Back in my high school days, I went through an unfortunate “I’m too old to keep reading comic books” phase for two or three years. I’d try to keep up with some stuff in passing (which was much harder back in the formative days of The Internet), but I wasn’t reading or buying anything with any regularity. Kingdom Come was the book that put the kibosh on that something fierce.
With Mark Waid providing the fancy words and Alex Ross painting the pretty pictures, Kingdom Come hit me like no other comic ever had. To that point in my life, I had been almost strictly a Marvel fan. I knew of DC, but as a kid, I had always fallen into the camp that thought DC’s heroes were lame stuffed shirts with little beyond stereotypical personalities. Even so, I couldn’t help but start hearing the buzz about Kingdom Come and wanting to know what all the hubbub was about. When I got my hands on it, even with my then-extremely-limited knowledge of DC (going into this story, I knew next-to-nothing about characters such as The Spectre, Captain Marvel, J’onn J’onzz, and others), I was captivated.
Kingdom Come is an Elseworlds story (DC’s version of bigger, more grandiose “What If…?” concepts, essentially) that takes the reader to several years into the future of DC’s continuity. The story is grounded in the narrative perspective of Norman McCay, a pastor of wavering faith who is the recipient of a dying Sandman’s visions of an impending apocalypse. From there, McCay is tapped by The Spectre to guide him across the universe to determine who is “at fault” for this oncoming tragedy, and the two discover the fates of the heroes of the past. In these legends’ absence, a brutal batch of heroes and villains, their roles indistinguishable from each other, have taken to using the planet as their playground until their reckless behavior destroys a large portion of the Midwest. The old guard decide that they need to return to set things straight, even as their old foes plot against them and… you know what? It is impossible that I could ever do this story justice by recalling the plot in a paragraph or two. I’d just end up bastardizing this tale, and then I think I won’t be able to sleep tonight.
Ultimately, this is more-or-less a Superman story, even though the point of view isn’t attached to him. He’s the hero who retired first, his choices move the story forward, and the dynamics of all his relationships (be it with Wonder Woman, Batman, Orion, or Captain Marvel) provide the emotional punches, of which this story pulls few. This is a distant, angry Superman whose age and experiences seem to mean little against his own naiveté. Having lost his ties to humanity, when Kal-El does finally decide to return as Earth’s protector, he decides to do it without oversight or input from the very people he thinks he needs to defend. This puts him on a collision course with an old, broken Bruce Wayne who seeks to undermine his former partner with a coalition of human heroes. And on the periphery of their conflict lies Lex Luthor and his plan to defeat Superman once and for all…
As someone who had only a rudimentary knowledge of the DC universe, I was amazed by Kingdom Come’s ability to immerse me right into the corners of it without my feeling lost. The narrative of Norman McCay is ideal in that instance, as everything is new to him and he is able to guide the reader through all the changes that have occurred since the present day without it coming across as forced. In a story flooded with godly beings, this elderly widower, a pastor wrestling with whether or not he truly believes any longer, is the perfect voice for the reader to follow. Waid outdid himself when he designed this character.
Ultimately, what this book will always mean to me is that it is the one that smacked me out of my teenage self-conscious idiocy and got me back to reading comics. And when I returned, I did so as a much bigger DC fan than I had ever previously been. It’s not hyperbole to say that this book had a bigger impact on me as a reader than any I ever read before or since.
+The art, obviously. I mean, does anything more need to be said than “Alex Ross”? This story could be scrawled by a child and it would still be a good story, but with Ross’ layouts? Fuhgeddaboutit. Every character is realistic. Every facial expression is emotional. Every fight scene is epic. Ross is the man.
+There are just MOMENTS in this story. Moments that hit you right in your soul. The last page of chapter one. The last two pages of chapter three. Superman’s speech to Captain Marvel (and his response to it) in chapter four. These are some of the most impactful comic moments ever.
-Superman’s logo change for this story is an iconic one, but for my taste, it’s a bit too on-the-nose. And Supes himself never gives any reason for it. He’s just wearing this weird red-and-black bar when he decides to unretire. It’d be nice to either see his own rationale for it.
-Some of the major DC characters like The Flash and Green Lantern and Hawkman and Aquaman are just left on the fringes of the story and don’t get much focus on them. The story does a fantastic job giving us characterization for Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, but others are just so comparatively hollow.
I have all but outright said it so far, so allow me to be more blatant here: Kingdom Come is my single favorite comic story of all time. If I was trying to convince someone who doesn’t like comic books to respect them, this would be what I would hand them.