I’ve been on a bit of a superhero kick lately (you might have noticed), but there’s one somewhat classic story that I’d never read—UNTIL NOW! I mentioned to my friend (and frequent P.E.W. contributor), Michael King, that I’d never read Kingdom Come, and he had something similar to a non-lethal heart attack, and then took it upon himself to loan me the books! I’m very glad that he did!
Mark Waid and Alex Ross – Kingdom Come (1996)
Kingdom Come is a four-issue mini-series released by DC Comics in 1996, written by Mark Waid and drawn and painted by Alex Ross…I THINK. It doesn’t actually say on the books who did what, but the art was DEFINITELY created by Ross, who has one of the most distinctive styles in comics EVER!
The story is set sometime in the unspecified but near future, and it involves a pastor who is having dreams about the world being destroyed in a Revelations style apocalypse. The pastor, Norman McCay, is subsequently visited by The Spectre, a former policeman who has become a sort of mysterious, cosmic force, sent to judge humankind for the destruction that Pastor McCay has been dreaming about. I’ve always liked The Spectre, who is a real cool character. He’s strange and other-worldly, and he gives off a very creepy “Angel of Death” kind of vibe, although Pastor McCay seems to think he’s just a plain, old angel. (Which is weird, considering he has no wings, his face is covered with a hood, and he’s creepy as Hell! But who am I to judge???)
Following Pastor McCay and The Spectre around, (they seem to be doing a “Ghost of Christmas Past” type of thing, being invisible, but watching stuff unfold) the reader learns that the planet has become overrun by marauding vigilantes who, having fought most of the villains into extinction, now spend most of their time endangering normal folks and fighting each other. The “classic” superheroes of old, like Superman and Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, have all retired, as the general populace seemed to shift it’s approval away from the moral high-ground that figures like Superman represent, choosing to side instead with more violent and callous “heroes,” like someone named Magog, who KILLS The Joker rather than taking him back to jail or the insane asylum and waiting for him to escape again. Disgusted, Superman and the other more traditional heroes decided to leave and let humanity have it their way. Unfortunately, this eventually leads to chaos.
Interestingly, I couldn’t help but see this story as Waid and Ross commenting directly on comic books THEMSELVES as a medium. By the 1990s, and in the wake of Watchmen and Punisher and Wolverine and other ultra-violent “heroes” whose stories had flooded the market at that time, Kingdom Come reads, to me, like a rebuke of that callous, murderous type of hero. Say what you want about characters like Superman, but his storylines always put a high value on human life. (And, although I think high body-count stories, like the Deadpool movie, can be funny, they don’t represent my true feelings about humanity, violence, or killing people. It is, OF COURSE, possible to separate fantasy from reality and to enjoy those types of stories as FICTION, perhaps even fiction taken to the level of violence where it becomes a SATIRICAL COMMENT on violence ITSELF—but I’m digressing…) The true horror of violence-run-loose is a theme in several books, like Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Miracleman, so comics creators HAVE tackled this subject before, and like those other examinations of the topic, Kingdom Come does NOT glorify the terrors that it displays—in fact we see a guilt-ridden Magog break down in one scene, haunted by the careless mistake he made that caused a nuclear event and killed millions of people.
And all of this metatextuality and examination of violence and uncontrolled power is interesting enough to make this series worth reading, but the REAL star here is Alex Ross’s absolutely breathtaking artwork! The series isn’t presented in old-fashioned four color with the little Ben-Day dots blending together to produce sickening reds and yellows, nor is the series computer colored as many modern books are today. Instead, Ross PAINTS every page in the same style he uses for the covers. His figures are unbelievably real, his color sense is shockingly evocative, and his command of layout is beyond compare. I love a great many comics creators’ art styles, but Ross is truly in a category by himself. (Just look at the covers above and imagine that level of art on every page!) Even if this story was a one-dimensional clunker about bad guys robbing a bank or jewelry store, if Ross painted it, I’d want to read it just to see how he handled the art!
For long-time fans of DC Comics, there are also about a million classic characters who show up in this book, sometimes just in a panel or two, sometimes only mentioned in the dialog, but part of the fun is going through and looking for favorite characters. That said, the story will undoubtedly hold up remarkably well even if the reader is only aware of the three or four biggies who take center stage: Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Captain Marvel. The tale is extremely well told, and the apocalyptic theme, as pushed on the reader by Pastor McCay and The Spectre, keeps the tensions high. The reader doesn’t know FOR SURE what’s going to happen, but we’re certain it’s going to be BAD!
Surprisingly, for a mid-90s book, there isn’t too much explicit gore, (there’s one bloody sword through a chest), and I don’t really even remember any cuss words, so the book might be safe for people as young as middle-school to read… Maybe… (Today’s kids have undoubtedly seen MUCH worse on YooToob.) I can see where some might find the mixture of biblical scriptures with superheroes a bit offensive, but Waid and Ross actually do a good job of equating superheroes to gods in this book, especially Superman, Captain Marvel, and Wonder Woman. (And YES, Alan Moore had already done this—shown superheroes as gods AND shown superheroes gone bad—back in 1982 with Miracleman, but it takes Americans a while to catch up sometimes…) Overall, Kingdom Come is a great story (available in a trade paperback now with some extra pages added) and a quick, enjoyable read. In addition, it’s also an amazing showcase for Alex Ross’s shocking and exceptional artwork! Seriously, he really outdid himself with this series. (I guess I’m going to have to read Marvels now, which was the series Ross painted right before he came up with Kingdom Come. Yet another book to add to the list!!!) Cheers!
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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