1996’s Kingdom Come — a self-contained, fully-painted series by writer Mark Waid and artist Alex Ross — was first published as a four-issue, prestige-format mini-series, designated as an Elseworlds (i.e. out-of-continuity) tale. The story was expanded by several pages, most prominently including an epilogue, for its initial collection, and these pages have been included in every subsequent edition.
Many think of it as a Superman story, and he is indeed the most prominent character. But the story prominently features Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and others – and each are granted far more space than they would receive in a Superman tale. And while Superman is the primary character, the story centers around the Justice League’s proactive future war against super-villains and its consequences.
At the time of its original publication, Alex Ross had suddenly become tremendously popular from Marvels, the Marvel mini-series, written by Kurt Busiek, that offered a nostalgic tour of Marvel history and redefined the genre. Ross’s painted artwork, reminiscent of Norman Rockwell, wowed readers so much that it could have sold anything. And Ross was eager to illustrate a super-hero epic that would include a slew of characters, which he could redesign. DC first assigned him writer James Robinson, who had come to prominence on Starman, but Robinson was reluctant to work on a story he hadn’t originated. DC then turned to Mark Waid, then a popular name for his similarly unapologetic take of super-heroes, because of Waid’s encyclopedic knowledge of the DC Universe. The result was not only a top-selling series but an instant classic.
Who exactly wrote that story, however, has been the source of some controversy. Mark Waid is credited as writer, although Alex Ross designed the characters and proposed the story with a 40-page outline. In Ross’s recollection, his original story focused more on Superman and Batman, whereas Waid expanded the story to give other characters more equal time. Their collaboration was reportedly often contentious, and in the wake of the series’s spectacular success, Ross publicly repudiated Waid for claiming too much credit for the story.
Many have also pointed out the story’s similarities with Twilight of the Super-Heroes, a DC Universe-wide crossover proposed in 1987 by Alan Moore, prior to his departure from the company. Both featured heroes and villains forming larger groups before an apocalyptic battle. Although DC rejected that proposal, it briefly circulated years later on the internet (before DC ordered the websites that posted it to cease and desist) and remains a much talked-about, never-completed project.
Kingdom Come also has similarities to Marvels, which told its story through the eyes of a human reporter. Kingdom Come, though less consistently, focused on an elderly religious man, Rev. Norman McCay. The supernatural Spectre shows him the events of the story as they happen – thus providing a point of reader identification and a mouthpiece to comment on the events in ways the protagonists would not.
Given its title (and its relationship to Twilight of the Super-Heroes), it should not surprise that Kingdom Come is possessed by an ominous tone. Visions of apocalypse set the tone from the start, leading almost inexorably to the climax, which features an atomic bomb detonation and the elimination of most of the heroes and the villains. This is followed by a graveyard of the bizarre skeletons, perhaps the ultimate apocalyptic super-hero image.
Set in the future, the story begins with Superman having retired in the wake of a new wave of violent heroes – and Lois Lane’s death. Meanwhile, Batman rules Gotham City with an iron fist, utilizing robots to maintain authoritarian control. This clearly represents the turn to darker, more fascistic heroes in the wake of Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and other “revisionist” or “deconstructionist” works of the 1980s. The violence of these and derivative works was seen at the time as a move towards realism, a logical result of the presence of super-heroes, but many in the 1990s believed that this darkness had resulted in a creative dead end. Kurt Busiek, Mark Waid, and Alan Moore had all publicly sought a new path, one uniting revisionism’s intelligence with the unbridled imagination and joy of the Silver Age (the super-hero revival in the late 1950s and early 1960s). This movement has sometimes been called “reconstructionism.” Marvels, which retold Marvel’s Silver Age history in newly unified form, fully articulated the reconstructionist complaint in fictional form for the first time. Kingdom Come would less satisfactorily address the same concern.
This is, then, a Justice League story about the super-hero genre itself – deceptively cast as an entertaining, dramatic, and unified narrative.
The world of Kingdom Come is filled with violent super-heroes and super-villains, the literally and figurative descendents of DC’s various characters. The sky is literally clogged with them, as seen early on in the series – an image both horrifying and wondrous. Horror can arguably be seen as the central emotion evoked by revisionism – particularly in response to the logical, real-world implications of super-heroes. Wonder, however, is the central emotion evoked by reconstructionism, with its return to the fun revisionism stripped from the genre. These two emotions and narrative patterns they represent battle for dominance over Kingdom Come, ultimately producing a work of mixed results.
The story really gets going as a group of violent super-heroes irresponsibly pursue a super-villain. Cornered, the villain literally tears the hero Captain Atom apart, causing a nuclear explosion that renders much of the American Midwest – including Kansas, Superman’s boyhood home – a radioactive wasteland. This serves as a metaphor for the excesses of revisionism, and the destruction of Kansas represents argues that revisionism has demolished the innocent idealism associated with Superman’s true-blue childhood as the son of a farmer in the American Midwest. Of course, there is an irony here in depicting wide-scale violence to advocate against the same. The same events might be equally comfortable in an extreme revisionist narrative – although there they would be intended as criticizing the entire genre, rather than its violent excesses.
Spurred by the destruction of Kansas, Superman comes out of retirement. Emblematic of his new darkness, he changes his chest logo to give it a black background. He quickly organizes other super-heroes into a new Justice League, comprised of newly archetypal versions of DC’s classic characters. The League forces other heroes to either join him or be imprisoned in enormous, overflowing gulags. This sort of proactive action is rare in super-hero stories, in which heroes generally act only reactively, in response to threats. In response, Batman (ever the staunch individualist) allies with likeminded heroes such as Green Arrow, as well as villains eager to resist the League’s authoritarian rule. These villains, prominently including Superman nemesis Lex Luthor, utilize a form of mind-control to force Captain Marvel to aid them.
Apocalyptic tensions continue to mount until a final confrontation between the League and those who resist that team’s rule. The battle is an orgy of costumed heroes and villains. The United Nations, meanwhile, has been watching events. Determined not to risk the world on a single super-human battle, the U.N. launches a nuclear strike on the site of that battle, determined to eliminate these gathered super-humans, whose powers have been made newly dangerous by their proactive policies. Captain Marvel, a favorite of Waid’s, plays a pivotal role in the climax, dying to detonate the atomic bomb, but most of the super-humans are killed anyway.
In the most important sequence in the book, Superman, furious over the nuclear holocaust he has witnessed, attacks the United Nations. He holds the cracked roof of the U.N. building, openly contemplating letting it collapse and kill the humans within. This is the story’s key moment, in which Superman, pushed to his limits, has every reason to let go of his human morality, imbued in him while a boy in the now-radiated Kansas, and accept the need to become as dark as those reckless heroes he opposed. Of course, Superman regains his senses – though the story is told well enough that this is not a foregone conclusion.
Following this, Superman and the other super-human survivors unmask and pledge to live among humans, without secret identities, guiding humanity but using their power only in cooperation. The idea here is the eradication of the boundary between human and super-human, and this is clearly what Kingdom Come has clearly been leading up to. For example, the nuclear destruction of Captain Atom at the story’s beginning is echoed in the manmade atomic explosion at the end, arguing that as impressive and dangerous as super-powers are, humanity is equally both impressive and dangerous. Both must be regulated and used responsibly, in a spirit of cooperation rather than adversarial conflict. Kingdom Come attempts to deconstruct the line between human and super-human, and in doing so, it implicitly uses super-heroes as a metaphor for nuclear power and international cooperation.
In the epilogue, added for the collected edition, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman meet one year later in a restaurant, without masks. Wonder Woman is pregnant and asks Bruce to be the child’s godfather, symbolically healing their relationship. Super-powers have allowed Kansas to be healed of its radiation, and the prospect of a new baby, raised in cooperation by former adversaries, symbolizes a new and promising future.
But this epilogue, while enjoyable, also illustrates the tensions within Kingdom Come itself. It is logical, within the narrative’s world, for super-powers could heal Kansas, and this adds to the fullness of the story’s happy ending. But it seems like the casualties of that disaster are too quickly forgotten, and the ease with which its radiation is removed (off-panel) undercuts the story’s drama, as well as its implicit metaphor for real-world conflicts. After all, in our world, nuclear devastation and civilian casualties are not so easily made right. For all the story’s strengths, in its epilogue, we are once again in a fantasy world, in which super-powers can fix anything and stories end in neat, smiling happy endings.
Of course, that’s part of the point: Kingdom Come wants to repudiate the violent, irresponsible excesses of revisionist super-hero works. But here again, the story is at odds with itself, denouncing the genre’s violence through a story containing some of the most violent acts in super-hero history. The story justifies this with its sheer wondrous majesty, particularly through Alex Ross’s painted artwork, and through its hopeful conclusion, particularly its unmasking sequence and its argument about the need for super-heroes to integrate themselves with humanity.
As a simple call for super-heroes to go unmasked, this works well enough. Though we should wonder why, in the epilogue, no one seems to make a fuss about the presence of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, who would presumably be celebrities in this new world. But the deconstruction of the division between super-humans and humanity fails more profoundly. After all, the story shows how different super-humans are from normal people, capable of individually undermining global politics. It touches upon the radical implications of super-powers, like classic revisionist works, in which the world deforms radically due to the presence of super-heroes. And despite the epilogue, we’re never shown how this new utopia without super-humans as a separate class would actually function. That epilogue only undercuts this idea, as we’re reminded that only super-humans could so easily make Kansas anything other than an uninhabitable nuclear wasteland. This new utopia is left deliberately vague, and one gets the sense that writing such a world would involve considerably more effort and imagination the story’s than satisfying apocalyptic melodrama. The end result is a dark and violent story that points towards something lighter and new without actually showing it. Kingdom Come wants to be a reconstructionist work, reviving the joy of the genre, but it feels equally revisionist or deconstructionist in its violence, realism, and concerns.
Seen in this light, Kingdom Come was not so much DC’s version of Marvels but rather a transitional work, unable to more fully embrace Marvels’s reconstructionist agenda. In part, this is due to Kingdom Come being an epic, a single continuing story set in the future, unlike Marvels, which was really a collection of interconnected stories set in the past. Ross and Waid may have felt the anxiety of working in the shadow of works like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, which seemed to require world-altering violence as part of a major super-hero epic, making the happy, reconstructionist ending he cared so much about feel somewhat artificial, as if grafted on.
The work’s real reconstructionist success comes through its art, which is certainly more powerful than its narrative. Even in Ross’s depiction of revisionist violence, he conveys a sense of reconstructionist grace and wonder. Ross is incapable of making even the most violent scene or frightening villain look less idyllic, in the same way that Norman Rockwell’s style wrapped even the most stark depictions of Midwestern poverty in nostalgic glee. And Ross, too, indulges in nostalgia: panel after panel are filled with unnamed characters without any dialogue but who longtime DC readers could identify, using their costume designs as indications of their parentage and even backstories. Annotations proliferated, guiding readers through these copious references, about which Ross was often asked. Whereas many full reconstructionist works (like Marvels) wallow in nostalgia, Kingdom Come places this nostalgia in the backgrounds, barely distracting the unfamiliar reader.
The full flowering of this tendency appears in the restaurant called Planet Krypton, seen within the main story and the infinitely appropriate setting of its happy epilogue. The restaurant, modeled after Planet Hollywood’s use of American entertainment décor, has waiters dressed as super-heroes. Its every corner is filled with nostalgic references, including to wonderfully imaginative characters who were outside of DC continuity – and presumably of Kingdom Come’s as well. In Planet Krypton, every DC story mingles in a nostalgic mélange, freed from narrative logic. It is (not unlike the Supremacy, in Alan Moore’s Supreme) an über-reconstructionist locale, in which all of a company’s super-hero history can mingle without restraint.
Kingdom Come is certainly a transitional work, at odds with itself. It can feel somewhat schizophrenic, as Ross’s nostalgic, reconstructionist backgrounds and style blend incongruently with a violent, often revisionist narrative – a narrative that itself argues precisely against such narratives. But it remains a beautifully illustrated and gripping tale. It might not be intellectually coherent, but its contradictory, powerful urges do not pull the reader out of the action. Rather, these tensions make it more worthy of serious study. Its own internal conflicts illustrate the historical tensions within the genre, between the wonder of reconstructionism and the horror of revisionism, as well as the tensions within the medium itself, as Ross’s painted art alternately works for and against the narrative.