Originally published at AiTP!
Unlike its close-cousin the flashback, the flash-forward is both an underappreciated and underutilized narrative device. When executed properly, it subverts expectations which audiences hadn’t even known they had, revealing that the preconceived notions they held regarding the direction of the narrative and character arcs to have been incorrect, while nevertheless remaining faithful to everything established in the story up to that point. Serialized media such as comics and television are particularly well suited to such.
The later has several notable examples. Unlike its sister series The Office, which leaned heavily into its documentary premise for its finale, Parks and Recreation abandoned that conceit entirely, opting instead to intersperse its final episode with flash-forwards of its ensemble’s fate, sometimes decades into the future, to extremely emotional effect. How I Met Your Mother interjected flash-forwards increasingly throughout its nine seasons, fittingly given the narrator’s knowledge of events up through the year 2030. And arguably the greatest moment in television history remains to this day the Season Three finale of Lost, wherein what the audience presumed to be the show’s formulaic use of flashbacks to before the fateful crash of Oceanic 815 was instead revealed to be a flash-forward to a time after their rescue from The Island, with series protagonist Jack Shepard shouting, “We have to go back!”
Comics should have just as proud a tradition of flash-forwards as television, but several factors account for the relatively rare usage of the narrative device. Given the dominance of science fiction and fantasy elements in comics, time-travel on the part of the protagonists to possible futures is more prominent than only the reader being shown the definite future. Moreover, the ongoing and open-ended nature of most mainstream series limits the potential for flash-forwards to an individual creative run, and even then the frequency of cancellations and the nature of a shared universe might dissuade writers and editors alike from setting in stone any plot points particularly far off in a character’s future.
The most notable example of a flash-forward in the medium to date is Alan Moore’s Miracleman, particularly the third arc, Olympus. It is at that point revealed that, sometime in the intervening years, Miracleman had underwent a theosis of sorts from mere superhuman to veritable god, and at great cost succeeded in creating an earthly paradise for mankind. However, Miracleman was not subject to any of the aforementioned factors. Moore, as a master of the medium, was comfortable utilizing both time-travel and flash-forwards wherever most appropriate, just as he freely switched between third-person omniscient and first-person narration boxes. And given his status as a superstar auteur, there was no danger of cancellation or editorial interference, especially as it was part of no shared universe.
That puts Matt Kindt in rather rarified company given the ambition evident in the new Ninjak arc, “The Fist and the Steel.” And unlike Moore’s famous “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow,” this is no “imaginary story.” Nothing indicates that the future being shown many decades hence is not the canonical fate of Colin King. There’s no Elseworlds label on the cover, no Uatu the Watcher asking, “What if…?” What’s more, unlike Moore with Miracleman, Ninjak is an ongoing series, one which Valiant presumably intends to publish indefinitely, after Kindt’s eventual departure from the series even. Moreover, Ninjak belongs to the shared Valiant universe, as evidenced by the inclusion of this issue of Eternal Warrior (which, given the nature of the character, makes sense for a story set in another time period); what Kindt establishes here is of consequence not only for this title but for Valiant’s entire line.
And “The Fist and the Steel” is certainly not without consequence. Two major revelations are provided in this first issue alone. Firstly, Ninjak never cleared his name with MI-6 after Roku’s systematic destruction of his personal and professional lives in the last arc. In fact, the backup of this issue explores the vitriolic encounter between Colin and Neville in the aftermath of such, with King accusing his contact and closest friend (formerly, at least) of betrayal.
More intriguing yet is the revelation that the Undead Monk is in the future simply the dead Monk, with one of the remaining Shadow Seven members scouring the monk’s makeshift monastery for even cells from his former master. The Undead Monk has always been among the most intriguing aspects of the Ninjak mythos, the mysterious mystical element in an otherwise straight spy-fi series. And yet it’s not an aberration, but core to the series’ particular flavor. If Ninjak is Bond meets Batman, then the Undead Monk represent the occasional oriental flavorings the latter takes on in locals such as Nanda Parbat.
Less promising is the subplot set up in both the main story and the backup regarding a chronic brain condition that Colin contracted from the Dead Zone and will apparently still be suffering from well into old age, suggesting such to be a permanent part of his characterization henceforth. Unlike his failure to restore his professional reputation or the death of the Monk, this illness is neither a confirmation nor subversion of audience expectations; it merely comes out of nowhere, and the story fails to establish why the reader should care about one particular flair-up in the future when Ninjak has presumably suffered (and successfully managed) similar attacks from the affliction for years.
“The Siege of King’s Castle” was easily the best arc in one of Valiant’s – or any publisher’s – best books currently on shelves. “The Fist and the Steel” Part One does not maintain the high standard set by that story arc, but it’s nevertheless a compelling first issue full of promise and potential for the next installments. Moreover, its use of the flash-forward is brave and refreshing. Comics too rarely commit to a definitive vision of their characters’ futures, and this brief glimpse into Colin King’s is full of intriguing information – quite appropriate for a series about espionage.