Happy New Year, cats and kittens, and welcome to another installment of Flashback Friday, now with more Robert Zemeckis than you can shake a stick at! Okay, maybe that part’s not true, but it is finally 2015, Zemeckis. Where the fuck are the hoverboards, flying cars, self-lacing sneakers, dehydrated pizzas, and self-drying jackets we were promised in Back to the Future II? Don’t jerk us around. You have until December 31.
Speaking of dark futures and dystopian uncertainties, I thought that the day after New Year’s would be the perfect time to look back at one of the most celebrated—and rightfully so—comic book stories focusing on the apocalypse, writer Mark Waid and artist Alex Ross’ DC Comics masterpiece Kingdom Come.
Published in 1996, Kingdom Come is a miniseries that explores an alternate fractured future of the DC comic book universe in which the four-colored world of Superman and his peers has been muddled with shades of grey. In the near future, Superman has left the public sphere and superheroics behind, seeking a life of isolation in his Fortress of Solitude. The cause for this sequestration lies in his grief at the death of Lois Lane and, perhaps more importantly, his lack of faith in the future of humanity and his fellow superhero brothers and sisters. A new breed of “heroes,” with little to no regard for the collateral damage—both in property and in lives, have swayed the public’s opinion of what measures humanity’s protectors should take in being Earth’s stewards. The populace has decided that the old guard is too gentle to defend the world, causing some older heroes to go into hiding or retire completely.
When Superman can no longer turn a blind eye to the reckless actions of the younger superhumans putting Earth into peril, he comes out of retirement to assemble his former peers and set the world right. However, as becomes apparent to the former Daily Planet reporter, his intervention might be too little, too late, as both the young heroes and humanity itself have their own respective ideas about how to set the world right. A disillusioned pastor named Norman McCay is privy to all of these events, commissioned by The Spectre, God’s angel of judgment, to decide the fate of the superhumans and, ultimately, humanity.
The plot itself has undertones and overtones as to what Waid and Ross want to comment on, namely the nature of heroism and what it means to do good. Does the general consensus decide what counts as moral and ethical behavior, as is the case with the public embracing the new breed of brash and dangerous superheroes? Or is there some sort of Platonic idea of what the Good with a capital G is? Just because Superman and his compatriots have power, does that mean that they know how best to wield it and what is in the best interests of humanity? Do the humans who are protected by these colorful gods have the right to decide how they want to be shielded from harm and have the choice to opt out when they grow tired of their protectors? There’s a reason that the publicity art for the miniseries bared the line “Whose will be done?”
Along those lines, the miniseries also has a lot to say about accountability. Whose fault is it when the world falls into decay? How much accountability do we have? Superman left his life as a superhero for a decade when the public slowly began to turn their backs on his brand of justice, but does he have any culpability for how corrupted the world became in his absence? We get hints that heroes such as the Flash and Green Lantern worked from the shadows to attempt to keep Earth safe, but are they responsible for the world’s state for opting not to work together? Batman stayed to fight the good fight, even after his body betrayed him, but did his paranoia and distrust of his fellow heroes help add to the world’s schism? These are questions that Waid and Ross follow and, like any good storytellers, they don’t give us definitive answers.
These questions, ultimately, feed into part of the focus of the story’s overall commentary: the state of comic books and superhero tales in the 1990s. Characters such as the hero Magog—whose reckless and dangerous actions resulted in the accidental deaths of one million people in Kansas—and others of his ilk were pastiches of 1990s creations like the X-Men’s Cable, who shot first and asked questions later. The comic reading community’s tastes began to sway toward wanting their heroes to be “grim and gritty,” which, some argue, is an overblown extension of what certain books like Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns did. However, while those stories explored dystopian futures and deconstructed superhero tropes, some readers clamored for more of the same, leading to pale facsimiles of those books and producing heroes and actions that were dark simply for the sake of being dark. And many in the comic community ate that type of storytelling up. What Waid and Ross seem to want to show is what happens when that sensibility is overused and taken to the nth degree.
If you are interested in superhero comics at all, Kingdom Come provides a tale that can be appreciated for the story alone and for the philosophical touchstones it hits upon reading. With a new year dawning, many of us look inward, deciding who we want to be and what we believe and what we hold as our moral compass. Kingdom Come hits those notes and would be wonderful reading to compliment that introspective journey. Happy 2015, folks, and I hope it’s your best year yet. May you be the you you’re striving to be. Until next time!