Kingdom Come (1996)
Writer: Mark Waid
Artist: Alex Ross
In 1996, artist Alex Ross was fresh off a very well-received title: Marvels by Kurt Busiek, where some of the Marvel universe’s best-known characters combined in one almighty slugfest. Little did we know that Ross had another superhero ensemble story up his sleeve: the outline for what would eventually become Kingdom Come had been in Ross’s head since he was a teen. That same year, Ross submitted a 40-page plot outline to the folks at DC Comics. He was paired with Mark Waid, a writer who was familiar with the DC universe.
Somewhat unusually, Kingdom Come is narrated not by a vigilante but a regular person, a pastor named Norman McCay. McCay is going through a spiritual crisis of sorts after his friend Wesley Dodd dies with doomsday prophecies on his lips. Dodd, of course, is the Golden Age DC vigilante Sandman (not to be confused with Dream aka Morpheus, Neil Gaiman’s creation). The visions he sees are terrible and involve the new batch of superheroes ushering in the apocalypse. These upstarts are, in many cases, the offspring of old school superheroes of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman vintage.
And where are the Big Three themselves? Wonder Woman has been banished by her tribe of Amazonians for being too soft on the world of men. Batman (Bruce Wayne) has become even more reclusive and irritable in his old age. He rules Gotham with an iron fist, using an army of robots to maintain order. And Superman is revealed to have left Metropolis years and years ago, due to the emergence of Magog, a new, brutal guardian of the city who becomes the new darling of the masses. However, due to a moment of madness involving another superhero called Captain Atom, there is a nuclear explosion that wipes out more than a million people, all but wiping out Kansas and Nebraska. “Early reports indicate immediate casualties numbering close to a million as the dying Atom’s radioactive energy swept hundreds of kilometres, rendering the entire state of Kansas as well as parts of Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri an irradiated wasteland. Though Magog’s comrades have since prevented further spread of the nuclear blight, the total loss of America’s breadbasket and the sterilisation of its agrarian culture has thrown world economy into near-collapse in the face of global famine.”
You’ll find Beard leaning not towards the man who claimed to have saved Rome from the equivalent of the Gunpowder Plot in 63BC, but towards the people who saw Cicero for what he was: a man who bent laws and took lives for his own political ends.
Wonder Woman convinces Superman (now living alone in a farm) that it is time they disciplined the new heroes. They gather their old Justice League comrades and basically go about telling the youngsters: toe the line, or else. The ones that beg to differ are jailed in a prison that is dubbed “The Gulag”. Will the old guard be successful in this massive, nationwide campaign to rein in the loose cannons? This is the primary suspense of Kingdom Come.
It is true that thematically or plot-wise, none of this breaks new ground. But the heavy hitting here is done by the art: Ross has hand-painted each panel in gorgeous gouache, a medium that is perfectly suited for the kind of iconic, opaque, faux-medieval look that a story like Kingdome Come warrants. So good is the art, in fact, that it is regularly cited as one of the best-looking comicbooks of all time. The gouache achieves an effect favoured by specialist cover artists like Glenn Fabry or Dave McKean. Remember the latter’s work on Neil Gaiman’s Signal to Noise? Imagine that kind of art on every single panel, every single page: “meticulous” does not even begin to capture the kind of work Ross has done here.
There is a neat little symmetry at the end of this book. Batman and Superman aren’t quite able to save all the prisoners of The Gulag. But they realise that for a sustainable tomorrow, they must lead the superhero contingent by example. Both heroes “shed” their superhero persona and return to the professions of their fathers: Bruce Wayne becomes a healer and converts Wayne Manor into a charitable hospital. Clark Kent sets about single-handedly restoring life to the Kansas fields he grew up in.
Finally, a lot has been said about Kingdom Come being an allegory for the confused and chaotic world of superhero comics in the ’80s and ’90s. Ross himself has said that he was frustrated with the formulaic stuff being put out during that era. This might be true, but such an awareness is not a prerequisite for enjoying the thrills of seeing Batman go up against the Man of Steel, or Wonder Woman’s rousing battle cry.