Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross
In the loftier realm of notable comics such as Alan Moore's Watchmenand Neil Gaiman's Sandman series resides a less-lauded but similarly memorable offering called "Kingdom Come." Penned by Mark Waid and painted (yes, painted) by the outstanding Alex Ross, it is as much a glorification of the Golden Age of Comics as not, with many references to the early framework in words and sly visual winks non-afficianados will possibly miss. However, its real merit lies in the shaping of those garish legends from a timeless angle that gives it a sobering depth most anyone could appreciate.
It is the story of the DC Comics Universe, 30 years from "now." In that place, the world has become so much more like the increasingly vertiginous one we know that the original heroes have largely retired or simply absented themselves from the playing field in disgust. Their children, literally or figuratively, have gradually come to run amuck, battling in the streets with no appreciable moral sense and no regard for the damage they do. The Olympics have evaporated, becoming too pale to support in a world where mere human achievement has been eclipsed by individuals who can topple buildings and do so with callous impunity. People are sorely afraid and understandably so. There are those who still maintain a basic sense of right and wrong, but the line has become hazy and uncertain. That loss of principles and the subsequent lack of cohesion set the stage for a disaster that puts the world on the brink of oblivion.
The apparent starting point is shown to be where The Joker kills everyone in the Daily Planet building, including Superman's wife Lois and many of his old friends. Before he can be captured, a new, morally-ambivalent character aptly named Magog kills him in the street. He is put on trial for murder, yet public opinion sways the jury heavily and he is set free. Incensed at the tacit approval of murder, the jeering he is subjected to as being too old-fashioned for the modern world and what he perceives both to mean, Superman chooses to depart for the Fortress of Solitude, remaining unseen for years thereafter. This pivotal event gives the newer breed seeming license to be as unrestrained as they choose and they run increasingly wild as result.
The story picks up in real-time where Magog and a team of similarly-minded, not-exactly-heroes/not-really-villains pursue an energy-draining psychotic called The Parasite into the Kansas wheat belt. In the fight, Captain Atom is split down the chest and the release of radiation as he and his team are killed utterly poisons the Bread Basket, leaving only Magog alive at its epicenter. He is devastated by this and comes to an emotional halt, but the damage is done. Suddenly, the threat of unrestrained super-humans comes to a screaming peak and harsh wheels being turning.
As human communities both legitimate and less so begin to coalesce in response, Wonder Woman visits "Clark Kent," who knows nothing of these events, sequestered at the North Pole. Despite her anger, he still asks why it should fall to him to fix the situation. She points out that above any others, he was always the pivot and primary example of what was Right. Her words naturally sink in after her departure, leading to his reappearance and a gradual gathering of old and new allies to address the enormity of the situation that has developed. Rather then being a simple two-sided conflict, there is a morass comprising several sides: the somewhat naive, square-jawed old guard; a newer & more crafty, subtle guard that sees itself as having a better way of doing things; the opportunistic villainry; the gang mentality of the violent group that will not even cooperate within itself; and the governments of the world faced with a towering threat they can no longer tolerate.
Superman's group takes it upon itself to create a gulag to house super-powered individuals who will not fall into line, but the management and guarding thereof becomes yet another issue, struggling with the inherent danger and the hotly-debated morality of an essential concentration camp aimed at trying to rehabilitate those who evidence little likelihood of seeing the proverbial light in any way. It is clearly a powder keg.
Framing the situation is The Spectre, a supernatural character charged with punishing murderers. He has seen seminal murder at the center of this evolving horror and foresees much more to come. He "deputizes" a dispirited minister with a fading congregation to be his spiritual guide, saying it is a human problem beyond his ability to properly judge due to its complexities. Unseen by others, they observe and argue about the ramifications as the crises mount. (Ross used his own father, who IS a minister, as the model for the character. Its a nice touch and typical of many such artists, who keep photographic reference books of people and various locations.)
The climax comes in a raging tumult at the gulag, when the escaping prisoners are engaged by the "good guys," literally raising a cloud that blots out much of the Sun over the area. In fear of what will happen if the situation is allowed to continue unchecked, the united governments of the world release three nuclear bombs over the battlefield. One gets through.
In a blind rage over the killing of so many in this manner, the raw affront of it and the spectacular failure it imposes on him, Superman assaults the United Nations building, but is stopped when the Spectre reveals the minister, who through sheer force of will, causes him to see where and how it truly began to go awry. Superman is told "We were wrong to set you above us like gods." He says "… and we were wrong to let you, when we should have been among you to begin with." Thus is a costly parity reached.
There are many fine character touches to be had and even relationships not fully grasped by non-fans are easy to understand in the more classic sense of story-telling. One of many enjoyable visuals is the original Green Lantern sitting on a board of government advisors, wearing a suit… and as cufflinks, his ring insignia in a row of three. Another is a store window featuring a book called Under the Hood, a direct reference to a framing element of Watchmen. A key story moment is an argument between the now older and less physically-able Batman and Superman, wherein Batman is uncharacteristically caught by surprise when Superman says "Despite our disagreements over the years, one thing I've always known is that when you scratch the surface of the Batman, what you find is someone who doesn't want anybody else to have to die!" The startled look on Bruce Wayne's face speaks wordless volumes.
In the coda, "Clark Kent" and Diana (Wonder Woman) ask to meet Bruce Wayne at a restaurant. They are clearly a couple and their surprise news is cut short when he says "You're pregnant. Just what the world needs: another spit-curled demigod." They turn the tables and surprise him by asking that he be the godfather, because he can offer a worldly pragmatism and unique sort of decency a child might not get in a fuller form from such towering parents. Throughout, the connections, differences and similarities between these three founding characters are balanced against one another by Waid's sure hand, to great effect.
I have a good friend who scoffed a bit at the comics field in general and since he played in a praise band at one time, I sent him this book due to its slightly religious yet non-preachy overtones. After he read it, he called and said soberly "Are all of them like this now? If so, you have a new convert." It speaks highly of a work when someone outside its basic paradigm is touched by its core merits. It is a very large and sweeping tale deserving of such a response and is easy to pass along to others.
Part of what makes Kingdom Come such a great read is that the admittedly fantastic base has a corollary in the real world, where facing problems that have no pat answers or quick fixes can suffer even more from the rigid application of too heavy a hand. It is a tale of responsibility being rejected and denied until it festers and inevitably reasserts itself in more dire ways for want of proper tending. Its about what can happen when you let the bastards win, not only in the more tangible areas of life as seen on the evening news and C-Span, but even moreso in your own mind and heart. Its about what you stand for and what you won't stand for. Its about finding a way out of The Mess, any mess and planting your feet firmly in a last-minute redemption that can surprise you by having a greater reach than you might have imagined.
The collected version of Kingdom Come includes background and promotional art, commentary from several of the people involved and 2 or 3 clarifying, story-enhancing pages not included in the original serialized release due to space limitations. To see some of the fine artwork from this and other projects, visit www.alexross.com/ and leaf through his online portfolio.