Thursday, October 7, 2010

Is Kingdom Come The Greatest DC-Universe Graphic Novel? Maybe.

The Good: Excellent story concept, Cool artwork, Good character development/study, Decent dialogue, Good story progression
The Bad: Some of the artwork is jumbled/confused
The Basics: A stunningly good graphic novel, Kingdom Come explores the consequences of both Superman’s form of justice and the absence of it.

As my Wonder Woman Year continues, I have learned that Wonder Woman’s character is so integral to the DC Universe that at virtually every opportunity for a big crossover story, Wonder Woman is involved. As I sat in the aftermath of reading Kingdom Come, which heavily features Wonder Woman, I was left thinking of a conversation I once had. The person I was conversing with grew up on comic books and he loathed DC Comics, preferring instead Marvel comics. His reasoning is actually pretty solid; characters in the Marvel Universe do seem to be flawed, limited characters not one of whom is invincible. With the right combination of villain strengths and hero weaknesses, Marvel characters live and die and the world they live in is definitely one which is darker and more realistic than most of DC’s universe.

As a result, going into Kingdom Come, I suppose I ought not to have been very surprised by the direction of the story and how it ultimately reinforces the heroic ideals of DC characters intervening in the world of Man for good. This is, essentially, a super hero rebirth story and the only thing that truly bothered me about the book was the hype around it. You know the old axiom “You can’t judge a book by its cover?” Well, with Kingdom Come, that is especially true. With the trade paperback anthology, there is a fold-out cover featuring at least twenty-two characters, with another eighteen clearly visible in the reflection on the table Superman is seen leaning on. This makes the potential reader believe this is an ensemble piece. This is further reinforced by the Apocrypha section which includes two pages with the original comic book cover paintings with a full legend. There, one hundred five DC characters are illustrated and a legend with numbers informs the readers exactly who each of them is. So, figuring this was somehow essential, I read through the legend first in order to prepare myself for reading Kingdom Come. I needn’t have bothered. Most characters do not appear in any significant way in the book (a lot of the promotional art prominently featured Jade [Green Lantern VI], but she appears in only a few panels of background in the book, just as Power Woman is front and center with her giant bosoms, but does not substantively contribute to the book). That said, Kingdom Come was easily my favorite super hero graphic novel for a time (until I read Justice), arguably on par with Watchmen (click here for my review!). And what Kingdom Come has that allowed me to credibly let it come down to a cointoss for a perfect rating, is a focused story which makes sense and works in a compelling way almost the entire volume.

Make no mistake, Kingdom Come is largely a Superman story and I am as surprised as anyone to find I enjoyed a story where the protagonist is generally regarded as infallible as much as I did. But the truth is, Kingdom Come does not feel like a Superman story until very late in the book and by that point, the reader is so invested in it that we want to see how and if Superman can prevail. As one who usually spends their time rooting for the complicated victory of evil or a traumatic victory for good which has severe consequences of its own, it was weird to find myself enthusiastic to see if Superman might actually save the day.

Norman McCay is tending to the dying Wesley Dodds, who once was the super-hero Sandman. As Dodds dies, he grants McCay his power to see the future. While contemplating the rise of the new generation of metahumans, McCay laments that they do not stand for anything. Shortly thereafter, an exceptionally powerful metahuman named Magog chases Parasite to a field in Kansas where he and his Justice Battalion beat the crap out of Parasite. Desperate and trying to surrender, Parasite kills a nuclear-powered super hero and the resulting explosion destroys Kansas and most of the United States Midwest (the bread basket). When that happens, the Spectre appears to McCay and they begin walking through the present to peek in on the reactions.

After ten years in isolation, Wonder Woman brings Superman out of his self-imposed seclusion and McCay watches as others follow suit or, like Batman, refuse to. Superman re-establishes the Justice League to guide the metahumans to a responsible purpose: protecting the humans and upholding a higher moral code than they have been for the ten years in his absence. But while Superman and his team build a gulag in Kansas for the metahumans who refuse to be responsible and join him, Lex Luthor and other very human criminals band together to try to end the metahuman problem once and for all. And Luthor has an unexpected ally in the crippled Bruce Wayne and a powerful weapon in Captain Marvel.

Kingdom Come explores the very basic premise of what would happen if the a-list super heroes disappeared and let their offspring take over without guiding them. The results are poignant and chaotic and Mark Waid and Alex Ross flesh out the idea with a very human protagonist that makes the book easy to get into, especially for those who do not, traditionally, like super hero stories. And despite the rather formulaic turn the book takes as it progresses, Kingdom Come works because it is preoccupied with a theme of consequences and genuine character growth.

Superman has been absent from the crime-fighting scene for ten years and his abandonment of humanity has consequences for him, the metahumans and the human race. For him, it means that his life has turned to one that is aimless and he wallows in isolation overcome by a sense of loss (his human parents and wife have long since died) and lacking ideals to enforce, he is simply a farmer in a holographic simulation. For the metahumans, it means that Magog’s example of reckless application of super powers prevails and that a whole generation of metahumans is growing up without a sense of vision. It also means that Superman’s contemporaries are largely in isolation or working on other projects as a result. And for the humans, it means they are occasionally caught in the crossfire of metahuman conflicts and that their attempts to rein in the metahumans often mean taking drastic measures.

Kingdom Come would be a loss, though, if it became a novelty of “Ten Years Later. . .” and the story wisely is not content to simply set up the board. The characters are given complexity and depth, most notably Superman, Bruce Wayne, Lex Luthor, and Magog. Superman comes across as something of a zealot as he marshals the forces of his contemporaries to take back the skies and the streets from the metahumans, who are simply fighting among themselves for entertainment. The weight of guilt for what the world became from his absence drives Superman. Moreover, his moral conflict with Wonder Woman over the state of the conflict with the metahumans – Wonder Woman is adamant that war conditions apply and they ought to prepare for casualties on both sides in their pursuit of victory – is compelling and he is forced to some introspection as he has remained static in his values and his approach, which was how Magog came to power initially.

Wayne is appropriately cynical, but the human characters who are most compelling are Lex Luthor and Norman McCay. Luthor enters fairly late in the book looking remarkably reasonable. The world has become a battleground where metahumans are duking it out and his plan to exacerbate the situation so as many of them will take one another out before human forces have to use what means they have to take out the rest actually has a cold practicality to it. It’s actually believable that Wayne would fall in with such a lot and the only thing we might wish for to improve the story would have been Wayne running that whole enterprise!

Norman McCay, though, becomes a very grounding protagonist. A human preacher, he believes – in no small part because of the Spectre – that Armageddon is upon us and he is bearing witness to it. In fact, this is very much just a literary technique until almost the final moments of the story when McCay breaks his witness role and actually influences one of the significant characters. Even so, his start as a zealot trapped in a world where he does not quite fit works well and he is fun to follow on his journey.

What is also pretty extraordinary about Kingdom Come is the artwork. The story occupies 212 pages of the book (followed by the apocrypha with “behind the scenes” sketches and promotional artwork and the like from when this story was told in three separate limited comic books) and each page is filled with paintings. Yes, the artwork for Kingdom Come is painting quality. The shading, depth and all of the characters look like a series of oil paintings. Panel after panel, this is an extraordinary work to look at and throughout, there is an exceptional level of quality which I had never seen before in comic books. Alex Ross, who did the artwork, would use a similar style in JLA: Secret Origins (click here for my review of that!).

That said, some of the panels are just terrible. Ironically, even the terrible panels look good, but the pages they are on (like, for example, 22 and 23) are so packed with visual information and details that the story they are trying to tell is in no way clear. So, on those panels, for example, the combatants and what they are doing is unclear, as is how Norman ends up in the middle of their crossfire.

Still, it is not enough to knock this book down in any significant way. Kingdom Come isn’t perfect, but it is close as a rousing story of superheroes returning to power with the acceptance that their methods have to change and that the relationship between the protectors and the protected is not static. And while some might have a beef that I rated this higher than Watchmen, Kingdom Come has a similar sense of understanding of the world (like the marketing of a super hero diner as one of the settings), but the story does not get distracted by cumbersome stories, like the “Black Freighter” portion of Watchmen. Instead, Kingdom Come is focused, looks beautiful and was certainly more than enough to get me to check out Justice, which I came to love even more!

It is also worth noting that Kingdom Come appears to exist in some future which is independent of DC’s current reality. I mention this because Ted Kord appears in this and his death early in The OMAC Project was a pretty big deal for the Infinite Crisis storyline.

For other DC graphic novels, please check out my reviews of:
Wonder Woman: Ends Of The Earth
Batman: Knightfall Volume 1: Broken Bat
Green Lantern: Agent Orange


For other graphic novel reviews, please take a look at my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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