Friday, March 20, 2009

Pocket Change

Johnny Bacardi nailed me dead to rights in the comment section of the previous Kingdom Come post. Of course, people didn't suddenly coin the word "icon" in 1995, so people had been using it to describe the major superhero properties for a long time. (Someone with a PhD in old-school fandom could probably figure out where it was originally used, probably in an old Roy Thomas fanzine or some such.) But . . . that said, without negating Johnny B's point, there was still something different about the mid-90s - some conscious admission of something which had been tacitly accepted for a long time.

Looked at in hindsight, in the wake of every bad comic book that has been created specifically to fit the ideological and thematic mold of Kingdom Come - and I would argue that a huge percentage of DC's output, and some of Marvel's as well, carries the mark to this day - it's easy to write the book off. And, for what it's worth, it suffers in direct comparison to the work it is most commonly compared to, Ross and Kurt Busiek's Marvels.

I have never made any secret of the fact that I love Marvels. I think it's the last great deconstructionist superhero comic, the capstone to an extremely fertile ten-year period that saw the mainstream comics industry gain self-awareness, undergo a turbulent adolescence, come within an inch or so of dying a painful death, only to ease into a painful senescence, a slow attrition in terms both commercial and creative. People don't usually group Marvels with books like Watchmen, Dark Knight, Squadron Supreme or Marshal Law - it's such a kind and nostalgic work, it doesn't seem to be deconstructing anything. What a lot of people miss, however - and which I have expounded upon at length elsewhere - is that Marvels is the most stealthily subversive book of them all, because it is not concerned with tearing apart superheroes, so much as with tearing apart superhero fandom. Phil Sheldon's emotional arc throughout the series mirrors my own in relation to superhero comics to an astounding degree - curiosity, infatuation, decadence, cynicism, rejection - and finally, rapprochement and acceptance. Screw Watchmen - Marvels is the capstone to the whole superhero genre, and the whole superhero reading experience as well. But, like Watchmen it also ends with the explicit acknowledgement that everything continues, nothing really ever ends or changes . . . except for people.

Kingdom Come doesn't belong in the same category as any of the above-mentioned works. It is very consciously a book about re-construction - blowing past the chaff of the previous decades' worst impulses, impulses which include obligatory deconstruction, and returning to the proverbial "first principals". In this particular instance, the first principles are Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and (sometimes, when DC is feeling generous) Captain Marvel. Try to forget all that has come in the book's wake, and remember what came before. It could even be said that Kingdom Come was a reactionary book, a deeply-felt and willful reaction to what had come immediately before, a symbolic retrenchment of what could be called the "neo-classical" school of superhero comics.

As with any "neo-classical" movement, it was no more an authentic reflection of the original inspiration - the "classic" comics that filled Ross and Waid's childhood, presumably - than it was an authentic reflection of its creators' agendas. Kingdom Come is a work with an agenda: staunchly conservative, and by necessity humorless, grasping at the epic and - in many crucial places - mistaking hollow portent for purpose in the pursuit of its didactic goals. It is a deeply problematic work, and not one I would recommend lightly - I am not comfortable with the strong religious key sounding through the book's entirety, for instance, and Waid's staging sometimes seems perfunctory. Part of the latter problem probably lies as much with the book's scope as anything else - Crisis feels packed at 12 issues, and two of them are double-sized. Kingdom Come tries to pack almost as much into four double-sized issues as Crisis did in twice the page count, and it suffers accordingly. To their credit, for every muffled moment - such as Lois Lane's perfunctory death, in a flashback no less (moose n squirrel is dead right about that) - there are good moments aplenty, such as Superman's triumphant return at the climax of the first issue. More than anything else, despite these serious problems, it is nevertheless a work of great affection - even though some of the criticism of the early 90s can feel heavy-handed and bitchy, the whole point is that Ross and Waid really fucking love Superman. To the extent that they can communicate that, the book works remarkably well.

The 80s and 90s - especially the early 90s - were filled with, well, take a look for yourself:

There are a number of reasons - dozens, hundreds - of reasons why the comics industry became so coarse in the 90s. But it is worth remembering that the gradually more extreme and crass content of these books - combined with the gradually deteriorating creative standards fueled by the industry's rapid expansion and even faster contraction - were only popular because, well, people bought them.

There are precious few honestly good mainstream superhero comics from this period. It's one thing to have coarser subject matter if it results from more mature, thoughtful writing, but the one inarguable, unambiguous lesson that people took away from Watchmen and Dark Knight was that people liked to see superheroes kill and curse. Which is fine for latter-day characters like the Punisher or Wolverine - designed slightly differently for a different creative climate than that which had spawned Spider-Man or the modern iterations of Superman or Batman. But then everybody wanted all the stories to be as hardcore as the Punisher and Wolverine - regardless of whether or not the types of stories that worked with the Punisher and Wolverine could work for Superman or Spider-Man, or even Batman. And then everybody wanted to make their own Punishers and Wolverines, which was really unfortunate because whatever charm those characters may have was easily subtracted from the clones' DNA sequences, thoughtlessly excised in the lab. And when a massive influx of new talent attracted by the incredible boom of the pre-Image years came into the industry in the early 90s, hell-bent on slavishly replicating the absolute worst traits of the coarser, post-Watchmen, post Dark Knight landscape without any critical or aesthetic sense whatsoever - that's when the comics racks became nothing but an indiscriminate mass of steroid freaks and freakishly endowed women, all allied to large paramilitary concerns that existed shorn of any identifiable agenda or ethicality, solely dedicated to fighting other large paramilitary concerns of similarly ambiguous provenance. Either that, or they were lone-wolf killers dedicated to finding their own brand of justice in a crooked / corrupted / demon-haunted world. At least Jim Valentino had the good sense to admit that Shadowhawk was a cynical cash-grab of a character - but so far as I know he's alone in his candor.

So - not only were the racks flooded with Image, they were flooded with Marvel and, later, DC, desperately trying to replicate the surface qualities of Image - a brand that was itself dedicated to replicating the surface qualities of late 80s and early 90s Marvel books. The one legitimate attraction Image held was the freedom it allowed individual creators, and the requisite unpredictability that followed - and that was, by the most amazing coincidence, the only aspect that Marvel and DC could never replicate themselves. By around 1995, just about everything on the racks was a tenth-generation carbon copy of Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Michael Golden and John Byrne, with all the legibility that the metaphor implies.

(If you're too young to remember carbon paper, you probably don't remember what the comics industry looked like before Image - it was a kinder, gentler world, filled with bunnies and kittens frolicking with Jolly Jim Shooter in the hills and dales . . . and you know, now that I think about it, all the problems started when Shooter left Marvel. For all his sins, he would have known how to avoid all the mistakes Marvel made from 1988-1992 which led to Image.)

Anyway: here we are. It's 1996. The boom has busted and everything has gone to hell in a handbasket. Superman was killed and Batman was broken, all with the express intent of showing, in the most didactic and methodical way possible just why these characters were still relevant and how they still worked in the modern context. To varying degrees, these kinds of stories did succeed, at least in their stated aims. But there was still the matter of all those horrible, horrible copycats, all the hundreds and thousands of crappy spin-offs and knock-offs and spin-offs of knock-offs clogging the racks and drowning out the virtuous values and ethical purity of the original icons. (Ah yes, there's that word again, icon.) For all that, it was enough to make one wish that all these problematic iterations and putrid adulterations could just be gathered up in one place and blown to Hell with an A-bomb . . . and if you know how Kingdom Come ends, you can see where this sentiment ultimately led.

Next time: more on this, including a more specific discussion of just how the coarsening climate of mainstream comics degraded the "icons", and how Kingdom Come was designed to circumvent this degradation.

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