Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Kingdom Come was such an immediate success that it can be rightly be called one of the most influential series of the preceding decade. It is debatable whether or not this influence has been a positive one. You can draw a direct line from Waid & Ross' work on through to many of the worst tendencies of contemporary comics. Pretty much every aesthetic sin committed by overly-reverential, overly-mannered, claustrophobically nostalgic superhero comics of the last decade can be rightly laid at the feet of Kingdom Come. The book itself has become critical shorthand, therefore, for a type of superhero comic, most often a negative type; and even, one step further, for the types of fans who appreciate those types of books.

Almost everything Ross has done since this has contributed to the trend and the coequal backlash. And it's a shame, because he's a fabulous artist. The problem is that much of what he draws looks like he got his middle-aged mailman to dress like Superman for the purpose of photo-reference. His proclivity towards photo-referencing could probably be categorized as a mental illness in the DSM-IV. If you've ever seen his sketchbooks - they printed a pile of this stuff when the Journal interviewed him back at the turn of the century - he is is simply a remarkable draftsman. But the increasingly ludicrous nature of his career - seriously, he headlined a "reverential" Space Ghost revival at Wildstorm, for God's sake - has made it hard to defend the man, even on the grounds of pure technical skill, because the sentiment hiding behind most of what he chooses to draw or paint is simply putrid. I have to wonder at this point how much of it is his own inclination and how much is simply the Wizard-spawned fanboy nostalgia merchandise machine. I mean, if someone offered me thousands of dollars to draw all these pictures of Batman standing around looking like he had gas, I would probably do just that.

People forget that somewhere in there, among Marvels and Kingdom Come, before those massively boring childrens' books he put out around the turn of the century, he also did a weird two-issue riff on Uncle Sam for Vertigo. It was an odd, thorny work that defies easy dismissal as ideologically-driven political agitprop - either liberal or conservative. It was somewhat baggy in places, perhaps a bit too ambitious and overreaching for what was essentially a simple conceit, but it did make very good use of Ross' skill. The story didn't actually involve Uncle Sam the old Quality hero, but rather Uncle Sam the icon - both as the idealistic symbol of American "values" and the cynical shorthand for American shortcomings. The very premise of the book indicates that Ross' manipulation of iconography, throughout his corpus, is nowhere near as guileless and unthinking as his worst critics would paint it. Again, I'm hardly making the case for Ross as a Duchamp-esque agent provocateur - but if you look at Uncle Sam as a meditation on the means by which iconography can be used, distorted and corrupted, perhaps Ross' understanding of superhero iconography isn't quite so uncritical as it might appear on first blush.

Because, really, before Ross, no one talked about these characters as "icons". There was a transformation in the way people perceived the long-running superhero characters that came about in the early-to-mid-90s, as a partial result of the commercial brinksmanship of the early 90s marketplace bloodbath. As discussed a while back, DC realized at a certain point that the main advantage they had over all of their competition was the fact that Superman and Batman were cultural icons. They weren't just scruffy comic book characters anymore, they had at some amorphous point passed from being mere characters and assumed their place in the pantheon alongside Mickey Mouse, Tarzan and Dracula. People cared when they turned on the news and saw that Superman was dying, or that Batman was getting his back broken. These events had a resonance far, far beyond the limited precincts of the actual stories themselves.

And from there it wasn't long before people realized that the power of these characters' iconography could stand in as a potent signifier in lieu of any other content. That's why so much of Ross' work - merchandising and cover illustration - has been so hollow and empty: the characters have been stripped of all value except as icons, symbolizing themselves and nothing more. Astute readers perceive that this is a pretty frightening concept for any medium built on storytelling. How do you build a storyline around an icon? (Grant Morrison has built a career out of answering that question, and many of his answers have been very good.)

The 90s represented one long lurch towards dwindling relevancy on the part of the mainstream comics industry largest properties, with mediocre to disastrous results. Sure, the Spider-Clone saga was horrible, but the worst part was not that the storyline itself was horrible, but that the people at Marvel honestly felt that the best they could do was try and redefine Spider-Man for the modern era. Superman's "Death" and the "Knight's Fall / Quest / End" cycle in the Batman books were various levels of mediocre-to-poor, but they were spawned from the same impulse as the Clone Saga. You have to give them points for trying.

I remember reading an interview with John Byrne many years ago where he voiced his frustration at the futility of his post-Crisis Superman revamp. The quote - which I can't even pretend to remember verbatim, so I won't even try - went something along the lines that, regardless of whatever happened in the books themselves, nothing could ever change the Superman on the company logo. So yeah, Superman could die, come back as four people, get a mullet, turn blue, turn red and blue, conquer the world, get married - whatever. On the level of iconography - the level best apprehended by the people who actually own Superman - Superman is a known and static quality. Ross' static, blatantly iconographic art is a frank admission of the most unpleasant aspects of commercial superhero comics. For anyone who still enjoys the occasional Superman comic, it's a depressing glimpse inside the sausage factory. Kingdom Come came along at just the right point, when trading on these characters as iconography was still novel and the idea had not yet become so disastrously, morbidly calcified as it would eventually become.

But - again! - I have managed to say a lot without actually getting to the main point. So - yeah. Hopefully next time we'll actually get around to Kingdom Come itself. I don't know! Maybe I'll get distracted and start talking about bacon for 1,500 words or something.

No comments :