Grayson: Future's End #1 by Tom King
It's not often that you want to recommend a single issue of a mainstream superhero comic to a general audience. All too often, reading a random issue of X-Men is like trying to tune into General Hospital for the first time on some random Wednesday: it's usually all middle, featuring characters that are never fully introduced, bound into a web of relationships that's been spun out steadily over fifty years of story.
It's even less often that you want to recommend a single issue set in the middle of a company-wide crossover. Those events tend to amplify the worst elements of comic book storytelling while also homogenizing unique voices and stifling innovation. Which makes Grayson: Future's End #1 a rarity: a single issue of a crossover event comic that is worth seeking out all on its own.
The book seemed doomed from the start, a third-tier tie-in to this year's DC Comics month-long special event. For the month of September, all of DC's regularly scheduled titles and stories are being replaced with issues tied into the publisher's ongoing series The New 52: Future's End. In-story, this means storylines in progress are being interrupted to show what is (theoretically) happening to the title characters five years in the future. In reality, this generally means a month of completely disposable comics.
But something weird happened between theory and reality here: given a mandate to fill some shelf space, creators Tom King, Tim Seeley, Stephen Mooney, Jeromy Cox, and Carlos Mangual somehow managed to turn out an excellent, rewarding piece of pop entertainment. Not only does this issue not require a postgraduate level understanding of DC mythology, but also you can get by with just some very basic knowledge about the character and the event.
Grayson is a recently-launched series that is part of the ongoing narrative continuity of the DC Universe, starring Dick Grayson. He was a childhood circus acrobat who became Robin after gangsters killed his family. (If you're a casual consumer of Batman-related content, he's probably the Robin you remember -- the Burt Ward, Chris O'Donnell, "Holy nightmare, Batman!" Robin.) In the comics, he was just the first Robin. He grew up, shedding the Robin identity and taking the name Nightwing. Then he had a brief stint as Batman, then went back to being Nightwing again, then had his identity exposed and apparently died. Now he's an international super-spy. More specifically, he's an agent of the morally ambiguous super-spy agency SPYRAL, and reporting back to Batman on their activities, but that's well beyond the scope of what you need to understand this issue.
This story begins five years in the future, with Grayson in mortal peril, then proceeds backward through his life, with each subsequent page tagged "Earlier" and presenting a fragmentary episode from Grayson's life. The moments seem random at first, a typical life-flashing-before-your-eyes bit, but as the issue progresses it becomes clear that we're seeing a specific relationship unfold in reverse, with special focus on particular elements of that relationship.
The success of the story hinges enough on some puzzle-box elements that are best left unrevealed -- it's a tidy twenty-two-page package, after all, lean and purposeful -- but it winds up being a story that combines the backward storytelling of Memento, the that's-how-he-knew-that conceit of Slumdog Millionaire, and the last-moments-on-the-end-of-a-noose framing of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," while folding in goofy Batman-esque criminal codes and black-ops lingo all at the same time. When finished for the first time, the story begs to read again from back to front in chronological order, and unspools new reveals when read that way.
It's the kind of virtuoso comic book storytelling you expect from one of the accepted masters of the form -- a Neil Gaiman, say, or an Alan Moore -- but far beyond what you generally find in a random issue of your average superhero book. Writer Tom King is a former CIA counter-terrorism expert, now a successful novelist who is relatively new to the world of monthly comics, and he works with novelistic flair. There are consistent motifs carefully worked throughout the short story, foreshadowing (in reverse, an impressive trick), and well-sketched characters defined cleanly and with economy.
The art by Steven Mooney is workmanlike, house-style DC Comics work. It tells the story effectively with a few awkward panels but without major disruption, and manages to be almost completely unimpressive in every significant way. But even that serves the story -- this is no prestige issue of stiffly painted Alex Ross renderings, nor a surefire critical darling with the complicated page layouts and deco filigrees of a J.H Williams.
It's that rarest of things: a twenty-two-page disposable shelf-filler comic book that manages to be accessible, and readable, and excellent, even if you don't care at all what the character did last month, or last year, or last decade, or in 1938, or what's going to happen to the character down the line. Once upon a time, a quality single-issue comic like this would've been lost in the overcrowded chaos of back-issue bins at specialty stores, and there would've been no point in recommending it to a broader audience. Nowadays, you can get the issue digitally for less than cover price immediately. Even if you've never read a single issue comic before, this one is worth at least that much effort.
Grayson: Future's End #1 by Tom King