By Mark Waid & Alex Ross (Writers); Alex Ross (Artist); 2008
Set just after the dawn of the 21st Century, in a world spinning inexorably out of control, comes this grim tale of youth versus experience, a tradition versus change, while asking the timeless question: what defines a hero? Kingdom Come is a riveting story pitting the old guard – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and their peers – against a new, uncompromising generation of heroes in the final war against each other, to determine nothing less than the future of the planet.
Yet another acclaimed book I acquired years ago and never read, Kingdom Come is a “grand opus” originally conceived by Alex Ross. He was inspired to do a work like this for DC Comics after his work on the Marvel Comics miniseries Marvels. Ross wrote a 40-page outline of the story that eventually became Kingdom Come, later teaming up with writer Mark Waid at the recommendation of DC editors for Waid’s knowledge of DC characters and their history.
The original miniseries’ run was four issues long, which released from May to August, 1996. The miniseries was published under the DC Comics “Elseworlds” imprint, which was meant for stories that take place outside of DC Universe canon.
The story follows the perspective of an old Pastor named Norman McCray, whom the paranormal hero The Spectre uses as a human anchor to guide him through unfolding events. Present but unseen, the two travel across time and space to witness crucial moments that may be leading the world to an end-times scenario of Biblical proportions. While a little slow-going for me at first his perspective was integral, as he helps us better understand the perspective of the common man caught in the crossfire of this metahuman conflict.
While featuring a vast array of characters from the DC Universe, the story primarily focuses on Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman. Superman is an especially key player in the story as the paragon of the old-guard superheroes who is trying to reign in the new generation that has gotten out of control. This is after he left the public eye for a long time following a tragedy that shifted the paradigm of the metahuman community. These heroes are represented such as they are in older ages of comics with an edge brought on by the harsh present of the story. I thought the book was particularly great as a Superman story, exploring his own humanity and the limits of what he as an individual can handle when faced with this sort of a crisis.
The story is also great for how it deconstructs the superhero genre, especially with the turning point it was at in the 90s. We get the moralistic, traditional heroes who have become aged and are seen as old-fashioned clashing with the younger, more violent generation of heroes who are reckless and morally dubious. The former is more responsible but will not cross certain lines, while the latter does put people in harms way, but isn’t as afraid to dirty their hands for the greater good. The book brings together and explores these two interpretations of the genre in a realistic and thought-provoking way. It works to determine what it really means to be a superhero, and more importantly what it means for humanity when metahuman affairs become bigger than they can hope to control.
The art is painted with gouache by Alex Ross and it is absolutely breathtaking. Whether showing more intimate scenes or two page spreads of large scale battles each painting is packed full of life, detail, and expression. They are photo-real in such a way that, for me personally, I find I prefer a more abstract art style. The costumes look a little garish and silly at times when done this realistically. This is entirely a matter of taste, however. Ross’ work is really nothing short of remarkable. Despite the silly costumes, Ross still manages to make metahumans look distinct too. When it’s just a normal person in an outfit you can immediately tell.
The book is especially jam-packed with DC characters and their descendants — visual references which I’m sad to say I could not appreciate as much as more hardcore DC Universe fans. Many heroes are repeatedly featured without explicitly being identified. Some I know are established, while others I’m not sure if they were invented for this story or not. Regardless the book is full of many great and unique character designs. Deadman is nothing but skeleton in tights and I love it.
Following the story is an “Apocrypha” section that includes sketches of key characters along with descriptions of who they are and general info on the role they play.
A handy tool provided as well, which I didn’t see until after reading, is a section of group pictures with reference numbers that allows you to identify heroes that appear throughout the story, along with snippets of info.
Following this are pieces of promotional art, some details on Ross’ process, and Acknowledgements.
Kingdom Come is definitely one of those comic books that should fall under required reading for fans, regardless of how deep you want to dive into reading comics. The story is wonderfully written and the art is outstanding, with dramatic plot turns unhindered by concerns for continuity. The only barrier to entry is how familiar you are with the DC Universe and its characters. This story is an isolated universe, but there is a shared history present that prior knowledge helps you to better understand.