It’s The End Of The World As We Know It…
Tripwire continues its 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read While Stuck Inside with its eighty-fourth choice, Kingdom Come, by Mark Waid and Alex Ross and reviewed by Tripwire’s contributing writer Laurence Boyce…
Writers: Mark Waid and Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross
Letters: Todd Klein
Black Label DC
“I tend to think that I’ve seen a lot of things over the past 15 years that have been a bizarre echo of somebody else’s bad mood. It’s not even their bad mood, it’s mine, but they’re still working out the ramifications of me being a bit grumpy 15 years ago.”
While it perhaps seems a bit reductive to say that Watchmen is nothing more than a reflection of Alan Moore being a ‘bit grumpy’, it’s fair to say that the seismic effect of said comic book was both positive and negative. While it remains one of the most striking examples of what the medium could actually do when in the hands of someone who understood it, it – and other works such as The Dark Knight Returns – left many pale imitators in its wake: comics that thought that equated intelligence with constant darkness and depressing storylines. The 90s saw many other comics rebel against this notion: often with an ‘X’ in the title they became orgies of OTT colour and violence, the brainless entertainment ying to the yang of contemplative brooding.
Against this backdrop, and the general comic book crash of the 90s, came Kingdom Come. An earnest attempt to ‘reclaim’ the heroes of the Silver Age and rally at some of the excesses of the comic book industry at the time, the ‘Elseworlds’ branded event sees traditional superheroes come up against a new generation whose amoral ways become an affront to the values built by those previously.
The Joker dies as the hands of superhero Magog: an execution served after the Clown Prince of Crime heads to trial for the mass murder of numerous Daily Planet employees, amongst them Lois Lane. With overwhelming public support for Magog’s actions, the Justice League and Superman have disappeared from view: their values seemingly out of touch with the rest of society. But the new generation of heroes engage in indiscriminate violence, the line between hero and villain almost unrecognisable. After a battle instigated by Magog goes awry, millions are killed and Superman returns with the Justice League intent on restoring order and teaching the true meaning of truth and justice. But the generational battle becomes more complex with Bruce Wayne in the background and Lex Luthor making his own plans with a brainwashed Captain Marvel.
While things get ever more critical and complicated – with Superman considering a prison for the malcontents who don’t hold to his ideas – The Spectre appears to Norman McCay, an unassuming minister, who tells him he must bear witness to the forthcoming superhuman apocalypse.
Those who are fans of Alex Ross, who co-wrote this with Mark Waid, will recognise many of the tropes that would typify much of his previous and subsequent work. The ordinary protagonist who becomes an observer – and judge – of superhero actions. A tale that deconstructs traditional superhero tropes, heavy on continuity and celebration of the past. A piece that deals with issues of morality and fragility amongst the godlike beings who inhabit the worlds of comic books. All these ideas are present throughout in a piece that revels in the epic, the grandiose. Yet, despite these epic set-pieces, this is also a piece that allows the characters to muse and reflect, with large swathes dedicated to examining the nature of good and evil, of right and wrong. In the hands of lesser writers these moments may seem didactic and dull. But here there pacing is excellent – save a denouement which seems a little too glib for its own good – with the more contemplative moments allowing much needed respite from the more OTT moments.
While Kingdom Come is in many ways a riposte to the fast and loose morality of many of the comic book superheroes of the era, it doesn’t indulge in beatifying the golden and silver age of superheroes. Superman’s prison – and attempts to ‘re-educate’ those who become it’s captives – is a quasi-fascistic measure whose morality is thorny as those he seeks to control. But, while the story is set to end in destruction and death, there is a much consistent sense of hope here. That for all their problems, for all their struggles our heroes are just that: heroes. Even amongst the darkest times they will fight for what is right and realise the error of their own ways. The world may be dark but their light will ultimately shine through.
The characterisations here are great, a series of grizzled and aged heroes all dealing with their own issues. Superman is haunted by the death of Lois – and a society that has seemingly rejected his values. Wonder Woman is similarly hardened and disgraced in own home country. An exoskeleton wearing Bruce Wayne is as Machiavellian as ever. But they are still recognisable heroes, with a strong sense of right and wrong. Their faith may have been shaken – and it will take an ordinary human to remind them of the right path. Also intriguing is the centring of Captain Marvel whose very existence – halfway between ordinary human and god – becomes a key plot point.
Ross’ realistic gouache artwork is superb here. With characters believably aged – Bruce Wayne is all silver hair and crevassed face – Ross still emphasises their heroic statues. The likes of Superman all feel like they’ve carved out of granite, and they cast a continually imposing presence. And, as with works such as Marvels, his realistic style reminds us of the human and grounds the world of gods to a human dimension.
Kingdom Come has become an important milestone in DC history, with many elements being woven into contemporary DC lore as well as other mediums (such as the recent TV adaption of Crisis on Infinite Earths). It still has a tremendous power to this day, not only as a constantly enthralling piece of work, but also as an example of an industry coming to terms with its past, present and future.
Here’s links to the other graphic novels reviewed so far