RETRO REVIEW: Kingdom Come #1 – 4 (May 1996-August 1996)

by

Or – “Trying To Separate The Art From The Artist…”

When I read a comic (or, honestly, watch a movie, television program, play, or read a book,) I find myself not only enjoying the stories of the characters within the fiction, but the stories of the people behind them.  I am fascinated by the thought that while James Kirk is a stalwart hero, Bill Shatner become known as an ass.  I’m fascinated by Cerebus, but disturbed and a little bit offended by some of the thoughts espoused by his creator.  And then we come to Alex Ross…  Regular Spoilermaniacs will probably have seen my complaints about Alexander and his work, and a recent discussion of same actually brought this particular review into being.  To wit, over the years, I have acquired a bit of a distaste for his art, while simultaneously being awed by it, and have flat-out stated that this work in particular suffers with age.  It’s time to put that theory to the test…

It’s hard to judge a work without taking into account the time from which it came.  You can’t really put ‘All In The Family’ or ‘Good Times’ into perspective without thinking about the early 70’s, you can’t honestly assess the Batman or Green Hornet television programs without taking into account the mid-60’s timeframe….  and for Kingdom Come, you have to put yourself into 1996.  William Clinton was in office, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels put on an hour-long wrestling clinic at Wrestlemania XII, and the comic market was absolutely FLOODED with comics, good and bad.  There were bad girls galore, including Catwoman equipped with a balcony you could do Shakespeare off of, and DC and Marvel’s heroes went head-to-head with the readers voting the winners, leading to the twin travesties of Storm defeating Wonder Woman and Wolverine beating Lobo.  Many of the effects of the Image boom were still being felt, with a score of artists aping Lee and Liefeld, and the work of the writer being pooh-poohed for more action shots and splash pages that sell better on the secondary market.  Into this strange new world was shot Kingdom Come, and it was, honestly, a revelation (no pun intended.)

KC2.jpg

Comparatively to the other artists on the scene (moreso then, but even now) Alex’s work is just amazing.  Moreover, the theme of Kingdom Come is pretty heady stuff, as well.  The death of Wesley Dodds, The Sandman, is obviously meant as a metaphor, since he’s among the first of the costumed heroes, though the less-well-known Crimson Avenger came first.  Norman McCay, apparently an old friend of Wes’, (and visually based upon Alex’s father) is apparently long used to these kind of rants.  It is Wesley’s belief that the advent of the metahuman took a lot of the wind out of the sails of regular humanity.  It’s a pretty serious assessment, and seemed representative of 90’s comics, with it’s sea of superhumanity.  The heroes have stopped caring about saving people, and now just fight amongst themselves or try to make a buck (what I call the “X-Men Effect.”) Even the restaurants where Norman eats are affected by the flood of heroes.

KC3.jpg

“Planet Krypton” is Booster Gold’s piece of the pie, selling off the images and reputations of his old friends a piece at a time.  Once again, it’s a brilliant concept, but even by the point Kingdom Come came out, we had already seen Zenith’s ‘fame and fortune’ school of superheroing, and the Planet Hollywood franchise is long a thing of the past.  Yes, it’s a topical reference, but it’s one of the things I maintain hasn’t aged so well.  Norman can’t even walk down the street without encountering random superhero fights, and every store front makes it clear that the superhumans are effecting every level of commerce and society.  McCay is a pastor (at least I THINK he’s a pastor, he may be some other type of church official) and finds that the frustrations of living in a world filled with caped madmen affects him in way he never expected…

KC4.jpg

As he attempts to gather his wits, Norman is shocked to find that he’s not alone in the chapel.  From out of a stained glass window comes a ghostly figure, clad only in a green cape and cowl, The Spectre.  “I have need of you, Norman McCay.”  It seems that since he has been seeking justice in the world, Norman is the new anchor for the Spectre, who warns him of a coming turning point, where the world WILL change.  But it is Norman who may help to decide HOW it changes…

KC5.jpg

Earth’s protectors are the problem…  The Spectre then takes Norman on a journey to what seems like a normal farm in the midwest, until the farmer lifts his non-working tractor with one hand and hefts it back to the barn in a manner very reminiscent of the cover of “Action Comics #1.”  Suddenly, in full costume, Wonder Woman appears and begins to converse with the man…  “Diana…  what brings you to the farm?” he asks.  “The vain hope that you’re not still here,” is her response.  She tries to talk to him about something vague in the past, and facing his fear.  She mentions the loss of his wife and parents, and he coldly responds “Earthlings die.  You know that.  He attempts to blow her off, but WW is more than ready to go to extreme lengths to get his attention…

KC6.jpg

I remember being irritated by the effect borrowed from Star Trek: The Next Generation’s holodeck program, and that feeling hasn’t gotten any less strong in the ensuing decade.  They are revealed to be in a simulation, and holographic something-or-other in the Fortress of Solitude, as Wonder Woman reminds him of two words he seems to have forgotten:  truth and justice.  She leaves, but her words move him enough to send him to his monitoring bay, as image after image shows him the chaos in the outside world.  Superman thinks back to his battles with Magog, one of the new bloods (who kinda reminds me of Cable) as he watches a horrible sequence of events.  The Parasite, tracked by Magog and other heroes, attacks Captain Atom, ripping open his shell, and irradiating a huge chunk of the midwest.  Wonder Woman entreats him to come out of retirement, reminding him, “our generation takes it’s cues from you.  We always have.”  So, what have you all done for the years he’s been out of touch, eh?  Meanwhile, Normie and the Spectre are taking the whirlwind tour, seeing The Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman’s new attitudes.  When his attention turns to Gotham, they see a gang of children (who suspiciously resemble Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids) on the run from committing a crime in Gotham City.  As they turn a corner, they meet a walking reminder of how that’s a BAD idea.

KC7.jpg

More than meets the eye!  I like how it resembles the old knife-nosed Batmobile, but as clever as the image is, it’s indicative of a problem.  Alex is great at updating other people’s characters and designs, but sometimes his work feels a bit derivative of what has come before.  “Batman has his city under control,” says the Spectre, but then takes McCay to a place not-so-tidy: New York City.  Superhero battles rage out of control on all sides, and it’s the first moment where I started to get a little annoyed with seeing the army of superhumans and having no scorecard.  Norman, too, is bothered, crying out “Don’t you understand?  If any of use are to survive…  ANY of us…  Now, more than ever, we need HOPE.”  His thoughts are echoed by a red-and-blue blur, and a whoosh, heralding a decision made in the far-flung wastes of Antarctica.

KC8.jpg

And there, on his chest, subtle as a nut-shot, is our first clue.  Tom Grice was correct (but don’t let him know, I don’t want him to get a swelled head) about this sequence in his recent counter-rant:  It’s not designed to make us root for Superman.  Indeed, it’s indicative that he’s going to make things worse…  after all, his chest thingy is all black!  That’s ominous, Paris Hilton might say, if she knew any three-syllable words.  To emphasize with thick black marker, Norman suddenly has a vision (inherited from Wesley Dodds) of the future.

KC9.jpg

Is that Bjork?  Never noticed that before…  Either way, issue 1 ends with this grim realization, and issue two kicks off with another vision, with Norman’s foresight heralding the coming of Superman’s army.  He tells the Spectre that his sense of time and place are blurring, and the spirit of vengeance simply replies “Time has little meaning where we walk.”  Obviously, as some time has passed since last time, as another superhero turf war has erupted, enraging Norman.  “They’re ready to battle over TERRITORY…  without bothering to CARE who’s caught between them!  Someone should do something!”  With that piece of somewhat awkward dialogue, Norman becomes a kind of Greek chorus, heralding one of the fruits of his lost sense of time: the very superhuman battalion his vision warned about.

KC10.jpg

You can very clearly see that these heroes are just as foreboding, as threatening as their younger gun-laden counterparts.  Hawkman looks monstrous, The Ray, Power Woman, Wonder Woman and Superman grim and godlike, Flash a faceless cipher, and (as I mentioned before) Green Lantern as Teutonic Knight.  Superman’s company makes short work of the warring gang-like young heroes, taking them all into custody.  Superman takes a moment to explain to the rubes in the audience exactly what this is all about.  “Good afternoon.  Many of you remember us.  We have been AWAY for a while.  That was a mistake…”

KC11.jpg

The reporters are skeptical, wondering if peace through superior firepower is any sort of peace at all, and one of them asks the musical question:  Is he ready to face Magog, given their history?  Wonder Woman steps up and says that Magog will be dealt with in time, and they all fly away, leaving behind a puzzled and angry United Nations Security Council.  None of them are happy with this, and the fear is now growing rather than being lessened as Superman hoped.  With the beginnings of a proper old-school Justice Legion, Kal-El thinks that it’s perhaps time to check in with another old friend, and give the recruitment speech again.

KC12.jpg

Thud goes the hammer of symbolism on the anvil of foreshadowing…  One of the things that bothers me about Alex’s art (even when it was new and incredibly exciting) is his tendency to stuntcast certain characters as well-known actors:  Iron Man as Timothy Dalton, Mr. Fantastic as Russell Johnson, and Batman as Gregory Peck.  It will irritate me throughout the entire series, so I’m getting it out of the way here and now…  This  type of thing is extremely distracting (even when it’s Tommy Lee Jones as Norman Osborn) and damaging to the narrative.  In the pages that follow, Superman’s army grows, fighting and incarcerating more rogue metahumans, and gaining new members of their own.  Essentially, if you’re interested in seeing everyone in the DC Universe grow up exactly the way we expected, this is the sequence for you.  The fight scenes are gloriously rendered, and pretty mystifying, as we’re never given names for a majority of the characters in the book.  Yes, that works with the “swarms of powered dudes” theme of the book, but darn it, there’s only so many beautiful fight scenes filled with strangers I can stomach.  Still, it IS well drawn, and the fights serve to motivate a group of like-minded individuals to band together…

KC13.jpg

Riddler speaks up, questioning how a “liberation” front is going to justify cutting off services to the innocents they claim to be trying to save from metahuman hegemony.  Luthor snappishly threatens him, and explains that they’re trying to HEIGHTEN the tensions between human and superhuman, forcing humanity to take control back from their caped overlords.  Lex is supremely confident, as for the first time, he goes into this battle with a, quote, “MARVELOUS anti-Superman plan,” turning to one of his servants, who looks just like Fred MacMurray, and saying, “Isn’t that right, boy?”  Captain Marvel smiles and replies “Absolutely, Mr. Luthor.”  It’s a nice reveal, and I had forgotten how well it works.  You almost feel sympathetic for Luthor and his cronies, as well.  Elsewhere, Superman rousts a bar filled with louts and nothings, telling them all that they can join him, or they can go to prison like everybody else.  (Sounds like the Marvel Universe today, doesn’t it?)  Superman’s followers expand, not necessarily because he’s on the side of right and justice, but because the others are AFRAID of his powers…

KC14.jpg

As his efforts bear less and less fruit, Superman and company are made aware of a situation in Kansas:  Magog has been sighted.  We see him, trying to carefully move and rebuild a house (slung over his shoulder like a gunnysack, in an impressive/vaguely funny scene) and failing.  Magog blasts the ruined wood structure in frustration, as Superman arrives to confront him. “I’m not afraid of you, Magog,” says the Kryptonion.  “Oh, get outta town.  Wait!  You already did that!”  Gyaah.  Terrible piece of dialogue there.  We finally get to see what happened between them to make Superman seem afraid of him…  Magog had arrived in Metropolis several years ago, making his name with brutal retribution.  When The Joker killed everyone at the Daily Planet (including, we find out, Lois Lane) Magog killed him in cold blood.  Though Superman argued against him, Magog was acquitted and released, and the city supported his decision to take a killer like Joker out of play.  Superman left the city, and Magog took over as it’s protector.  Now, with only irradiated wastelands left behind, Magog realizes something.  “The way you left?  I thought you were afraid of me…  A lot of people did.  But that wasn’t it.  You were afraid… that I was the Man of Tomorrow.”  Magog bitterly says that all he represents is this wasteland, now.  Superman replies, “You must be proud,” causing the big M to snap and attack him.

KC15.jpg

Magog begs Superman to kill him, but the Man of Steel won’t do it, instead telling him that they are at war.  With the help of Scott Free of Apokolips, the Superbattalion builds a huge prison for metahumans on the sight of the Kansas disaster.  It takes months, but eventually they have a structure large enough to hold the “heroes” they’ve been taking down.  This last step finally pushes the Mankind Liberation Front into action, finding and recruiting the most unlikely ally of all…

KC16.jpg

“If I’d known that a common enemy would bring us together, I would have INVENTED one years ago!”  Luthor cracks me up…  When the gulag is finally finished, we hit on another of my pet peeves about Alex’s artwork:  He is completely in love with the Superfriends, and has said on the public record that it’s the perfect Justice League, even remarking that the Martian Manhunter isn’t a character he likes because that character wasn’t a Superfriend.  Don’t get me wrong, we all have our little peccadilloes (ask me about the 3-D Man sometime) but for some reason, the constant references to the Legion of Doom start to grate after awhile.

KC17.jpg

Still, it does give an effective sense of foreboding and makes it clear that something is horribly wrong here.  In another moment of symbolism, Captain Comet (the first of the Silver Age heroes) is picked to act as the warden of the gulag, which The Spectre explains is quickly filled to well beyond it’s original capacities.  Luthor’s MLF also has the ability to contact the inmates on the inside through some sort of mystical link between characters who I believe are called Red, White, and Blue.  Luthor’s plan continues apace, and Bruce Wayne is forced to keep close tabs on him to keep him in check.

KC18.jpg

The teams continue their works, with Wonder Woman and Superman finding a moment to talk about the old days, and Luthor showing graphically how brutal his brainwashing of Captain Marvel is (suffice to say it is horrifying and kills any thought we might have had of thinking Luthor had changed his spots.)  Norman and The Spectre once again watch Superman and company, but The Flash’s vibrational abilities allow him to see them spying, and he literally yanks Norman back to reality.  Power Girl nearly takes his head off before Superman stops her, asking Norman who he is, and why he’s here.

KC19.jpg

Sure of their own heroism, Superman’s people don’t even listen to Norman’s babbling, as they’re forced to deal immediately with a riot at the Gulag.  Wonder Woman orders the fastest members to get there and take control.  When Superman tries to tell them to use the least amount of violence necessary, Wonder Woman overrides him, telling them to use “whatever means necessary.”  Superman is angered to have his authority overridden, but Wonder Woman, essentially, tells him to stop being such a wuss.  They try to tell the U.N. that everything is alright, but the humans are skeptical.  Lex Luthor takes the moment to set into motion his anti-Superman weapon, but Batman (even in a full-body exoskeleton) is quicker…

KC20.jpg

Billy runs for his life, and Batman’s people quickly take control, neutralizing Luthor and his associates.  Billy manages to stumble into Luthor’s jar filled with Mr. Mind worms, panics, and screams his magic word, escaping from Batman.  Meanwhile, the riot claims the life of Captain Comet, and Wonder Woman prepares to respond with deadly force.  Superman balks at this notion, and she simply… writes him off.  She kisses him farewell, and leaves with his army, now hers.  Superman rockets away, going to the one man he thinks he can trust:  Bruce Wayne.  Smashing through into the Batcave, he tells the former Batman, “I need your help.”

KC21.jpg

Batman tells him that there’s nothing that he can do to help.  Superman tries to impress upon him the seriousness of the situation, but Batman explains that he doesn’t even know the extent of it all.  Captain Marvel is on his way, and he’s still under Luthor’s control, ready to kill all the Justice Leaguers.  The Man of Steel leaves, flying at full speed to the Gulag, but he’s stopped before he arrives by a red and gold blur.  Norman and the Spectre are horrified to watch as the visions of Armageddon come vividly to life before them.

KC22.jpg

Okay, that is an awesome spread.  For all my problems with the art, Alex can really knock ‘em out of the park when he needs to.  Superman tries to reason with Captain Marvel, but things get even more out of hand when Batman arrives with HIS forces.  The U.N. Secretary General, terrified by the forces raging in their midst, calls for an emergency measure:  a NUCLEAR STRIKE on the Gulag.  Wonder Woman finally puts her money where her mouth has been (which may not be hygienic, now that I think of it) and keeps Von Bach from killing Zatara…

KC23.jpg

The show of violence only makes things worse, as Superman knew that it would, and Batman confronts her.  Wonder Woman is incensed, calling him an aristocratic bastard, and hitting him with both barrels of venom.  “I will NOT be judged by you!  Do you hear me?  Do you understand?  After all these years, you have the nerve to swagger out of your cave and expect everyone to bow before your precious wisdom!  Well, it’s too late for that, Bruce!”  She flies him up above the battle, and they both suddenly see the oncoming nuclear warhead.  Captain Marvel, for his part, figures out an effective attack on Superman…

KC24.jpg

Over and over, he calls down the lightning, but evades with the speed of Mercury, leaving Superman to take the brunt of the magical blasts.  Batman and Wonder Woman quickly leap into action, attacking the oncoming planes, taking out two of them quickly.  Norman and The Spectre witness as the third plane manages to drop it’s deadly cargo, and below, Captain Marvel goes back to the well once too often.  Superman lashes out with his own super-speed, and the lightning strikes, leaving an all-too-mortal Billy Batson in his grasp. Superman doesn’t know what to do…  He tells Billy the truth.  “Every choice I’ve made so far has brought us HERE…  has been WRONG!  So, listen to me, Billy.  Listen harder than you EVER have before.  There’s a bomb falling.  Either it kills us, or we run rampant across the globe.”  Superman looks at Batson, telling him that he is the only one who is both human and superhuman, that even if he (Superman) stops the bomb, that he doesn’t know how to stop this from just happening over again.  “You can let me go.  Or, with a word, you can stop me…  Decide the world.”  Letting him go, Superman quickly races upwards toward the bomb.  Billy stands for a second…  then whispers.

KC25.jpg

Captain Marvel grabs the nuclear weapon, and repeatedly screams his magic word.  The lightning strikes, over and over, detonating the bomb.  Long seconds pass, and Superman rises, seemingly alone in a charnel field.  The skeletons of hundreds of former heroes lying around him, is seemingly too much for the Man of Tomorrow.  “Judgement is passed,” says the Spectre.  “I am no longer needed.  Farewell, Norman McCay.”  As Superman takes to the air, Norman confronts the Spectre, telling him that if he allows Superman to become what he’s about to turn into then he IS EVIL.  They are suddenly at the U.N. building, as Superman prepares to rip it asunder with his bare hands.  “Let me talk to him!” cries Norman, and the Spectre complies.

KC26.jpg

“If you want redemption, Clark.  It lies in the very next decision you make.”  Norman tells him that he’s never had to question himself, his judgement, because he was raised as a man.  But he lost all of that when he made the “super” more important than the man, when he gave up Clark Kent and all that he meant.  Wonder Woman and Batman arrive, with what few survivors were able to be protected by Green Lantern powers and such, but when asked how many survived, Batman goes immediately to the negative.  “Enough to leave us with the same problem as before.”  Superman turns to the secretary general, who babbles, “we saw you… as gods.”  Superman agrees, saying that they had come to think of THEMSELVES that way, and therein lay their failure.

KC27.jpg

As Captain Marvel’s cape is raised over the U.N. (more symbolism), Norman and Specs walk away into the mists of time.  They see the future, as the dark ruin of Wayne Manor becomes a beacon of hope and healing, and Batman gets the best line of the entire miniseries…

KC28.jpg

Heh.  I rather enjoy that, though the hammer-blow of Wayne’s now white clothing is a little bit heavy.  I think these are the kind of things that have amplified in my memory to make the series seem much more ham-handed than it actually is upon rereading.  Wonder Woman comes to visit Kal in the field again, but this time it’s REAL soil, as he retills and reclaims the wasteland created by the battles of this series.  She gives him a gift, a pair of Clark Kent glasses, and kisses him passionately before leaving.  As for Norman McCay, he asks the seemingly-emotionless Spectre how his host would have felt about all of this.  The ghost pauses, then pulls back his hood to reveal the face of Jim Corrigan.  “That’s a very good question,” he responds.  Norman returns to his life, and finds his faith again…

KC29.jpg

The red-haired man IS Jim Corrigan, by the way.  With all right in the world again, the series ended.  A couple of years later, the four issues were collected into a hardcover which added some additional bits of story, including an epilogue that actually makes me enjoy the ending more.  In this story, Clark, Diana, and Bruce meet at Planet Krypton for lunch, one year after the climactic battle.  Clark and Diana have news for Bruce, as well as a request.  He tells them that Diana is pregnant, and they’re both dumbfounded, but he’s all “World’s Greatest Detective, hellooo?”  But he’s slowed down by the former Superman’s request of him…

KC30.jpg

Batman looks a lot like Mandy Patinkin there for a moment, doesn’t he?  The three of them come to an agreement where they will all help to raise the Kryptonian/Amazon hybrid child to do the right thing.  It’s a very nice ending, actually, though I wish it had been part of the actual package, rather than a “DVD Extra” that you had to pay 100 bucks to own.

So.  My assertion during my review of JSA #6 was, and I quote…

“Before he came to this time period,” explains Dawny, “he was accidentally shunted to a parallel Earth.”  Star Boy replies, “Earth 22? Meh.  No one liked each other there very much.”  An apt way of summarizing Kingdom Come, (which was revolutionary at the time, and is a well-done tale, but hasn’t aged well AT ALL.)  I see a Green Lantern who reminds me of the old paintings of Hitler as a Teutonic Knight, I see a Superman who triumphs through the worst acts of violence we see in the entire series, and most of all, I see a narrative that skews all over the place, creating a situation where we root for the old-school heroes not because they’re morally superior, but because they’re the only people we can pick out of the enormous crowd scenes.

Tom Grice (who, as always, is WRONG, Sir!  WRONG!) pointed out that *I* was wrong, in that we AREN’T supposed to root for Superman.  We’re supposed to root for Norman, who knows the truth:  a superhuman must be, first and foremost, human.  Going through the book again, it’s clear that I HAD misremembered this point, and that Superman’s actions are as misguided as Magog’s or Swastikas.  (And what’s with all the racist characters and images, anyway?)  The climax carries a lot more punch than I recalled, as well, with Captain Marvel’s sacrifice still being upsetting and powerful.  The imagery and dialogue are, on occasion, a bit on the clunky side, and it does contribute quite a few pages to the book of the Omnipotent Batman.  I like him better when he’s just a smart man, rather than a walking Plot Device.

Kingdom Come does feel very much like a response to the plethora of comics companies with their legion of characters from the early 90s, but even separated from that era, it still packs a punch.  I’m certainly not recanting ALL of my position, the series does feel like an artifact of another era, but it’s a ten year old comic, after all, but there’s still a lot going on here that I like, and some that I didn’t even remember.  The overwhelming “Alexness” of it all comes across as a lot less overwhelmingly self-centered than my memory would have had me remember.  There are a lot of in-jokes in the art, and it’s generally much more dynamic than his current cover work.  I don’t know if it’s a change in materials or technique, but the difference is clear.  I’m still bothered by the overwhelming number of characters, but contextually, an army of vaguely undifferentiated unnamed supervillains helps to create the tone of the book, that humanity is at the mercy of hundreds of “heroes” who threaten to destroy the regular folk.  While KC is no longer the creative bombshell that it was in 1996, there’s still some gas in the tank, and it’s a good, exciting read, worth 3.5 out of 5 stars.

35stars.jpg