Friday, March 27, 2009

What We Talk About When
We Talk About Kingdom Come

(This is, hopefully, the final part of my Kingdom Come review; parts 1, 2 and 3 can be found by making with the clicky.)

Kingdom Come is first and foremost, above any other considerations, a powerful work of nostalgia. Not merely on the extrinsic level - that of the creators' avowed cultural revanchism - but on the intrinsic level of the text. The book begins in the future, and proceeds, by means of judicious flashbacks, to relate a narrative of contemporary instability. The moment of crisis is, in the story's own context, the reader's present. Everything preceding the present moment is idealized, and everything proceeding from the present is anathematized: Magog comes onto the scene as the harbinger of a "brave new world" of amoral, intransigent vigilantes and everything goes to hell in a handbasket. Superman's moral absolutism can't handle the types of stories he's being written into, so he takes his marbles and goes home.

In reality, Magog was Cable, the true "founding father" of the Image generation. Cable was Rob Liefeld's first and most exemplary creation, a creature whose instant, enormous popularity was probably helped by the fact that he was an almost total cipher. It took dozens of creators half-a-decade following Liefeld's departure from Marvel to cobble together a workable backstory for the character. (A backstory, it must be noted, constructed partially from the fan-made theories that sprouted up like weeds in the mystery man's wake, since - like Wolverine - he was not created with any identifiable origin in mind.) But none of that matters, and ultimately all the baggage about the Summers family and Apocalypse and Madelyne Pryor and the Askani (shudder) is only so much rationalization. Cable is a bad dude with a gun who dresses like the seventh Village Person, the gay army commando.

It's hard to talk about Kingdom Come without succumbing to the temptation to periodize. But the question remains, to which telos does the book belong? Is it climax and dénouement for the late-80s and early-90s crash-and-burn dialectic, or ground zero for the late-90s early-00s school of neoclassicist superheroics? Can it be both?

Neoclassicism is the most conservative cultural mode. But it is not, is never, a completely digital recreation of the past. The 19th Century pre-Raphaelites created an imaginary Medievalism that owed as much to Walter Scott and the faux-revolutionary conservatism of Disraeli's "Young England" as any actual desire to reengage with a "lost" lineage of the Italian Renaissance*. Similarly, Waid and Ross' neoclassicism is far less about the actual comics of their youth and more about their relationship to the comics they grew up reading, and an idealized conception thereof, used as a bludgeon against the sins of the present.

This is evident from any honest reading of Kingdom Come, separated from its place in mid-90s historicism and set aside its mythic forebears. It's an incredibly cynical book that places the audience's awareness of and affection for its characters, predicated on a lifetime's familiarity with their adventures and tropes, front and center above any other narratological concerns. The text and subtext are, unnervingly, one and the same: superheroes became corrupted in the 1990s, and the "true" heroes became irrelevant as a result. Kingdom Come is the story of the heroes' return from obsolescence, championing the values of moral fortitude and absolute virtue.

Kingdom Come fails in its primary objective, if you understand its primary objective to be any kind of rapprochement with post-Watchmen, post-Image superheroics. It can't answer the questions we've been hacking out these last few days: how do you continue to produce stories featuring morally upright icons in an age of escalating stakes and increasing violence? How do you properly recontain or metabolize the destructive genie of vigilante id represented by characters like Cable? And - perhaps most importantly, considering Kingdom Come is itself one of the most toxic examples of a still-contemporary trend - how do you write interesting superhero stories in an age where the genre has become mired in relentless self-referentially and overwhelming metatextual density? The answer to all these questions, according to Kingdom Come, is that you don't: instead of gaining any insight from the intractable aporia of a collapsing comics industry, Waid and Ross opt for millennialism and false utopia, a clean slate predicated on a scorched earth. It doesn't work that way. You can't just burn everything down and start fresh. The Fourth World is built out of the ashes and the archetypes of the Third. Using nostalgia as a weapon against Bloodstrike only works for so long, before someone comes along with nostalgia for Bloodstrike.

I wouldn't want to lay the blame for Kingdom Come at Alan Moore's feet, but in many respects it is merely another symptom of the general inability of the industry to properly metabolize Watchmen and its ilk. Perhaps an argument can be made that by laying bare the tropes, formulae and ideological mannerisms of superhero comics with such methodical rigor, Moore made it simply impossible for any subsequent writer to approach those same conventions in an unselfconscious manner.

Every good superhero comic, after Watchmen, had to be about superhero comics. Everything was "deconstructed", up to and including the most plebian examples from the contemporary scene. Kurt Busiek's Avengers was about creating the Platonic ideal of an Avengers comic, a reaction to the disrepair into which many of the company's flagship franchises had fallen by the late 90s. Brian Michael Bendis' New Avengers is a comic that is very explicitely intended to mark a clean break with the "old school" Avengers style - it's a superhero team book with the mannerisms and dialogue tics of an HBO crime drama. Bendis' Mighty Avengers was an attempt by him to write an "old school" Avengers book while simultaneously maintaining many of the faux-naturalistic narrative techniques he'd previously utilized for New; Dan Slott's Mighty Avengers is a neoclassical reaction to Bendis' New, an extremely mannered and deliberate return to the franchise's most elemental form. To a degree this self-referentially becomes self-parody, and nowhere is this more obvious than the readers themselves, who (like myself) see trends and metatext hiding behind every bullrush, long past the point of absurdity. But this is the market and this is the creative climate we've built for ourselves.

The most lasting legacy Kingdom Come has had, I believe, has been the solidification of a certain school of superhero storytelling that could be called "momentism". Waid and Ross did not invent "momentism" - again, we can look back to Alan Moore for inspiration.

Moore only really wrote two Superman stories (excepting a Swamp Thing team-up for DC Presents) - "For the Man Who Has Everything", and "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" Considering they make up a scanty hundred pages between them, it's remarkable just how influential they have been - or, hell, let's just say - how blatantly these two stories have been mindlessly copied, practically verbatim, time and time again through to the present day.

Moore's approach to these Superman stories is, in its own way, as remarkable as his approach to Watchmen: instead of deconstructing the entire genre, he deconstructed a single character. He reverse-engineered Superman in such a way that he was able to deduce the most optimum possible vehicle for telling the best Superman story - what story can hit the best Superman "beats"? How do you build a superhero comic around an iconic character like Superman? Easy: you figure out the most quintessential things Superman does and build a story around them. "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" is, by design, a laundry list of Superman's greatest hits, and Moore hits every emotional beat with the precision of a Pentium. In "For the Man Who Has Everything" the approach is effectively the same. How many times have we seen a recreation of that initial confrontation with Mongol, that moment of absolute panic on the readers' part where, for the first time in maybe ever, we see Superman flex his muscles with seismic authority and go after the villain with all the power at his disposal? All I have to do is say one word: "Burn". You know the panel. Of course, that one panel has been redrawn and rewritten a thousand times over the years, if not more. Hell, Kingdom Come is itself built around such a moment, only substitute Captain Marvel for Mongol.

But the problem is that what seemed so incredibly potent in Moore's hands has become simply blasé. Whereas Moore's canny manipulation of tropes was novel, Jeph Loeb and Mark Millar doing that same thing is simply crass. What else is Hush? What else is Millar's Spider-Man? Or Ultimates? Or the entirety of the Ultimate line? Or Final Crisis? This is "momentism" - a style of writing predicted on the singular iconic "moment" as the indissoluble element of superhero writing. Kingdom Come is packed to the rafters with "moments", and the creators' understanding of the characters is good enough that many of the moments are good - a few of the Superman moments are very good.

But how do you build a story around isolated moments? What about all the stuff that has to go between the moments? You could be like Millar and just not bother to write anything between these moments. "Old Man Logan" is simply a marvel (no pun intended) of storytelling economy. All significant exposition, all character development, all the world-building in the strange alternate future of the story, is delivered in "moments": everything that isn't a giant Venom-infected T-Rex or Hank Pym's giant skeleton is just padding to keep the book from being a pin-up gallery. And it's even worse if you consider that the story is itself building, with a maniacal ruthlessness, to the biggest "moment" of them all, the moment where Wolverine finally overcomes his decades of pacifism, pops his claws and kills all the bad guys - I predict it will happen exactly on the final page of the story's penultimate issue. It's not even a guess; it's practically scientific observation.

Sometimes the most effective tool of the momentist writer can be delayed gratification - but momentism only works as long as the outcome is never in any real doubt. The most obvious and predictable thing has to eventually occur, or there's simply no story. It is best, paradoxically, if the most predictable thing happens in the least predictable manner possible - the greater the obstacle to normative resolution, the greater the audience's satisfaction when that resolution finally occurs. This is true, it could be said, for all narrative art, but momentism depends on the audience's intimate familiarity with character and genre tropes. It is a style of writing that could only develop in a closed-system hothouse like mainstream superhero comics. It all depends on familiarity, and the process of creating a story where characters can act in their most familiar, most essential ways, giving readers the unalloyed pleasure of seeing icons with whom they are intimately familiar acting exactly like themselves.

That is the legacy of Kingdom Come: the cosy pleasures of the familiar codified as the aesthetic apogee. Predictability has always been the underlying ethos behind superhero comics, but now it was overt scripture. The new overriding narrative became atavism, the conscious desire to return to the past, a desire that overwhelms any superhero comic that stops to linger on its own metatext. Superhero comics have become superhero comics about superhero comics, which are themselves stories about superhero comics in a fallen world. We are forever trying to return to the purity Hesiod's Golden Age, and we - like Socrates in The Republic - can't understand that heterogeneity is not merely a sign of weakness and inevitable torsion but an inevitability as well.

NEXT: I think I have managed to say just about everything there is to say about such a deeply, deeply flawed, but nevertheless interesting and indisputably important book as Kingdom Come. But, hey, in for a penny in for a pound, so next time I think I'll say a few words about Kingdom Come's redheaded stepchild, the incredibly weird Earth-X.

1 comment :

Unknown said...

Wow! Came here through a reference in a recent TCJ article. More than ten years late to your party but still excited at how you articulated the characteristics and limitations of this kind of storytelling. Thanks for a thought provoking read!