Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review - Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross

Short review: A beautifully illustrated, but ultimately unsatisfying story exploring the nature of heroism using the Book of Revelations as a framing device.

Superman retires
The world goes to Hell, and then
Superman comes back

Full review: There can be no denying that Kingdom Come is a beautifully illustrated book. The artwork that is used to tell this Revelations-inspired story using super-heroes as a metaphor for divine and infernal powers is, in a word, stunning. Unfortunately, the story that these illustrations tell simply isn't worthy of being told with such beautiful images. The subtitle on the cover says that this is "The Greatest Super-Hero Epic of Tomorrow", but while it is clear that the authors intended to write a grand and epic tale, they seem to have been given only enough space to tell a medium sized story, and the strain of packing the grandiose amount of story intended into the inadequate space available is apparent on almost every page, to the detriment of the book.

The story, such as it is, is told through the eyes of Norman McCay as he is whisked from event to event by the Spectre to serve as a mostly unseen and unnoticed observer to the doings of the mighty beings that walk across the Earth. In this future world, the cadre of super-powered heroes that DC comic fans are familiar with has mostly died, retired, or withdrawn to the sidelines, and a new crop of meta-humans has risen to replace their forbears. But these new super-powered beings, unlike their predecessors, seem to have almost no regard for the fragile and weak humans they share the world with, and their uncaring demeanor makes their internecine fights terribly dangerous for their mundane neighbors. Against this backdrop of random conflict, the Spectre shows Norman how the chaos is swirling towards a dangerous and destructive conclusion.

But the book simply isn't substantial enough to tell the full story that would do justice to the idea behind it. The story, concerning the return of Superman to the world stage, the resurrection of the defunct Justice League, the taming of the miscreant younger meta-human generation, the plots against the meta-humans as a whole, and all of the other sweeping epic elements, is stuffed into too few pages to actually tell a coherent tale. Not only that, because the story is set into the future, the book must also spend time establishing the landscape of the super-hero world of tomorrow, and at the same time explain how the present DC universe got there. As a result, the book isn't so much a coherent tale as it is a collection of climactic highlights. But without the build up to support them, the climaxes that the reader is treated to simply fall flat. Without needed context, the reader simply doesn't care who Magog is, and it is simply difficult to be concerned when the incarcerated pseudo-hero Von Bach is struck down.

Superman is the centerpiece, and in many ways exemplary of the problems with, this book. Most of the plot hinges upon Superman withdrawing from the public eye for an extended period of time, and then after a crisis occurs, returning to try to set things right again. But while Superman's withdrawal to a virtual farm is talked about several times, it is explained in a brief handful of panels that give only the most cursory outline of the circumstances that led him to turn his back on humanity. And Superman's decision to return is covered in a similarly brief set of panels and is similarly glossed over. Further, the critical interregnum during which Superman is absent from world affairs takes up a relatively tiny portion of the book. As a result of the cursory way that these portentous events are described, Superman's supposedly momentous decisions to leave and then return seem almost to be careless in nature. By covering only the decisions themselves, and failing to provide more than an outline of the context in which they take place, the book drains any potential weight out of these choices.

In many ways Kingdom Come feels more like a well-illustrated outline of a story than an actual story. Time and again the reader is presented with the end result, often via a brief flashback or one character telling another what happened, rather than being allowed to see the story unfold for themselves. After he returns, Superman goes to visit a retired Bruce Wayne, who is presented as a man confined to an exoskeleton who enforces a draconian order in Gotham via security robots. How Wayne got to this point is never explained. We are told that Wonder Woman had been stripped of her royal status and ambassadorial post by her Amazon sisters, but instead of seeing this as part of the story, we are told of these events by means of a conversation between Clark and Diana. We are told that the new generation of meta-humans has run riot over the world, and we are even shown a little bit of the mayhem they have caused, but the story of how these meta-humans got to the point where nearly all of them felt free to engage in wanton destruction is skipped over. Over and over the book jumps past telling an actual story and simply tells the reader the ending instead.

Even when the book give the reader some actual story to read, it does so in the most perfunctory way. Magog precipitates the crisis that results in Superman's return by devastating and irradiating Kansas, but this entire plot takes up only a few panels. Lex Luthor has organized many of the DC universe's super-villains into the "Mankind Liberation Front", but we only get a scant glimpse of their machinations via a handful of board meetings. Superman restores the Justice League and converts or incarcerates the new generation of meta-humans, almost magically waving a wand to create a prison to keep them in, but this radical transformation of the world is dealt with mostly by offstage fiat. We are shown that Luthor has brainwashed Captain Marvel, but the book takes little more than a single page to show this. Bruce Wayne sides with Luthor, reassuring Luthor of his good intentions by saying little more than "trust me", and then Luthor is shocked (and unprepared) when the former Batman turns on him. There is a lot of plot crammed into this book, but it is unsupported by the amount of story necessary to contain the volume of moving pieces that are presented, and the resulting product is disjointed and unsatisfying.

It is clear that Waid and Ross had an incredibly expansive vision for a story, and for some reason decided to box that story into a contained that was simply too small to tell it properly. And so instead of seeing Superman unable to stop the Joker murdering his way across Metropolis and finally assassinating Lois Lane before the Joker is himself executed by Magog, we are told that these events happened in a flashback to the trial of Magog that followed. Instead of seeing the back and forth cat an mouse game between Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor as they engage in cloak and dagger intrigue, we see Bruce ally with Luthor on one page, and see him announce that he's figured out Luthor's plan and betray his erstwhile ally on another. Instead of giving the reader a story, the authors gave the reader plot points. The book is, in effect, the skeleton of a story entirely lacking in any flesh or muscle.

Even though they confined themselves to nothing more than plot points, the authors gave a short shrift to some of the most interesting questions raised in the volume - even though we are told that Lois died, this is not the catalyst that spurred Superman to withdraw into seclusion. Rather, the acquittal of Magog for the Joker's murder was the crucial event. But given that Lois (along with the presumably deceased Ma and Pa Kent) was a critical humanizing influence on Superman, shouldn't her loss have meant something more to the Man of Steel than it seems to have? Given that Superman dances around the idea of, and eventually enters into a romantic relationship with the stern and warlike Diana, why does this not affect his ideals? Why is it that without Superman the world inexorably devolves into chaos? Kingdom Come wants to cover some of the same territory that Alan Moore covered in The Watchmen, specifically the responsibility of power, and how to keep a nearly omnipotent being from ruling over the world according to their personal moral code - as Superman does in this book once he returns from his self-imposed exile. But although Kingdom Come wants to raise these subjects, unlike The Watchmen, it doesn't want to make any statements about them, or even really explore them, confining itself to saying little more than "Superman is humble and self-critical, so no one would ever have to worry about his unstoppable power". While the story glosses over many of the plot developments that it presents, it completely ignores many others, leaving the reader wondering why such seemingly critical elements were alluded to if they were simply going to be passed over.

Kingdom Come is a masterfully drawn and incredibly ambitious failure. There is an epic story to be told here, and the reader is given a collection of excellent storyboards outlining that story. There are interesting questions involving competing visions of morality and justice that are raised here, but which are never really dealt with in any meaningful way. By attempting to cram this epic story into a two hundred page graphic novel, Waid and Ross created a stunted and incomplete work that doesn't actually tell a story, doesn't allow its plots or characters to develop, and doesn't deal with the huge questions that it raises. There was a really great story to be told using the ideas that are represented in this books. Unfortunately, this book doesn't actually tell that story so much as it merely outlines it, and as a result, it isn't anything more than average.

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