Apocalypse Week: Column: Retronomicon: Destiny: A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold

By J. Keith Haney

Kwitney, Alisa; Williams, Kent; Zulli, Michael; Hampton, Scott; and Guay, Rebecca. Destiny: A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold. DC/Vertigo Comics (March 1,2000). USD $14.99. ISBN-13: 978-1563895050.

If ever there were a contest for the Horseman of the Apocalypse most likely to wipe out the human race, the safe bet to win might be Pestilence. Many writers and directors of the last century have certainly thought so. Whether one is talking about novels like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and Stephen King’s The Stand, or recent films like 28 Days Later and Contagion, the thought of disease being the ultimate death knell of humankind always seems to come back around. But each of these creators has had plenty of real world parallels to draw from in the annals of history. They are sometimes mentioned in passing, but rarely explored in depth. Destiny: A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold corrects this oversight by putting the killing potential of disease in its proper historical context. Ostensibly a spinoff from Neil Gaiman’s award-winning Sandman series, Destiny is actually a story of how Pestilence has brought an end to the worlds of the past and may yet end our own.

Alisa Kwitney gives the reader an uneasy jolt, with a quote from Albert Camus’ The Plague, before plunging into her story. In an alternative 2000s, where the world has been decimated by a return of the Bubonic Plague, Ruth Knight is doing what she can to survive in the aftermath of losing her entire family. Her grey existence on her lonely farm gets a dash of colour with the arrival of a drifter who calls himself “John Ryder”. He has goods for sale and, more importantly, knowledge to offer. The knowledge comes in the form of The Book of Destiny, a scholarly dissertation on an ancient scroll that is actually contained within the book’s covers. Ryder dares to suggest that the knowledge in the book will help Ruth and her few fellow survivors cheat destiny and death. But, as the story of the scroll winds through the gilded halls of Constantinople, the cool, lonely plains of the High Middle Ages, and the troubled hamlets of the English King Charles II’s Restoration, the reader comes to a vastly different conclusion. The Plague either takes you or doesn’t…with no rhyme or reason as to the why. Standing above and beyond this constantly changing vale of tears is Destiny of the Endless, a blind, monastic figure who keeps all that is to come outside of himself, in the form of a book chained to his wrist that he must read from. As the text puts it at certain points, “All roads lead to Destiny’s garden…eventually.” No one ever comes out of that garden unchanged…not even John Ryder.

Alisa Kwitney is using familiar themes in her story – perpetuating destiny by fighting against it, the folly of thinking anything is permanent, and the inevitability of death itself. What makes the difference is the depth of her characters. From famous historical personages, like Empress Theodora and King Edward II, to George, the stuttering English tailor, and the doomed princess Joanne, she makes her reader empathize and care about the soon-to-be-dead. The result is a potent mixture of fact and fiction that is reminiscent of Robert Graves’ justly famous I, Claudius. Supernatural elements are present but almost beside the point. The real story lies in the all-too-human people who enter and exit the stage of the story with all their hopes, dreams, fears, and despair articulated. Disease is shown to be the most unavoidable of deaths through the ages. Our own, sadly, is no different.

Ms. Kwitney receives excellent support from her artists. Kent Williams gives the framing sequence of the story his usual chiaroscuro of shadows and shapes, showing a decimated landscape where the most dangerous things on it are the few surviving humans. Michael Zulli (the main artist of the final Sandman chapter, “The Tempest”) uses his exquisitely detailed, clean artwork to evoke the great pomp and circumstance of the Byzantine Empire. As is common with his art, Zulli suggests older mysteries lurking just beneath the surface. Scott Hampton also has a clean-but-unsentimental take on England during the High Middle Ages, less detailed than Zulli but beautiful in its directness. For all the various trappings of civilisation in this section, Hampton leaves little doubt as to the ultimate harshness of the landscape, where death can be both sudden and brutal. Finally, Rebecca Guay make the mostly Puritan village of Charles II’s time an almost-fairy tale-like realm, with her beautifully painted drawings. The effect is to suggest that this is a twilight era, standing between the unthinking superstition of the Middle Ages and the smug blindness of the Enlightenment. As her work and the ending of this particularly chapter suggest, anything can happen here…especially the bad things.

Most people expect the world to end in a spectacular fashion – a nuclear exchange, planetwide natural catastrophe, a Rapture that beams up the faithful and leaves the rest to suffer. Destiny suggests that the end of the world as we know it may be much quieter, much more random. Thus, it stands as one of the greatest unofficial tales of the Apocalypse.

You can buy Destiny: Destiny: A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold from Amazon.com.