Set in the not so distant future, the DC Universe is spinning inexorably out of control. The new generation of heroes has lost their moral compass, becoming just as reckless and violent as the villains they fight. The previous regime of heroes—the Justice League—returns under the most dire of circumstances, setting up a battle of the old guard against these uncompromising protectors in a battle that will define what heroism truly is.
Kingdom Come, by Mark Waid and Alex Ross 8.25
You want Batman vs. Superman? You’ve got it: it’s called ‘Kingdom Come’.
Published in 1996, it’s a series of 4 graphic novels by Mark Waid and Alex Ross taking us into a future when DC’s superhero legends have either retired or gone underground, having been replaced by a new generation of crime fighters – crime fighters who have eradicated crime.
Problem is, these new metahumans have lost sight of the values by which the original heroes fought the good fight, and have gradually become the problem, brutally dispatching their targets, killing countless innocent victims and destroying infrastructure in the process.
The whole tragedy is unfolding before the eyes of Norman McCay, a preacher who is beset with visions of the Apocalypse, visions that The Spectre tells him are true. Together, they witness the events that lead yesterday’s heroes to return to fight the so-called heroes of tomorrow.
But there’s a hitch: not everyone’s on board; Superman’s army sees opposition from Batman.
And his crew.
And Lex Luthor’s Mankind Liberation Front.
It’s an ambitious epic that Waid and Ross have constructed. I love what they’ve attempted to do: they confront the growing vigilantism that passes as heroism in comics since the nineties; in bringing back the heroes of old, they remind us of what heroism should look like.
They also challenge the notion that there isn’t a place for them anymore, that humanity has grown darker and wants something different from its heroes: At one point, Wonder Woman tells Superman that he is also a symbol of hope, and that his self-imposed exile has been detrimental.
Humanity has no hope or ambition now: Dispirited by the omnipresence and omnipotence of the new metahumans, who endanger and belittle them, the people of Earth have lost all desire to achieve; anything humanity does pales in comparison, so it merely carries on, defeated.
It needs aspiration. It needs heroes.
I’ve been saying this for years: we need more heroes. Real heroes. Since the nineties, after the surging popularity of anti-heroes like Wolverine and The Punisher in the ’80s, our heroes have become less and less principled; they are reckless and have little respect for the law or human life.
Our current heroes are in fact vigilantes.
The problem is that they’ve at times become indistinguishable from the villains except in name only. So it really just depends on which side of the fence you’re on; either party could claim to be right. And yet these are the people that we hold up as models for ourselves, for our society.
And there’s the rub. Vigilantes are cool because they are doppelgängers for ourselves; they channel the frustration that we feel at being powerless in the face of injustice. We wish we could just lash out and beat back the things that oppress us in one fell swoop. Vigilantes do this very well.
But it’s not heroic.
Justice and heroism are not easy virtues. That’s why some people are labelled heroes: because, in key moments, they’ve supplanted the lowest parts of themselves to do the right thing – often even putting themselves at risk in the process. They selflessly put others above themselves.
Why? Because they believe in the sanctity of life, they believe in the greater good.
People will argue that moral relativism makes our heroes more human. Very true. But we need heroes to be more than human. We need our icons to be something to aspire to, just enough out of reach that we have something to aim for. We need heroes like the classic Superman.
Such is the argument being made in ‘Kingdom Come’.
I’m on their side.
And yet, I don’t fully agree with Waid and Ross’s vision: I felt that Superman was far too indecisive, for one; he became unusually ineffectual. I also found that Luthor’s way of controlling Captain Marvel far too simplistic, and wondered why he didn’t simply use it on every opponent.
Having said this, I felt that their vision is nonetheless supremely well-articulated. The ending is a notable exception, because it feels as though they were pressed to wrap things up; we didn’t a full real scope of the devastation nor the true sense of loss in the metahuman camp.
But, all told, it’s well-written. Very well-written indeed.
And then there’s the artwork: Alex Ross’ spectacular art is absolutely stunning. For people who don’t know the man, he’s a genius: he painted everything in gouache – he didn’t just pencil the strip or draw it on his computer. Wow. Even his layouts are dynamic, creative, fantastic.
It’s such a beautiful book.
I spent almost as much time scrutinizing the page as I did reading the text. It’s just that good. The amount of detail that Ross put into each panel, the number of characters he created, …etc., is amazing to behold. It’s seriously some of the most impressive comic book art I’ve ever seen.
How Ross managed to meet his deadlines is beyond me.
So, all told, I really like ‘Kingdom Come’. Yes, I would have taken it in a different direction. Yes, I don’t find it entirely satisfying. But it’s remains nonetheless a tale for the ages: it’s an original piece that challenges our modern values and perceptions – just like any great literary work would.
But it does it all the while wrapping itself up in flashy spandex.
Frankly, it’s hard to imagine it being done any better.
Post scriptum: Look out for the mini-series’ amusing epilogue, which finds Supes and Wonder Woman asking Batman to be their child’s godfather. Genius. Amusing. And it’s so fitting, especially when you consider their reasoning behind it. What a way to end this stunning tale!