Kingdom Come by Mark Waid, Alex Ross

Warning: I’ve had 19 years to think this over, there’s a lot happening in a lot of directions, and I am currently fueled by some halfway decent Italian roast coffee that I finished hours ago.  I might be a little random in spots.

To fully explain my love affair with particular graphic novel, it’s necessary to better understand what was going on in the world of comics at that time, and what was going on in my world at that time.  You see, this book is very much a product of its time and place, much like Watchmen or V For Vendetta 10 years previous.  And like those classics, Kingdom Come transcends that time and place, becoming even more relevant as the years go by.  Perhaps a better word for it would prophetic.  I rank these three comics as the ultimate trifecta, the absolute best of the best the world of comic books has to offer.

Originally, this was a special event 4-part mini-series, released once a month beginning in May, 1996, with the epilogue added later as bonus content for the collected editions.  In the handful of years before, the entire comics industry was in the throes of dramatic change.  Five hot-shot artists broke away from Marvel to form Image Comics under the misbegotten belief that art alone sold a comic, and writers were just people to fill in word bubbles that didn’t matter.  Splash pages and poster prints made all the difference.  It was the world of variant covers.  It was a time of random #1 issues of series that would go nowhere, sporting higher price tags simply because they were #1 issues.  It was an age of the unnecessarily bleak and depressing grimdark because everything suddenly had to become gritty and edgy, even though few demonstrated that they understood what that meant.  It was the age that set the trend for most of what’s out there right now.  It was when the downhill slide began for the industry as a whole, before Hollywood started churning out film after film to make bank on new audiences.

It was the world when Earth’s Greatest Superheroes were considered old and irrelevant.  Superman was killed.  Batman was broken.  Wonder Woman was deemed unworthy.  The marketing frenzy put the spotlight back on them, and for a brief time the world was made aware of how relevant they could be.  And then within a couple of years of those events, it was as though nothing ever happened, and these great heroes were once again forgotten, traded up for veined biceps, oversized firearms, demonic superpowers, blank doe-eyed stares, and generic cheesecake pinups that all looked alike.  Stories about characters gave way to extended arc events that cut across several dozen titles with the promise to “change everything,” but ultimately meant little or nothing beyond the idea of draining your wallet dry.  The concept of the graphic novel was now cool thanks to stories like Watchmen, but the artistry of this medium was being buried by commercial overreach.

And then, as if to add more salt into the wound, Christopher Reeve — my era’s Superman, who embodied the heroic and very human ideal on both sides of the screen — was crippled in an equestrian competition one year before this book was released.

As Kingdom Come developed into what it would become, this story turned into a nostalgic and tearful goodbye to the era where people could believe in their heroes, and to the era where heroes were worthy of being believed in by the people they protected and inspired.  For all of the heroes that populate this story, Kingdom Come is at its heart a Superman story.  It’s the story of what unfolds when the “super” becomes more important than the “man,” not just for the Last Son of Krypton, but for all of us.

Which brings me today.  I think I’ve ranted a bluestreak by now on other blogs, and now on this one, about the trends at DC enough that I need not repeat any of it.  Suffice it to say, every single mistake our heroes make in this book has become standard operating procedure today.  What was once unthinkable and horrifying has become commonplace.  The further it goes, the more nostalgic I become, and the more relevant this book becomes.  That’s the foundation for this tragedy.

Enough reminiscing.  Let’s get into it.

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“Dedicated to Christopher Reeve, who makes us believe that a man can fly.”

Summary:  *SPOILER ALERT*

This is the story of an alternate, not too distant future (from the time of the book’s ’96 release).  Our perspective character is Norman McKay, an older pastor at a small church in Metropolis.  One of his congregation, Wesley Dodds (who adventured in the 1940s as The Sandman) is suffering apocalyptic visions on his death bed and tries to warn McKay the end is coming.  Upon his death, those visions are passed to McKay for reasons and by means unknown to him.  He is a man who remembers how it used to be, when heroes protected and inspired, before the New Breed.  Ten years previous, Superman inexplicably turned his back on mankind, abandoning his Never-Ending Battle.  In the wake of this, many of his Justice League counterparts retired or maintained a less than healthy distance from humanity.  The rest went underground, or they went rogue.

The New Breed of “hero” is nothing of the sort.  Many of them are the sons or daughters of Superman’s generation of metahumans.  This new generation has largely wiped out the threats of the past, and in their boredom they’ve turned to fighting each other.  Civilians are caught in the crossfire on a regular basis, with whole sections of city falling down around them in testament to the power they toss around.  It’s gotten bad enough that the United Nations is working to find global peacekeeping options, but options are limited against such might.

The leader of this new generation is an armored spectacle called Magog.  In the wake of Dodds’ passing, Magog leads his Justice Battalion into the heart of Kansas after the Parasite.  The Parasite has already surrendered, and that surrender has been declined in favor of complete pacification.  The Battalion closes on him, and desperate and afraid, the Parasite grabs a hold of Captain Atom, absorbing his nuclear abilities.  (Note: For those of you who’ve read Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the character of Doctor Manhattan was based on Captain Atom.  That should give you an idea of the power level in play here.)  Parasite then uses those abilities to rip the hero open, laying waste to the central third of the United States.

The Spectre is an avenging angel sent to judge the guilty, not from the events of Kansas, but of that which will transpire as a result.  But for that, he needs McKay.  (Note: For those of you familiar with The Bible, it’s said that every instance of God’s wrath in the scriptures is a manifestation of the Spectre, before he was bonded to a human for perspective.)  Guided by McKay’s visions, The Spectre is able to lead McKay through the events that will lead to the coming Armageddon.  It begins when Wonder Woman makes her way to the Fortress of Solitude to tell Kal-El of the news of Kansas, desperate for him to come forward and reassemble the Justice League to end the madness.  Upon Superman’s return, the Man of Steel issues a mandate from on high: the New Breed of metahumans will join the Justice League and conform to their standards of heroism and conduct… or they will be dealt with.  The problem lies in the growing concern that Superman is no longer as certain of himself as he once was, and leadership of the League begins slipping to Wonder Woman.  As counterpoint, Wonder Woman was herself banished from her Amazons for not being proactive enough in the wake of Superman’s absence.  Having failed in her mission of peace, she’s long since succumbed to a warrior’s brutality, unleashing “eye for an eye” level justice to the metahumans who refuse to conform.  Where Kal-El is not certain, Diana is too certain and hardlined, and she convinces Superman of some terrible new ideas.  Those metahumans who are subdued in her war are forced into a gulag for “reeducation.”  It’s a fascistic line that frightens not only the metahumans, but also the humans across the globe.

Opposing the League are unlikely allies.  Lex Luthor has joined forces with many top criminal minds of the past to form his Mankind Liberation Front.  Young Billy Batson (Captain Marvel, aka Shazam) has grown up in the wake of the metahuman horrors, and Luthor has brainwashed him to serve as his anti-Superman insurance in the event the Man of Steel should ever resurface.  Batson has never been allowed to forget he has a monster inside him.  Joining Luthor in unholy alliance is Bruce Wayne, aka The Batman, and his team of highly trained street-level superheroes, all of whom have maintained peace and order as best they could, in the only way they know how.

When the fight comes down to a head, it’s the worst of all possible scenarios.  Wonder Woman and the Justice League issue an ultimatum to the rioting population of the gulag to stand down or face the consequences.  Captain Marvel is sent to break the gulag open on top of the League, starting an all-out war.  Superman speeds to the crisis in a bid to stop Captain Marvel.  Batman and his team enter the fray in the hopes of simply stemming the loss of life where possible.  And unbeknownst to all of them, the UN has decided to neutralize the risk to humanity… by dropping nukes on the lot of them before their combined powers can further devastate the world.

As the drama plays out, the Spectre asks of his witness, Norman McKay, for the human perspective: judge who is to be punished.  Simply point the finger, and God’s will be done.

I won’t ruin the ending here for those who want to read it, but suffice to say… hope really does flourish where you least expect it.

My Thoughts:

Pretty much every superhero in this classic roster operates under the notion that one person can make a difference.  That’s why they’re Earth’s Greatest Heroes.  Separately, they are effective, undeniably the best at what they do.  Together, they are greater than the sum of their parts.  But the manner of their effectiveness is determined by their hearts.  At the center of them has always been Superman.  Raised by loving parents who passed on their optimism and morals, the Man of Steel set the standard that all other heroes look to on some level in the quest to uphold the good.  Despite being an alien, Superman is the most human of the superheroes where it matters most, representing the best of what we’re capable of being.  His secret identity allowed him to live among us, to maintain his human perspective, to stay on top of situations before they got truly out of control.  Unlike Batman, his quest was never vengeance, and he never sought to limit freedoms by maintaining absolute order.  Unlike Wonder Woman, his desire to help wasn’t a mission from a divine power.  His place on this world is defined by his morals and the understanding of what happened to his homeworld of Krypton.

The biggest criticism I ever hear from anyone is how nobody can relate to Superman.  Batman’s the human one, after all.  He’s out there fighting the good fight, getting his hands dirty, and facing down crime on its own level.  People always toss in the fact that he does it with no powers, as though that makes a difference to how a hero sets a standard.  He’s simply the cool one.  Have you ever thought for a moment what that would mean, for Superman to fight the “good fight” the way Batman does?  To see what that means, one only needs to turn the clock back to 1938, when Superman was underpowered compared to what we know now… and he was a killer.  But because he’s evolved as a character into something better, the criticism is that he doesn’t do enough, and what he does do comes far too easy for him.

Kingdom Come is precisely the book that tears down all of those notions.  This is a man who was raised to uphold the sanctity of life.  His power is such that he could dominate this world absolutely and easily, but he doesn’t.  He lives in this world as delicate to him as cardboard is to us, choosing instead to inspire us to keep building something better.  That’s the Superman I know.  If absolute power corrupts absolutely, then Superman is far stronger than anyone gives him credit for simply not crossing that line.  It takes an even stronger man at heart to stick to those beliefs when faced with devastating personal loss and choose not to go on a streak of vengeance just because he could.  Nobody would blame him if he did, but he chooses to live by example yet again.  Things happen in threes in stories, and the third time is always when things snap loudly.  The first straw for Superman is the loss of Lois, the Daily Planet, and his life as Clark Kent.  The price is the tethers to his humanity in the present.  The second is the destruction of Kansas, cutting the strings of his past.  The third is the climax of this story.  The public chose the hero who would kill over the hero who wouldn’t, and it ultimately leads to the highest price imaginable with an all-too-human response.

What was lost was his human perspective.  All he had left was the superhuman.  All it took was for one person to believe in him again, for the right reasons.  It’s the kind of thing that you can’t explain to people.  The old saying in writing is “show, don’t tell.”  That’s what this book is all about, showing what happens when belief is eroded, and showing how to reclaim it before it’s too late.  This story is fundamentally about him trying to recover what was lost to help heal the world.  The longer he goes without seeing it, the faster the world speeds toward the brink of destruction.

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“Those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither.” — Benjamin Franklin

The world without Superman’s example is a horrific place.  You can see the effect it has everywhere.  The classic heroes have become harder, more extreme, more inhuman.  The new metahumans are scary beyond all reason.  Batman has been broken and reassembled, held together by a metal exoskeleton and his iron will, pushed into maintaining absolute order in Gotham with a series of robotic Bat-Knights.  Even Wonder Woman, whose mission of peace was all-consuming, has been pushed into crossing the line, her bright spark of hope extinguished by Superman’s absence.  The brighter the picture, the darker the negative.  Rather than shaping the world, the world without the Man of Steel shaped them.  In this, one can see the true power Superman wielded, as corny as people think it to be.  In the 90s, Superman was considered outdated.  In the post-9/11 world where security trumps freedom nearly every time, Superman has been rewritten to conform, with no Kent wisdom to hold him back from doing what must be done.  That’s what sells, according to DC.  In a lot of ways, the Superman of today’s comic books is a lot like Magog.  The Batman of today wields high-tech systems of order, patrolling Gotham remotely through the digital realm, just as he does here.  And today’s Wonder Woman is a warrior who draws her sword first and asks questions later, just as Diana was driven to do to overcompensate for her perceived failure.  As I said up top… prophetic.

Magog is the embodiment of everything that was wrong with comic books at the time of his creation.  It’s in his attitude, it’s in his operating procedure, and it’s even in his costume.  He is the worst the 90s had to offer, a commentary on the glut of new heroes that changed the paradigm.  The world of Kingdom Come is the result of what happens when everything becomes darker, grittier, and generally hopeless.

Despite the religious overtones, this story is not about dogma or scripture.  That’s only the veneer because most people in the western world know (or think they know) the story of Revelations.  It’s an ominous-sounding part of our collective culture, and Kingdom Come plays up to it big time.  But the story is about something bigger than true Armageddon.  This book is about the human spirit.  It works on many levels because this version of Superman is the erosion of the Superman I understand.  It’s a crisis of faith for humanity because their savior is no longer their savior.  It’s a crisis of faith for Superman because he’s no longer certain of his place in the world and struggles under the pressure of the role he’s been cast into.  It’s a crisis of faith for pretty much everyone else as the world gets turned upside down and inside out before being hit by nuclear fire.

It’s so fitting that those who bear witness are a pastor who has likewise lost his faith and an angel with no ability to act without a human perspective to guide him.  It’s so necessary for this story to have McKay and The Spectre, and while they don’t feature prominently in this review, everything that happens is seen for the reader to interpret through their eyes.

If you look at DC’s “Big 3” of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, they each represent something very different.  Wonder Woman is the embodiment of the power of hope, the shining beauty of the bygone classical eras of the past.  She looks as good as she ever did, but even immortals can feel the crushing weight of the present.  Without the promise of tomorrow, hope clings in desperation to the past and fights viciously against the present.  Batman is the guy who confronts the dark present with all of the skill and cunning he can muster, but he has no happy past to push off against, and he fears what the future will bring without his efforts.  He turns that fear on others to be effective.  He lives only in the now.  One of Superman’s various nicknames is The Man of Tomorrow.  He is the zenith of hope for the future, the one who heralds the promise of brighter paths ahead.  Each relies on what the others know of the past and present, but Superman alone understands the power needed to shape a better tomorrow.  It requires faith (Wonder Woman) and preparation (Batman).  He can’t do it alone.  He knows that no one is that strong.  This is what I mean when I say these characters are stronger together than separate.  They know it too.

Captain Marvel is us.  All of us.  According to many beliefs, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.  We actually walk with a foot in a both worlds, the human and the divine.  We are, symbolically speaking, powered by everything that was gifted to us in the bolt of lightning needed to awaken our primordial forms.  And we have been brainwashed by those in authority who think they know better and/or seek to control the world to smother our spark of greatness, to fear it out of ignorance.  We are afraid of our own potential, as individuals, and as a species.  It only requires a single magic word to call forth the lightning and make things happen.  We manifest it by our will when we recognize that the difference between the human and the divine is only in our heads.

Ask yourself… when everything seems lost, when you have nowhere else to turn and no one to trust, where do you find the strength to continue?

I ask myself that very question each and every single morning.  I’m no Superman.  I don’t have to be.  Most days I feel like I can’t turn that hamster wheel any further.  I stop, I fly off, and I hit the proverbial brick wall.  It feels like it requires superhuman levels of fortitude to recover from that and get back into the game.  All I need is to find that glimmer of hope to keep my faith alive, to help me to choose to fight the Never-Ending Battle one more day.  I choose one more time to be human, knowing that I am infinitely adaptable and capable of greater things.  If I inspire someone else to do likewise in the process, then the candle of hope just got a little brighter, but sometimes it’s enough to simply keep it lit.  That’s what it means to be human when we’re at our very best.  That’s what these heroes are all about when they’re written by those who understand them.  This book is about what happens when that candle is allowed to burn out, and what it takes to light a new one.

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On much lighter points, Kingdom Come works for me on other levels.  Fandom is a form of faith, and fandom is rewarded in this book.  Most people are aware of the big players in this book, even if they’ve never picked up a comic.  The story is easy enough to follow.  But for those of us longtime fans, there are levels of geekery untold in this, both in terms of story and art.  The story easter eggs exist in the form of the characters themselves, many of whom are carrying on the legacies of characters the fans already know.  In the art, Alex Ross’ work is not only a feast for the eyes, but there are easter eggs so numerous and so obscure that it required printed guides back in the day to point them all out page by page.  A few of these little nuggets of awesome include:

*Jimmy Olsen as Turtle Boy
*a copy of Hollis Mason’s book Under the Hood (from Watchmen)
*a little skull in the pupil of the Spectre’s eye
*the nuclear delivery system that looks suspiciously like the Kryptonian rocket / birthing matrix that brought the infant Kal-El to earth
*the mute supervillain Non from Superman II
*Batman’s bat-suit is based on RoboCop, with the neck support courtesy of Darth Vader.  Very telling, no?
*the license plate of a car that reads “28IF” (Beatles fans, this one’s for you)
*the robotic Pepper Guard (based on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)
*Captain Marvel Jr. looks like Elvis Presley (Elvis was a fan and based his 70s jumpsuits on Captain Marvel Jr.)
*Catwoman now looks like her “old woman” disguise from her very first appearance in Batman #1, Spring 1940
*All of the little props stashed around the Planet Krypton restaurant
*Batman’s robotic Bat-Knights look like Transformers versions of the original 1940s Batmobile
*The flashback renderings of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman recreating the covers of Action Comics #1, Detective Comics #27, and Wonder Woman #1 respectively
*Farmer Superman in the Fortress of Solitude with the board over his shoulder is in the same pose as on the cover of Superman #1

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Every single time I pick up this book, I find something new to appreciate.  As years go by, the thing I appreciate most is that this book exists in the first place, honoring all that has gone before, and offering solutions to the train wreck that exists now.  And even if DC never figures it out, it’s very difficult to completely erase decades of iconic storytelling, and even more difficult to erase those ideas from the human psyche.  Old fashioned heroism may seem corny to some, but it never truly goes out of style.

5 stars

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