“Armageddon has arrived.”
Those who have been fortunate enough to dive into Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ 1996 DC Comics miniseries, Kingdom Come, will never forget the splash page of Captain Marvel standing over an old, frantic, and bloodied Superman.
At this point of the tale, Billy Batson aka Captain Marvel has been corrupted by Lex Luthor and sent into a superhuman battle so massive that it quite literally rocks the planet. By uttering the word, “Shazam,” Captain Marvel transforms from orphan Billy Batson into a magical powerhouse capable of challenging the raw might of Superman, which was precisely his task from Luthor. Superman was streaking across the sky at speeds far faster than a speeding bullet, intent on containing the rapidly escalating super-powered war, before he was struck from the heavens by the younger, stronger, mind-controlled Captain Marvel.
Indeed, in an epic comic book series filled with iconic imagery, perhaps no other panel or page captures both the spirit of the story and the imagination of the audience. But why is this?
One of most effective methods of catching a reader’s attention is to knock down the proverbial dominoes that they so meticulously set up, and Waid masterfully draws from the entirety of DC Comics history in this endeavor. Domino #1 in Waid’s sights: Superman can and will save the day.
At the beginning of the story, it’s made clear through the perspective of a small-town pastor that the superhuman community as it stands is a far cry from the DC status quo. A new generation of metahuman, faster, dirtier, and meaner, has risen in place of icons like the Justice League, Justice Society, and Teen Titans. The pastor, Norman McCay, is experiencing a crisis of faith in an apathetic world and finds himself begging for answers from above, and instead receives a guide in the form of The Spectre, God’s spirit of vengeance. McCay is told by The Spectre that he may accompany him as an ethereal observer of events that are shaping a potential end of humanity. Norman agrees, and their first stop is the Man of Steel.
When the imperceptible Norman and Spectre find Superman, he’s living peacefully, alone on a fake farm within his Fortress of Solitude, now more aptly named than ever, but his peace is disturbed by the arrival of one of his oldest and most powerful allies, Wonder Woman, Diana of Themyscira and once-Queen of the Amazons. Diana is observed pleading with Superman to return to the world and resume his role as the planet’s premier protector, but it’s clear this isn’t the first time she’s made this pitch. For all of his sensory powers, Wonder Woman’s words have a difficult time penetrating Superman’s conscience. He sends her away, but, before long, turns to the long-dormant monitoring systems of the Fortress to gain a sense of all that has transpired during his self-imposed exile.
The notion of Superman, of all Earth’s defenders, refusing an opportunity to help those in need causes Norman to naturally question The Spectre about the status of Superman’s traditional superhero compatriots. The pair of observers leave the Man of Steel to his monitors and turn their attention to ex-members of the now-defunct Justice League of America.
Batman, the Dark Knight of Gotham now sits in his cave, broken but not beaten, controlling a legion of Bat-Drones that wage his endless war on crime. The Flash never stops racing across his hometown of Central City to right every wrong, no matter how big or small. Green Lantern stands as a lonely guardian in an emerald citadel of his own making, keeping a watchful eye out for otherworldly threats. Martian Manhunter’s powerful mind has been broken through his attempts to open up his thoughts to humankind’s ills on a planetary scale. And Aquaman has retreated to and refocused on his undersea kingdom of Atlantis, paying little attention to the problems above his waves.
The new generation of superheroes, including sons and daughters of Justice League and Justice Society founders, have lost their sense of priorities, purpose and moral direction in the their predecessors’ absence. At last, Superman realizes how much the world desperately needs his help and dons the cape once more. Soon enough, the words, “Look! Up in the Sky!” can again be spoken, not with terror, but with hope.
Superman soon rallies his old friends to a cause of restoring order to the world and educating a new crop of metahumans on the difference between right and wrong. The task isn’t an easy one, as Superman’s approach faces opposition from the ranks of an older but no less dangerous Legion of Doom, led by Lex Luthor, as well as a dissenting movement started by Batman, the other half of what was once The World’s Finest Team.
It’s worth noting that setting all these pieces in motion is accomplished by Waid and Ross within a single issue, the end of which sees The Spectre delivering an ominous warning to the mortal McCay: despite the reinvigorated mission of the Man of Tomorrow, the threat of the apocalypse is far from over.
This lengthy preamble is necessary to grasp the complexity and scope of what the creators of Kingdom Come set out to communicate about the characters, the comic book industry, and perhaps the world at large. First, the characterization in Kingdom Come is impeccable; not only are the literary portraits of individual characters true to heart, but the crux of each relationship between these modern day titans of myth is laid bare. This is no more evident than within the dynamic of DC’s Trinity: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
It becomes clear that, despite possessing a fraction of a fraction of their physical capability, Batman views himself as superior to Wonder Woman and Superman for one vital reason: he’s never killed. Batman represents the pinnacle of human physical and mental achievement, which earns him no small measure of respect from Superman and Wonder Woman, who dedicate their godlike power to standing up for the best that humankind has to offer. The upbringings of Wonder Woman and Superman couldn’t have been more different, as Diana was raised in an elevated position of royalty, reveling in her grasp on the truth, prowess as a warrior, and safety of her island’s seclusion. Meanwhile, Superman was raised on a small farm as Clark Kent and taught to seek out new ideas and cultures, to be humble, and to refrain from engaging in conflict out of fear of exposure and bringing harm to those weaker than himself. Despite those different paths, these two share the bond of taking criticism from Batman rather seriously, because, to them, it’s as if he’s speaking on behalf of all humankind.
What’s more, Batman is smart enough to know this and use it.
There is a point in the story when Superman attempts to recruit him to his mission, but Batman underscores how battles for hearts and minds cannot be won through good intentions alone. Batman even later taunts Wonder Woman, for all her allegiance to the truth, with her inherently contradictory nature as both an ambassador of peace and perhaps the greatest warrior alive. It would be enough for Waid to simply use the almost-always-correct Dark Knight as a prism for concise characterization, but this is just one (albeit important) dynamic.
All of the major characters take turns in exercising a certain self-awareness, dissecting their setting and those within it in a manner that only reinforces the sense that these characters bear a significant weight of history. And it’s that burden that tips Domino #2: the good guys know what’s best.
The topic of superheroic moral ambiguity was broached several significant times in the comic book industry during the 1990s, and for good reason. In the previous decade, DC Comics alone had published at least three key stories that sought to subvert the nature of superheroes: The Dark Knight Returns, Crisis on Infinite Earths, and Watchmen. Like Kingdom Come The Dark Knight Returns, written by Frank Miller, and Watchmen, penned by Alan Moore, existed outside of the contemporary continuity; they offered readers a taste of what could be without tampering with the monthly stories that were being published at the time. Crisis on Infinite Earths, on the other hand, occurred right in the middle of DC’s core continuity, up-ending and remixing it in an attempt to open up new angles of storytelling and get rid of deadweight.
What these three stories had in common is that they revealed their respective authors’ takes on what superheroes were capable of when pushed to the extreme. Moore’s Watchmen stands out the most from a historical perspective because, after being denied permission to use Charlton Comics characters like Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, and The Question for his story, Moore was free to do whatever he wished with homage characters like Dr. Manhattan, Nite-Owl, and Rorschach, respectively. The freedom from continuity and long-term consequences allowed Moore to tell the most subversive of the three tales, crafting an ending that is still a topic of debate 30 years later.
The impact of Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Crisis on Infinite Earths reverberated quickly and strongly throughout the comics industry as the 90s dawned. Comic book fans were engrossed by the large scale and dire stakes of these stories, demanding more potent consequences and more realistic artwork. This demand led to a boom in sales for DC Comics and their number one rival, Marvel, until several prominent creators broke free of the Big Two to form their own publisher, Image Comics, and a new comics giant was suddenly on the scene.
It wasn’t long before Image started to take a significant bite out of the Big Two’s market share and characters named Spawn, Savage Dragon, and Witchblade began to be mentioned in the same breath as icons like Superman, Wolverine, and Spider-Man. As objectively refreshing as it might have been to have more competition and more characters, there were undoubtedly some negative consequences that accompanied the shift towards comics heavy on grit and light on characterization.
A significant factor that led to the exodus of Image founders from the Big Two was the traditional handling of creator ownership of characters they developed. In fact, DC Comics had been embroiled in a legal battle over ownership of Superman with the estates of his creators, Joel Siegel and Joe Shuster. Image Comics, however, was created with the intent of passing along the monetary rewards of their imaginations to creative teams. Essentially, this shaped a situation in which sales figures were never far from the minds of artists and writers.
During this surge of creator-owned titles that were unburdened by decades of continuity and given the freedom to explore previously taboo levels of titillation, DC and Marvel were desperate to keep pace. DC competed with Image by rolling out darker event storylines: Green Lantern went insane and betrayed his allies; Batman was broken and replaced; and Superman was killed in a brutal clash with the monster Doomsday. Meanwhile, Marvel, having lost more of its popular creators to Image, bet big on its X-Men titles that were launched to the top of the sales charts under Chris Claremont and Jim Lee.
In the midst of this clash between old and new, a miniseries called Marvels was released by its publishing namesake; it was a story from Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek that recounted the Golden and Silver Age of Marvel from the perspective of a journalist who unwittingly works alongside Spider-Man aka Peter Parker. Marvels thrust Alex Ross into the spotlight and he became one of the most sought after talents. It wasn’t long before Ross wanted to see if he could make lightning strike twice by replicating his success with DC characters. Although Ross was unable to work with his preferred writer for the project, James Robinson, Ross was paired with Mark Waid, who had purposely rebuffed the rising tide of grim comics and possessed a knowledge of DC Comics lore so extensive that it was said to be superhuman.
Thus, Kingdom Come was born.
On the surface, it would be easy to say that Waid and Ross’ dystopian superhero epic went in the opposite direction than the grim, art-centric fare of the time. The truth, though, is that Kingdom Come’s creative team brilliantly utilized the best elements of 90s comics to lure in both old and new readers. The spot-on characterization establishes an anchor point that both feels familiar to longtime DC faithfuls and sets the standard for the uninitiated.
And, armed with historical context, it becomes clear that Kingdom Come’s themes and metaphors target not just the industry trends of the time, but the fickle nature of comic book fans. This leads to the final and perhaps most important domino for Waid and Ross to tackle: the existence of a direct correlation between popularity and virtue.
It is eventually revealed in Kingdom Come that, in years prior, Superman went into exile after the death of Lois Lane, the love of his life, at the hands of The Joker. Following the manhunt and capture of the Clown Prince of Crime, Superman had sought to confront Joker before his arraignment. Before Superman could face his love’s murderer, Joker was killed by a metahuman upstart named Magog, who then insisted he had simply accomplished what the likes of Superman were unwilling or incapable of doing. The subsequent acquittal of Magog and wave of public support for this brand of justice led Superman to believe that the world didn’t want his help anymore. It wasn’t until Superman returned that he and the public realized how wrong they all were.
Still, there comes a moment in the tale when Superman and perhaps the readers themselves see that, by using their station and ability to attempt to force a specific brand of morality down people’s throats, metahumans (and, maybe, comic book publishers) simply create a moral monolith that invites, maybe even demands, resistance. The Dark Knight Returns, Crisis on Infinite Earths, and Watchmen all include characters that are trying to reshape the world, or worlds, in their image, convinced that they know what’s right. But, this path to hell is proudly walked by the villains of these stories, and Superman eventually realizes that good-intentioned villainy is all that ultimately awaits him at the end of his mission.
There has been criticism both within the fictional DC Comics world and the industry readership that Superman is too passive, that he needs to take a more direct role in guiding his fellow superheroes and the people of his adopted planet. Kingdom Come plays with this idea and shows us what happens when Superman’s might and morality mix with this mob mentality. After he loses Lois, his anchor to mankind, Superman also loses his grasp on his greatest superpower of all: his human heart.
At the climax of this epic, Superman is pushed to the point of abandoning everything he believes in and embracing what some would say is his rightful place as judge, jury, and executioner for all mankind. It is only through the intervention of Norman McCay, a meek and weathered pastor, that the planet is spared the Man of Steel’s godlike wrath, and it doesn’t happen with the help of the Spectre or Wonder Woman or Batman. It isn’t magic or physical force or even intellect that stays Superman’s hand; it’s one word, a name that the Man of Tomorrow hasn’t taken to heart in a very long time:
When Norman calls Superman by his adopted name, all of Waid’s dominoes fall in the direction of the ultimate enemy of Superman’s approach, the comic book industry, and the world: extremism. By calling him Clark, Norman reminds Superman, as well as the audience, that true peace, with ourselves and each other, comes from balance. Superman was able to operate with the public’s full trust for so long because he always kept one foot on the ground as Clark Kent; he balanced his gargantuan power levels with a humble human life. It’s this realization that allows Clark to remember that being Superman means living by example, never thinking that might makes right, and putting forth his best self, and finally he trades his rage for mercy.
Waid could have easily crafted a story that just mocked the comic book industry for its acquiescence to hollow short-term trends and demanded that everyone tell the same kind of morally simplistic tales he grew up with. Instead, through Superman, Waid backs off this approach and suggests getting reacquainted with our roots, as readers, creators, and human beings. Ross and Waid show us how essential it is that we take a hard look at the truth and use it to balance the tightrope of justice without forgetting the foundation of the American Way: second chances.
In essence, Kingdom Come was the ultimate response to the tide of darker superhero stories that rose in the wake of Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Crisis on Infinite Earths. It hooked fans of those stories with its grim, apocalyptic stakes and gorgeous artwork, then used strong characterization to pull them back from any sense of pride for vapid apathy that the comic industry, maybe even the world, had given them.
And, just as new generations of readers became familiar with the dark tales of the 80s and the subtlety-free early 90s, new creators would take up Waid and Ross’ banner to defend the basic concepts of hope, self-awareness, and rebirth. At the turn of the century, writers like Grant Morrison, Gail Simone, Joe Kelly, Greg Rucka, James Robinson, Jeph Loeb, Paul Dini, Keith Giffen, and, of course, Geoff Johns followed the example set by Kingdom Come, and refused to let the DC Comics universe succumb to the approach that nearly brought down the industry. They reminded the comics world that things like the symbol on Superman’s chest aren’t just powerful marketing tools; they mean something to all humanity, fictional or otherwise.
The post-Kingdom Come era wouldn’t be free of its missteps and fumblings, but the well of Truth, Justice, and the American Way can always be replenished by those who seek it within Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ revolutionary work.
Though a hollow but no less purposeful and powerful enemy to our best selves may loom over us, we simply have to find the strength to battle on for a better tomorrow. When Armageddon arrives, we must stand, fight, and win.