I’ve been on something of a superhero kick, seemingly out of nowhere. If there’s been a theme, it’s been legacy and historicity–stories where heroes are grounded in particular moments in time, where they age, where they are phased out over generations. Stories that can really only exist when there are decades of superhero comics to build on and reinterpret. I love these sorts of stories, and amazingly, the classics I’ve been perusing lately are works that I haven’t seriously touched before (though they all owe some debt to Watchmen, it’s safe to say, and I’m certainly familiar with Alan Moore’s perhaps most-well-known work).
So far, I’ve gone through Marvels (written by Kurt Busiek with art by Alex Ross), Kingdom Come (written by Mark Waid, with the story and art from Ross), and DC: The New Frontier (written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke with colors by Dave Stewart).
As usual, the local library system has impressed me with the range and quality of its collection. After going through these comics, I’m eager to get my hands on The Golden Age (written by James Robinson with art by Paul Smith, and a series which must have informed the three limited series I just read and which most certainly influenced New Frontier) and to start working through Astro City (another Busiek/Ross collaboration with art from Brent Anderson as well). If you have other suggestions that fit the collectively shared themes of these works, please let me know–I probably haven’t heard of them!
My reviews follow, but these are of course well-regarded classics, so I don’t really expect to be saying anything new! Then again, if anyone reading this hasn’t heard of (or taken the time to read) any of these works, maybe this will be encouragement to do so.
Marvels: The Remastered Edition by Kurt Busiek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Marvels shines in two primary ways: its fantastic, often hyper-realistic, dynamic, densely packed, homage-laden artwork, and its way of creating a sense of real history for the Marvel universe, retelling stories from the earliest days up through the 1970s through the lens (literal and metaphorical) of an everyman photographer who wrestles with his feelings about superheroes and his place within a city (and world) full of them even while he makes a career snapping their pictures.
You can trace the themes of generational continuation and change of legacy superheroes and realistic treatment of superheroes and their impact on the world into later projects of writer Kurt Busiek and artist Alex Ross. It also had an obvious influence on later works by other creators. Its impact is significant, and it was a pleasure to read.
I don’t have much more to say, other than that I also enjoyed the ancillary materials included with this volume.
Kingdom Come by Mark Waid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Alex Ross was not only the artist but also the originator of the overall plot for this story, and his imprint, visually and thematically, is strongly felt. Together with writer Mark Waid, Ross tells the story of inter-generational conflict between superheroes: the increasingly out-of-touch old guard, and the violent and irreverent younger “heroes.” That latter group consists of many descendants of the older heroes, sometimes children and sometimes bearers of a legacy title. In truth, both generations seem to have lost touch with the people they should be serving. While the younger generation is reckless and uncaring, the older generation begins to see control rather than service as the only way to keep the world orderly and safe.
The old guard is led by Superman, retired for about a decade since the Joker killed many in Metropolis, including Lois Lane, and was in turn killed by the violent hard-liner hero leading the new generation, Magog. Superman left, heartbroken and disillusioned, disgusted that Magog not only was acquitted of the cold-blooded murder of the Joker but gained popular support of a public exhausted by the mass mayhem caused by supervillains. Superman reemerges after Magog’s reckless antics lead to the accidental devastation of the heartland of America, sending the nation and the world into a spiral of lawlessness and economic instability. Superman feels it is his responsibility to restore order and bring the younger heroes into line, no matter what. Pushed by an increasingly militant Wonder Woman, he almost accidentally begins to form a fascist pseudo-government. The world comes ever closer to a superhero-induced apocalypse as sides are drawn: Superman’s new world order, the rebellious anarchy of those metahumans who chose to resist, and Batman’s secret army eager to preserve freedom in the face of the superhuman threat. Stirring the pot is a conspiracy of surviving supervillains, hidden under the banner of a society eager to preserve human liberty. And this whole narrative is framed through the eyes of a pastor, close to losing his faith, who begins to have apocalyptic visions and becomes the human host of the Spectre, chosen to witness and pass judgment on this brewing metahuman war.
It’s a complicated narrative and it’s so deftly told. Frankly, I wasn’t happy with every character choice, but at the end of the day, it’s a story about superheroes losing their way and gradually finding their humanity, and purpose, once more. It’s an interesting, if extreme, examination of the relationship between Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman. It pushes the three in ways to see what would make them break. Superman loses everything that tethers him to humanity, then has the public reject him to choose a suicidal path. Wonder Woman is deemed a failure by her people because they do not see sufficient progress at improving the world of men; they strip her of her royal title and cast her adrift. Batman has spent a life broken and battered by his dogged pursuit of justice, alienating those close to him. Yet they all react in interesting and organic ways. Superman, in particular, never loses his faith in truth and justice, but his rejection of his human side leaves him open to forcing order on chaos. Wonder Woman becomes increasingly militant and violent, probably straying the furthest from her principles and pushing Superman down a dark path. But Batman is almost liberated, no longer masked and using a patrol force of robots to keep order in Gotham; he seems the happiest and most contented of the bunch, and maybe the most human. These were bold character decisions, and I can appreciate that.
What I really loved was the sense of generational change and the cultural clash between younger and older heroes. Every panel was so packed with characters, referencing the fates of heroes who did not have a major role in the plot and creating so many “heroes” for the new generation. There is such a sense of history, significance, lineage, legacy. This can be felt not just in the existence of aged interpretations of iconic characters, or the inclusion of Gold- and Silver- age characters along with the new ones, or even the incredibly deep-cut comics references, but the distinctly unique styles of the generations, down to the ’90s “extreme” looks of many of the younger heroes. And truly, there are so many stories just barely being glimpsed in the background, or even among the secondary and tertiary characters. There’s a barely glimpsed three-generation story about the Bat Family, and an even more unspoken three-or-four-generation story about the Arrows and Canaries. It’s like Star Wars; there’s a whole rich world to get lost in here, beyond just references to other comics (of which there are plenty).
On that note, while the story itself is great, I almost enjoyed the supplementary materials more, especially the genealogies and character sketch sections filled with little details about the heroes and villains of this world.
It would be easy to read Kingdom Come as the sort of grimdark story I wouldn’t normally like, but by the end, it feels more a metatextual challenge of exactly those sorts of stories, a statement that even if superhero stories maybe lost their way in the dark, in all the moral grey, they can still find their way back. No matter what comes at Superman, he’ll always be a true hero.
(By the way, it seems obvious to me that Injustice: Gods Among Us took heavy inspiration from Kingdom Come. But that video game franchise chooses to ignore the uplifting message, instead showing heroes truly unhinged. In comparison, Injustice is, to me, the clearly inferior work.)
The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I arrived at this collection in a meandering way. Before I’d realized his involvement with many DCAU projects, I first became aware of Darwyn Cooke through the direct-to-video Justice League: The New Frontier. I instantly fell in love with that movie; the large cast of characters, sense of grounding in a real moment, and combination of so many threads of comic book and real-world history were absolutely lovely. Yet I didn’t seek Cooke’s limited series out for quite a while, even as I explored many of his other projects.
I’m happy to have finally closed the gap and read this beautiful collected edition of DC: The New Frontier, written and drawn by Cooke, with additional materials including previously uncollected stories set in this particular universe. It’s everything I loved about the film and more. I especially loved the broader focus on an even wider cast of characters, and the intermingling of Gold- and Silver-age characters with those of war stories and other weird sci-fi comics. It’s a fascinating reconfiguration/recombination of so much DC lore into a streamlined, consistent narrative. And it has the benefit of so much comics history, and the benefit of hindsight into the historical trends in the period in which these comics were written, and the benefit of being able to freely express itself and draw from real-world events and to combine previously segregated genres of comic stories without censure (or, for that matter, censor). Plus, the artwork is absolutely gorgeous, and it feels as much a physical product of the 1950s as it is a story set within the period. (Also cool: it uses Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman to powerful effect, yet it can have this iconic trinity present without dominating the plot; they’re all secondary characters, and the real stars are the Suicide Squad, the Challengers of the Unknown, Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, and J’onn J’onnz.)
I’ve always loved stories that took the history of a genre to full effect, building on disparate elements to suggest a deeper shared history. That’s true of the Star Wars EU, and of the later Marvel movies, and of projects like Justice League Unlimited or the Young Justice series, and of New Frontier. And its effort to condense so much comics history (in-universe and out) into a single story is exactly what I wanted to see. When I was younger, I was fascinated by the idea of a comic series that retold the origins of its heroes in ways that more clearly intersected across character and genre lines and drew from the history of the era, with new characters introduced into the timeline as one reached the year of their real-world first publication. This series is exactly that project.
This series is certainly a product of so many comics and creators in the decades preceding its release; Cooke is generous with his attributions and tributes to the artists who influenced him. I am sure that New Frontier will, in turn, influence many other works.
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