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Absolute Kingdom Come

The nineties were a tough decade for the comic book medium. Violence sold. “Grim and gritty” represented the direction for most major comic books. Superman died. Batman was crippled. Green Lantern became a genocidal maniac. The Flash had long since abandoned the comic book universe. This was the era back-to-back Venom miniseries, the rise of Rob Liefeld and the lethal vigilante. A lot of people trace back this trend to the success of groundbreaking series like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, which demonstrated that darker imaginings of conventional superhero comics could sell. Of course, that wasn’t the point of the comics at all, but such complexity is not the speciality of managers and executives. However, if the birth of that so-called “Dark Age” of comic books could be traced back to those roots, then perhaps Kingdom Come can be identified as the birth of a counter-movement against such trends.

Superman brings a lot to the table...

Kingdom Come is, at its core, a Superman story. And it succumbs to the logic which suggests that the very best Superman stories – Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, All-Star Superman and Red Son, for example – all happen outside regular continuity. Kingdom Come explores the question of what the legacy of the boom of comic book anti-heroes will look like in a generation, or even two. Indeed, as one old hero observes, “our story is a generational one”. This is the story of Superman’s attempts to adapt and find his own place in this world, which has been made a hell by young vigilantes who “fight simply to fight, their only foes each other”. As a paragon of the thirties notion of a superhero, and as the quintessential comic book hero, Superman seems perfectly positioned to explore what becomes of a world where the superhero has gone wild.

However – somewhat fittingly – creators Mark Waid and Alex Ross have juxtaposed this particular comic book with earlier examples of “the superhero gone wild” deconstructions. While Frank Miller squarely blamed Superman for allowing himself to be used as a government tool in The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen explored that most people who would don masks to fight crime would, by the nature of the act, be decidedly un-heroic, here they suggest that the comic book superheroes are the victims of this violence and viscious cycle rather than the cause of it.


The ordinary person is responsible for this mess. Ross and Waid suggest the decline of the industry is not due to the irrelevence of characters like Superman, but instead down to the people buying the comics, and the people publishing them. Ordinary people. It’s ordinary people who do the real damage here, be it Luthor’s poisonous idea of “evil” superpeople or the fact that it was opening himself up to the collective consciousness which left the Martian Manhunter a quivering wreck. There’s more than a hint of meta-text when Superman’s violent replacement, Magog, suggests he was thrown out by the court of public opinion:

You’re the one who let himself be strung up by the man on the street. Vox Populi, man. Out with the old, in with the new. Brighter, faster, meaner. Next year’s model. That’s what the hungry crowd always wants. Had to’ve been eating away at you for a while before I even came into town. Hell, they were calling you old-fashioned when I was a teenager. World’s oldest boyscout… but you wouldn’t change.

The notion that this darkness came about not due to some cataclysm or some event outside our control is touched on when Orion observes that, in its own way, “liberty was every bit as paralysing as facism”. Indeed, the word fascism is thrown around quite a bit, a constant reminder of the legacy of these classic characters – many of whom cut their teeth fighting facism. To see them replaced with shallow caricatures – for instance, the supplemental materials describe one such young gun, Americommando, as “Captain America as if he were designed by Rob Liefeld” – is crass and almost painful. In the end, it’s an ordinary man – perhaps the most obvious reader stand-in – who is asked to pass judgement on this mess. Who is to blame? Who is responsible? The finale suggests that the two sides must meet half way – the pnatheon of gods at the DC must embrace their humanity (and even the Spectre must learn to embrace “spinach and cottage cheese”) just as much as humanity must embrace them.

It's a modern Marvel...

Ross and Waid poke at the idea that even our most scred heroes have been wounded and scarred by the trend of darkness and nihilism. Bruce walks around with a metal spine, a constant reminder of the time the hero had his back broken and was briefly replaced by a psychotic antihero. In flashbacks, we can see Superman’s ill-advised ponytail. Indeed, Hal Jordan and Barry Allen, perhaps the two most iconic embodiments of the Silver Age wackiness and joy, are dead and gone – Jordan replaced by his predecessor and Allen replaced by a successor.

This a beautiful little saga constructed with the utmost love and affection. As Ross himself observes in the wealth of supplemental material, this is a story which could only really have been told using the DC characters, which provides another sharp contrast to Watchmen – a story so dark that it found itself pushed out of continuity (it was originally imagined as a relaunch for any number of Charleton characters purchased by DC, but apparently the powers that be though the story would prevent their future use). Instead, Kingdom Come is a story so optimistic and reconstructionist that it must be brought into continuity. This is a story of gods and Olympians, where a themed fast food restaurant is a place where “mortals pay tribute to the gods”.

The superheroes take flight...

And, on a purely shallow note, it’s a lovely put together fable. I realise that Alex Ross’ artwork is take-it-or-leave-it, but I love it. The book is beautifully paced and lovingly written. My own favour moments include a brief appearance from Deadman, as well as the (re)introduction of Green Lantern and the Flash, who now moves so fast that he’s really only a blur – even when standing still.

A huge volume of love and care went into this volume. You can tell that from a casual exploration of any of the panels – spotting any number of obscure characters or references caught in frame – this story was constructed by two true fans of DC lore. For example, you can spot the novel-within-a-comic-book Under the Hood, from Watchmen, in a bookshop window. There are also any number of references to the characters in other medium – hearing Robin declare “Holy God!” in reference to the live action television show or spotting a statue from the Gotham of Batman: The Animated Series.

If you needed any more proof, there’s a comprehensive collection of sketches and character biographies (along with interviews and afterwords) which illustrate just how much care and preparation went into this four-issue miniseries. In case you needed any more proof, there’s also annotations to the series. Being entirely honest, this may be the most impressive collection of supplemental material that I’ve seen on any DC Absolute Edition. Indeed, the articles and commentary bring a whole new level of insight into the work, particularly in fleshing out characters barely seen or hinting at subplots that never made it to the page.

Beware the Superman...

Kingdom Come is an important book. I hesitate to describe it as important as The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, just because those are the two giants of the medium. However, the fact that I can even mention the miniseries in the same breath as those two is an indicator of its quality. It’s a fitting exploration of the extremes of the “darker and edgier” trend that gripped the medium in the nineties, but also simply works as a character study of Superman, that man from another planet.

Kingdom Come is a classic and well worth a read, whether you’re interested in the state of the comic book medium or even just in wondering how the Man of Steel must feel as he enters the twenty-first century.

6 Responses

  1. One of the best series ever!
    Alex Ross is the greatest artist working, if not ever… and these are some of his most iconic images. A must read even for non-comic fans.

    • I’d agree. Anyone with an interest in Superman or even sees him as “outdated” should read it, regardless of whether they’ve ever picked up a comic book in their lives.

  2. Recently read this for the first time, totally blew my mind. Stunning artwork, great story, great writing, too. The whole package.

    • Yep. It just comes together so well. It’s certainly deserving of its stature, and the Absolute Edition seems to be made of equal parts love and awesome.

  3. Great review! I absolutely think that kingdom come is a total classic, when I read it, I heard all the character’s voices from Justice League Unlimited, except older and scratchier, that’s how good the dialogue was. The artwork is also beautiful, but static, but that’s how painted artwork tends to look so it’s that much of a knock on the quality. I can’t wait to pick up the absolute edition.

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