I bought a trade paperback of “Kingdom Come” very early on in my comic reading career. The only thing I knew was it was one of those miniseries that people heralded. I brought it with me to an out of town conference, and wound up reading the entire thing in one sitting in my hotel room. I finished it late into the night as the Apocalypse rang in true splendor within the pages.
I was in a comic book store in Austin, Texas months later and I stumbled upon the original four-issue prestige format series and bought it up and reread it. Since then, the whole series has been dear to me, and is often one I highlight as one of my favorite superhero stories of all time. I think though “Kingdom Come” asks one of the most important questions we can ask our stories, our comics, our superheroes. Namely, “What do we want from them?”
“Kingdom Come” started as a pitch Alex Ross had to DC after completing the similar opus “Marvels” with Kurt Busiek in 1994. Ross pitched the series first to DC and to James Robinson to write, but DC ultimately paired him with Mark Waid who they felt had a wider knowledge of the history of the DC Universe. The entire four-issue prestige format series ran from May to August of 1996 under DC’s “Elseworlds” banner and spawned multiple spinoffs and sequels like “The Kingdom” (which helped further the Grant Morrison/Mark Waid concept of Hypertime) and “Thy Kingdom Come” (an arc of Geoff Johns’s pre-New 52 “Justice Society of America”). All of those sequels, in my opinion, fail to live up the beauty of the original (much like we expect “Doomsday Clock” to) and follow a laundry list of DC exploiting some of its most successful and creative titles.
The series opens with visions of the Apocalypse and verses from the book of Revelation in the Bible. We meet Norman McKay, a pastor struggling with the morality of the world he lives in, a world post-Justice League, where all the Leaguers kids and other amoral, violent heroes fight for the hell of it without a second thought. This is a world in which Superman is retired, ousted by the “hero” Magog as he turned the public against Superman. Magog and his team, in the opening pages of the story, cause a nuclear disaster in Kansas which kills millions and destroys a multitude of America’s food production. After this disaster, Norman is visited by The Spectre, and is tasked to judge and punish who needs to be punished in the coming conflict. Superman thus is coaxed out of retirement and begins to go about suppressing the young heroes, putting those that won’t fall in line into “The Gulag” (oh boy) and trying to restore utopia to Earth. Humanity has had enough of being at the whim of the metahumans, and factions of the United Nations, as well as Lex Luthor’s Mankind Liberation Front (MLF), all attempt to quell the metahumans following Superman’s reemergence. All the while, Batman is working in the background with a group of Outsiders. Batman allies himself with the MLF, and eventually double-crosses them. This all leads to a final showdown with the prisoners of the Gulag who have escaped and Superman’s old school Justice League, as well as the MLF led by a brainwashed Billy Batson.
It goes without saying, first and foremost, Alex Ross is a god. In a story about the dichotomy between humanity and divinity the description seems oddly appropriate. There is no other artist that can do what Ross does with his painterly realism. This is some of the most evocative and emotive art in comicdom. I wish for the life of me he would come back and do interiors on a work, even for an issue, instead of just the many, many covers he does for Marvel and DC. This series would not be this series without Ross’s ability to portray epic action, like the only double page spread in the miniseries which occurs at the beginning of issue #4. This is contrasted with the quiet background struggle of Norman McKay as he bears witness to the horror of the coming Apocalypse. Alex Ross’s heroes look like gods, his humans react like humans should to gods, and he sells every larger than life aspect of this entire book. All of this goes without saying, but needs to be said before we get into the rest of the story.Continued below
“Kingdom Come” is huge. There are hundreds of DC characters in this book, and a plethora more Waid and Ross created in order to sell the gravitas of this series. There’s a Damien Wayne, before Damien was a thing, who is the new leader of The League of Assassins and a member of Luthor’s MLF. There’s Golden Age wonders, there’s Silver Age creations, there’s so many beautifully designed children of characters that appear regularly in the DCU. All of the designs of the older Leaguers resemble their JSA counterparts. In scope and in visual, this series is huge and encompasses all of the DCU.
“Kingdom Come” tackles the balance between godhood and humanity, which many other stories have explored and will continue to explore into time immemorial. There are polar opposites of political ideologies such as fascism (as represented by Superman and Batman) versus anarchy (symbolized by Magog). There are generational divides; questions of cynicism, optimism and nihilism. There are binaries of justice and judgement as well as the role of responsibility. All of these questions and ideological battles are framed by words from Revelation. All of these thoughts build to a climax as Superman, the god made man, and Captain Marvel, the man made god, go to war. It is in these dichotomies “Kingdom Come” asks, just like “Watchmen,” “The Dark Knight Returns” and so many others before it, is “What do we want from our heroes?”
We get very different answers from all the various characters. Superman asks us how far should we course correct. Do we compromise what we believe in? Do we sacrifice the American Way and truth in order for the justice of a Gulag and armed conflict? Wonder Woman makes us wonder when we got so cynical. Her attitude is killing is the only option when we turn our backs on our world. Batman is more dictatorial and fascist than Superman, having turned Gotham into a police state built on fear. Magog is the “act first” hero, as casualties don’t matter if you just get the job done. And none of them are the hero of the story, because none of them are paragons of goodness. Perhaps, Captain Marvel and Billy Batson is the only hero. Billy is the one who makes the right call even after suffering the pain of being brainwashed and having the “god” half of himself kept in check by Luthor for so many years. Captain Marvel sacrifices himself to stop the nuke the UN fires on the metahumans. While he cannot save everyone as 90% of the superhuman community dies, he saves as many people as he can. In any case, we the readers are Norman McKay. As we consume comics, as we consume stories, we can’t change the story. We are always asked to judge, to bear witness, to ask what our responsibility is when we think about the actions of our “heroes.” This can be problematic when we put them on the pedestal of gods. Especially gods created in our image, turn out to be just as violent and imperfect as the rest of us. It is this meta framing device Ross and Waid employ that really solidifies the story of all these heroes acting somewhat out of character as they are pushed to the limits. Superman should be the paragon of virtue everyone, every character, and every story follows and stems from. When Superman is compromised, played the fool, thinks internment is more important than rehabilitation, then the whole ship comes falling down.
All these questions “Kingdom Come” asks are left purposely ambiguous. Many later reprints feature the epilogue to the story, the “One Year Later,” which is not in the original four-issue series. The epilogue posits a world already changing and more hopeful, with Superman and Wonder Woman pregnant and Bruce asked to be the godfather. This is a world in which change is already being made. This is an extremely hopeful and optimistic look at the text, and it begs the responsibility of scrutiny. Grant Morrison wrote in his comic book history Supergods on this epilogue,
“It was a farewell not to superheroes but to costumes and to posturing, and to the never-ending Dreamtime that recycled their stories with no hope of lasting change. Clark Kent, Diana Prince, and Bruce Wayne were set free of their trademarks, the signs of their divinity, but the price they paid was immortality. Perhaps, like Bowie’s tormented gods in his song “The Supermen,” all they really wanted was to change, and age, and die.”Continued below
Morrison here posits a conclusion in which we, as the readers and consumers, allow the heroes to move on from their crusade, to change the world for the better, and for us to no longer to need them. But the problem is, is we will never stop needing our superheroes. Our heroes represent our deepest fears and strongest aspirations. They encompass our ideological and contextual frameworks, political or otherwise. They are never just “one” thing, for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the like have all been more things, many things, and will continue to occupy a position at the center of the universe. Our superheroes occupy a position in which they become real because they are more fictional. In many ways that makes them more true. When you stop to think about that then, you have a responsibility to these stories, to think, to consume, to ask what you need from them, and then, to be better.
“Kingdom Come” is one of the greatest comic book stories of all time, and so many reviews have already been written proclaiming such things. And upon rereading I would agree with all of those that have gone before me. Now if this text is one that has heralded, then it begs the questions, what is this story still saying to us today? What is the responsibility of the reader? At the end of issue #4, The Spectre tells Norman McKay at the end of the story after he reverts back to his more human Jim Corrigan fun, “You exist…to give hope.” That is our role as the reader. To look through the pages, the panels, the lines, the ink, the words, the bubbles, and give hope to these characters by manifesting their character in our lives. “Kingdom Come” is a text that begs responsibility. We should continue to listen.