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Why I Still Love Kingdom Come

February 4, 2013

So this happened.

Believe it or not, the preview doesn’t even begin to cover how rough it gets in this comic. Not only does Jimmy Olsen buy the farm, but Lois Lane is beaten to death by her husband while she is pregnant thanks to mind control agents cut with Kryptonite. Yes, it’s all a Dark Alternate Timeline and blurp blarp blah. If there ever was a definition of a “women in refrigerators” moment in comics, this would be it.

It’s not even an original “fridge moment,” since the exact same scenario is the catalyst for Kingdom Come, the 1996 DC “Elseworlds” series that posits a future where Superman’s spirit is broken, he retires from the world, and in turn, the world worsens as his generation of superheroes loses their way and the next generation turns out to be mindlessly nihilistic and violent. This got me thinking: why do I still love Kingdom Come, even though it’s arguably as objectionable?

Part of it is of course, that this has been done before, and done better, and all this story does is remind us of that. A lot of fans just don’t see merit in treating DC’s library as a greatest hits album that current comics must be nothing but cover remixes of.

A bigger part of it is context. When Kingdom Come was published in 1996, Lois Lane and Clark Kent were engaged to be married, and later in that same year, they were. Lois was a recurring character in nearly every Superman comic published before that point, and in every Superman comic published afterwards. She was considered his partner and his equal, powers or no powers. By contrast, nowadays the entire marriage has been erased by the vagaries of time travel and editorial fiat, as part of the “new 52” relaunch of DC’s titles.1 Now Superman is in a relationship with Wonder Woman, a storyline I feel damages all three characters involved.

So a storyline in 1996 where Lois has passed on and Superman is a grieving widow, so badly hurt that he withdraws from the world for a full ten years? Is an alternate path, a might-have-been. The same story nowadays just reminds everyone how poorly Lois has been mistreated since the relaunch, to the point that Lois has more of a role in the upcoming Man of Steel film than she does in the monthly comics (one of many reasons I’m looking forward to the film.2)

Dark alternate futures are a staple of comics dating back to Days of Future Past, so a future where Lois has died (along with a host of other calamities visited upon a host of other superheroes) is fine by me. The problem, of course, begins when people treat the dark may-have-been as the dark here-and-now – but that’s hardly the fault of Kingdom Come, any more than we can blame Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns for their imitators learning the wrong lessons from those seminal works and plunging themselves into creative bankruptcy.

But leaving that aside, there’s still a lot I find worthy of love in Kingdom Come. Lois’ death is handed with a great deal more taste. Superman’s one line response to Magog’s description of the event is more heartbreaking than a dozen panels from a video game tie-in. Craft can make the difference. There’s also the fact that Kingdom Come is a beautiful book, a fact we tend to overlook on the Internet as we chase down subtext and supertext and lose sight of the simple aesthetics of an Alex Ross painting. Alex Ross used to be ubiquitous at DC; he’s been absent from the company for long enough that I’m starting to sincerely miss him. 3

But most of all, many of my friends who looks askance at works like All-Star Superman4 and who don’t keep up with the monthly grind of superhero comics? They all love Kingdom Come. They don’t have poor taste either, and they’re pig-ignorant of the larger metatext about the Image Comics superheroes and their brainlessness washing over the genre like a foamy diarrhea tide. So I have to infer from that that there is some value in the work beyond “old man Superman yells at those kids today.”5 And a few years back, at a blog from a previous life, I hit on it.

In terms of exposing the problems inherent to the “punch it” approach to saving the world, Kingdom Come is arguably superior to Watchmen. In Watchmen, ultimately the world is saved through an act of terrible violence; in Kingdom Come, the world is saved through repeated rejections of same. Kingdom Come is implicitly a pacifist text, moreso than even the comics it seeks to emulate.

Nearly every significant act of violence in Kingdom Come is one that ends poorly or illuminates how the characters have lost their way. The catalyst for Superman’s return is when a group of superheroes refuse a supervillain’s surrender and the ensuing desperate battle causes Kansas to become an irradiated wasteland. The first appearance of the Bat-robots that patrol Gotham showcase the dehumanization of Batman’s presence on Gotham – before he was merely a man, and now he controls an army of robots that are anything but. Superman’s return to the world at the end of the first chapter is him explicitly stopping a violent act – with violent force. Immediately afterwards, the viewpoint character of the story realizes that Superman’s return is part of the oncoming disaster.

The return of the older guard of superheroes is perceived – rightly – as them throwing their weight around, even when restricted to violence among their own kind. Because the thing about violence is that it never merely stays among “our own kind.” It spreads like fire through a tinder-dry forest. There are outbreaks of violence as Superman finds himself having to pacify a few too many recalcitrant superheroes, leading him inexorably towards constructing a gigantic super-prison. Thank God such a brute forced based approach to keeping order was never tried in our world. Imagine how many prisons we’d have to build.

At the end of chapter two, we learn that Magog is truly repentant for his deeds – we see him as almost pitable as he tries to rebuild Kansas, but is unable to turn his power towards nonviolent ends. Superman beats him with words, never throwing a single punch as the weight of everything Magog hates about himself brings him crumbling to his knees.

In the third chapter, tensions build to a head. Violence breaks out amongst the prisoners, spurred on by Lex Luthor putting his plan into motion. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman and Batman both wrestle with their consciences. Wonder Woman, in particular, typifies the inherent conflict in the story’s pacifist subtext: do the older guard of superheroes really have that high a horse to stand on? They were all too willing to use violence as a tool, too. Batman, all too willing to scare someone straight, briefly considers letting the violence escalate and letting superhumans remove each other from the board, until he is reminded that Batman was created to be better than that.

Luthor’s secret weapon is an adult Billy Batson, spurred towards loyalty through psychoactive worms and violent imagery meant to keep him scared of the superhuman inside of him. Batman’s attempt to beat Batson into submission fails, and Batson turns into Captain Marvel, breaking open the prison and spilling a superhuman riot forth upon the world.

As a final solution, the UN intercedes and readies weapons of mass destruction to drop upon the riot. Realizing this, Batman and Wonder Woman break off their battle with each other, renouncing violence in favor of an act of explicit violence prevention, stopping the bombs from reaching their target. They succeed with two, but not with a third.

At the climax, the viewpoint character – his spirit somehow intermingled with Superman’s for a brief moment – is called upon to determine who deserves to die: humanity or superhumanity. In true superheroic fashion, Superman’s powers play their part, but it is his faith in others that truly saves the day, as he releases a powerless Billy Batson – who sacrifices himself to stop the bomb, reducing casualties – though not eliminating them, leaving enough dead for Superman to momentarily fly into a blistering rage, attacking the UN building.

Eye for an eye – except that Norman, our viewpoint character, calls upon Superman to reject that line of thinking, and Superman spares the UN despite their complicity in the deaths of Superman’s allies. Superman rejects escalation and retaliation and reaches out a hand to people who, mere minutes ago, were willing to kill him. That’s about as pacifist as it gets.

In the epilogue, we see that the former superheroes are superheroes no more. They have become diplomats, doctors, farmers and teachers. Beating the high holy snot out of supervillains is absent on these last pages, and refreshingly so; the never-ending battle has ended, at least for now. The superhero, at the end of this story, is different both from its post-modern mutation and its baseline concept. Things are not going back to the way they were before. This is where the superhero ends and something new begins, and that something new has one common throughline: punching a problem won’t solve it, so let’s find a different way that will.

Kingdom Come shows us, in the end, superheroes who have recommitted to finding new ways to serve the world they love, sloughing off violence in the process. If the post-modern superhero is “violence and nothing but,” then the superheroes at the end of Kingdom Come are undoubtedly their opposites, rejecting not just purposeless violence but violence itself.

This is why I still see merit in Kingdom Come. I feel it’s a mistake to dismiss it out of hand as “Mark Waid and Alex Ross play with all the old superheroes.” There’s too much consistency to this theme for it to be entirely coincidental – and even if it is, I still believe it’s a valued interpretation of the work. Yes, Wonder Woman and Superman hook up at the end, but it’s a widower’s love. The smiles are sadder. It’s clear that Lois is the one for Superman, and that this loss, coupled with a round rejection of his ethics by people who would be far less justified in rejecting them than he, is what sets all this in motion.

Pacifism makes people uneasy. Most of us know violence is wrong, but we still enjoy it. I’m no different. I have killed many a joystick zombie, alien or terrorist. But I realize that someone in real life who’s killed as many people as my Commander Shepard has would be a mass murderer. We can say that violence is the least bad of several terrible solutions, or say that it’s pretend violence in the event of fiction, but still: we know violence is wrong.

I’m reflexively anti-war. I am not an anti-war absolutist – if nothing else, flaws in the human character make war an inevitability – but I do think that our culture marches off to it far too readily. Pacifism is something that’s interested me for years. I’m glad that Kingdom Come took the time it did to explore this as one of the many themes in its pages. The fanboys can take their shots all they want, but amongst my friends who will read comics when prompted but don’t know why Captain Marvel isn’t a Marvel Comics character, Kingdom Come is held in high, and deserved, esteem.

1Don’t ask.

2Matt Wilson says he’s a cheap date when it comes to Spider-Man and that he’ll enjoy anything halfway decent. I’m the same way with Superman.

3Yes, he was hopelessly stuck in the past, but look, if we condemned every creator in comics who was like that we’d be here all week.

4“Heresy!” you cry. But be honest. Superman arm wrestling for Lois Lane’s hand is pretty damn questionable. They never got past that chapter, unarguably the roughest one in the series.

5Yes, I know they’re not dedicated comics nerds like me, but enough with that gatekeeper crap. Their opinion counts too.

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From → Comics, Superman

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