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Paperback Rack

by Brian MacDonald

This Changes Everything: Kingdom Come

Story: Mark Waid

Art: Alex Ross

To many readers of Fanzing, a review of the trade paperback version of the landmark series Kingdome Come would seem superfluous. Long-time comic fans know that this series is a must-have, and many newer readers started because of Kingdom Come, or discovered it soon after. People who had been away from comics for a long time were blown away by it, and started reading again because of it. But time passes, and not everyone knows how good this series is. Hard as it may be to believe, the original series was published in 1996, and the trade paperback collection came out in 1997. There are fans out there who think of Mark Waid as a guy who writes for CrossGen, if they know his name at all. If this TPB isn't part of you collection already, it should be. If you don't have it, you're missing out on the best Elseworlds event of the last decade, and a series that is still affecting the mainstream DCU.

Most comic book reviews start with the story, not the art, but when you pick up Kingdom Come, the art catches your attention immediately. The art simply looks like nothing you've ever seen before, unless you've seen some of Alex Ross's other work. The difference is that Ross's work isn't drawn, it's painted, usually using real models, so the result is more realistic than superheroes usually have any business looking. Everything simply looks the way it would in the real world -- capes hang realistically, jackets wrinkle realistically, and armor reflects realistically. Somehow, Ross goes reality one better. As Hollywood repeatedly demonstrates, a costume that looks good on a pencil-and-ink hero tends to look terrible on an actor wearing real spandex. Ross makes the characters look like real people, and they still manage to look comfortable, even appropriate, in their costumes.

The skill that Ross puts on display here goes beyond just the primary characters. The settings and backgrounds are so realistic, and so detailed, that you'll find yourself simply staring at the panels because you don't want to miss anything. There are certain scenes, such as the Planet Krypton restaurant (think Hard Rock Café with superheroes), and the bar where the young heroes hang out, that must have taken longer to paint than I'm comfortable thinking about. The chairs in the restaurant get just as much attention as the shield on Superman's chest, and the overall effect is a world so real you expect the characters to walk off the page.

The best thing I can say about Mark Waid's story is that it's every bit as amazing as Alex Ross's art. Ten years ago, Superman retired because he felt that the public wanted younger, more ruthless defenders, and most of the heroes of his age retired soon after. The most striking difference of the younger heroes is their willingness to kill, and as a result, they eventually ran out of super-villains to fight. Out of boredom, they turned on each other, and now they wage pointless conflicts all over the world, endangering the ordinary citizens they're supposed to be protecting. World governments are powerless to stop the rampage. Superman is brought out of retirement, and recruits a group of the more powerful heroes, including Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash, to end the madness by forceful means. He comes into conflict with a group led by a much older Batman, consisting of more human heroes, including Green Arrow, Black Canary, and Blue Beetle. Batman, of course, prefers a more subtle approach. Naturally, Lex Luthor leads a gang of surviving villains who want to twist the conflict to serve their own ends, and Lex has a surprise up his sleeve as well. When this much power comes into conflict, it may be the end of not just these heroes, but the whole human race. The reader's guide through all these plots is Norman McCay, an elderly pastor chosen by the Spectre to be his human anchor and help him pass judgment on these events. Waid's choice of an old man as the protagonist is a startling move, and a perfect choice. A lot of the intellectual conflict in Kingdom Come revolves around whether superheroes are gods or men, which they ought to be, and whose laws, if any, they should abide by. Using a man of God, a man of wisdom, is a brilliant choice for a narrator.

One thing that Mark Waid manages to bring to most of his work is a deep reverence for Golden Age and Silver Age characters and stories, and Kingdom Come is no exception. There's only one Green Lantern and only one Flash in the story, and neither of them are ever identified by name, but there's a pretty strong visual implication that they're Alan Scott and Jay Garrick, even though neither of them is exactly human anymore. You'll find references to past ages everywhere you look, and it's intentional. Part of Waid and Ross's intent with this book is to evoke the conflict between the bold, colorful, simpler superheroes of old with the dark, gruff, trigger-happy heroes that marked the early 90s. If you think that Magog, the primary "modern" hero, looks a lot like the X-Men's Cable, you're not imagining things.

The attention to detail is beautiful, and sometimes overwhelming. Just to cite a few examples, you might notice that when groups of heroes are standing together, the five original Titans (Robin, Wonder Girl, Speedy, Aqualad, and Kid Flash, although they all use different names now) are almost always depicted standing in a group close by each other. In another example, Norman and the Spectre are supposed to be invisible and inaudible to the people they observe, but the more mystically-attuned characters, like Zatara II, son of Zatanna, sometimes appear to notice them -- and so does Selina Kyle's cat. In fact, there are so many details and jokes in there that I strongly recommend finding one of the many Kingdom Come annotations sites on the Web, and using that for your second or third reading.

As a collection, this trade paperback has some impressive extras, some of the best I've seen. There's an extra scene featuring Orion and Superman, which has been inserted into its proper place in the story. There are character sketches of the main characters, and a breakdown of the process of going from script to finished pages. There's reproduced art from the trading cards, promotional posters, and t-shirts that went along with this series. There are notes from Waid and Ross, and an introduction by Elliot S. Maggin. Best of all, though, are the reproductions of the covers, annotated to let you know who is who. Most of the new, young characters never get mentioned by name, but these annotations reveal who they are, and hint at backstories for some of them. For example, the African-American boy who is sometimes seen throwing lightning is revealed to be "Thunder - a new Johnny Thunder with the mischevious spirit of Thunderbolt," who was obviously the inspiration for the JSA's Jamal Thunder. Many of the older heroes have also changed costumes, so the notes are really helpful there too. The extras provided turn this collection into a DVD version of sorts, and DC's reprint department obviously put a lot of thought into selecting the right enhancements to give readers something extra for buying the collected edition.

Even though Kingdom Come is an Elseworlds, and technically doesn't have any impact on the mainstream DCU, the wonders of Hypertime have brought some of these characters into the "present." Some writers treat have taken to treating the series as prophecy, and have dropped "foreshadowing" hints into their own books that point toward the Kingdom Come future. You owe it to yourself to make this paperback part of your collection, for its effects on the DCU, but mostly for the fantastic story and art.

My vote: A perfect 10 out of 10

Kingdom Come is available from Amazon or bn.com.

Mini-review: Kingdom Come, the novel

by Elliot S. Maggin

Kingdom Come was such as successful series that a novelization was tried, and Elliot S. Maggin, author of many Superman novels in days of old, was tapped to do the honors. Unfortunately, the effort falls short, largely because of the lack of visuals. Many of the younger heroes are simply names without personalities, like Swastika or N-I-L-8, and without being able to see them, there's no substance to the characters, because they don't do anything but fight. Maggin also makes some things definite that should have been left vague, such as identifying this Flash as Wally West, a decision I'm not sure Waid and Ross would have agreed with. Maggin inserts a few good scenes, including one great sequence that describes the world from the Flash's point of view. He also makes one notable change for the better: In the original series, Norman McCay describes himself as more philosopher than minister, and in a conversation with Deadman, he expresses the opinion that God is more of a force than a person. It's a perfectly valid opinion, but one that's somewhat out of place for a professional pastor. Maggin recasts McCay as a devoted man of God, who finds his faith tested by the horrible things he witnesses. It increases McCay's conflict, and makes him a more interesting character. Unfortunately, the rest of the novel is almost useless unless you read the trade paperback first.

My vote: 5 out of 10

Kingdom Come, the novel, is officially out of print, but it can be found in hardback and paperback in many bookstores, and you can purchase it from Amazon or bn.com.

Brian MacDonald is a freelance editor of computer books, who lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and son. He buys trade paperbacks whenever he has the money, especially if they feature the JLA.

 
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