Men of Tomorrow: Waid and Ross’s Kingdom Come

Before I get going: I’m counting Kingdom Come as an “end of Superman” story rather than the “alternate universe” story it was originally intended as. I have two reasons for this, and I want to put them up front. The first is that Kingdom Come gets folded into DC continuity through The Kingdom series Waid wrote a couple years later, and through some of Geoff Johns’ run on JSA.

The Kingdom, by the way, is pretty good. I’m not going to get into it here, because it doesn’t do much with Superman as a character, using him mostly as a plot point. But Ariel Olivetti’s art on the bookend books is excellent, somewhere between Doug Mahnke and Dean Ormston (and are you reading Black Hammer? You should be), and the Offspring one-shot with Frank Quitely is fantastic. I know DC never really used “hypertime” as a continuity fix, but it is a solid bit of handwavery that makes no more or less sense than “there is a fixed but arbitrary number of universes”.

The second is that the Superman depicted in Kingdom Come is recognizably an older version of what we could call “our Superman”, or “canonical DC Superman”, rather than say, “Superman But He Lands in Russia” or “Superman But He is Obama Also”, and I want to save the “Strange Visitors” label for stories of the latter type. It’s also just more interesting reading Kingdom Come as an end times story rather than detaching it from DC’s continuity. So there.

In terms of Kingdom Come as a project, it’s difficult not to see it as two creators responding or pushing back against their reputations as staunch traditionalists. Alex Ross had recently made a name for himself with Marvels, a beautifully rendered rehash of Marvel history. Waid was a well-known continuity wonk, a fan-turned-writer with encyclopedic knowledge of DC minutiae. Doing a quasi-dark Ragnarok for the DCU, complete with redesigns on every DC hero, plus a new generation of characters, would give each a chance to flex their creative muscles, showing a range beyond polishing up superhero relics.

Notably, both would have some of their greatest successes returning to more “classic” or “retro” storytelling, Ross working with Paul Dini on a series of one-shot graphic novels, Waid paired with Chris Samnee on Daredevil, Black Widow, and currently Captain America for runs that have a “classic feel” due to Samnee’s deceptively simple-looking art. I’m not huge on the Dini/Ross collaborations, but Waid and Samnee do some seriously amazing work together, maybe the best books of Waid’s career.

Ross originated the idea for the series, drawing on vague mentions of a coming war that dotted certain DC stories, and heavily influenced by Alan Moore’s “Twilight of the Superheroes” pitch. “Twilight” was Moore’s idea for a massive “end of the DCU” crossover, itself inspired by Miller’s Dark Knight Returns.

I felt that Frank had managed to fulfill that requirement in terms of Superman and Batman, giving us an image which, while perhaps not of their actual deaths, showed up how they were at their endings, in their final years. Whether this story will actually ever happen in terms of "real" continuity is irrelevant: by providing a fitting and affective capstone to the Batman legend it makes it just that... a legend rather than an endlessly meandering continuity.

It’s a rather amazing document, one that’s continuously mined for ideas, particularly by Geoff Johns. Flashpoint cherrypicks from it, and for a while, the meta-story of the New 52 seemed to be following Moore’s map. But the pitch as written highlights not only Moore’s understanding of how superheroes function narratively, but how their economic function runs contrary to their best narrative interests:

An essential quality of a legend is that the events in it are clearly defined in time; Robin Hood is driven to become an outlaw by the injustices of King John and his minions. That is his origin. He meets Little John, Friar Tuck and all the rest and forms the merry men. He wins the tournament in disguise, he falls in love with Maid Marian and thwarts the Sheriff of Nottingham. That is his career, including love interest, Major Villains and the formation of a superhero group that he is part of. He lives to see the return of Good King Richard and is finally killed by a woman, firing a last arrow to mark the place where he shall be buried. That is his resolution — you can apply the same paradigm to King Arthur, Davy Crockett or Sherlock Holmes with equal success. You cannot apply it to most comic book characters because, in order to meet the commercial demands of a continuing series, they can never have a resolution. Indeed, they find it difficult to embrace any of the changes in life that the passage of time brings about for these very same reasons, making them finally less than fully human as well as falling far short of true myth.

By Ross’s account, he found the “Twilight” pitch late in the development of his own ideas, pointed to it by James Robinson, who was initially interested in collaborating with Ross on the book. By the time Mark Waid came on board, Ross’s ideas for the story were fully under the sway of Alan Moore, drawing from the “Twilight” pitch along with Watchmen and Miracleman. One of Kingdom Come’s major plot twists feels lifted whole cloth from Miracleman, which, for me reading Miracleman after Kingdom Come, had that uncanny “I’ve seen this before” effect in reverse.

The collaboration was by all accounts contentious. Their powers combined produced a comic whose panels beg for (and have gotten ) heavy annotation: the backgrounds teem with in-jokes and winks to the savviest of DC fans. But Waid pushed back heavily against some of Ross’s plot points, including the ending, which was supposed to see everyone but the DC trinity (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) wiped out. Ross’s reasoning was that

it’s going back to superhero archetypes. Once our industry is dead, and one day it will be, they will outlive this pitiful little industry because they are icons the world over.

Waid couldn’t bring himself to have Superman make a mistake of that magnitude, and this disagreement over the nature of Superman is at the heart of Waid and Ross’s conflict. “I wrote three fourths of the series not understanding Superman,” Waid said later. Waid’s vision of Superman is wrapped up in the idea of moral perfection. Ross was looking at Superman through the lens of Miracleman, particularly Moore’s last arc, “Olympus”, and saw the character as flawed by detachment from humanity. That theme of distance runs throughout the book. The superheroes have come to see themselves as separate from humanity. Each member of the Justice League is shown in their particular mode of isolation. Aquaman retreats to Atlantis, Green Lantern to an analogue the Justice League satellite from contemporary DC continuity, Batman puppets robo-bats from his cave. Meanwhile, a new generation callously engages in free-for-all battles that endanger the people they’re supposed to protect.

It’s very different from the endgame that Moore imagines, both in the “Twilight” pitch and in “Olympus.” In the former, superheroes have “inherited the Earth almost by default as various social institutions started to crumble in the face of accelerating social change, leaving the superheroes in the often unwilling position of being a sort of new royalty,” recasting America as a collection of feudal states. In Miracleman, superheroes actively seize the reins of government, in one of my favorite sequences in any comic book ever:

For Moore, this is a logical endpoint for a Superman-esque figure. Superheroic do-goodery has an inherently fascist element to it: righteousness imposed via strength. But swooping around rescuing kittens and stopping bankrobbers is a half-measure. A super-powered being who believes themselves morally justified would ultimately be obliged to seize power, in Moore’s view.

Searching Kingdom Come for a political statement on superheroes, you’re likely to come up empty. It’s ultimately insular, more concerned with the interplay of superheroes and villains than in the ways they affect the rabble, even if it does revisit the Marvels approach of using a human point of view character and make a whole lot of noise about the difference between humans and metahumans. Kingdom Come takes for granted that the police actions undertaken by the Flash, Green Lantern, or Batman, are morally acceptable. The failure here is a failure to inspire. The central DC heroes are supposed to be iconic. And they’re supposed to bring up a new generation of heroes. Failing to do so, they allow the next generation to grow up as, basically, Image Comics.

It’s very much a Mark Waid argument to make. As the writer responsible for the most successful of DC’s second generation of heroes, Wally West, Waid is deeply invested in the idea that DC heroes should inspire as much as save. His later run on Legion hits on the same point, albeit from a different direction. You can see him return to the same theme with his current Champions book for Marvel, but there he’s made an admirable shift in his views on how the next generation are likely to handle themselves. With Champions, the kids are all right (but wow, that book has some cringeworthy dialogue).

This failure to inspire begins with Superman, and here it’s interesting to look at what sends Supes into exile. It begins with the murder of most of Clark Kent’s friends by the Joker. This story beat draws attention to a crucial flaw in Superman: he only works with a certain group of villains, or certain types of stories. Outside of those, he’s woefully out of place. It’s part of the reason Superman needs to be aligned with existing law. A true Social Justice Superman would end up seated on the throne of Olympus like Moore’s Miracleman. He’d have to. It’d be the only outcome that makes sense. Superman also doesn’t deal well with truly chaotic villains. The unmotivated evil of the Joker is outside of Superman’s understanding:

The deaths of his friends doesn’t send Superman into exile, although it does sever his emotional ties to humanity. It’s the fact that, when Magog kills the Joker, the public sides with him. In this moment, Superman views humanity as fallen, not as good as he is, and leaves.

The “world without a Superman” trope is one a lot of books play with, and it plays out strangely here, due, I think, to the split between Ross and Waid. In these stories, Superman is assumed to be the moral center of the DC Universe, without which nothing else holds. Personally, I’d like to see more stories where the current version of Wonder Woman is taken to be the DCU’s moral center, but that’s just me.

The problem here should be obvious. The morally perfect Superman that’s being absented is the Waid version of the character, the one who never makes the wrong call. But the Superman in the story is Ross’s, morally compromised, operating by half-measures, unwilling to accept his humanity or embrace his godhood. It seems unlikely that the presence of Ross’s Superman would have done anything to stem the events that lead up to Kingdom Come, while the presence of Waid’s Superman might have.

This “inspiration gap” is a consistent problem when it comes to long-running depictions of Superman, and is one of the things writers grapple with approaching the character. In the first issue of Infinite Crisis, Geoff Johns hangs a lantern on it:

Kingdom Come doesn’t do much to fix the problem. Superman approaches his breaking point, and the point-of-view/author surrogate steps out from behind the curtain and stops him from becoming evil, or, for that matter, becoming Miracleman. It’ll be a while still before Waid actually breaks a Superman. We’ll get to that. Since the story has operated around a humans/gods divide, Captain Marvel is sacrificed to fuse the two, creating a more stable status quo that offers little comment on what the story’s added up to. We return to a state of ongoingness, a place where the same stories we’ve seen remain possible. Ragnarok fails, apocalypse deferred.

I haven’t said much about costume design, even though we’re currently between the no-trunks era and the triumphant return of the red undies. But Alex Ross’s costume design is possibly the highlight of this whole book. Physically thicker than Supes is normally portrayed, Ross’s Superman harkens back to George Reeves in terms of physique, and the return of the black to the S logo is brought in from the Max Fleischer shorts, expanded to cover Superman’s entire chest and made more angular. Along with the Reed Richards/pre-resurrection Hal Jordan greying pattern that only seems to happen in comics, these add up to indicate that this Superman has seen some shit. Not all of Ross’s redesigns work quite as well, but Kingdom Come Superman is instantly recognizable, enough that his return during Geoff Johns’ JSA run carries some charge based on visuals alone.

And Ross’s Captain Marvel is cartoonish enough in the hyper-realistic context of the comic that his madness and power make him legitimately terrifying.

A story about an imperfect Superman’s failure to inspire, Kingdom Come falls into something of the same inspiration gap. The story never matches the iconic imagery of the art. It’s a Ragnarok without real consequence: the dead are many, but they’re strangers, the characters we’ve invested in are kept safe. As for Superman, we get to see some of his edges and limits, but the story pulls back before crossing any of them.

Next up, Mark Waid gets a chance to deliver his own vision of Superman, and it turns out to be his last.

“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.” -Frank O'Hara

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