“Kingdom Come” begins with a prophecy, straight from the bible and accompanied by images of the end of days. Wesley Dodds, the original Sandman, is living in the darkest times the DC Universe has ever known, but he sees something infinitely darker just ahead. Wesley bears witness to the world’s destruction and he has little time to convince his pastor, Norman McCay, to intercede on his behalf. Norman must find help. Sadly, the only people who can help are the people who are prophesized to be the cause of the impending Armageddon.
Artist and co-writer Alex Ross and writer Mark Waid envision the future of the DC Universe in which the world is inhabited by a new generation of super humans who are anything but super. A meta-human Baby Boom has occurred and the world has been overrun by reckless vigilantes who fight one another for the thrill of it more than anything else, caring nothing of the effects of their destructive behavior. City streets are destroyed and buildings are demolished with little concern for the welfare of the innocents who find themselves in the vicious path of this new brand of superman. During such a fight, a horrific accident occurs. The state of Kansas is laid to waste, leaving millions dead and causing a global financial meltdown, after the hero Magog needlessly uses force to bring down the Parasite.
The success of “Kingdom Come” is due in large part to the complexity of the world Ross has dreamed up for his story. It’s simultaneously a nod to everything great about the DC Universe intermingled with a creative vision of where that universe would be thirty years down the line. Ross and Waid wonder what would happen if the greatest heroes stepped aside to let the next generation learn on their own, free of the restraints of truth and justice that inspired the masses back in the old days. It is impressive how expansive the story continues to grow as Ross and Waid explore the furthest corners of the DCU, whether it’s through an excursion to Apokolips or a brief visit from Ganthet. Yes, the pages overflow with characters, but Waid ensures that it never overflows with story.
Ross’ art is a labor of love. With excruciating detail the artist has imagined the DC Universe of tomorrow to a bewildering degree. At times there are so many characters in a frame that they simply become part of the background as you concentrate on the action taking place in the panel. But go back. Go back a few times and marvel over what is arguably one of the most meticulous works of comic book art of all time. Ross fits in second generation heroes, new takes on the familiar and, as a love letter to comics and pop culture in general, innumerable characters from comics, literature and entertainment. Sherlock Holmes may be standing next to the Question, the Shadow and Rorschach are in one frame, while a super-powered Village People team hides in another corner. It’s as though Ross was drawing it for the person who will eventually read the book a dozen times just to trip over some Easter Egg or missed character that DC would fit into their books a decade or so after the publication of “Kingdom Come” (such as Red Arrow, Red Robin or Cyclone).
Ross uses photo-referencing to spectacular effect in his work. The artist breathes life into characters who are all rendered so believably that it’s often like looking at stills from a superhero film that would be financially unsound to produce. Each panel features one realistic expression after the next, whether it is awe, terror, sadness, admiration or love. Ross’ style allows the “acting” of his subjects to be transferred to the page, bringing a dimension of realism to this fantastic production that is unique to comic book artwork, especially at the volume presented here. Beyond this, Ross continues to go for exciting angles and dramatic close-ups when needed, demonstrating that his skills as a storyteller are as strong as his skills as an artist. Ross paints his artwork with watercolors, often using the muted realistic tones of life, but he also relies on the bright dramatic hues that are a staple of the medium.
“Kingdom Come” does not exist only to stupefy readers with gorgeously executed pages of artwork; the story that resides within it is more textured than one might expect. As America suffers through its greatest loss at the hands of the megalomaniacs calling themselves superheroes, Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman find themselves at odds as to how to fix things. Superman, who is presented as a Christ-like character, wants to teach the new generation the meaning of heroism, even if it means using force to do so. Wonder Woman feels the same, but her idea of force and the Man of Steel’s differ significantly. Batman, who has grown even more certain of himself, decides not to join his former teammates and opts for a more covert and disciplined approach to striking at the enemy. So here are the Big Three of the DCU, trying to figure out how to put the world back on the right track as the citizenry grows evermore weary of the meta-human menace. All of this is observed through the eyes of Norman McCay, who has been chosen by the Spectre to observe the events leading up to the prophesized end of the world.
As much reverence as Ross and Waid have for the DCU, “Kingdom Come” grows darker as it the story moves on, which is surprising because it goes to some darks places right away. The situation that Superman and Wonder Woman find themselves up against is complicated and devoid of a simple solution. In the time between today and the world of “Kingdom Come”, the Trinity have been dealt the unfair cards of life and their decisions are often clouded by these events. While Batman has always been the tortured hero, Waid does a fine job showing how Superman and Wonder Woman are not accustomed to seeing life from a perspective similar to the Dark Knight’s.
Waid’s script moves skillfully and without lulls, laying the layered plot out effectively. “Kingdom Come” has a number of set pieces, characters and storylines going on simultaneously; credit goes to Waid for ensuring that it never becomes a confusing mess. Waid keeps the story’s religious undertones from overwhelming the narrative, while still utilizing biblical quotes and references to build Dodds’ prophecy. The writer also brings his penchant for charming dialogue to the book, especially in the case of the ever-snarky Batman, who gleefully gets under the skin of anyone he pleases. When Superman comes to recruit his former ally, Batman can’t resist to call the Man of Steel “Clark” even after Superman has requested that he not be referred to by his former human alias. There is a touching eight-page epilogue that reunites the three heroes a year after the events of “Kingdom Come”. Waid brings a three-dimensionality to the trinity that we don’t see enough in superhero comic books. They are comfortable with one another, they get frustrated over each other’s personality quirks, and they cannot keep their secrets to themselves. They’re not just friends, they’re family.
“Kingdom Come” is a story in which the world’s greatest heroes are reminded that they have a responsibility equal to the protection of the human race: providing hope. The heroes have been beaten down, lost their spirit and dragged through hell, but in the end they find the resolve necessary to rise to the prominence they enjoyed when they first appeared generations prior. Ross and Waid, with an enormous amount of respect for these characters, make the whole thing enthralling. More importantly, they make it believable.
Written by: Mark Waid, Alex Ross
Art: Alex Ross
Colors: Alex Ross
Letters: Todd Klein
Publisher: DC Comics
Original Publication Date: May 1996
Pages: 232 pages