Monday, May 16, 2016

20th Anniversary of DC Comics' "Kingdom Come"

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the first issue of Kingdom Come, the prestige 4-issue, oft re-issued, comic by creators Alex Ross (artist) and Mark Waid (writer).

It's extremely difficult for me to state how much of an impact this comic had on me as a reader at the time of it's release.  In fact, I'd argue it was one of the comics that came out at a particular time in my life that tilted me from an interest in comics and enthusiastic readership to... whatever it became.  Further, I'd say that Kingdom Come stands as one of the key books that pushed me from thinking Superman was pretty neat to...  whatever my deal is with The Man of Steel today.

By 1996, I just wasn't that interested in superhero comics.  It seemed like a lot of books were trying to pull things off that weren't working, and, honestly, at age 21, glancing over the covers - a sense of creeping embarrassment hit me for the first time in my life in regards to comics.  Not for the hobby or comics themselves, but it seemed that, in the mainline superhero books, writers and artists and the companies themselves had a vision they were trying to execute, and that vision felt like a 13-year-old trying on their dad's suit thinking they could con the bank into giving them a loan.

By '93, a brave new world of tough, militaristic, snarling characters had flooded the shelves.  New publishers had arrived with fully formed concepts and universes, clearly either inspired as "extreme" versions of existing characters, or taking their cues from the artwork on heavy metal album covers (which, you know, how could you fault them?).  And at DC and Marvel, familiar characters were getting changed and rebooted (see: Azrael Batman) to reflect the times.  To me, the stories themselves lacked anything resembling narrative sophistication or substance, taking a Canon Films approach to violence and vitriol and mistaking it for maturity.  The plots were sophomoric at best, and adding spiked shoulder pads to pre-existing characters did nothing to sell me on their new grittiness.  I'll never forget cackling my way through the 1994 Dr. Fate reboot, Fate, wherein the hero turns the all-powerful helmet of Dr. Fate into a knife.  So he can cut things!  To the extreme!*

Meanwhile, Karen Berger had set up Vertigo at DC and was putting out HellblazerShade: The Changing ManAnimal ManSwamp ThingThe Invisibles, and, of course, Sandman and Sandman Mystery Theatre.  I didn't think I had to look too far to see characters who were telling me they were for older readers - they simply were the sophistication (or what passed for it) that felt like the proper heirs to the Moore legacy.

But those mainline books suffered.   The writing was too weak to hold up what they were trying to do, and as a new generation of fans began to take on writing chores for comics, they went to the well for the ideas they'd had since they were kids, (maybe some ideas that never had much depth beyond the drawings in their sketchbooks), or picking up a favorite idea or two they ran into the ground.

It was during this period, as they say, comics began to be about comics.   I couldn't tell you why anyone was fighting anyone else in the X-books at this period - it was just a mass of new, bad-ass characters hurled into the mix with a slew of newer, stabbier heroes with often grosser powers, and you suddenly saw a lot of guns for some reason.  When I recently divested myself of my Uncanny X-Men run, I noted it had gone well into this period, but I had literally no memory of what was happening in those comics.  Not a positive sign for the 90's-era legacy that the kids want to tout.

In 1996, I deeply wanted to grab that first issue of Kingdom Come.  I do remember that.  I suppose there was a poster up somewhere advertising the thing, or an in-house ad.  It's possible I saw an online mention of the release date, but DC's website was pretty terrible as late as 2002.  But, that spring, I was busy (likely starting my summer job) and had to ask a roommate who was picking up his own comics to grab me a copy.  And, of the thousands of comics that have passed through my hands, that's one of the very few I can say exactly where I was sitting when the comic was put in my hands (and my roommate immediately asked to borrow it).

I'd seen the work of Alex Ross elsewhere, and had picked up his partnership with Kurt Busiek on the superlative Marvels mini-series.  His painted work transformed the Marvel Universe from two-dimensional icons and abstractions to three-dimensional possibilities, the wonderment of superheroics in our world a prescursor to what CGI would make possible a few years on.  Waid I knew mostly from his work on The Flash titles, and had a fondness for his work that was always better than it needed to be, even if I didn't group him with the wild new voices kicking up over at Vertigo - which was where most of my comics interests sat at the time.  This was the book that made me sit back in a bit of awe.

In a lot of ways, Kingdom Come was the first comic I read that gave me an idea of the true depth of DC Comics.  Pouring over the pages and scanning each panel, filled with characters and references was like swimming happily across an ocean you believe to only be a dozen yards deep, and then suddenly realize you're doggy-paddling in circles over the Marianas Trench.

Between Ross and Waid's individual encyclopedic knowledge of DC Comics, now multiplied by their combined powers, sifting through the book was and is a cornucopia of easter eggs, references, sly jokes and curious projections to the future by the pair.  You certainly don't have to have that Master's in DC Comics, but the more DC you know, the better you'll find each and every page.   In fact, a re-read I did of the book over the weekend made me realize how deep the cuts really are in this book - something I thought I'd wrapped my head around the last time I read it, but now... whoo boy.

Kingdom Come didn't take place in the modern era - it was a near future of sorts, one in which Batman has gone steely white and is in braces - his mechanized army now ruthlessly patrolling Gotham.  Superman has disappeared from the world, no longer relevant, and in his self-imposed exile.  A new generation of DC's name-brand heroes are battling one another in the streets while humanity looks up not in awe but in fear.  Who watches the watchmen?

I don't think I got it immediately.  It was on my second read-through that this wasn't just a series of events occurring in a neat superhero story with terrific art - Ross and Waid had something to say about the current state of comics.  I didn't have enough distance at first glance to quite understand this wasn't just about Dad showing the Kids who things should be done.  I came to realize, it was no coincidence that too many things looked familiar, reflected back the 90's era of comics and the new breed of superhero filling pages with grimacing faces, ridiculous costumes and dispatching "justice" as often judge, jury and (almost as often unless we needed a recurring villain), executioner.

On a second read, it wasn't just that Magog - Superman's opposite - looked like a 90's-era hero, he was everything the 90's had brought to bear in specific Rob Liefeldian X-treme-ism in comics.  Pouches, needles robotic limbs and impractical ornamentation.   A penchant for permanent and simple solutions and moral certainty in his actions as he put criminals to death.  Or, you know, fought other "heroes" in the street.  To the death.  Something that still baffles me in comics these days and why I sighed so heavily at WB's decision to introduce Batman to Superman in a film via fisticuffs.  It diminishes both characters.

I'd want to point out that those analogs weren't the threadbare parlor trick of The Authority and other books of the 90's that saw the heroes of a given title beat-up/ maimed/ killed analogs of DC or Marvel heroes, a joke already done just fine back in Boris the Bear, thanks very much.   It wasn't the laziness of a writer realizing they could say "my character then humiliates those other characters" to establish bad-ass bona fides for their team.

Kingdom Come was standing back and observing what had happened to comics since Watchmen, and if it were a comic talking about comics - it was at least going to be doing so in the metatextual sense, not just a spiralling of internal plotlines.

Our story:  Ten years ago, the superheroes we think of as the staple players of DC Comics retreated, leaving their literal and metaphorical children to fight in their stead - a grimmer and grittier batch for the new age.  But they've taken to using the Earth as their playground, with god-like beings at battle wherein they rarely get hurt, but they devastate cities in their wake.  The world is frozen in fear, crumbling.  Fatherly Pastor Norman McCay is losing his faith, unsure of what to tell his flock.  At last he breaks, and in that moment he is visited by The Spectre, DC's celestial spirit of vengeance (and a Jerry Siegel creation) and is told he will bear witness.  First as the Superheroes of the JLA era return. Then, as they must re-discover their role with humanity.

Of course, it all goes very, very wrong.

Superman is one of the central figures of the series, but it's tough to paint him as a pure hero here.  He remains steadfast, he doesn't necessarily want to change, to be anything but what Superman has been, and he is unwilling or unable to be one of these newer heroes.  Nor does he take to tyranny or forcing his will with anything like a natural conviction.  He's there to inspire through deeds.  He makes catastrophic mistakes, both through action and inaction, and he's far from the perfect, untouchable hero which the 1990's accused him of being all too often.

But he remains Superman, maybe not the Man of Tomorrow, but the Man of Steel, remaining firm in principle as all else changes around him.

It's nearly impossible to imagine this comic without both Waid and Ross in their respective roles.  Ross's desire to tell an apocalyptic tale seems to have been managed by the purity of story and character that informs Waid's dialog and character interactions.  In some ways, it's the last story of the conflicting viewpoints of DC's Trinity - and the differences that came from this series informed many of the conflicts that would color the DCU straight through Flashpoint and New 52.

Because as much as the comic does pass judgment on what was (and is) happening with mainstream comics, it also struggles, right there on the page, with how we get out of this mess.  Superman's usual path of saving the day has never been a proactive mission, and that causes issues as Superman must deal in both long and short term ways with his progeny - essentially minding and governing a population he's decided he has to manage.  But Wonder Woman's mission of peace through strength has it's own challenges, and Batman's tendency toward stepping out of the cave just long enough to drop some Bat-pomposity on a situation he isn't rectifying (and holds everyone else in contempt for not fixing with their powers) doesn't do much to resolve the situation.

For anyone with a passing familiarity with his work, it will come as no surprise that Alex Ross's work is lush, masterly, and gives true three-dimensionality to the DC Universe.  Superman goes from inked character of fantasy to a large, imposing figure, but one that's utterly believable - in his Clark Kent guise, someone you wouldn't give a second glance or register other than "that's a big guy".  His Superman wears the costume in a way you wish film designers would reflect upon heavily before deciding texturing and piping are the only answer.  If Darwyn Cook mastered the icon in motion, Ross mastered the icon as human figure.

I won't get into all the visual gags and references in the comic, but they are many.  Right up to and including the final panel of the graphic novel version, taking us right back to the start of it all as we see More Fun Comics hanging on the wall.

For a while, as I say, DC seemed to take Kingdom Come to heart, and eventually, Marvel did, too.  The notions of heroism, or  helped get me back into superhero comics when I was moving away from the capes and tights.  But this book got me to pick up Morrison's JLA, the not-discussed-enough JSA, and, of course, get to know Superman in more than a perfunctory way.

In this era where Marvel has more to say about about icons at war (see: Captain America - Civil War.  No, really, see it.  It's super fun!), and our heroes are in all new quandaries but those no less likely to tear the world apart, it's fascinating to consider what might have been had DC Entertainment not been run by chimps.  It doesn't take a genius to understand that a long-brewing ideological conflict brought to a head between former allies and friends is inherently more dramatic, interesting and memorable than "I'm a gonna kill that guy there".  But, they're running movie studios and I work in a library.

That Kingdom Come's legacy was always a little iffy at DC under the current regime which has shamelessly milked Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns until both became watered down memories of themselves - it's been a quiet year, celebration wise for such a landmark series.  Over the past two decades - the best I can say is that they didn't take the book out of print, and for a while, very gradually, the pre-New 52 Justice Society of America title was morphing into a "Golden Age meets Kingdom Come" book, that worked much better than you'd think, and Ross's direct participation made it actually work fairly well.  But it had lost much of the messaging of the original series - reading more like a prequel.

But aside from that, I don't know if DC either doesn't care for the message - which doesn't jive very well with their overall edict which has been to leap over the lines set in the 1990's which inspired the work.  Nor just the book say much positive about the 1990's career of DC Co-Publisher Jim Lee, whom I would assume has reason to be somewhat offended by Kingdom Come, if I thought Jim Lee actually read comic books.

But twenty years is a long time in comics, and that's a lot of Crises under the bridge.  Heroism for heroism's sake isn't on the menu at DC Comics in 2016, and no matter how many rebirths, flashpoints, one years later, recycling of 1986-era comics series, replacing of heroes to show how much the original formula matters - that they do - they're deeply invested in 2016 in making sure none of this reflects stories of inspiration or retaining one's moral courage.

There's a special edition collection getting a release, but I've got the single issues, first publication of the trade and the Absolute Edition (signed by Mark Waid, he said, trying to be non-chalant about it).

If it's been a while since you've read your copy, pick it up.  Dust it off.  It's DC at it's best.  Twenty years and four or so reboots of the DCU on, it may be time for DC's editorial offices to pick up the book as they consider their new era of DC under the Rebirth banner.  Moreover, DC Entertainment's film division could do worse than to consider this most cataclysmic of stories to see how it can end with a note of hope that's earned.  It's not about the trappings of the characters, but who they are and what they can represent that makes the DCU work. And that these characters, together, are an inspiration of warring opinion and conflict - put right when they join forces for the greater good.

There's something there we can all remember.

*everything in the 90's marketed to my demographic was supposed to be EXTREME!!!  It worked for some slice of the population, but for many Gen-X'ers, already suspicious of marketing, it was like a claxon warning us to stay away from a corporate focus-grouped attempt to "appeal to the kids".


J.S. said...

I have not read this Kingdom Come. Perhaps someone should lend it to me.

The League said...

Fortress Library is always open. Come on by.