Monday, December 9, 2013

A Beloved Graphic Novel

It's not often that something entertaining can truly blow you away--that "I can't breathe because I never saw it coming" sort of moment in a story.  If you saw The Sixth Sense without being spoiled, that's probably one time.  The LOST episode "Walkabout" comes to mind as well, though some wise few (me) called the zinger about 20 minutes in.

At the top of my list, though, is the graphic novel Kingdom Come.  To borrow a line from old J.R.R., it is precious to me.  The basic story is this: ten years from the perpetual "now" of DC Comics, Superman has retired, our well-known heroes have aged or moved on, and a new, more violent breed of superhero has taken to protect--and wantonly carouse--in our world.  We quickly learn that this violent "protection" has lead to a nuclear disaster of catastrophic proportions, leading in turn to a showdown literally of Biblical proportions between goodies and baddies, humans and superhumans alike.  The narration of the story is set by Norman McKay, a minister whose faith is slipping after the nuclear disaster.  He is led by the Spectre, a fairly familiar DC character able to transcend time and space.  Together it's a Scrooge-and-a-ghost dynamic which, conveniently enough, lets us flit from hither and yon across the globe to see the story unfold. 

Two other points should be made.  First, all the artwork has been painted by Alex Ross; second, it was originally released, as graphic novels often are, in four issues.  When I first read it, the former was apparent, as I was aware of Mr. Ross' work in the Marvels graphic novel.  As for the second point... for that I was not prepared.

I mistook the first issue--coming in at about 50 pages in a paperback (i.e. not comic paper) issue--as the only issue, as a one-shot vision of an alternate future.  McKay sees some horrible visions to open the story, visions of Biblical gloom and doom.  As the rest of the story unfolds, and we see fun and interesting ways that familiar characters are being "re-presented." Norman's visions are largely forgotten, and if remembered, relegated to the dustbin of artistic flourish.  At the climax of the story (in the issue, anyway), Superman returns, saving the day and putting the new non-heroes on their place.  It's stunning and amazing and cheer-worthy, a truly cinematic moment made out of static art.

And on the next page, Norman's visions of apocalypse return, ending the story, telling us that there's much, much more to come.

I love Kingdom Come.  I wrote my college thesis on it, comprising a whopping 30 pages of critical analysis on it, arguing that it deserves to be elevated to the realm of postmodern fiction.

The climax of the novel is the showdown between Superman--but a Superman who is older, one step slower, and who turned his back on humanity for ten years--and Captain Marvel.  For those not in the know, the basic DC backstory for Captain Marvel is that Billy Batson, a 10 year old boy, can yell "Shazam!" and call down magic thunder to turn him into the powerful adult hero.  In the course of Kingdom Come, Billy Batson grew up under the brainwashing employ (and vaguely-suggested sexual abuse) of--wait for it--Lex Luthor.  Ultimately, Marvel goes rogue from goodies and baddies alike, being an X factor as fighting moves closer and closer to Armageddon.  He is the only one powerful enough to stop Superman.  He is the harbinger of death.  It leads to the showdown of a lifetime, that of all our heroes and villains fighting towards the very brink of their end.

And that is just about the biggest game that you could count on: every single character you've ever cared about (at least in the DC universe) battling lest they be, quite simple, no more.

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