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Realm of Kings (Review/Retrospective)

This is the fifteenth in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s shared universe (particularly their “Avengers” franchise) over the past five or so years, as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of continuity.

Realm of Kings is a strange little chapter in the cosmic saga that Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning have been drafting. It seems to exist not really as a story in its own terms (although it does contain some interesting narratives) but rather as a bridge between War of Kings and The Thanos Imperative. It’s essentially the story of an attempt to find stability in a radically warped universe, one turned upside down by recent events. It feels somewhat smaller in scope than the other events that the pair have produced, not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, it’s nice to see a series exploring the consequences and aftermath of what has occurred, rather than simply pushing on right into the next big thing. While Realm of Kings does focus on “the Fault” opened at the climax of War of Kings that will become a galactic threat in The Thanos Imperative, the three miniseries are at their best when they explore the consequences of the political instability that the intergalactic war has produced.

That's gonna be Thor tomorrow...

Much like the other “cosmic events” like Annihilation and Annihilation: Conquest, Realm of Kings isn’t told through one miniseries spinning off into countless other titles. It is launched with a single-issue prelude before three concurrent miniseries explore different perspectives of the event. In Annihilation and Annihilation: Conquest, these miniseries then converged into one giant miniseries which tied up all the loose ends, but here there is no such closure – in fact, this collection reads like those sets of introductory miniseries without the main one; one can only assume that The Thanos Imperative will read like the final conclusive miniseries.

The events of War of Kings led to the opening of a rift in time and space – “the fault”. The one-shot follows resurrected hero Quasar (killed in Annihilation and yet mysteriously returned to life) as ventures through this fault to determine what (if anything) is waiting inside. What he finds is horrifying – it’s a world populated by monstrous Eldritch abominations, where the Hulk is a giant tentacled beast and the heroes worship “the many-angled ones.” It is the Marvel Universe as imagined by H.P. Lovecraft, “a cancer trying to metastasize into our reality.” It is (aptly enough) described as “an abominable universe of reciprocal otherness.”

Making things Crystal clear...

The horror isn’t just apparent from the physical forms that occupy this foreign realm. It’s the way that the familiar is twisted here. Tony Stark, wearing a suit of armour resembling that of a crusading knight, declares to a captive Quasar, “I will employ any and every method to find new territories for our gods to walk upon.” It’s a nightmare, a world where perverted worship has left the planet unrecognisable. Religious fanaticism has warped the people we know into twisted shells of themselves, and it seems to spread its perverse and deadly influence like some sort of virus – like a cancer. The only opposition to this wave of religious tolerance comes from what Vision describes as “individuals of pure science”, although both Hank Pym and Tony Stark have fallen prey to this sinister influence.

Abnett and Lanning are very consciously crafting an analogy. Far more than a condemnation of the cancerous spread of violence worshipped as religion, the pair manage to find a way to make the story a commentary on the modern world in several exciting and intriguing ways. Perhaps that more than a sneaky cameo from the “space jockeys” from Ridley Scott’s Alien or a sly reference to the asteroid from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, it’s this relevance which marks the series out as pure science fiction.

Populated with giant green men...

As with most of the work since the original Annihilation (written by Kieth Griffen), Abnett and Lanning do the bulk of the writing here, drafting the prologue and two of the three miniseries (Realm of Kings: Inhumans and Realm of Kings: Imperial Guard). It’s no surprise that the third of the three series, Realm of Kings: Son of Hulk, feels the most superfluous and disconnected. It feels more like a belated tie-in to Planet Hulk and a lead-in to various unrelated shenanigans coming up.

The Inhumans miniseries offers us the tale of post-war reconstruction. Having won the war, Queen Medusa finds herself and the other Inhumans living amongst the Kree waging the peace. Her advisors assure her that “victory over the Shi’ar has made us heroes”, but that they “have everything to prove” as they build “on the momentum of a war won.” However, as the military forces deployed to the Middle East have learned, it is far too easy to take an overwhelming military victory for granted while subtle threats loom on the horizon, or within the borders.

Even here, Cap is a star Avenger...

We hear whispered rumours of the native Kree rising “in mass, beserk revolt”, or coverage of “an act of terrorism designed to whip up public panic and further undermine confidence in the authority of the Attilan Royal Family.” Even the appearance of Earth-based superheroes serves to undermine the public’s faith in their rulers – the Inhumans are alien enough to the Kree without relying on foreign strength to legitimise their rule. Mirroring many of the more paranoid observations about Western governments, it is suggested that Medusa’s Inhuman ruling class is conspiring to “manufacture threats to improve our credibility.” In case you needed a clearer indication of the obvious real-world parallel, one chapter is even labelled Weapons of Mass Distraction.

It works as a metaphor – to be honest, as I remarked in my review of Ed Brubaker’s The Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire, I typically find these sorts of alien politics stories boring or uninteresting. And yet Andy Lanning and Dan Abnett are able to instill a sense of energy into their work. Part of it comes from the fact that seem to be aware that the reader might not necessarily be familiar with the minutiae of these tiny corners of Marvel continuity. Comparing it to Brubaker’s work for example, Lanning and Abnett are careful to introduce each character and concept relatively clearly – Gladiator, for example, offers the reader a brief introduction to the M’Kaaan Crystal as he flies to it, rather than its appearance in Brubaker’s story which assumes that the reader is already intimately familiar with the concept.

Long live the queen...

The Imperial Guard miniseries approaches the same themes of the Inhumans series – the difficulties of post-war governance – but in a unique enough manner. Gladiator, the hulking superman who has appeared often enough with the X-Men, finds himself ruling what is effectively a puppet state following the Shi’ar surrender. He is tasked with directing the affairs of the empire, sitting in long and pointless meetings dealing with red tape when he would much rather be directly engaging with the problems. In Inhumans, Queen Medusa observes that she was an “accidental queen” and Gladiator is almost certainly an “accidental king” – he seems to have reached the position simply by staying alive longer than every other named Shi’ar character. I’m not sure it was choreographed skilfully enough to be described as a character arc, but it sets up some interesting ideas.

“Do you ever miss being a soldier?” Gladiator asks an Inhuman warrior at a diplomatic occasion. It’s a hell of a role to find yourself in, and not one that you easily adapt to. Regime change is never as easy as it sounds, either for those transitioned into power or those under them – particularly when driven by a foreign military presence. The Shi’ar subjects, even his close friends, cannot fathom an ordinary guy ruling the empire – so heavily engrained was their previous regime. Sure, Gladiator is a good guy, but, to quote a colleague, “an emperor’s got to be more than that!”

His intelligence would make you green with envy...

Some moments of the crossover seem a little awkward. While the “cancerverse” threat allows the guys the chance to draw some wonderfully freaky versions of the Avengers, there’s a rather awkward crossover with the Mighty Avengers shoehorned into the Inhumans miniseries. It seems to be an excuse for Abnett and Lanning to have a bit of fun with the characters (“Forget it, Stature, your generation doesn’t appreciate the classics,” US Agent declares at one point after making a remark about the way that certain characters used to appear before getting an upgraded modern look), but it does feel a little forced to put an appearance in here.

That said, the script makes some smart observations linking Medusa to Hank Pym, both of whom were widowed by Secret Invasion, and it gives a nice beat between Quicksilver and his ex-wife, but it still feels a little bit like the regular big crossovers are awkwardly intruding on this little branch of continuity. The guest appearance does little to advance any particular narrative thread, and feels almost like an awkward sales stunt.

Even here, Wolverine makes an appearance...

The only other complaint I could possibly make about the event is that it is ultimately a bridge, and thus – at times – feels insubstantial. That’s not say it isn’t impressive and entertaining – it certain is – just that there’s no sense of conclusion. Whereas Annihilation or War of Kings could be given to a reader to read in isolation, Realm of Kings feels consciously like the middle act of a larger story. Everything started before and will end afterwards.

All that said, however, there are still some clever ideas proposed here – and a smart and engaging look at the political structure of the interstellar Marvel universe, particularly after all that has happened. Realm of Kings continues to demonstrate why Marvel’s cosmic output is so highly regarded.

It’s almost over! Next week it’s just Second Coming left to cover.

You might be interested in our reviews and discussions of this cycle of Marvel cosmic events:

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