Critical and popular acclaim is not an infallible indicator of enduring artistic value. Check out a list of “best picture” Oscar nominees or (especially) “best new artist” Grammy winners over the years for proof of that maxim. For every work or artists that retains a level of appeal over the ages, prostate there are countless others that flickered brightly within the context of a given moment — be they a one-hit wonder pop band, Taylor Caldwell’s assorted novels, or Sidney Franklin’s 1932 romantic fantasy Smilin’ Through — then guttered out of the public consciousness.
There’s nothing necessarily shameful about being “great in the moment,” even if such a status is often obtained by naked pandering to the zeitgeist. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Bret Easton Ellis.) The majority of today’s darlings are destined to be tomorrow’s historical footnotes, the vaguely familiar answers to trivia questions yet unwritten.
Unless you’re talking about the superhero comics genre, a place where even the faintest brush with success will force a property into an eternity of unlife fueled by diminishing returns.
Such was the case with Kingdom Come, a prestige miniseries released with a tidal wave of marketing fol-de-rol by DC in 1996. Intended by creators Mark Waid and Alex Ross to be a statement about the Chromium Age excess which had overtaken (and damn near wrecked) the comic industry, it is the comics equivalent of two old farts shouting at those damn punk kids for cutting across their lawn.
As far as messages go, Kindgom Come was as vapid as it was self-contradicting. It enshrined the illusory integrity of artifices past without stopping to consider that red kryptonite and oversized leg pouches are merely generational window dressing for the single underlying mercenary principle which had guided the superhero genre for decades — a straight-up appeal to the part of childhood’s collective lizard brain that responds to high concept silliness. The real issue was whose inner child was being served — an eleven year old kid’s or a forty-something fanboy’s?
The lack of a coherent narrative aside, Kingdom Come turned out to be incredibly successful, its sales bouyed by that segment of fandom prone to be impressed by stiff, commercial-grade painted artwork and pompous psuedo-Biblical allegories aimed at adding literary pretentions to a work which was as overblown and absurd as the Image titles it was railing against.
Despite being very much a commentary on a specific period of comics history, the success of Kingdom Come guaranteed that DC would revisit the franchise — first through various one-offs and tie-ins and then by actively incorporating several aspects of its grim alt-future into the main DC Universe. As the brutally grim satire of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns was ludicrously shoehorned into the Batman mythos (thus reducing Batman’s character into a flat caricature), Kingdom Come‘s ham-fisted, cautionary metaphor was adopted as the encroaching status quo. This was especially the case in the Justice Society titles helmed by Alex Ross, where the accent on “legacy” characters made it easy to drag and drop the ludicrous fruits of Ross’s speculative continuity via horrible costume design…
…which, finally, brings us to the matter of Magog.
He was Kingdom Come‘s straw man, intended to symbolize everything that was wrong — ethically, morally, sartorially — with the Chromium Age’s take on superheroics, a Liefeldian badass (despite having visible feet) willing to meet injustice with lethal force. He was not so much a character as a plot device used to explain Superman’s retirement and subsequent return…
…though the implied relationship between the extreme-force methods employed by Magog and his ilk and their horrible consequences was never quite addressed in the miniseries. As far as I can tell, the main difference between the old school heroes and new bloods is that whenever the former threw a bus or punched a guy through a building, the creative team decided to ignore any depictions of collateral damage. (This is why smart heroes always slip their book’s penciller a twenty before a major donnybrook.)
When the time came for the walking metaphor to crossover into the DCU proper, the character was kitted out with a temporary identity as “Lance,” a Marine granted some energy projecting hoodoo by a Babylonian artifact during America’s hugely successful effort to stop looters from pillaging Baghdad’s antiquities museum. He was also revealed to be a “legacy hero” or a different sort…
…because, honestly, once you hit a certain magnitude of offensive stupidity, there’s no point in holding back anymore.
To the surprise of no one, Lance was killed by the long-heralded Gog (a Kirby-esque godlike being, only lacking any of the wonder or genius the King used to bring to the table) and resurrected as Magog…thus paving the way for a short-lived solo series, a JSA spinoff title, and many other projects destined for a quick trip to the quarter bin.
The only thing worse than ineffective satire is ineffective satire that decides to take itself seriously, which is why I’ve selected Magog to be this week’s Nobody’s Favorite.