Superheroes are ubiquitous in our world. Walk down the toy aisle of Target or Walmart and you’ll see a cornucopia of meta-human action figures and baubles of every imaginable type. Disney’s purchase of the Marvel catalog of characters and its release of the Marvel Cinematic Universe reestablished the comic book world for a new generation of audiences. An interesting phenomenon occurred over the last ten years: comic books and their cavalcade of heroes and villains became, well, COOL! I think we can trace the change back to four Super Nerds named Leonard, Raj, Howard, and Sheldon. Even though the main characters of The Big Bang Theory were portrayed as totally uncool, they spazzed their way into America’s heart and became a part of pop culture. Comic books, video games, and the entirety of Geekdom was suddenly in vogue.
For old timers like me, the new-found popularity of comics, Star Wars, video games, and sci-fi and fantasy literature was a tough pill to swallow. Old school geeks like me basked in our nerdiness long before nerds were in fashion. We saw the superb qualities in our comics that others saw in best-selling books: flawed heroes, ambiguous villains, compelling plots, and moral dilemmas. Comics and their heroes belonged to us, for better or for worse. Mainstream culture simply missed out on some great stuff.
Looking back at comic releases over the years, some stories stand out for their superb story-telling and flawless art. These tales are not a part of the current explosion of superhero tales in the movies and on television, but they impacted the direction of these heroes to become the media leviathans they are today. In 1996 Mark Waid and Alex Ross imagined a world in which superheroes ruled with absolute authority. The same heroes who protected the world also acted as its judges, juries, and executioners. Would humankind be safer and more secure under the watchful eyes of all-powerful amoral superbeings? Waid and Ross’s four part series Kingdom Come changed the landscape of comics.
The world of Kingdom Come is ruled by vigilante superheros who have no moral compass. Rules exist in black and white and any room for interpretation and exception does not exist. The Justice League and other traditional superheros of the older generation retired to private lives while new heroes, many of whom were the offspring of the same metahumans who retired, took control of the world and dished out their own version of justice. After a fight with a villain named Parasite, Magog, the leader of the world’s controlling metahumans, detonated a nuclear bomb over the American Midwest. The amorality of the new heroes allowed the ends to justify the means. At Wonder Woman’s insistence, Superman came out of retirement to reform the Justice League and gather heroes who prepared to fight the extremism of Magog and his followers.
Nearly the entire pantheon of classic heroes and villains make appearances in this epic story: the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Lex Luthor, Batman, Red Robin, Orion, Captain Marvel, Zatara, Blue Beetle, John Jones, Catwoman, and many others. Superman and the other Justice League members battle Magog’s forces, gathering them all into a prison gulag in the nuclear wastes of North America. Lex Luthor attempts to use the prisoners to his advantage in order to secure power for himself in this new world, but the morally ambiguous Batman (now unable to move without the help of his robotic Batsuit) intervenes to prevent Luthor from gaining the upper hand. The battle comes to a head when Superman must face Captain Marvel, the only superhero who can match his strength and stamina. In the midst of battle, Captain Marvel regains his sense of justice and sacrifices himself to save the other combatants as well as the innocent people who would have met a certain death. Superman becomes enraged at the inaction of the human population of the world and threatens to destroy the United Nations. It is only the voice of Norman McCay, a human minister and narrator of the story, who reminds Kal-El that this is why humans no longer trust metahumans. Superman recognizes his error and works to restore peace and justice to the world. The remaining superheroes and other metas try to re-assimilate into the world and rebuild a lasting peace.
This story deserves no qualifier other than a single word: Epic. While the story is not a part of the mainstream timeline of the DC University Earth One continuity, it still shows us a possible future in which metas use their powers in ways they do not in the regular weekly releases. Readers are left to ponder the affect that absolute power has on leaders and how those without the power can suffer from both the action and inaction of those who control the fate of the world. Those who are familiar with the histories of Hal Jordan, Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, and Diana Prince will find intrigue in their aged characterizations. Although their bodies have aged (except Diana) their values remain consistent. The world changed under their watch and they simply couldn’t adapt to the political nuances of justice. The world needed its superheroes, but the superheroes also needed their world.
One can not discuss this novel without lauding the unique talents of Alex Ross. Ross’s interpretations of the classic heroes echos Normal Rockwell. Each character lives and breathes on the page. At times the paintings look like photographs. In an age when comic art is computerized and sterilized, Ross’s work has the gritty realism that give his characters depth of personality. We see the age lines in our heroes faces, the looks of despair and anguish across their brows. Computerized artwork does not convey that same degree of realism.
I’ve always felt that graphic novels should be held with the same esteem as traditional works of fiction. Too many readers have preconceived notions that graphic novels are only about pictures, cheap and massively produced art. Books like Kingdom Come prove this notion wrong. The depth of the story and the quality of the characters can not be denied. I have read this story over a dozen times. At each reading I find something new to savor: a small detail in the artwork; a different way to interpret the dialogue; or a background clue that provided a sense of drama. Graphic novels are fully-fleshed out stories leaving little to the reader’s imagination. But that’s the fun of them! We can see multiple artists’ interpretations of the same character over the decades and ponder how that character has changed over time. We come to love those characters because of richness of their details.
Today’s graphic novels are not the campy tales of the 1960s, nor are they the light-hearted comic strips we remember from the Sunday paper. Modern graphic novels give readers the best of both worlds: well-crafted stories as stunning works of art. I can’t think of a better combination to have in my hands when I settle into my recline to enjoy a fun read.
If you have never used a graphic novel in your class before, please consider it. This selection makes an outstanding first foray into the world of graphic novels. Your students will be familiar with most of the characters and older readers will enjoy the modernist themes of morality in the age of globalism and technology.
I recommend this title for grades 7 and up.