Graphic Novel Friday: Kingdoms Come
A common complaint tossed at superhero comics is that the storytelling isn’t always the most inviting. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, even the X-Men, all have years and years of stories under their utility belts. While daunting, the best new superhero comics aren't slaves to that history but instead use it as a skeleton for fresh drama.
Take Kingdom Come, a DC Comics mini-series dating back to 1996. Penned by Mark Waid and lavishly painted by Alex Ross (Justice), Kingdom Come is not only a superhero comic, but it is also an “Elseworlds “superhero comic. When the constraints of continuity are too great for even the professionals, stories can take place in Elseworlds. Basically, it’s carte blanche for the writer and artist to do whatever they want with classic heroes without fear of repercussions in the “regular” titles on the racks every week.
Kingdom Come was written smack dab in the middle of the 1990s, a dark time for superhero comics. Then, superheroes were more anti-hero than hero. And so Kingdom Come took that attitude and brought it to the forefront as a critique disguised in a great story.
In it, a very “anti” anti-hero, Magog--complete with shoulder-pads and a scarred eye (in reference to the posterboy for 1990s comics, the X-Man Cable)—took a stand against supervillainy and murdered The Joker. It wasn’t a “comic book” killing, where the body was never found. No, Magog publicly executed the Clown Prince of Crime, and the crowd cheered at the death. In fact, when Superman floated down to admonish Magog, Metropolis citizens asked why this hadn’t been done earlier. What followed is of course a poignant look at how the 1990s-era of comics could never last, and a world without Superman (Supes permanently relocated to his Fortress of Solitude in protest) isn’t much of a world at all.
However, the insular nature of comics can sometimes allow for a very fun payoff, evidenced by the decision of Geoff Johns, a superhero writer if there ever were one, to bring back Kingdom Come some 13 years later. This was no small task, given the reverence Kingdom Come has earned over the years, both in its scope (the cast is in the hundreds) and quality (DC released an Absolute Edition not too long ago). In Justice Society of America, Johns plucks the Superman from Kingdom Come and drags him into the “regular” DC continuity to witness the heralding of yet another Magog. As simple as it sounds on paper, an Elseworlds crossover is fairly unique, and plenty of eyes were on Geoff & Co. as they delicately caused worlds to collide in the wink-winking-ly titled Thy Kingdom Come event.
To do so, Johns gave himself plenty of room. The original story is collected as one book at approximately 212 pages. Thy Kingdom Come is collected as three books, each at about 160 pages. The collision of storylines is a natural fit because both stories are very much about the legacy of superheroism. In Kingdom Come, we see a world populated with the sons and daughters of the heroes and villains we knew, and the impressions they carve into the world with their actions. The JSA is about the “old guard” of superheroes (the first Green Lantern, the first Flash, etc.) ushering in a new era of younger heroes.
KC Superman arrives to much skepticism. After all, our world already has a Superman, while this new guy has gray at his temples and a black-colored insignia on his chest. Sure enough, both Supermen meet, allowing, particularly in Book 3, for a few nice moments between KC Superman and Lois Lane. Here, KC Supes recounts to Lois how her Elseworld counterpart died. “The burdens of the Supermen are shared by the Lois Lanes of the universe,” Lois says.
Along with Johns’ surehanded grasp of his characters' voices, Thy Kingdom Come excels in its artwork. Dale Eagelsham has the unenviable task of drawing countless heroes, each with his or her own costume, not to mention distinguishing two Supermen from each other. In Book 2, however, Jerry Ordway hops aboard to take over artistic duties for yet another interlacing of universes. Without spoiling too much, one character returns home to a parallel earth that is happily stuck in the Silver Age of comics. Ordway’s pencils fit these chapters and scenes with certainty. While jarring when compared to Eaglesham’s finely posed work, that’s exactly the point. Ordway is careful to never be too cute with his retro art, and this subplot (with its own thematic ties to Kingdom Come) carries the same weight as the main storyline.
If it starts to feel overstuffed, you’re not alone. There are several characters (Mr. America—cough, cough!) who feel like they are taking away time from key character development. Nevertheless, once original series artist and co-plotter Alex Ross starts painting full sequences in Book 3, things get very streamlined. As a fan of Kingdom Come, it’s rewarding to see the series revisited with such respect and a genuine point to be made. Johns and Ross bring both series to a close, making way for new legacies, worlds, and Elseworlds.