Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Kingdom

I read Kingdom Come, the Mark Waid/Alex Ross superhero opus, a few years back and enjoyed it, primarily because of Ross’s art. Say what you will about his storytelling skills, he makes spectacle and pages that are just gorgeous to look at. Doing a Kingdom Come sequel without Ross seems like an odd choice, but I decided to check out The Kingdom for a couple of reasons. One is it’s got an issue drawn by Frank Quitely, one of the few things he’s drawn that I haven’t read. I also wanted to check it out because it was the only in story appearance of hypertime, the Waid/Morrison DCU concept that’s a source of continual fascination to me. So, how did The Kingdom read? Surprisingly well, it’s not an all time classic by any means, but there’s a lot of good pieces in here, and it plays as an interesting precursor to what happens in Final Crisis.

One of the most interesting things about the book is its structure. The central conflict is set up in an introductory issue, then we divide off into a series of semi-related stories about various b-list side characters and their role in the crisis, before bringing it all back together for the finale. The obvious parallel is to Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers, which used a similar structure. This series doesn’t feature the in depth character work or scope of Seven Soldiers, but the structure still works really well, to the point that the main story is largely beside the point, what lingers is Rose’s troubles in “Planet Krypton” or Iris’s struggle to get equal treatment by her father in “Kid Flash.”

The central story is convoluted, and predicated on a central idea that doesn’t quite hang together. It’s odd that William would so abruptly switch from total devotion to the notion of Superman as God to a mad fury to destroy him across time and space. I suppose someone who had such fiery religious fervor in the first place would be particularly disappointed when it turned out that his faith was built on a lie, but it falls prey to a common problem in these kinds of stories, which is a not clearly defined slippery slope of villainy. It’s one thing to want revenge on Superman, it’s another to go from a normal guy to a cosmic force of destruction. You can justify it, and the narrative reasoning is there in the story, but emotionally it didn’t quite work for me.

But, using his rage as a multi-versal threat gave the opportunity for a bunch of interesting stories about characters hovering on the edge of universal destruction. The core idea is the notion that Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman’s mission back in time will destroy their universe, whether it succeeds or fails. They are the products of a universe built on pain and suffering. Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman may be trying to do a good thing, but why should people be punished for the sins of those in control of their world. So, the story becomes largely about these peoples’ struggles to justify their own existence, and show that their universe is worth saving.

The reveal of hypertime at the end of the story is a way to solve the central conflict of the work, which is what happens to the people left behind when the world is changed. In the context of the DCU, the clear parallel is to the characters from the multiversal Earths who were wiped out of existence in the crisis. In “Planet Krypton,” Rose sees the ghosts of characters from those other Earths, and is comforted to know that they’re out there, that she isn’t alone, and also, to find out at the end, that she shouldn’t regret the choices she made, she’s in the place she’s supposed to be. That story was the high point of The Kingdom for me because it managed to make the DCU emotionally relatable and explore the role of the civilian in this universe in a way I’ve rarely seen. The odd structure of the piece meant that there was room for a digression like that.

The thing I really like about hypertime is the way that it reconciles all the different eras and tones of the DCU into a single cohesive whole. The goofy adventures of early Superman can co-exist with the apocalyptic world of Kingdom Come, and comment on each other without rendering each other invalid. I think it does run into a bit of a self indulgent loop of commentary, when you have a story like this, where multiple versions of Superman converge on each other and are used to comment on the nature of the DC Universe itself, but when a character is as mythic as Superman, it makes sense that he’d function as a significant symbol in a work like this. Hypertime is about recognizing the mythic essence of these characters as a core from which everything else flows.

Hypertime is described here as a river built of events, or stories. In Final Crisis, Morrison picks up this idea, I’d argue that the archetypal Platonic Superman seen in Superman Beyond is the “source” of the hypertime river, he is the hero from which every other hero flows, and is defined against. You could argue that each of the “trinity” of heroes are the source, an idea that’s reinforced by the appearance of Jonathan, a hybrid of Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman, who has power over hypertime. He is the end of the river, the coalescence of the disparate pieces built up by many stories over the years.

I see a lot of echoes of The Kingdom in Final Crisis, which adapts the hypercrisis idea in its tale of a universe built out of stories. Both works end with an attempt to liberate the characters from the notion of a single linear narrative and plunge them into a larger universe without rules or restrictions. On some level, I have problems with this because it plays largely as a way to bring back old stories that Waid or Morrison liked, and seems to spiral further and further away from any real world relevance.

But, stepping back, I think hypertime has a lot to say about the nature of mythology and human identity. People complained that I’m Not There was too insular, something that was only of interest to Bob Dylan fanboys, but I feel like it only uses Dylan as the jumping off point for an exploration of how we all construct our own identities. Similarly, hypertime functions simultaneously as an exploration of DCU continuity and a representation of the way that we construct our own personal narratives. Everything that happened to us exists and is true on some level, but we banish certain experiences to our own continuity limbo, and even build up pieces of ourselves using “imaginary stories” that didn’t really happen, but become a piece of personal mythology.

But, our perception of our own identity is largely based around where we are at the moment. I’ve gone from student to worker, child to adult, all the previous incarnations of my own identity are true, but they aren’t necessarily relevant to where I am now. Similarly, Batman has changed from day-glo 60s Batman to gritty 80s Batman, hypertime is a way to reconcile the growth and change that a character goes through by acknowledging the evolution of fictional personalities rather than trying to create a construct single narrative.

The Kingdom is the precursor to a lot of Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis, and certainly the hypertime stuff is really interesting. But, for me, the most significant thing is the great character work on some of the individual stories. The overall story is fairly typical JLA material, but some of those character pieces were really nice.