Tuesday, 18 November 2008

[78] Kingdom Come Special: Superman, by Alex Ross

Here is a longer review of another comic I bought this week. I also bought the first three issues of the latest arc in Criminal, called Bad Night, but I'll save discussion on that until later...


Kingdom Come Special: Superman, by Alex Ross

Alex Ross is one of the most in-demand artists in comics. He has an instantly recognisable style; vividly realistic watercolours with reference to photographic source material. One of his most famous works, Kingdom Come, which he produced with Mark Waid in 1996, is often held up as one of the greatest graphic novels ever released. It's certainly one of my favourites, and its standing is secured by Ross' art, which renders classic characters in beautifully iconic ways.

In this one-shot, Alex Ross not only revisits the world he helped create in Kingdom Come, but he also writes the comic himself. It is supposed to be part of a mini-event currently going in in the Justice Society of America series, where the Kingdom Come Superman has strayed into the normal JSA universe. Over the coming months, there are more one-shots, where characters such as Magog, also from Kingdom Come, will appear. To be honest, I'm not at all interested in this continuity, and instead I was drawn in by the prospect of Alex Ross filling in elements of the Kingdom Come story. The result, as an extension of the original graphic novel's background, is quite a success in both narrative and artistic terms.

As suggested by the title, the issue focuses on the older, greying-at-the-temples Kingdom Come Superman, and his adjustment to being stranded in a different universe. Ross makes a wise choice in not attempting to craft a full-bodied, standalone story for the issue, or even creating a jigsaw-piece for the overall 'Gog Saga' puzzle. Instead, he creates a personal, evocative episode that touches on issues like memory, trauma, and confronting the past. KC Superman must face, and relate, his lowest point: the death of Lois Lane. An attack on the Daily Planet building is a little too close to home for KC Superman, who reacts with undue force. His overpowered response to the attack, and subsequent strike against JSA Superman, reveals an unstable, chaotic mourning, a darkness and depth that is rarely touched upon in Superman characterisations (apart from, well, Kingdom Come itself). The tragic act is initially related in snapshots, broken pieces of memory, as The Joker lays siege to the Daily Planet. Ross leaves these images as lingering, unsettling harbingers, until Superman narrates the story himself at the end of the issue. As a structured narrative, this special is first-rate, as the psychological depth is slowly, subtly revealed.

The art is astounding. Ross decided to experiment with more conventional approaches to comic book art in this issue, through the use of proper inking. The presence of these heavier lines, as opposed to his usual, painted style, gives the characters a more solid, textured look. It shows that even if he ditched his watercolours, Ross could make a handsome living as a 'normal' comic artist. Seeing his very realistic style rendered in this way is a revelation. The flashbacks are painted, by way of contrast; this works not only as a stylistic link with Kingdom Come, but as a psychological link with the memories depicted (as opposed to, say, memory represented in black and white, or photographs).

As an extra treat for readers, or as incentive for the $3.99 cover price, there is a section of 'Bonus Material', where Ross describes his working methods, and the process of writing his first comic. This is really interesting stuff, especially as it is the kind of material that is only saved for trade paperback collections.

People have taken issue with some elements of the comic, citing continuity problems (like this surprisingly pompous and nitpicking, but no less valid review from Comics Bulletin). I suppose they have a point, although I am one of those readers who got into comics from a trade paperback, or graphic novel background (I will elaborate on this, someday). Therefore, I assess this special in relation to Kingdom Come, its fish-out-of-water premise, and as an episode in the grand tradition of DC super hero stories. In that sense, and from the standpoint of graphic fiction, this Kingdom Come Special is a great single issue. It works as eye-candy, and as thematic stimulation. Great stuff, indeed.

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