"THY KINGDOM COME, THY WILL BE DONE"
'Kingdom Come' was a reaction to the current state of comics. The term 'super-hero' is a misnomer. It's more as though 'super-human' is the proper term for contemporary 'super-hero' characters, because 'hero' denotes some sense of ethics. And you won’t find ethics in your average comic book. --ALEX ROSS, 1997
From one of the bleakest periods in the comics industry arose one of the medium’s grandest superhero epics. It was artist Alex Ross’ highly anticipated follow-up to the now-classic “Marvels” - and DC Comics went all-out pushing this prestige format limited series with a very classy marketing campaign that presented the key participants: Wonder Woman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Superman, the Spectre and the unnamed and mysterious figure of Norman McCay. The tempo was set by the tagline: “Whose will be done?” And unlike many things that came out in the '90s, the build-up for “Kingdom Come” was right on target. Yet beneath its seemingly grim and apocalyptic superhero epic’s exterior, Ross and writer Mark Waid would also serve us a surprising wake-up call for the sorry state that mainstream comics were trapped in back in 1996.
Alex Ross elaborated, "The metaphor that [‘Kingdom Come’] worked out to be fourteen years ago was successful in its best way because things were in a stage they’d never really been at before, where things were outrageously over-pumped and overproduced, and you had way more products made of all these characters thrown out at the public. I mean, it seemed like you’d pick up any average Image book or Valiant book, Bravura, whatever, name a line, and suddenly you’ve got a book where there’s twenty different characters thrust out at you at a different time. And it was a swarm of properties. Of course, everyone was screaming, at the time, 'Create your own thing so you’ve got your character you’ve created and now you own,' but they’re all derivate. They were all less than exactly people’s greatest creative contribution to what was going on. It was more just pumping out stuff to take advantage of what seemed like an easy fix, and easy sale, at that time. And obviously that would have to dry up, and the thing that sucked about ‘Kingdom Come’ is that, when I started planning for it, in ’93, it would take until ’96 for it to finally come out."
He continued, "I didn’t really actually get to start work until the end of ’94 on ‘Kingdom Come,’ but I was distressed that it actually took over a year for it to get out from me and be published, because I wanted it to be kind of prescient. I wanted it to actually predict where things were going and show a warning of what the future was going to hold, that all this stuff was going to kind of blow up, metaphorically and realistically. As it turned out, it came out in mid-'96, where it really just became more of a documentation of where things were at, and where things had gone. So it was not ahead of its time, it was just more chronicling what was going on at the given time. But, luckily, that didn’t seem to affect it in a negative way, and ‘Kingdom Come’ was responded to with obviously some strong enthusiasm and positive reaction, so I’m very lucky that people would give it the kind of attention that it got."
What became "Kingdom Come" was conceived when Ross was a teen in the 1980s. During his youth he foresaw many of the book's key moments, along with designing many of the characters that would roam the pages of this novella. A decade later, he pitched the story to DC Comics with a solid forty page outline of that the basic vision. Early-on, the then up-and-coming British writer James Robinson agreed to work with Ross on crafting the tale, despite having reservations about participating in a story he didn’t conceptualize. Robinson would soon walk away from the project.
Subsequently, DC editors entered Mark Waid’s name into the equation. In Waid, there was a fully willing writer prepared to bring out the best of this story, not to mention one of the most knowledgeable people in DC Comic history and well-acquainted with the voices of the company’s characters. At that time, Waid was on the cusp of cementing his reputation as one of the medium’s finest mainstream writers in the mid-1990s. As both creators collaborated on ‘Kingdom Come,’ they strengthened the body of the story and addressed the sub-plots, themes and overall direction. Although it was an intense collaboration where both didn’t always see eye-to-eye, they debated their opinions and brought the best out in each other. As creative partners on this project, they complemented one another very well. They worked on their ode to DC’s heroes until they fashioned it into the bold epic it was always envisioned as.
During its summer 1996 release, "Kingdom Come" was a much-needed and discussed blockbuster at a time when comics sales had flatlined. Readers responded to the story’s promise and outcry for heroes that weren’t killing machines, but rather characters with nobility and a compassion for life. “At the end of the '90s,” observed Ross, “you had a contraction of the business where, okay, the bottom fell out, so now things will pull back a bit. And that was kind of a cool thing to have happen, but there still wasn’t necessarily a great creative renaissance going on. It was still a pretty, fairly bland landscape of creative work in comics. And some of the best talent that I believe is in the field right now was just beginning to poke their heads up at that time. But we had lost what was, at the beginning of the '90s, when the boom first started, there was this growth of independent stuff that would be considered hit makers in their own right just because they were artistic. For example, Dave McKean’s 'Cages' really couldn’t have gotten much attention in the late '90s, but in the early '90s, when it was first created, boy, what a ‘blow your mind’ kind of product.”
At its center, "Kingdom Come" is a story of morality and accountability. Within its pages a mentally anguished and empty Superman has essentially retired and exiled himself back to Kansas after the tragic death of Lois Lane in this not so distant future. The world he left behind is one in total moral disarray as a new generation of “heroes” now preside over it via destructiveness and fear. Without Superman at the forefront, the old guard of superheroes withered away and vanished. But like any true heroic adventure, the Man of Steel returns as he heeds the essential moral call to adventure (via Wonder Woman) upon realizing how grim and hopeless everything has become. As Superman tries to make things right, humankind decides to take action against all superheroes by wiping them away in a nuclear assault. All throughout the story, minister Norman McCay, a character also experiencing a crisis of faith, has been called upon by the Spectre to observe the story’s events and ultimately play a pivotal part in the impending Armageddon.
Ross commented, “I think a lot of the books that were spun out of ‘Civil War’ played with that moral center idea in a very strong way. That was a very successful product for Marvel, even if the main series itself wasn’t the best version of its ramifications, it did things that, in a way, I wanted to play with in the same way. Ultimately, my original approach was going to have Superman at odds with Batman, and by the time I was working with Mark [Waid], it really didn’t work out that way. It did work out that Superman and Batman were the friends they always had been, and there really was a manipulation to get Superman to fight Captain Marvel again, because really they wouldn’t be enemies, either. So it was kind of a hodge-podge of getting people up against one another.”
When I recently read the series it amazed me how relevant and fresh its message still is. It remains a powerful book - perhaps the last great superhero epic to come out of the “Big Two.” A lot of what inspired “Kingdom Come” seems to have returned again, because it feels practically like an allegory for what’s going on today. We’re seeing the same effects: too much gloss, not enough substance; the superheroes still seem to be too busy fighting themselves (or dying); too many gimmicks and not enough grandeur. The "dystopian" ghost that has haunted comics readers since the success of “Dark Knight” and “Watchmen” still remains. Sadly, comics sales are now in as much of a free fall as they were in 1996.
In terms of inspiration, Ross has always stated that “Kingdom Come” owed a spiritual debt to “Miracleman,” but there were also other comics that triggered creativity. Alex Ross commented, “We owe more, I believe, to the precedent not of something like Alan Moore’s ‘Twilight’ pitch - which I did not read at the time that I was producing my notes for ‘Kingdom Come’ - but what I definitely was very, very well aware of was the 12-issue run of ‘Squadron Supreme’ by Mark Gruenwald. Mark’s work on this was a good deal of the inspiration for where I was going with it. I mean, I had a lot more flash and… I had a lot more of the dramatic imagery of established characters going up against one another having bigger ramifications than the JLA metaphor characters that Squadron Supreme is."
"Squadron Supreme could pretty much have the freedom to do whatever they wanted to within that universe, whereas, when you’re doing it with the DC icons, much like Frank Miller’s ‘Dark Knight,’ you get a sense of higher drama because it’s actually happening with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and all the rest. And so I wanted to pick up from what Alan had done with ‘Watchmen,’ and Frank had done with ‘Dark Knight,’ and show this wide-spanning kind of thing that had the entirety of the known fictional DC universe shown through this realistic, distorting mirror that’s got everything just a little bit askew," continued Ross. "With everybody being a little bit older, you get a lot of interpretations that are taken this way or that way, and hopefully intriguing interpretations. You hopefully get an extra boost of interest because it’s these characters everybody knows, whereas in ‘Watchmen’ you have to be educated as to who everybody is, and in the case of ‘Dark Knight,’ you’ve got one character to focus on throughout the whole thing. It’s more of a personal story as opposed to a story about a universe.”
Ross added, "'Dark Knight' raises questions it doesn’t answer about the DCU, whereas this is a story raising questions and answering [them], more or less, about everybody. Even though you see countless versions of characters that you could have questions of, ‘What do they mean by that? Why is that guy wearing Star-Spangled Kid’s outfit?’ or whatever, those are kind of below the level of important questions to answer. The big questions are what happened to the majors, and you see all of them. Like, simultaneous to the release of 'Kingdom Come,' or just months before it, was a leftover pitch of Peter David’s that was produced by my old "Marvels" editor as a painted book done by Ariel Olivetti, who was then purely painting by hand, as opposed to with computers, as he does very well now. He was fulfilling the story that should have had the same kind of impact as ours. In fact, it would have cut us off, and they would have done the ‘Kingdom Come’ story before we got it out there. But a big, giant difference in Peter David’s ‘The Last Avengers Story’ is that none of the Avengers you give a damn about are in it. You’re going to have a ‘Last Avengers’ story, [and] there’s no Iron Man, Captain America, Thor or Hulk… You see Hulk talked about in it, but he was more tying that to his ‘Future Imperfect’ version of Hulk, I think.”
The apocalypse that arrives in the final chapter of "Kingdom Come" seems to be centered on the anticipated fight: Superman versus Captain Marvel. Instead it’s judgment day for everybody, even the readers who love these heroes because, after all, it was the public outcry that demanded these heroes become the fierce creatures they became in the '90s. Left without options, the leaders of the human race drop a nuclear bomb when all the superpowered idols careen out of control in the midst of battle. Witnessing the massive slaughter of his fellow heroes, an enraged and hot-headed Superman brings his fury upon human civilization. It’s at this precise moment that Norman McCay plays his role in the story. The pastor tells Clark to forgive himself, to remember his humanity and be the man with the ideals he once was. Soon after, a spiritually reborn Superman helps return things to order for humans and meta-humans, not by sheer force but alongside them with heart and a newfound sense of hope.
In a perfect world, “Kingdom Come” would have ended on that note. The story resonated with readers; it was among a handful of titles that helped usher back superhero stories with a touch more class and substance. With the miniseries being the enormous success it became, it was inevitable that the powers that be at DC wanted see more done with the players and scenarios of this world. Shortly after the series wrapped, an ongoing “Kingdom” series began development by Ross with Mark Waid and Gene Ha (as the title’s artist) - but that ultimately died out. The original version of “Kingdom” would have dealt with the events that led up to “Kingdom Come.” In 1998, DC ultimately chose to do a “Kingdom” series of specials without Ross involved, though Mark Waid remained at the helm; it was more sequel than prequel. For Alex Ross, it would take another decade for him to properly revisit Kingdom Come in the pages of “JSA.”
Next Month: “Part Two: The JSA/ Kingdom Come Saga”