Saturday, February 21, 2009
Word Balloon: Kingdom Come
I thought long and hard about what book to highlight this month. There are still so many great choices out there, but I wanted to choose a creative team I haven't highlighted yet. That's why this month we are going to look at DC Comics 1996 4 issue masterpiece, Kingdom Come, by writer Mark Waid and artist Alex Ross.
The book is based of an idea by renowned comic book painter Alex Ross, who wanted to do a tale of DC heroes similar to Alan Moore's Watchmen a decade earlier, though this time using DC staples like Batman and Superman. The idea of a dark DC future was not something that was particularly associated with DC at the time, whose books represented a far more positive future, unlike rival Marvel. Kingdom Come is the story of a battle between the traditional super heroes, Like Superman and Wonder Woman and the rest of the Justice League, and the new dangerous and irresponsible vigilante heroes that have arisen. Caught in the middle is Batman and his group of Outsiders, who is trying to contain the struggle and stop the machinations of Lex Luthor.
Kingdom Come is a DC Elseworlds tale, that is to say a story about DC characters that isn't necessarily part of continuity or canon. The happenings in the book represent the possible future of these characters that may or may not happen. Its sort of a What If? tale that draws close lines to the then current continuity. The story itself is set 20 years in the then future of the DC Universe and draws much on biblical imagery, especially the Book of Revelations.
The story is narrated by minister Norman McKay, whom also acts as our point of view. As a longtime friend of the original Sandman (the DC version from the '40s and not there more famous Vertigo Comics take) he has inherited his ability, sharing apocalyptic visions of the future. Suffering a crisis of faith, he is visited by The Spectre, a one time hero who has lost his humanity and whose job it is to now pass judgement of the good and the wicked in the upcoming battle. The Spectre takes Norman on a journey to bear witness the coming struggle.
Ten years prior to these actions, Superman has retreated from public life, dis-enheartened by the public approval of these new vigilante heroes, like Magog, the man who killed the Joker. The Joker had just murdered many of Superman's friends at the Daily Planet, including Jimmy Olsen and the love of his life, Lois Lane, and Magog took justice into his own hands. Rejecting public life after Magog is acquitted and embraced by the public, he withdraws to his Fortress of Solitude, along with many other heroes who follow his example.
Flashing forward to the current time, Superman is coaxed out of retirement after Magog attacks the villain Parasite with unnecessary force, and in the struggle nuclear hero Captain Atom is ripped apart causing a nuclear explosion that decimates most of Kansas. Reforming the Justice League, Superman vows to capture or convert these new heroes. Recruiting many of his old guard, as well as some of the new, including the original Robin, now Red Robin, and Wonder Woman, he is rebuffed by Batman.
Bruce Wayne has been ravaged by decades of crime fighting and outed as Batman. He now uses robots to fight the war for Gotham. Infirmed and in a special exo-skeleton, he refuses to join Superman's campaign for fear that it will excaberate the situation, fearing that Superman's plan is outdated, that the mighty should not oppress the weak. HE instead forms a third faction, made up of many of the non-powered heroes, like the Green Arrow and The Black Canary.
Lex Luthor is also alive and has formed a group of former villains, like the Riddler and Vandal Savage, to regain control of the world from these supposed "heroes." Using mind control, Luthor also has control over Captain Marvel, a hero who by uttering the magic word, transforms from a normal young boy into a hero with powers strong enough to stop Superman. Batman and his forces seemingly join up with Luthor and his team in an effort to quell the heroes.
Superman's Justice League captures more "criminals" than it converts and they build a giant prison, called The Gulag in the ruins of Kansas. When the inmates riot, killing Captain Comet, the designated warden, Batman acts. Having learned of Luthor's mind control of Marvel and his plans to seize power with the fallout from a battle at the Gulag, Batman's team captures Luthor's group, but not before Captain Marvel escapes and frees the rest of the inmates.
What follows is a battle of epic scale, as all three teams face each other. Batman's group trying to create a balance, and the inmates and the Justice League clash. Batman even adopts an armored suit and clashes with Wonder Woman, while Superman battles Captain Marvel admist the chaos. When a squadron of fighter arrive to drop nuclear warheads on the the lot, Batman and Wonder Woman mange to stop two, but a third slips free. Superman manages to free Marvel from Luthor's brainwashing, transforming him back into his human form. There he is told to decide, as the only one who is both a human and a hero, he must decide to allow Superman to stop the bomb and have their war engulf the world, or allow all the meta humans to die. In the end, Marvel decides on a third option, detonating the bomb himself.
The fallout kills many heroes, though some survive with the help of a teleporting Dr. Fate and under the shields of the Green Lanterns. Superman is caught in the blast and believes himself to be the last survivor. Flying to the United Nations building in a rage, he attacks the UN building, blaming them for killing his friends. Though the other heroes arrive, it is Norman McKay who talks down Superman, showing him that his current actions are the real reason people fear humans. Ashamed, the heroes decide to use there wisdom to guide, rather than lead, leaving behind the old crime busting vigilante ways and taking a more global and political stance. Eventually Superman dedicates his life to reforming the Kansas farmlands, and Batman opens Wayne Manor to the victims of the fallout, becoming a healer. Both men taking the jobs of their fathers.
There are a lot of great things about this book. First up is artist Alex Ross. Widely considered his best work, the book is fully painted in a gouache style, creating lifelike representations of the heroes. This was Ross' second large style work, having painted a series for Marvel two years prior, but in Kingdom Come, he launched himself in the stratosphere as the pre-emanate painter in comics, and as one of the most respected artists period. The images are grand in scale, especially chapter 4, the battle of the heroes. Lush and full of color, but breathtaking. Without a shadow of a doubt, no matter how good this story is, with Ross this book would not be the success it is today.
Writer Mark Waid also does an excellent job fleshing out and giving life to Ross' story concept. He create a book so rich and thick with the history of DC characters that I was afraid it would be overwhelming and I would not know what is going on. Instead, as long as you have a basic knowledge of the big three, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, you can really follow the story. The rich history is there for everyone to enjoy, but you don't have to be an encyclopedia of the DCU to understand or follow it. The story really finds a balance in paralleling the Bible, drawing on very well known archetypes to tell a story wholly its own. This is also considered Mark Waid's most respected work.
Kingdom Come is one of those must read stories for comic fans, easily in the top five of comic book tales. Its a superhero tale with substance, where the story delves into what greatness this medium can truly accomplish. Both visually and narrativly innovating, you can follow the tale from an ordinary man's point of view, into a world of extraordinary people. Themes like the abuse of power and finding ones place in the world resonate, even when you have the power in the world of man. It shows that humanity isn't being born human, its in how you act and what you do. Kingdom Come is a can't miss for fans of both great visuals and a great story. Check out the collected edition as it is chock full of great extras, including character sketches, character bios, and bonus content.
DC Comics Kingdom Come, by Mark Waid and Alex Ross. You won't be sorry.
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