The Kents

July 5, 2008

By now, The Kents appears to be a forgotten masterpiece by John Ostrander. This is rather unfortunate since the title easily ranks as one of the few truly great Superman stories ever told — without Superman even taking centre stage or doing his regular thing. (In fact, the Man of Steel only reads letters here.)

The neglect may have something to do with readers and Superman writers alike treating it as just another Elseworlds tale, which it categorically isn’t. It smells like one and reads like one, and — here’s the brilliant bit — even if it were one you wouldn’t be able to prove it. It actually forms a happy part of DC continuity that can bring new dimensions to one’s appreciation of not just the Kent family legacy but, more importantly, the America that Superman is so often hailed as representing.

This volume makes no mistake, however, of putting forward a singular monolithic America. By telling a story that spans the period before the American Civil War to its aftermath and showing multiple personal interests and ideologies, Ostrander raises a very strong point that America is held hostage by the choices of its people. Any impression that this would be just another simple twisting of the Superman myth, the game of which is to identify the analogues, is quickly frustrated. This story may be a family saga, but it isn’t the disguised adventures of Pa and Ma Kent with Little Kal-El. In fact, Silas Kent, the seeming parallel of Jonathan Kent, is killed very early in the story for settling in Lawrence, Kansas, to champion abolitionism; his wife died soon after from grief and illness.

The epic turns out to be more about the life-long choices of Silas’s 2 sons, Nathaniel and Jebediah, both fighting increasingly on opposite sides. Against their turbulent adventures is also a highly sophisticated treatment of 19th-century American history as we get up-close encounters with real-life figures such as John Brown, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, George Armstrong Custer, Jesse James, etc. It guest-stars as well scary DC anti-hero and Confederate States army officer Jonah Hex, just for that comic geek who’s beginning to suspect that he’s been conned into school.

The story does not give easy answers and identification. One is certainly tricked into seeing Nathaniel as a type of Clarke Kent, given his clear-headedness on points of values and principles and especially his recovery through a blue healing blanket from his true love Mary Glenowan, a half-native American. This blanket comes with a central symbol to be placed over the heart, a S-shaped snake contained by 5 sides representing the 5 Iroquois Indian tribes that survived. Yet, if this suggests an ur-Superman legacy, the symbol is nonetheless deconstructed later by Mary herself, who, upon learning of how her Delaware people must disappear officially into the Cherokees, rejects the lie the symbol now embodies.

The same level of complex overturning is given to the story’s arch-villain Jebediah: his one light of redemption comes only at the end when he does the truly unexpected. Realising that his own son would follow along the same path of selfish thoughtless violence and relish every bit, Jebediah shoots him and, in doing so, symbolically breaks the cycle of hate and revenge. It is, as it seems, Jebediah who achieves transcendence within by ending the option he represents and so provides the means for real reconciliation movingly with his brother.

Technically speaking, The Kents is also brilliant for being told almost completely through letters. Pa Kent is writing to Clarke and Louis about his discovery of a box of letters in his Kansas farmhouse and giving them parts even as he is collating them. But the letters themselves also take varied forms of intimacy: they show Silas sharing to his wife and daughters, Nathaniel and Jebediah to the respective sisters they trust, etc. At some point, we begin to forget which end of history we are looking at — the present at the past or the past at the present — as we forget whose perspective on events endears to us more. Some has called this remarkable book a Western: I consider it a noteworthy study of the House of America.

Gweek gives this volume 10 mad gunshots in the air and 1 crow-scaring cry.

One Response to “The Kents”

  1. […] – bookmarked by 3 members originally found by Rashisha on 2008-12-15 The Kents – bookmarked by 1 members originally found by […]

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