Donny reviews a comic book about superheroes and the end of the world.
Even while Alex Ross was still working on Marvels (1994) for Marvel Comics he decided he wanted to do a similar “grand opus” for DC. Where Marvels was about the beginning of the Marvel superheroes, Ross (inspired by Watchmen and Alan Moore’s lost work, “Twilight of the Superheroes”) decided to make this about the end of the DC heroes. DC paired him up with Mark Waid, and the result was Kingdom Come.
It’s a fine but flawed work. My biggest critique with Kingdom Come is that the POV character, Pastor Norman McCay, is not a compelling character – certainly not compared to the photojournalist in Marvels. The photographer was an actual protagonist of a story – it was all about him. McCay is in the entire first half of the first issue and initially seems interesting, but then the actual story starts (the opening scenes about McCay and the death of the Sandman had absolutely nothing to do with what follows) and then McCay pretty much has nothing to do in the book but watch. It’s very Christmas Carroll-like, with McCay and the Specter just invisibly going around watching the story unfold. I think this comic would have been better if the whole Pastor McCay thread had been cut. My feeling is that the only reason it’s in there is because (a) the idea of having a normal human as a POV character worked well in Marvels, and (b) the model for McCay was Alex Ross’s father, who is a minister, and Ross conceived of McCay as a “tribute” to his dad’s profession… and it lends another religious element to the story.
Where Alan Moore’s lost “Twilight of the Superheroes” was inspired by the Norse Ragnarok, Ross and Waid, as the title implies, took their inspiration for Kingdom Come from the Book of Revelations. Magog, the anti-hero who drives Superman into retirement, is mentioned in Revelations 20:8 as an enemy of God. The moment we see Magog in the comic, it’s obvious that he’s based on Rob Liefield’s characters (who all, infamously, looked alike). Let’s walk through that baskstory before we get to the Kingdom Come plot summery because it will then make more sense.
In the early ‘90’s a group of artists, including Rob Liefield, arose at Marvel with a flashy, sexy, hyperactive style that was aimed at “giving 14 year-old boys what they want” (Todd McFarlane): huge guns, massive testosterone-fueled muscles, explosions, blood, lots of clinched teeth, and lots of T&A. They started Image Comics, and since they weren’t part of the comics code, they made their books very “rated R.” These hot artists believed writers just got in the way, and so they did away with them – stories don’t matter only flashy, sexy pictures. They realized that when later selling their original art at comic cons, the pin-up splash pages sold for more money (and they were quicker to draw), so they started drawing every page as a splashy pin-up whether the story warranted it or not. They also realized that a page with first appearance of a new character would sell for more, so Liefield started introducing new characters (who mostly all looked alike) twice an issue – and the “stories” (such as they were) never really did anything with these characters anyway. They didn’t care about characters or quality or morals or heroism… They cared about getting schmoozed.
Here’s McFarlane from Comic Book Rebels (1993): “Comics is an entertainment business, and in most entertainment businesses, the one who sells the most – not necessarily the best, but the one who’s the most commercial – they usually get schmoozed the most, you know? But [fellow artist] Jim Lee wasn’t getting schmoozed.” The reason they left Marvel is important. It wasn’t for creator rights. It wasn’t to tell more mature or sophisticated or personal stories that Marvel and DC weren’t publishing. It was because they weren’t getting schmoozed.
This inside baseball is important to know in order to properly interpret Kingdom Come. This story is set about 20 years into the future of the DC universe. The Old Guard heroes are of retirement age. Silver-haired Batman has a son and Dick Grayson has a daughter, both in their early 20’s. Meanwhile, the new, young “heroes” plaguing the Kingdom Come Earth are all ego. They don’t care about heroism, valor, or moral codes. They want to be schmoozed.
In Kingdom Come, Superman and the old fashioned heroes have been “shunned by a public that has instead grown enamored with the more savage, bloodthirsty, chrome-suited avengers of tomorrow,” – echoing the actual rise of the “R rated,” Image anti-heroes. The action of the story centers on the growing conflict between “traditional” superheroes, such as Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice League, and a growing population of largely amoral and dangerously irresponsible new vigilantes.
Is Superman a boy scout relic of the 1950’s, hopelessly outdated for today’s world? Batman explains to Superman: “Ordinary folks decided you and I were too gentle and old-fashioned to face the challenges of the 21st century. They wanted their ‘heroes’ stronger and more ruthless. Be careful what you wish for.” Batman’s summation seems more chilling post-9-11. In a strange way, this book can almost be seen as foretelling the post-9-11 world. The Joker’s terrorist attack against the Daily Planet is basically the equivalent 9-11. It’s the turning point and the signal that everyone has entered a darker more terrifying world where we are willing to torture people and spy on ourselves to make us feel “safe.” Super-villains were no longer colorful (even charming) rogues; they were psychopathic mass-murders. (“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”) We don’t need moral exemplars like Superman; we need brutally violent avengers (shock and awe) and black-ops killers… like Magog.
I’ll add this: one of the best things about this book is the way it slaps down that idiotic Zack Snyder false-Superman film 17 years before it was made. Magog says to Superman, “They choose the man who would kill over the man who wouldn’t. Now they’re dead.” Superman’s absolute moral stance is a key plot component here. “I will not sanction lethal force,” he tells Wonder Woman. “There are lines we don’t cross. We have rules.” Soon after, he reminds Bruce, “The deliberate taking of human – even super-human – life goes against every belief I have – and that you have.” When I re-read lines like that, after Snyder’s false-Superman film, I wanted to applaud.
This is all “witnessed” by pastor McCay who is plagued by visions of Armageddon and believes that the metahumans have us hurtling down a one-way track towards global destruction. When Superman first appears he has a wooden beam across his shoulders (cross-like) and you can see three 9-inch nails in his back pocket. After a ten year absence, when he reappears one of the reporters refers to “the second coming of Superman.” When he goes to visit Bruce in the Bat Cave he walks on water, and when he invites some of the young metahumans to join the Justice League, Nightstar (daughter of Nightwing and Starfire) says, “I feel like I just got asked to become the thirteenth disciple.”
It begins to feel like they are over-working the Jesus metaphors, but there’s a method to it. Without giving too much away, it’s all a bait and switch. At the climax, there’s a different character, not Superman, who is reveled as half-man-half-god who sacrifices his life to save the world. Psyche! Fooled ya!
When Superman first appears in the book it looks like he is working a farm, but the farm is only a hologram inside the Fortress of Solitude. He isn’t actually growing anything real. He’s become the sterile Fisher King. At the end, he is working a real, super-sized farm. He’s retired from bashing bad-guys to take-up his earthly father’s trade in order to feed the world. Batman turns Wayne Manor into a hospital and now wears white instead of black; he, too, has taken-up the legacy of his father, Dr. Thomas Wayne. This really is the end of the era of masked vigilantes. By the end of the story, they’ve all unmasked, and (like Clark) are pursuing good through means other than punching and zapping people. This was DC’s answer to Marvels, only instead of going back to the beginning, they went to the end. However, this book, ultimately, doesn’t hold-up as well as Marvels. Marvels had a strong through-line following the newspaper photographer, but this work has no central character and feels too scattered.
Another serious problem with this book is that you have an ensemble of star characters that are sadly mistreated. Green Lantern, Dick Grayson, Flash, and Hawkman never speak a single line and aren’t in any way differentiated; they basically amount to background decoration.
There’s also the problem that you don’t get a good sense of motion in this book. Ross’s paintings are gorgeous, and most of the panels in this book could be turned into great posters, but at the end of the day I think Ross’s work does better as wonderful cover paintings. Yes, his comics look super life-like… but life-like doesn’t make great sequential art. Quite the contrary. Cartoons look alive and animated. Ross’s paintings look like beautiful but frozen tableaux. It bothered me more in Kingdom Come than Marvels – I think because Marvels was all about how these metahumans would look to ordinary people in real life, and something about the central character being a photographer means seeing the book as a series of still photographs is less bothersome for me. Plus, Marvels doesn’t really have any super-powered battles in it that are depicted head-on; part of the point is how ordinary folk only catch these things obliquely – so with less action to depict, Ross’s frozen tableaux work better.
There are a few great scenes. I love the one where Bruce decks Billy Batson and (Spoiler) betrays Lex Luther (like you didn’t see that coming). And the fight between Superman and Captain Marvel is great. There’s a funny gag where Bruce is talking to Superman and looks up to find that Superman has already flown off, half-smiles, and says, “So that’s what that feels like.” (Christopher Nolan used a variation on this gag in Dark Knight Rises.) It also contains the first (and I think only) time in comics where you have a real, actual war between metahumans, with a thousand super-powered individuals fighting to the death. And the panels are each worth studying because the backgrounds are full of fun cameos: Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Spock, Spider-man, Thor, Captain America, Phil Sheldon (from Marvels), and Rorschach.
What Kingdom Come is most successful at, is being an antidote to the dearth of bloody, gritty, rated-R, Image-style anti-heroes of the early ‘90’s. Frank Miller, in Dark Knight Returns, broke-up the Batman & Superman bromance… but in this book their animosity is more believable, more motivated, and doesn’t feel forced. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns ends with Superman beating Batman to death (sort of) in an under-motivated fist fight. Kingdom Come ends with a Batman-Superman hug – and it’s not at all as cheesy as it sounds. The whole final scene in the restaurant is one of the best, most satisfying, in this, or any, comic, and by-itself it makes up for any of the book’s shortcomings.