Can the cast-off superheroes of a bygone era return and prevent a coming Armageddon in a world populated by a new breed of metahuman? And more importantly, should they?
KINGDOM COME (1996) #1-4
Writer: Mark Waid
Artist: Alex Ross
Letters: Todd Klein
Publisher: DC COMICS
What You Need to Know:
Kingdom Come is one of those rare books where you don’t really need prior knowledge of the DC Comics universe to enjoy it, but the more knowledge you have will certainly increase your engagement. Many of the collected editions contain collections of Apocrypha that will help flesh out the world of Kingdom Come for you, but even then, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
What You Will Find Out:
This modern-era classic Elseworlds tale is told from the perspective of Pastor Norman McCay, a regular human living in a superpowered world. McCay is recruited early on by the Spirit of Vengeance, The Spectre, to assist the spirit in passing judgment for an impending disaster. As the two agents gather evidence for the final moment of judgement, Norman serves as a guide to a world where the god-like superheroes of the 20th century, the Justice League, have mostly stepped from the center stage, replaced dominantly by a new, hyper-violent, irresponsible generation of metahumans that blur the lines between hero and villain. Over the course of the narrative, we see the rise of the “hero” Magog, who’s killing of The Joker catapults him to the popular consensus Hero of Metropolis, supplanting Superman, who then retreats into a life of isolation. As we enter the story, we see the aftermath of a superhero battle led by Magog in the American Heartland, in which a weakened and desperate Parasite killed Captain Atom and irradiated most of the breadbasket, killing millions and throwing the world economy into a tailspin.
Wonder Woman approaches Superman in his seclusion at the Fortress of Solitude and pleads with him to end his self-imposed, ten-year exile. “Kal, please. Our generation takes its lead from you. We always have.” A brief tour of fleeting moments shows the reader a more Mercury-esque rendition of The Flash, who has melted into the Speed Force, still patrolling Central City but never a part of it; a Hawkman turned eco-terrorist in the Pacific Northwest; a Green Lantern silently waiting in an empty construct city in space, detached from humanity; and a King of Atlantis no longer concerned with the affairs of the surface world. Finally, we see the totalitarian city-state of Gotham, patrolled by Bat-Sentries orchestrated by a tired and broken Bruce Wayne.
Finally, as Norman McCay berates The Spectre for his own detachment, a metahuman fight in which there are no clear heroes or villains breaks out, endangering countless civilians. Norman bemoans, “Look around us! They’re worse than before! They’re not acting out of boredom! They’re acting with abandon! Before Kansas, they at least had some grasp of responsibility! Now they haven’t even that!” And as McCay calls for the need for hope, hope arrives like a bird, like a plane. Superman has returned, but he very well may bring Armageddon with him.
“Truth and Justice”
With Superman’s return, so too returns a new incarnation of the Justice League, although the fight for truth and justice has a new target—the “vast phalanx of self-styled ‘heroes’ unwilling to preserve life or defend the defenseless.” After addressing the UN and placing fear into the hearts of humanity, Superman makes a failed recruiting trip to the Batcave, wherein Bruce wants absolutely nothing to do with the new crusade. The World’s Finest no more, Bruce is busy hatching other schemes, recruiting his own team for the coming dangers of the League’s return heralds. While the League continues to spread across the nation, recruiting more allies and retraining the new breed of metahumans, an elderly Luthor gathers a Legion of Doom with the mission of pushing human and meta tensions to the brink, hoping to force humans to cast out the metas and regain control of the world. Luthor’s secret weapon is revealed to be Captain Marvel.
As recruitment efforts continue to spread globally, we see that the mere sight of Superman is not enough for many metahumans to come willingly into the fold, which prompts the notion of a “rehabilitation facility” to come to life. A metahuman prison, a gulag, goes into works, although the location is something of a problem. Atlantis and Apokolips reject Superman outright, but a confrontation with a post-traumatic Magog gives the League the idea to build the prison in the American heartland devastated by Magog and his team. While the prison is built, Bruce and his team align themselves with the Luthor and company.
“Up in the Sky”
Tensions build and morality is tested in the third chapter, as the gulag is filled quicker than expected beyond capacity. The cosmic powers that be in the DCU (The Guardians of the Universe, The New Gods, The Phantom Stranger, and the Wizard Shazam) have turned their backs on Earth, leaving each of the major factions to prepare for war. Bruce’s master plan for infiltrating Luthor’s team is revealed to be no more than attempting to find out the secrets of Captain Marvel’s involvement (Billy is being mind controlled and brainwashed to become a destroyer of superheroes). The League senses McCay and Spectre spying on them, and while Norman attempts to warn them of the coming disastrous prophecy, a prison riot threatens the security of the gulag. All factions begin to converge on the prison.
The final battle, a superhero Ragnarok, takes place, pitting friends versus friends, old versus new, gods versus gods. It is an all-out war, but not all combatants are accounted for. In the heat of the battle, nobody thinks to account for the very human government, who launches a nuclear strike against the battlefield. Again, morality is raised, and Superman questions whether or not the destruction of the metahumans, the League included, may not be in service to the greater good, so he puts the decision into the hands of Captain Marvel, who is both a metahuman and a human, with a foot in both worlds. In the end, Captain Marvel chooses to sacrifice himself to minimize the impact of the bomb, still killing many, but affording some the opportunity to survive. In the wake of the superhuman genocide, the world rebuilds and, with judgment passed, the Spectre parts ways with Norman.
“One Year Later…”
In an all-too-brief epilogue, we see the Trinity of Bruce, Clark, and Diana meet at the Planet Krypton restaurant, and it is revealed that Diana is pregnant with Clark’s child. The parents-to-be wish Bruce to be the godfather to bring balance to their herald of a new generation of superheroes, which he accepts.
What Just Happened?
Written and published in 1996, there is no question that Kingdom Come is a modern masterpiece. The beautifully rendered, fully painted pages from Alex Ross are still among the most shared images in DC Comics history. Mark Waid’s nuanced and balanced narrative launched him into conversations about the all-time great comics writers. The countless reprintings and variety of formats released in the past twenty years speak to the power of this four-part, off-canon tale. There is very little debate to be had that I have encountered as to whether Kingdom Come belongs in the conversation of “greatest comics stories of all time.”
But in terms of message and readings of Kingdom Come, there are many different takeaways and interpretations to be had. Discussions of religion, of race, of class, of nearly any topic you could wish, are there for the taking. But of all of these different readings, the one that I have always found myself drawn to is Kingdom Come as a critique for the comics industry, and that reading is the one in which I will share today with you, dear reader.
1996 marks a very interesting period for the comics industry, and the notion of the traditional superhero led always by Superman. Without getting too deep into the history of comics in the 1990s, and perhaps the biggest of many historic touchstones in the decade was the 1992 founding of Image Comics. Image Comics was founded by a core group of high profile artists essentially as a way of ensuring that they had rights over the properties they created. What readers found in these creator-owned projects, without decades of canon and overly-invasive editorial oversight weighing down the various series was a new sort of superhero—a new generation of highly stylized, highly sexualized, highly violent superheroes. That is not a condemnation of the sort of character found in early Image Comics by any means. Many of those early titles still rank among my personal favorites, but there is no denying that these new heroes were not the comics your parents or grandparents grew up on.
By 1996, Image Comics dominated the comics industry. In terms of sales and units sold, it was quickly becoming clear that the readers had a general preference for the new generation of heroes. Any given issue of Spawn was selling nearly four times the number of units as Batman or Action Comics, the highest selling traditional superhero properties. In response, we can also watch as Marvel and DC attempt to make their own properties edgier in attempts to keep pace, but at the end of the day, nothing they seemed to try was capable of slowing down the new visage of the superhero (until the mass return of several of the Image artists to Marvel comics in the fall of 1996, but that is a story for another time).
Reading through Kingdom Come against this historical background, it becomes clear that Waid and Ross bring the contemporary role of the traditional superhero into question. On the surface, it almost seems the narrative is simply critiquing the nature of the new generation of superheroes, but it is more nuanced than that. The constant calls to update the heroes of old to keep pace in a changing world comes under examination here. Superman’s return comes with an evolution of his mission, elevated his never-ending battle into a war, with grave consequences. In trying to evolve, the Justice League brings on the prophesized Armageddon. Instead, I choose to read the judgment handed down by the Spectre and Norman McCay as a judgment on abandoning the traditional, and by extension a judgment on the comics industry as a whole. McCay is analog for comics fandom in my reading—somebody who has fleeting memories of what superheroes used to be, what they could be again but does not quite grasp how it all went awry. Unknowable at the time, history would, in a sense, prove Mark and Alex right, but it would take a real-world tragedy to return the traditional superhero back to the top of the sales charts. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, would later prove to be the “Kansas explosion” moment that heralded the return of yesterday’s superheroes, but in their exile, they too would change and evolve—just not as drastically as some might have feared.
Final Thought: Of course, as I stated, that is but one of many readings of Kingdom Come to be had. I attempted to not overburden the recap with too many details, because this series, in many ways, defies summary. If you have not experienced Kingdom Come firsthand, I highly encourage you to. Don’t take my word for it.
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