|In an alternate future, Superman and the Justice League have retired from protecting the world. A new generation of heroes has arisen, one without the responsibility and concern their elders possessed. This situation forces Superman and his friends out of retirement, but even as they work to sew the world back together, dark forces coalesce to tear it even further asunder.
|May, 1996-August, 1996
Know what blows my mind? The fact that illustrator/painter Alex Ross provided the artwork for Kurt Busiek’s Marvels when he was 24. The four-issue limited series is a love letter to the early years of Marvel Comics, highlighting various arcs and characters from the company’s Silver Age. Ross’ photo-referenced, beautifully painted artwork provides a gorgeous view of the world, wonderfully realistic and detailed.
Two years later, Ross worked with writer Mark Waid on Kingdom Come for DC Comics. Generally hailed as one of DC’s greatest stories, Kingdom Come asks questions of power and faith as an old generation of heroes collides with fresher, younger faces. Jim Corrigan’s Spectre awaits (sorry, Hal Jordan fans) to guide you through a twisting, colorful labyrinth replete with costumed, complex characters and vividly painted moral lines.
Violence: A hero composed of nuclear energy is torn open, and though we only see a burst of energy and some deceased animals, it’s implied that close to a million lives are lost in the ensuing nuclear explosion. Elsewhere, we see several scenes of violence. Most of these are tame – images of heroes duking it out with their adversaries, powers and fists flying. More explicit images show a man brutally backhanded, a man stabbed through the chest, another man stabbed in the leg, a character set on fire, a woman choked to death, and a second nuke which leaves a wasteland filled with bones. A few murdered bodies lie in the street. A character gasses people to death, and he is later shot and murdered.
Sexual Content: It’s implied a man and woman are having a child out of wedlock. A few women wear somewhat revealing attire. Someone jokes about being sterilized. A couple kisses.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Someone drinks. A few characters smoke.
Spiritual Content: Two of the series’ main characters are a pastor and a spirit compared to an “angel of death.” The pastor liberally quotes Scripture, sometimes out of context, and while he heads up a church, he doesn’t seem all that enthused about spreading the gospel. He even claims he believes God is not a Person but a force with several identities. Each issue begins with a scene highlighted by passages from Revelation. The entire story carries an “end times” vibe, as if Kingdom Come were the creators’ interpretation of the biblical text. A character claims to see apocalyptic visions of the end times, which is interchangeably referred to as “Ragnarok” and “Armageddon.” A devastating incident is declared as divine “judgement.” Someone pleads for forgiveness. Superheroes are compared to gods. One character is, in DC’s mythology, considered a god. Several godlike beings hold a conference. A hero, when asked to join a noble cause, equates themselves to being “the thirteenth disciple.” Someone mentions that an enraged superhero could “cower Satan himself.”
Language/Crude Humor: God’s name is used in vain several times, once paired with d**n. H***, d***, b******, p***, and a** also appear.
Other Negative Content: A politically extremist superhero seeks to cleanse America of refugees. Some characters are brainwashed or mentally manipulated. A character seemingly teams up with supervillains to fight a common foe. A new generation of superheroes has abandoned their predecessors’ values. A former member of the Justice League has become an environmental terrorist; another has turned his city into a police state. When he triumphantly returns, Superman enforces policies that some brand “fascistic,” including a gulag where superpowered individuals are sent to be reeducated. Public opinion sways a court to acquit a man clearly guilty of murder.
Positive Content: His methods are considered suspect, but Superman is presented as a man who clearly wishes to right wrongs and stabilize the world. Various heroes live up to their standards by rescuing civilians in danger; one human even risks his life to save a child. In between fisticuffs are genuine discussions and questions about power, authority, responsibility, and hope. A character maintains firm faith in the hope-inspiring nature of heroes.
Within the first few pages of Kingdom Come’s inaugural issue, you immediately understand what may have drawn Ross to crafting this narrative. Creation. Unlike with Marvels, where Ross wonderfully rendered several iconic characters, he instead tries his hand at imagining a brand new generation of original characters. Future versions of Blue Beetle and Wildcat mingle with the children of characters like Starfire and the Joker. Even if you’re familiar with only the original characters, several of Ross’ designs draw inspiration from their predecessors. Ross never shies away from introducing purely original characters – the villainous warlord Von Bach, as far as I can tell, was not inspired by any pre-existing DC hero or villain – but it’s his “legacy” characters which stand out. In creating these characters, Ross draws in the viewer, offering them the chance to pause and linger. Kingdom Come, from an artistic viewpoint, is not a story you devour. You do yourself a disservice if you don’t savor the visuals.
Simultaneously, Ross never shies away from the familiar, grounding Kingdom Come in previously established lore and giving several old characters new twists. Following an attack by Bane and Two-Face on the Bat Cave, Bruce Wayne requires an exoskeleton to remain mobile. Billy Batson, now grown up, looks like his adult superhuman counterpart Shazam in and out of costume. And in perhaps my favorite visual element in the entire story, Orion of Apokolips, having dethroned his Dark God father, has grown to look almost the spitting image of Darkseid. Even for readers who know the bare minimum of DC lore, these aged or altered characters make the story more engaging. Not only do you spend time reveling in the new characters, you deeply appreciate Ross’ ability to project unique possibilities onto old faces.
Backed by Waid’s script, Ross’ illustrations allow him to convey not just a sense of worldbuilding but narrative as the two creators string their tale together. Their world is one where the Justice League has disbanded and gone their separate ways, allowing new heroes to rise in their stead. Superman is a retired farmer. Batman spends his days commanding a legion of Bat robots patrolling Gotham City. Green Lantern sits in outer space, keeping an eye out for potential extraterrestrial threats Waid implies will never come. In other words, they’re not the heroes they once were. They’re outdated, replaced by a younger generation that possesses power without responsibility. Coming out of retirement, Superman unites several members of the Justice League – Wonder Woman, Hawkman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and others – and gives those flashy youngins a choice: reform or face retribution.
At first, I blanched slightly at Superman’s overly strict principles. He comes across as a little fed up, perhaps even stuck up, as he and his group corral these heroes, recruiting them or consigning them to a superhuman gulag (designed wonderfully by Ross to resemble the Hall of Doom from the Superfriends TV series). I never felt wholly comfortable with the League’s choices, but I constantly wondered if that was the point. To rid the world of irresponsible metahumans, do the League’s members need to become a bit harsher themselves? Much like Ross encourages you to methodically work through illustrations, Waid asks you to take time and philosophically wrestle with Superman and his comrades as they go about their plan.
Past and present collide, crafting conflict based on age. New heroes vs. the old guard. It brought to mind miniature conflicts I’ve seen across social media, as younger generations blame older generations for various financial crises and the older generations return with volleys of their own. That’s a lot of generalization, I understand, but the point is this: viewpoints over various issues, be they societal problems or personal woes, have altered over time, causing conflict between generations. As the story progresses in a similar fashion, Waid’s script addresses these concepts, honing in on the divide. His solution, in general, is beautiful; it’s not enough for one side to be “right” and thus use that “rightness” to trump the other side. Moral matters, especially ones that aren’t exactly black-and-white, may not necessarily need to be handled in a black-and-white manner.
Oh, to be sure, evil and violence is rightfully condemned as such. Early on, we’re presented with the Mankind Liberation Front, a group headed by some of DC’s Biggest Bads, including Lex Luthor, Vandal Savage, Kobra, the Riddler, and the son of Ra’s al Ghul. In the opening panels of the group’s appearance, Savage murders a secretary. Waid will later reveal that Luthor has taken to brainwashing a very important ally. Elsewhere, a group of fanatical American superheroes seek to cleanse the nation’s shores by attacking refugees huddled on Ellis Island. Their rhetoric and mindsets are scarily relatable to modern day discourses, but the evil and sin they commit are condemned all the same. Perhaps the Justice League exists in a world where “truth, justice, and the American way” isn’t as applicable a lesson as it used to be, but in several cases, evil is still evil… and justice is still good. The questions become, not about whether justice is necessary, but about how it functions: “What is justice? How is evil handled? How do we take responsibility?”
Ross and Waid’s story is framed through the eyes of an unpowered man, Norman McCay, a pastor. Waid’s presentation of the clergy, though not intentionally degrading, is not wholly theologically sound. In appearance, Norman seems to be the pastor of a Christian church, yet as he tells one individual, he “preached that God is not a person… but rather, a force with many names… one that motivates us to master our own fate.” When the other person suggests that “Rama Kushna” could be one of those “many names,” Norman seems to concede the point.
Norman quotes Scripture at length, particularly Revelation, with several passages paralleling events in the story. Waid has discussed his personal fascination with Revelation, how he believes we’re unable to interpret its messages and themes correctly. On one hand, he’s not wrong: various events in Revelation have been seen through different lenses over the centuries. On the other, I feel he’s missing a key point: the message of Revelation, fantastical images aside, is hope. Norman is Waid and Ross’ “everyman,” guided by the ghostly Spectre (himself an “angel” of sorts). Experiencing a crisis of faith, Norman is seeking hope again. His journey is thought-provoking as he wrestles with doubts, but the conclusion may be slightly hollow. Ultimately, Norman finds hope in human saviors.
Waid’s method of placing the supernatural, God-ordained events of the end times in the hands of men, be they metahuman or not, can come across as devoid of supernatural hope. It feels “good,” and I understand why Waid went the direction he did: if you have a world without Christ, isn’t Superman a decent substitute? He can fly, outrun speeding bullets… heck, the guy’s invincible, so bullets just thump off his chest. Regardless, for those of us reading Kingdom Come in real life, the distinction between “hero” and “savior” is good to reflect on. Nice as it would be, especially in our modern age, we don’t have a Superman. Hence the appeal of comics. We do, however, have Christ. Hence the appeal of Scripture.
Outside the religious themes, the story can occasionally feel a little hollow as well, despite Ross and Waid’s best efforts. Ross’ designs for new characters, as previously stated, are wonderful and hint at this larger, newer version of the DC Universe. Yet, as good as it looks, the depth of these new characters can feel thin. You really learn nothing about them aside from their costumes and perhaps a name or two. Supplemental material included in trade versions of Kingdom Come fleshes out the details for many of these characters, but those elements are either obscured by or simply excluded from the story itself. Some of them are injured, and others die. Much of the emotional weight from these moments is lost, primarily because you never really learn anything about the second Wildcat or the new Red Arrow aside from their appearances. Again, for the DC fanatic, additional knowledge may help with this. Perhaps I’m simply at a disadvantage. Right now, I do believe there ends up being a lot of information to process at Flash-like speeds without the ability to understand or appreciate as much of it as I would like.
Fantastically, this problem is somewhat balanced when Ross and Waid lend themselves to the details, and I don’t just mean Easter eggs. My favorite scene in the series comes at the end of a U.N. meeting where the Secretary-General makes a highly controversial, dangerous, and world-altering decision. He defends his reasoning by arguing that the existence of humanity is at stake. After delivering this impassioned speech, the Secretary-General retires to his office. Seeing the man in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose, would be good enough to convey his stress and humanity. Then you notice the details around him – the picture of a family behind him, the “World’s Greatest Dad” coffee mug on his desk – and the ache over his decision becomes all too clear. He’s done what’s necessary for his family, his children. All of that, conveyed in a few panels; Waid never has to say a word.
I think one of the best compliments you can offer a story is that you want to experience it again. Saying “I’d see that again” or “I’ll read that a second time” nicely expresses one’s enjoyment of a film, novel, or comic book, iterating the fact that it was good enough to return to. You wish to indulge in that particular world, cheer on those particular characters, a second, third, or fourth time around. Kingdom Come is such a story. Part of this is due to Ross’ stunning visuals – he creates a world you sink into and examine, panels where you catch more detail the next time you read. But Waid’s compelling script is not to be denied. Though imperfect, the author’s words weave a tale of wonder and beauty as the heroes of old navigate a new world and a doubting preacher reexamines matters of faith.
A slight bittersweetness permeates the pages. Norman McCay may revisit his crumbling faith in metahumans, but his faith in an Almighty God is not addressed. You get the sense that, when he returns to the pulpit, he’ll be more inclined to praise Superman over Jesus. Parallels between the Nazarene and the Kryptonian certainly exist. Early in the story, Ross first depicts Superman in the somewhat-subtle guise of a carpenter bearing a load of wood. Yet, for all the religious imagery, Kingdom Come lacks a distinction between the heroic Kryptonian and our Savior. Granted, if Waid and Ross didn’t believe in such a Savior, it makes sense they wouldn’t include or refer to Him. That I understand and don’t spite them for it. Nevertheless, Norman’s journey is one to keep in mind as we reflect on our own faith. Again, the sentiment is nice – wouldn’t it be wonderful to have an invincible Superman to rely on in times of great need? But if Norman were to step from his Alex Ross-illustrated world into our God-molded universe, he’d discover no such hero exists. Or, to be more accurate, such a hero does exist… He just doesn’t wear tights.
+ Gorgeous, detailed world filled with vibrant characters
+ Several wonderful "show, don't tell" moments
+ Thoughtful look into alternate DC Universe
- Not wholly accurate theological viewpoint
- Weak characterization across collective cast
The Bottom Line
Waid and Ross' stunning narrative is lifted by an impressive script and dazzling visuals, an experience tempered only slightly by its inaccurate theological worldview.