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Kingdom Come Special: Superman

Posted: Saturday, November 15, 2008
By: Thom Young

Alex Ross
Alex Ross (Colored by Alex Sinclair)
DC Comics
Alex Ross’s style of illustration (and painting) is akin to Realism. Of course, his subject matter (superheroes) is akin to Romanticism, so his work is not actually realistic. It is, however, clearly Modernist as it depicts Romantic subjects through the Realism’s visual aesthetic. The result is a look at superheroes with a greater degree of verisimilitude than was achieved in the work of his predecessors in the industry.

Visually, he usually achieves a greater degree of verisimilitude than his contemporaries as well--though that’s not always the case with the texts of the stories that he and his usual scripting partner, Jim Krueger, develop. However, in the case of this Kingdom Come Special: Superman one-shot, which marks Ross’s first solo effort as a writer, the story and dialog also tend toward verisimilitude (if not actual Realism).

I point out all of this because with that type of pedigree--i.e., Ross as a Realistic illustrator (and now writer) who handles Romantic subjects with verisimilitude--this “story” is actually a perfect example of those aesthetics. I placed the word story in quotation marks because Kingdom Come Special: Superman isn’t actually a story at all.

It’s more of a slice-of-life tale that is not too different from the narrative tales that Realistic authors in the late nineteenth century often produced (except, of course, for the fact that Ross’s tale is about a super-powered extraterrestrial who came from a parallel universe and who is now struggling with a bit of an existential crisis). The fact that this one-shot issue is a slice-of-life tale rather than an actual “story” caused me to struggle with how to evaluate it.

I went in knowing that this issue was a tie-in to a story arc that Ross and Geoff Johns have been working on in the Justice Society of America series, but I expect these one-shot issues to function on their own as a story separate from being a tie-in special in support of a larger work. At first, I was disappointed that Ross didn’t deliver an actual story in accordance with Modernism’s embracing of Gustav Freytag’s Die Technik des Dramas (the work in which he presented is five-part dramatic structure of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement).

However, the more I thought about what Ross had done in this issue, the more I realized he actually had followed that aesthetic:
  • The exposition is that the Superman from the Kingdom Come universe (KC Superman) now finds himself on Earth-One (or whatever we’re supposed to call the Earth in the primary DC universe).

  • The rising action is KC Superman’s quest to determine whether he’s to be the harbinger of the Apocalypse on Earth-One (or something like that, it’s a bit fuzzy what he thinks his Biblical role is supposed to be, but I presume that’s sort of intentional).

  • The climax is KC Superman’s blustering “save” of the Daily Planet from Lex Luthor’s goons, who had set a “green cloud” trap (of kryptonite) to snare the Earth-One Superman.

  • The falling action is KC Superman’s discussion (in a church) with the Earth-One version of Norman McCay (whose Kingdom Come version provided the “common man perspective” in that work). Essentially, Reverend McCay tells this strange visitor from another universe, “Sorry, but I can’t help you. I don’t know if you factor into the Biblical Apocalypse--but, hey, maybe your own Earth isn’t actually destroyed” (with the implication being, I presume, that KC Superman’s time might be better spent trying to find a way home rather than worrying about helping to fulfill prophecy from the Book of Revelations).

  • Finally, the denouement involves KC Superman meeting the Lois Lane of Earth-One in a Justice Society room that houses anachronistic statues (more on that in a minute). In part because she’s a reporter who wants to know the story, in part because she’s married to her Earth’s Superman and so feels a kinship to the KC Superman, and in part because she has a sense of morbid curiosity, Lois Lane arrived at JSA headquarters in order to get KC Superman to tell the story of his Lois Lane’s death--and he does so, which ties into the green cloud attack at the Daily Planet in the climax of Ross’s tale.
All the parts are there, but it doesn’t actually hold together as a story because the parts seem too disjointed from each other. There’s not enough cohesion for a fully developed Modern work of fiction. However, there is enough of a five-part dramatic structure to act as a thread in an existentialist tale based on the aesthetics of Realism.

Kingdom Come Special: Superman is a quiet “day in the life” narrative that gives us a peek into the existentialist angst of KC Superman as it helps set things up for the larger story that Geoff Johns plans on telling with the protagonist of this tale. In this day of bombastic “universe-shattering” events, I appreciated this quiet little character study by a creator who constantly attempts to achieve verisimilitude in his stories that deal with bombastic characters.

The few flaws in the story are minor, but they are things that Ross (and especially his editor) should have caught and fixed before the issue went to print.

First, KC Superman remarked that the people populating this world (Earth-One) are younger versions of the people he knew on his own Earth. Yet, the Earth-One Rev. McCay is essentially the same age as the Kingdom Come version of Norman McCay--both of whom were visually modeled on Ross’s father, Clark Ross. In keeping with the concept that Earth-One has younger versions of the people whom KC Superman knew, Rev. McCay should have been modeled on a much younger version of Ross’s father--perhaps from old photographs that were taken when Alex Ross was a child.

Second, even though the continuity is now so confusing that I can’t make any sense of it at all anymore, it appears that the room in which KC Superman met the Earth-One Lois Lane included a statue of a character who was not a former JSA member on this Earth located in the primary DC universe--namely, the version of Robin (Richard Grayson) who wore a Batman costume with a yellow bat cape and an “R” insignia imposed over the Bat emblem on the chest.

I’ve always loved that version of Robin from the old Silver Age Earth-Two Justice Society, but the presence of his statue here seems entirely anachronistic to me. I also thought the inclusion of a statue of the Hector Hall Sandman seemed out of place, but I suppose a case could be made for its presence within the convoluted continuity that DC has muddied for the past 23 years.

Finally, while I appreciate that Ross’s Realistic desire for verisimilitude causes him to use actual models for the way he depicts characters, and that Ross’s friend, Frank Kasy, looks a lot like George Reeves might have looked had he played Superman into his mid 50s (Reeves’s final appearance as Superman was filmed when he was 44 years old), I nonetheless have difficulty in accepting that a Superman in his mid 50s would have the extra fat that Ross’s version has.

It’s not that Frank Kasy (Ross’s model for Superman) looks bad for a man in his mid to late 50s. However, a super-powered Kryptonian, who draws upon yellow sunlight for a great deal of his energy and whose super-charged metabolism should have no trouble burning calories, ought not to look as thick-bodied and weathered as Ross depicts him. This bit of verisimilitude actually works against its intent as far as I’m concerned.



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