against in the way that Days of Future Past does, and even if they did they would just be a retread of that great tale.

Let’s round this out with a look at the complete opposite of Days of Future Past. Last weekend, just like you I imagine, I went out on Free Comic Book Day and stood in a ridiculously long line in order to get a handful of free comics that are basically just ads and are definitely also available online. Some of them were good and some of them were bad, but one of them was just bafflingly, overwhelmingly, terrible. That book was Future's End #0, the setup for the upcoming DC event where Terry McGuinness (of Batman Beyond) escapes to the present day from a terrifying dystopian future where - you guessed it - EVERYBODY DIES. 

This is a brutal, nasty book. Batman gets shot in the back. Peoples hands and limbs get chopped off. Superman is half robot and completely mind controlled, and Frankenstein HAS BLACK CANARY'S LIVING, OPEN MOUTHED HEAD IMPLANTED IN HIS CHEST. People talk about women being used as objects in other mediums, but only comics take it to such a literal, horrible extreme. I’m not joking when I say that every page in Future's End #0 contains a superhero dying, dead or mutilated into some new cyborg form, some of them horrible and many of them incredibly bizarre. Batgirl, for example, is now the Bat-signal from the waist down. I don't even know how to make a joke about that. There is simply nothing fun about these twenty-odd pages, just as there has been almost nothing fun about DC comics for maybe a solid decade now. 

Here’s the thing – none of this matters. One the last page, Terry travels back in time to the present day (or, I guess, “FIVE YEARS FROM NOW” because time travel stories when  you use a floating timeline are hard) with the mission of averting this all from happening. So why did we need to see all of this brutality? Sure, we need to know that the future sucks and we need to avoid it, but slaughter on this scale is nothing but murderporn. It completely misses the point of what made Days of Future Past great, dropping all the significance and leaving us with nothing but a smear of meaningless violence that doesn’t tie into ANY of the established themes of either Batman stories or DC in general. The worst part, of course, is that a) this story is apparently going to tie into every fucking DC book this year, and b) this is the free book that DC is using to draw in new readers. When you see Frankenstein wielding Black Canary’s sexdoll-blank face as a living weapon, remember, THIS IS WHAT THEY THINK WE WANT.

My recommendation - don't waste your time with this issue, because even for free, you're still only going to have so many years on this earth and you could be reading LITERALLY ANYTHING ELSE in that time. Don't waste your time with Future's End the series, either - if you're hungry for some future-Batman action, check out Batman Beyond, or Batman Year 100, or god help me Batman Digital Justice. You have options, and DC will only learn if you exercise them.

 I just don't need to see any more heroes get dismembered, you know?