Dynamite’s ‘King’ Line Might Be The Weirdest Shared Universe In Comics Right Now
This week marks the release of Prince Valiant #1, and with it, the final building block in the foundation of Dynamite's increasingly weird "King" universe. Built around the King Features characters that are best known as newspaper strips --- and in the case of The Phantom, a Billy Zane movie that invited viewers to 'slam evil!' --- the line got its start in the Kings Watch crossover in 2013. While Flash Gordon has stuck around and been pretty fantastic, it's only in the last month that the rest of the characters have rolled out into their own books to flesh out the world.
Now, with everything in place, the King line has pulpy sci-fi, mystic adventure, superhero action and swords and sorcery from the days of King Arthur all jockeying for position and trying to come together as a cohesive unit. And to be honest, it's actually pretty awesome to see.
The basic setup of the King Universe is that the invasion of Earth by Ming the Merciless and his army of Beast-Men in Kings Watch --- which actually is as awesome as it sounds --- wiped out the Internet as part of the plot to conquer the planet. The invasion was fought off by Flash Gordon, the Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, but it left Earth in a pretty dire state of disarray with a need to rebuild.
In most of the books, that's where we're picking up the story, and each one is dealing with a different bit of the fallout from the invasion in a way that's really compelling. Brian Clevinger and Brent Schoonover's take on The Phantom is a particular favorite,following the adventures of Lothar, former strongman sidekick to Mandrake, who has temporarily taken over the role of the Phantom until the actual descendant of Kit Walker can be found:
It's a great twist on the concept, and one that plays with both the idea of legacy that's inherent in the Phantom's story and the idea of a world where it's no longer possible to just pop on Facebook and find out who the next Ghost Who Walks is going to be. There's a lot of different places this can go, including my personal hope that Lothar sticks around in the role for a good long while, especially since having him under the mask does a lot to blunt the whole "white savior in Africa" element that's also an inherent part of the Phantom's backstory.
Roger Langridge and Jeremy Treece's Mandrake was another book that came as a refreshing surprise.
It's Langridge's first work on superheroes --- or at least on heroic adventure stories --- since Thor: The Mighty Avenger, a book that I'm definitely on record as being a pretty huge fan of, and it's another really interesting setup. Mandrake is a mysterious recluse, a magician whose illusions are equal parts stage theatrics and actual magic, whose status as a hermit has left him a little out of touch and unable to properly deal with his former lover becoming the latest incarnation of villain known as Cobra. Uh, you know, not to be confused with the other Cobra that I'm usually writing about.
Until this week, the odd man out had been Jungle Jim, Paul Tobin and Sandy Jarrell's revival of an Alex Raymond character created alongside Flash Gordon, who was recast as a shapeshifting forest spirit on the planet Arborea, rather than just an earthbound jungle adventurer. It's a weird new direction --- mainly because it seems a little odd that dudes with names like "Barin" and "Thun" would refer to an immortal, centuries old spirit as "Jungle Jim" --- but there's a connection between the two characters' histories that makes it work.
It's all coming together to form a picture of a cohesive universe that's still reeling from the events of this big event that makes the consequences of that event feel like a driving force behind everything that happens after. There's a unity to it that, even when it's focused on these disparate books in completely different genres, makes everything feel like it belongs together.
But then there's Prince Valiant.
Ever since Hal Foster's bowl-cut sporting prince made his first appearance in the King universe in the pages of the Flash Gordon annual, I've been wondering how Nate Cosby and Ron Salas were going to connect it to the other stories, or if they even would. The strip is set in the days of King Arthur by its very definition, and wrangling it into the rest of the universe seems like it would be a much tougher option than just doing a classic high fantasy story.
And for half of the book, that's exactly what they do, giving an origin story for the Prince, complete with Salas drawing beautiful panels that homage strips so famous that even I, someone who's only ever flipped through a few collections of Foster's work, recognized them. The creative team do a quick and interesting job of establishing the character, hint at later exploits and tragedies, and perform the pretty difficult task of giving us a reason to like him and a reason to know that he's going to get himself in a whole lot of trouble by the time we're done.
But through it all there's a framing sequence, one that takes an unexpected turn, and while it's still pretty early to tell, it might be what connects Valiant to the rest of the King books.
And like everything else in the line so far, it's something that's strange, unexpected, and also really great.
I'm a fan of shared universes just as a concept, and seeing them being pieced together in interesting, clever ways is something that's always incredibly fun for me as a reader. That's exactly what the King books are doing, piece by piece and brick by brick, and while it doesn't hurt that it's happening in comics that are really well done and produced by some of my favorite creators, it's fascinating to see it all coming together. It's a slow build, but it truly feels like the founding of a universe, and the start of a story with places to go.