Flying the Standard: Part 5 - Flying The Standard

Mon, December 4th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Scott O. Brown, Guest Contributor

Let's talk about Kingdom Come. It's a superhero book unlike any other, a beautifully crafted apocalyptic text that flails about in the weight of its own symbols. And because hundreds of thousands of copies of this book have been sold, we need to talk about it.

Kingdom Come is a patently unfair book to any reader, requiring knowledge of two sets of symbols as well as a social context in order to understand the story. It's not that symbols are bad. When they are well-defined and used properly, symbols can enhance the thematic depth of any story. But when they are given without context, or when the context is nothing more than the interactions of two poorly defined sets of symbols, then we run into problems, much like we did with Eisner's visual stereotypes in "The Super."

Now, the book has a moral argument. And it has a specific theme: If one generation fails to lead, then the next one will have nothing to follow. The fact the story sticks to its guns from beginning to end is a testament to the craft of its author, Mark Waid. But there's a problem here.

Kingdom Come falls into the same trap that the third act of The Dark Knight Returns does. It requires knowledge of a set of symbols, in this case, the DC Universe. Without the context of the DCU, the story makes no sense. Entire relationships between characters, such as Superman and Wonder Woman are treated as givens, much like the relationship between Superman and Batman in The Dark Knight Returns. It also draws on a second set of symbols, the imagery in the biblical Book of Revelations. In doing this, Kingdom Come becomes a variation on the apocalyptic text, and like all apocalyptic texts, it deals with issues that exist at the time of its writing.

The issues it explores are very specific to the superhero genre, drawing on the influence that DKR exerted on the industry and playing it off of a more innocent, upbeat style of superhero story. It shows superheroes at their best and worst and the subsequent head-butting that occurs. That conflict embodies two separate points of view in modern comics: realism versus idealism.

But regardless of Biblical references or success as an apocalyptic text, it still relies on two sets of symbols, and it's doubly unfair to expect a reader to know both. Even the Biblical quotes aren't given chapter and verse to act as anchors. We would be able to cut it some more slack if they were present.

Sure, I hear some of you grumbling that it was written for the superhero audience, or that everyone should know what the Bible is. Frankly, neither is an excuse in the face of the Standard. Some people go their entire lives without hearing of either. And even though the Bible is part of our cultural backdrop, unless you know it like the back of your hand, who is going to recognize the quotes and understand the context they're in?

I know that the Bible is ripe literary material, and has been drawn on by great authors like Dante and Hawthorne and many others. But they used it to expand the themes of their stories, and sometimes, the existence of the Bible and its teachings themselves were the point. But Kingdom Come doesn't use the symbols of the Bible to make a point. The Biblical symbols are a crutch to write an apocalypse; a shorthand that keeps the other symbols, the superheroes, from standing on their own.

Then again, the superhero symbols wouldn't stand on their own anyway. If you were to retell this story using the same characters, but with different names and symbols on their chests, it wouldn't work. The telling of this story relies too heavily on those symbols. It's a kind of literary stereotyping that we can't allow in the Canon.

While it is an entertaining story that successfully acts as an apocalyptic text in the context of the superhero genre, Kingdom Come doesn't quite meet the literary standard due to the overuse of and reliance on multiple symbologies.

In applying the artistic standard we encounter yet another problem. As beautiful as Alex Ross's paintings are to look at, they don't tell this story very well. It's a constant cut between close-ups, panoramas and medium shots, and gutters and panel borders that become more and more difficult to make out at a glance as more action fills the panels. The "grand guignol" style action that constantly permeates the panels tends to overwhelm the simple storytelling aspects required to communicate.

I've included a page where this is painfully obvious. The jagged black line gutters blend in with the high-detail art. While the caption boxes draw the eye, the actions in the panels are so similar and redundant, and the gutters so fail to do their job, that this page becomes a visual mess.

Don't get me wrong, I found it a fun book to read. But from a purely objective perspective, we cannot include Kingdom Come in our Canon for any reason. It fails at the two most important parts of the Standard, the literary and the artistic. As for it's historical importance? It's been a driving force of influence inside the DC Universe, but nowhere else. Unlike DKR, which influenced nearly everything.

The same reason DKR and Kingdom Come fail - their unfair use of symbology - is exactly why Watchmen exceeds expectations. Those of us well-versed in superhero symbology know that the characters of Watchmen are simply analogues for the superheroes originally published by Charlton (talk about obscure symbols!). But you don't need to know that. The characters of Watchmen are natural extensions of the story itself. Any symbology needed is created in the context of the book.

While the Hugo Award certainly doesn't carry the same weight as a Pulitzer, Watchmen had the distinct honor of winning it. Watchmen is dystopian science fiction, drawing on the crime, superhuman and superhero subgenres to great effect. On the surface, it's a crime story, where Rorschach, our protagonist, is investigating the murder of a fellow "mask." It's where the genre blooms into dystopian fiction as the world spirals downward into the fear and paranoia inherent during the Cold War.

Thematically, Watchmen is about survival at all costs, even if your actions are monstrous. This is taken to the extreme as the antagonist Ozymandias schemes to kill millions of New Yorkers in a desperate attempt to avoid the impending destruction threatened by the mechanics of the Cold War. But is it the proper course? For Rorschach, Truth is the only path to survival, but his thinking is too small. Saving a million lives versus saving the world in the long term - he doesn't think the cost is worth it, and it ultimately costs him his life. But his Truth survived as his journal. Will it undo the peace? Or will it become irrelevant because of the peace.

Even the pirate story within the book directly reflects the theme. The man who survives the pirate attack turns into a monster in his attempts to survive, using dead bodies to help him float on the open sea. Does that make Ozymandias a monster, too, when he kills those people, even if he does save billions more?

While some aspects feel melodramatic, like the rape issues Laurie, the Silk Spectre, deals with, they ultimately tie back into the plot and theme. Even though Laurie's mother, the first Silk Spectre, was raped, Laurie is a product of that rape, thereby ensuring the survival of the bloodline. And even though Daniel, at the end, tells Laurie that the idea of children isn't a bad one, she insists they do some adventuring first. Not only did the bloodline survive, but so did the thrill of adventuring, of following their passions.

Artistically, Dave Gibbons' simple art style fits the story perfectly. His superheroes are not idealized sex-fantasies. In fact, Dr. Manhattan appearing naked through most of the book succeeds in completely removing any erotic value in the naked male form. In fact, the action in the book is understated, pulling away from the dynamic action styles of Jack Kirby and Neal Adams that had dominated the market. Gibbons takes a more realistic approach.

The pacing, within the nine-panel grid, gives the story a deliberate, consistent feel, allowing for each beat of the story to hit where it needs to on each page.

And the storytelling itself is always clear and consistent. It's safe to say it meets the Standard.

Historically, Watchmen is just as important as DKR. It was released the same year and achieved the same level of notice.

Two out of three isn't all bad. Welcome to the Canon, Watchmen.

Two more additions to our Canon. Not bad considering the overabundance of material in the genre. Figured with hundreds of thousands of pages of superhero stories, something had to be good enough. It looks to me like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns fit the bill. They're revolutionary and transcend their genre.

Don't be surprised if it's the last time I talk about superheroes for a while, though. From Hell, Peanuts, Love & Rockets, Krazy & Ignatz, Sandman, Summer Blonde, and so many others need my attention first. I'll be back soon. I've got some Standards to apply.

This isn't the end. I will continue to apply to Standard to whatever crosses my desk until we isolate our Canon. If anyone reading this has anything that would lend itself to supporting this discussion, let me know, be it obscure works, essays buried in old issues of The Comics Journal, or stories tattooed across four hundred, unconnected people. My library is not exhaustive, nor is my wallet, and anything that will help us build our Canon would be appreciated.

Today's books:


Kingdom Come; Waid, Ross; DC Comics; ISBN: 1563893304


Watchmen; Moore, Gibbons; DC Comics, ISBN: 0393061051

One last time, thanks to Paul Hanna for applying the editorial standard. Your assistance was invaluable, Paul, as well as your insights to the discussion. You are truly a man of comics.

Scott O. Brown is a comics writer, editor, and publisher. He lurks underground consuming toxic levels of caffeine and information. You can find him online at http://sobstories.blogspot.com/.

Previews Issues
Part 4 - Raising The Standard
Part 3 - Surpassing The Standard
Part 2 - Achieving The Standard
Part 1 - Defining The Standard

Did you enjoy this series? Want to discuss it further with Scott? Then stop by this thread in the Community Forum on the CBR Forums and discuss your thought on this series and which comics you think should be admitted to the Canon.

 
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