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Kingdom Come
adapted by John Whitman
based on a story by Mark Waid and Alex Ross and the novelization by Elliot S. Maggin.

Time Warner AudioBooks, $17 US
Audio cassette, 3 hours
Publication date: April 1998

Kingdom Come
Kingdom Come
Kingdom Come was no ordinary comic book series. It was the superhero genre event of the 1990s. Illustrator Alex Ross was fresh from his blockbuster collaboration with writer Kurt Busiek on the genre-refreshing and historically evocative Marvels mini-series from Marvel Comics. Kingdom Come was initially perceived as the direct antithesis of Marvels. Where the latter explored the naïve, primary-coloured origins of Marvel's superhumans, Kingdom Come explores the possible future gotterdamerung of their DC counterparts. Written by Mark Waid -- himself a figure of acclaim for his dramatic re-calibration and re-energizing of such staid characters as DC's Flash and Marvel's Captain America -- Kingdom Come the comic book sold extremely well and received generally positive critical acclaim.

Book Review: Kingdom Come

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Mark Shainblum

I'm a latecomer to the joys of radio drama, but recently I've become a huge fan of the form. It's wonderfully expressive, and it's the only electronic medium which allows SF script writers the full range of their imagination. After all, the sound of Superman flying or a starship jumping into hyperdrive is not a significantly more expensive effect to produce than a gunshot or a kettle boiling.

The rise of audio books and the Internet have sparked a resurgence of interest in the radio drama form, as this adaptation of the Kingdom Come graphic novel and novelization proves. (An adaptation of an adaptation! Whew!) Make no mistake, this is not the simple reading of a novel by a single voice actor, it's a full-fledged radio play with adapted script, score and sound effects and a cast of dozens (including such DC Comics luminaries as Denny O'Neil, Mark Waid and Mike Carlin). Unfortunately, much as I would love to jump for joy and praise this resurgence to the skies, I just can't. In fact, I've come to the reluctant conclusion that the audio drama format is probably not well-suited to a work with the scope and breadth of Kingdom Come.

Audio scripts don't led themselves very well to pyrotechnics and physical action, as the greatest practitioners of the form in the Golden Age of radio knew very well. An aural medium simply can't do car chases and fist fights the way movies or TV or even comics can, and this is not an entirely bad thing from a storytelling point of view. The best radio dramas of the Golden Age were usually mysteries and mood pieces, heavy on ideas, dialogue and snappy verbal interaction between the characters. Even the Superman radio show was much more verbose than its TV and movie cousins. Bud Collier spent much more time as Clark Kent than George Reeves, Christopher Reeve or Dean Cain ever did.

Unfortunately, Kingdom Come -- as thoughtful a piece of writing as it is -- was originally conceived for the visual medium of comics. It took a 330 page prose novel to do all its action and movement justice in mere words, and even a three hour audio script is hard-pressed to cover the same ground in a meaningful way.

Think about it: Hundreds of superheroes in an alternate future of the DC Comics universe, blasting all over the planet, arguing, fighting, planning and plotting, all the while being secretly watched and judged by an invisible divine being and a human minister. Scene changes occur chaotically (these guys can fly and teleport, after all!), with characters firing lasers from their fingertips and calling magic lightning from the sky. This scenario is a nightmarish logistical problem for a radio script writer who must describe every scene change and every action in words; a situation made worse by the weird neither-fish-nor-fowl format of the script.

Having made the decision to produce a full-scale audio drama, the adapter nevertheless opted to keep whole segments of descriptive text from both comic and prose novel intact; in the process stuffing huge, awkward lumps of exposition into the characters' mouths. A comic is not a novel is not a radio play, and perfectly legitimate passages lifted verbatim from the printed page sound ludicrous when spoken aloud by an actor. Worse, some of the original bits added to the audio version are just laughably bad. Von Bach, an extremely nasty German superhero ends up sounding like Sgt. Schultz of Hogan's Heroes fame. A character with an Arabic name inexplicably speaks in a bad French accent, and when Green Lantern suddenly muses something like "I'll just create a giant green shovel with my power ring and scoop these poor innocents out of harm's way," I had to shut off the tape player for a moment and take a deep breath. Radio exposition has its limits, but perhaps some things are just better left un-exposited.

Actually casting actors with voices distinctive enough to distinguish Superman from Batman from Captain Marvel from Wonder Woman from Power Woman must have been a trial. And it is at the level of the voice characterizations where this production really falls down. The actor portraying pastor Norman McCay seems positively hyperactive and insanely cheerful for a 70-year old man witnessing the end of the world. His timing and timbre seem completely off throughout the whole production. Likewise Superman, who sounds more like the 1970s Super Friends version of the character than the brooding, reluctant messiah of the graphic novel. Batman and Wonder Woman, however, are cast quite well and pull off their roles with considerable aplomb.

Unfortunately, this production is just too uneven to really be considered a success. The graphic novel original has its problems, but no one denies that Waid and Ross do interesting things with these iconic myths of the 20th century. Maggin's novel expands upon and deepens the essential humanity of the story, resolving the plot in a very satisfying way. At a very basic level though, the audio version just doesn't work. Combine a story way too big for the radio medium, choppy production values and the slightest tang of Adam West campiness and you end up with an adaptation which unintentionally diminishes its source material. Though fun in places, one can't help wonder whether a straight reading of the novel might not have been the best approach after all.

Copyright © 1998 by Mark Shainblum

Mark Shainblum is the co-editor of Arrowdreams: An Anthology Of Alternate Canadas (Nuage Editions, 1997) the first anthology of Canadian alternate history. A veteran of the comic book field, Mark co-created the 1980's Canadian superhero Northguard and currently writes the Canadian political parody series Angloman both in the form of a paperback book series and as a weekly comic strip in the Montreal Gazette. He lives in Montreal with his computer, his slippers and a motley collection of books.

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