Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Absolute Kingdom Come
Our book today is the ‘Absolute’ edition of DC Comics’ graphic novel ‘Kingdom Come.’ The four issues of the mini-series by writer Mark Waid and artist Alex Ross have been collected in a great big deluxe slip-cased hardcover, complete with oversized pages, superb color transfers, and nearly a hundred pages of ‘extras’ bringing up the rear. It’s like having a playground pressed between two covers.
The nicest thing about “Kingdom Come,” at least in terms of explaining it to non comic book fans, is that most of its main characters are familiar to them anyway. Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and the Joker - everybody knows at least something about these characters - they’ve been somewhere in the American subconscious for the better part of the 20th century: you don’t need to know anything about comics to get at least a vague lay of the land from those names.
And those names more or less form the supporting plot of “Kingdom Come”: the Joker walks into the Daily Planet and slaughters everyone inside, including Lois Lane. A grief-stricken but law-abiding Superman lets the courts take their course - until a new super-powered character confronts the Joker on the courtroom steps and shoots him down. Superman, demoralized, retreats from the world, and the rest of the super-hero community goes to hell in a handbasket. The other heroes mostly balkanize, and ten years later the next generation of super-beings, punks with godlike powers, are conducting their internecine warfare anywhere they please, regardless of the civilian population. That civilian population is represented by our everyman touchstone, preacher Norman McKay, who’s granted visual access to past, present, and future by the supernatural Spectre.
A weathered Superman (Ross paints him with the face of a Manhattan beat cop and the body of a Midwestern football coach) returns to this harried world with his sense of right and wrong firmly in place and therefore wildly out of fashion. What he has on his side is the fact that, well, he’s Superman, and in the last ten years he may have been disillusioned, but he was also getting stronger the whole time. When he returns to the world, the super-powered punks he confronts, with their morphing bodies and their explosive weapons, get brushed aside like cobwebs.
This is the age-old revenge storyline Waid taps into and so expertly retells, and it’s as old as Homer’s Odyssey: that there’s a scattered and outcast older generation easily more powerful and resourceful than the callow new generation that replaced them (for what it’s worth, that same premise is what makes “Star Trek III - The Search for Spock” such endlessly rewatchable fun). Superman returns, and his return sparks the return of many other titans of old, who set about imposing a new world order on the prevalent crop of lawless super-riffraff.
This is good stuff, and it makes for a fun chapter to watch the old titans - Hawkman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and most of all of course Wonder Woman (statuesque, ageless, and very, very angry) and Batman (unmasked, crippled, and exoskeletoned) - follow Superman out of retirement and begin to change the world.
A great deal happens as a result, and we here at Stevereads are reluctant to spoil the plot for any of you small-minded or snobbish (or simply unlucky) enough not to know it already. Suffice it to say, the clouds darken before the sun shines, and the tense, horrible process Waid mines for his trademark specialty, iconic figures under unprecedented stress, uttering essential truths about themselves.
This book has a huge cast of characters - indeed, as obsessive fans spotting faces in all of Ross’ crowd scenes can attest, the cast features virtually every DC character ever dreamt up in the last sixty years - but the heart and soul of the story is the trinity that has sat atop superhero stories for the entire 20th Century: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
Waid write all three of them in such distinctive voices and with such perfect control that you wish he could somehow write their own monthly comics for the rest of time. Although this way is undoubtedly better: the sense of a special occasion just makes it all sweeter.
The greatest thing about this trinity of characters - a thing Waid mines perfectly - is the endless ways in which their backgrounds and natures combine to be invigoratingly unpredictable. Superman is an alien, but his Kansas upbringing has made him more human in many ways than the remote, forbidding Batman. Batman is a human being with no special powers, but his aristocratic background of wealth and privilege give him far more in common with Wonder Woman than with Superman. And Wonder Woman’s the toughest riddle of all (which is probably why writers have done her scant credit over the decades), an Amazon princess as powerful as Superman, as elite as Batman, but more alien than either of them to the world of ordinary people.
This mix is perfect for plumbing - Superman and Wonder Woman are the most powerful super-heroes in the DC universe, Batman the most dangerous, and the combination works absolute wonders. Waid does his job so well that even in an epic story with a cast of thousands and the world itself coming to an end, the tension between these three characters very often eclipses everything else.
Wonder Woman wants to meet the chaos of the new world order with militaristic violence. Batman wants to sift and manipulate. Superman wants to heal it all.
As noted, Waid’s greatest trick as a writer is to let extreme pressure prompt characters to tell each other things they’ve always left unsaid.
Perhaps the greatest of these moments happens in the final chapter, when tensions are at their highest, and Superman confronts Batman in a last-ditch attempt to enlist his help. Face to face in the ruins of the Batcave, Superman pours out his heart on the subject of his problematic best friend:
“The deliberate taking of human life - even super-human life - goes against every belief I have - and that YOU have. That’s the one thing we’ve always had in common. It’s what’s made us what we are. More than anyone in the world, when you scratch everything else away from Batman, you’re left with someone who doesn’t want to see anybody else die.”
Countless writers over the decades have had their chance to define Batman in two sentences. Nobody else has ever done it but Waid.
But the best thing in ‘Absolute Kingdom Come’ (beating all the neat extras, which for once are actually worthy of inclusion) is still and always will be the ‘one year later’ vignette at the very end.
The crisis has been averted, some semblance of normality has been restored, and a plaid-clad Clark Kent and a gorgeously-draped but anonymous Wonder Woman enter a gaudy superhero-themed restaurant for a pre-arranged meeting. None of the costumed waitstaff of course recognize the titans in their midst, and so they seat their charges with no fanfare. They’re waiting for a third party, and Clark is uncomfortably aware of that fact. “So where is he?” he edgily asks. “You’re the one with the X-ray vision,” Wonder Woman chidingly reminds him. “Did you look behind the Giant Penny?” When Clark says “You didn’t tell him, did you?” she gamefully responds “Of course not. If it actually means seeing him surprised, who am I to hoard the moment?”
Of course the third party is Batman, who shows up a moment later right behind the seated Clark Kent. And the World’s Greatest Detective has already figured out the momentous reason for the get-together. The brief scene is handled perfectly, ending with our three heroes walking out into the sunlight.
“Absolute Kingdom Come” isn’t something you’d hand to the comics novice. It’s a long, detailed love note to DC Comics, something best savored by those who’ve been absorbing comics for years. But it’s a testament to the book’s staying power that even a novice, stumbling into it, would be spellbound.