Superheroes hold a special place in our hearts. There is a certain allure to watching men and women with super powers fight evil and save the world time and again. Even since their inception in the pages of comic books and novels, superheroes have dominated our pop culture. Everyone knows Batman, Superman, Captain America, and Spider-Man. The Marvel Cinematic Universe reintroduced us to Iron Man, Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and more. Today, superheroes dominate. Part of our allure is the power fantasy. We want to be these people and posses their powers. Part of it is pure spectacle. The Battle of New York in the first Avengers film remains an action masterpiece. But part of our attention revolves around the story of Icarus. We enjoy watching these powerful people come low and being reminded that they are still mortal.
The Reign of the Kingfisher, by T. J. Martinson, takes a serious look at a figure known as a superhero and the fallout of his actions on the city of Chicago. The novel functions as an examination of these types of heroes and strips away the veneer and hero worship. In this sense, The Reign of the Kingfisher follows in the footsteps of masterpieces. Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come, The Vision all take superheroes and exposes their humanity to the audience. T. J. Martinson is interested in stripping away the mask and costume and taking a look at what lies beneath, and how it affects the world around the hero. If a superpowered individual were to exist, their mere existence would have a profound effect on people, and The Reign of the Kingfisher takes a look at the implications of that effect.
The novel takes place almost thirty years after the death of the superhero known as the Kingfisher, a violent vigilante who was not above using lethal force to rid the city of criminals. Operating exclusively in Chicago, he began his career in the public’s limelight, worshiped and seen as a positive force for good. But, over the years, his more monstrous nature could not be ignored. He was not above killing petty criminals for lowly offenses. Then, in the 80’s, The Kingfisher died. The city moved on and, while crime rose again, it never reached the same height as it did before his reign. Now, in the present day of the novel, a masked gunman has taken hostages. He has threatened to kill them, and keep killing them, until the Chicago police admits to faking the death of the Kingfisher and releases all the information they have about their cooperation and cover up of the vigilante’s actions.
The novel is told from the third-person perspective of three point-of-view characters. The first one we are introduced to, and the one who could be called the main protagonist, is Marcus Waters. Marcus is a retired journalist suffering from an empty nest and still grieving over the death of his wife. He made his name reporting on the Kingfisher, actually coming up with the moniker, and wrote the definitive book on the figure after his supposed demise. When we meet Marcus at the beginning of the story, he seems to be running through life on autopilot, just going through the motions. He is dragged into the story by the police for information on the Kingfisher and comes to realize that the hostages were actually people he interviewed for his book. Petty criminals who were saved by the hero but never reported their involvement to the police. Their identities remained secret. Marcus pulls himself deeper into the story out of a sense of responsibility and the knowledge that he can still do something to help these people.
The other two POV characters are Wren and Lucinda Tillman. Wren is a young hacker with the Liber-teen hacktivist group, living with her girlfriend and fellow Liber-teen member. Wren feels partly responsible for the situation a the hostage taker has co-opted Liber-teen iconography and purported to be one of their members, a feat made easy due to the anonymous nature of the group. Wren decides to become involved after witnessing the first hostage death and realizing her skills can be of some use to prevent more death. Tillman, meanwhile, is a Chicago police officer on involuntary leave-of-absence from the force. When we meet her, Tillman spends most of her days running and exercising, away from the responsibility of taking care of her dementia-suffering father. She nurses a painful mixture of quiet rage and keen depression, jumping at the chance to throw herself into the investigation, just as she denies her desire to serve.
While only seen in flashbacks and from the eyes of a police detective, now police captain, the presence of the Kingfisher looms large on the story. His identity was never known to anyone, and no one even seems clear if he had extra-normal abilities. He is apparently bullet proof, super strong, extraordinarily fast, and capable of confusing the minds of people looking at his face so they cannot see it properly or remember details. What is apparent is that the stress of his superheroism eventually corrupted his mind and personality. The Kingfisher turned more and more violent, killing the wrong people and brutalizing people whom he only thought were criminals. While his actions did lower crime rates in the city, we see in the flashbacks that public perception could easily have turned on him. His supposed death martyred the hero before he could become nothing more than a vigilante. While we never see much of his personality, we do see a fairly quiet person, never sure of their own abilities, and operating with a belief that, because the can, they should.
Interest in superheroes seems to come in waves. Before the first X-Men movie and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, the public did not seem to be interested. But after those two came Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Interest manifested in highs and lows, alternating between the fun, and the serious. Then, of course, Iron Man reinvented the genre and changed the pop culture landscape as know it. The Reign of the Kingfisher may exist on the other end of the spectrum from Avengers: Endgame, but both types of stories have their place in the public consciousness. Examining the humanity and failings of superheroes shows us just how alike we are and reminds us that it is alright to enjoy the fun.
The Reign of the Kingfisher can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 8 days
Next on the List: The Queen of All Crows, by Rod Duncan