Armagideon Time

This post marks the sixth anniversary of Nobody’s Favorites. To commemorate this event, I’ve decided to follow Pal Dave’s suggestion and shine some harsh light on a decidedly un-funnybook which I’ve danced around on previous occasions.

That comic is Kingdom Come

…Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s serious answer to the most ludicrous of questions.

Yes, I know there are some of you who actually like that turgid turdburger of a comic, but let me ask you this:

Could you, in all good conscience, hold it up as an example of the best the superhero genre has to offer?

Nah, I didn’t think so, either.

The four-issue “prestige” miniseries was intended to be a commentary on the times, those times being the rapidly imploding salad days of the over-accessorized and aggressively crosshatched badass anti-hero. In their attempts to retain market share in the face of the Image guys’ and other Johnny-Come-Latelys’ baldfaced pandering to the adolescent male Id, the Big Two retooled, rebooted, and readjusted their core franchises with a host of ill-advised plotlines, costume changes, and other self-defeating gimmicks.

This arms race damn near killed the killed the comics biz by poisoning the well with unreadable drek while banking too heavily on the long-term viability of a speculative bubble. Yet for all the derivative garbage, there were a number of bright spots.

The era gave us Bone, Skeleton Key, Leave It Chance, and other off-beat indie books which might not have pulled the same sales figures as Bludfyster #0, but did benefit from the general boost of interest in comics in general. Even on the superhero side of the aisle, there was a small but extremely dedicated contingent of neo-traditionalists advocating for a post-revisionist approach which combined old-school thrills with more modern sensibilities — Morrison’s JLA, Busiek and Anderson’s Astro City, Robinson’s Starman, and Mark Waid’s Flash.

That last example is part of what made Kingdom Come such a head-scratcher. Having shown viable alternatives to the prevailing keeping-up-with-the-Strykeblades aesthetic, Waid and Ross somehow felt obliged to elaborate these views in the most ham-fisted, self-important manner possible. And it was done through an alt-future version of the DC Universe, even though the company had (for the most part) dodged the worst excesses of the Chromium Badass Era.

Kingdom Come‘s Very Important Message? That superheroes are legends and stuff and should maybe represent more than just high-concepts in stupid costumes fighting while striking dramatic poses. It’s the kind of validation seeking every fan of the genre goes through once puberty hits and the inherent goofiness of the material becomes more difficult to ignore.

In truth, the 90s Image brand of superheroics was itself a response to that uncomfortable epiphany, one that chose to double down on the most puerile aspects of the genre. It may have been dumb as hell, but at least it was honest with its intent to profit through pandering.

The Kingdom Come school of thought — shared in varying degrees by other sincere converts of the Cult of Spandex — holds that there’s something transcendent about corporate properties whose main purpose is to shift goods via licensing deals. It’s another manifestation of geeks’ unwillingness to accept “I enjoy this thing” as reason enough.

Thus Kingdom Come — a bloated funnybook polemic in which the “damn Chromium Age kids” need to be schooled by the (universally unpleasant) icons of the Good Old Days. You’ve got Superman as an equivocating dupe reluctantly dragged out of retirement (because no one appreciated him anymore, naturally). You’ve got Batman as a crippled old crank who uses drone technology to protect a surveillance state Gotham. And you’ve got Wonder Woman, who…well, let’s talk about that.

One of the most unfortunate legacies of Kingdom Come has been the embrace of Wonder Woman as paradoxical “Warrior of Peace,” torn between the her mission to bring a message of harmony to “Man’s World” and an ingrained urge to split skulls with some sharp object. It’s a characterization formed by the need to have middle ground in DC’s top-tier “trinity” which bridges Superman’s open-armed benevolence and Batman’s sanguine brand of vengeance.

So where did that leave Wonder Woman in Kingdom Come? As an embittered, driven harridan who presses an indecisive Superman into making terrible decisions and instigating his conflict with Batman. It’s cool though, because she gets knocked up by Superman in the trade edition’s epilogue and settles down…though the characterization would end up bleeding through into the regular DC Universe in the years that followed.

To be fair, much of the fan euphoria surrounding Kingdom Come had less to do with its muddled message than with Alex Ross’s art. While certainly pretty to look at, his detailed paintwork was fundamentally at odds for a book that was essentially the build up to a fight scene to end all fight scenes. It worked in Marvels because that was supposed to be a journalistic chronicle spanning decades of history, but came off as stiff and stagey when it came to Kingdom Come. Artistic “realism” in comics — superhero or otherwise — doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker, but effective sequential storytelling requires a cartoonist’s eye toward effects, visual shorthand, and dynamism. Otherwise, all you’ve got is a prettier and more time-intensive replication of a fumetti book.

Mostly, it comes off as a DC-branded Where’s Waldo, crammed to the covers with visual easter-eggs and spot-the-legacy-character spreads.

Hey, those are the Monkees in their superhero costumes! Who, that’s a middle-aged Marvin from the Super Friends cartoon! Look, there’s where Ross used a Boba Fett action figure as photo reference for Peacemaker! Wait, did he really use Gundam mechs as robot designs?

It was a mess. A pretentious, Bible-quoting mess. And the worst part is that DC took all the wrong lessons from it.

The story might not have been any great shakes, but it did explicitly frame itself as a cautionary tale about superheroes (and the genre itself) losing sight of themselves and getting destroyed by their worst excesses. DC editorial, on the other hand, saw the sales figures and critical acclaim and concluded “MORE, PLEASE!” and spent the next decade trying to shoehorn as much nonsense from Kingdom Come into the DC Universe at it could.

It’s a given that the comics business will always arrive at the wrong conclusions, but I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a worse itinerary than Kingdom Come has been.

16 Responses to “Nobody’s Favorites: What ill was done”

  1. Prankster

    Ugh, yeah, I never saw the big deal about this one and I was 100% the target audience when I read it (teenager who wanted substance in his superhero books but hated the post-Image crosshatched violent meta trend).

    It sounds like the story was more Ross’s doing than Waid’s–not to exculpate him, but Ross apparently dreamt up the outline (pretty obviously and shamelessly ripped from Alan Moore’s “Twilight of the Superheroes” pitch) and approached James Robinson about it before Waid got the gig. That would explain why, past the initial setup (which I *did* find kind of fun) it just turns into the kind of “what if” action-figures-smashing-together storyline in which only the hardcore superhero fan can find any real enjoyment. I’d actually put it with Crisis on Infinite Earths in this regard.

  2. athodyd

    Yuck, those narration boxes. Never have I wanted to punch a letterer more, unless we count Charlton’s “A. Machine.”

  3. Sir A1!

    Of course, Alex Ross’s EARTH X and JUSTICE are about 100x worse. At the very least for KINGDOM COME, it got it all knocked out in four issues.

  4. d

    I admit to a certain nostalgic fondness for this book if for no other reason then this and Morrison’s JLA were the series that got me reading comics again after about 6-7 years of not buying or reading anything at all. But yeah, it really has not aged well.

  5. stavner

    I see this comic as being about “Superman’s Three Greatest Mistakes!” (Warning: Spoilers!)

    First, giving up after Gog was acquitted.

    Next, setting up the Super-Gulag.

    And finally, getting involved in government.

    So this comic doesn’t see so “pro-superhero” at all.

  6. Zach

    I would argue that Watchmen has had a worse itinerary than Kingdom Come, mostly because 1)the difference between both its quality and its politics/intent is much more stark between it and its successors and imitators, and 2)Kingdom Come is part of that itinerary.

  7. stavner

    Zach-a map of (idiotic) misreading.

  8. Bill D.

    DC has a history of learning all the wrong lessons from success – this, Batman after Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke, the entire universe after Identity Crisis, etc. Not that their parent company is any different, sadly.

  9. minkubus

    I don’t think too little can be made of the Marvels-Kingdom Come connection. Where Marvels says ‘gee I sure like these old things to an uncomfortable degree’, Kingdom Come says ‘as this Biblical text indicates, new things are bad’.

    The excesses of the former are so much more sympathetic than those of the latter.

  10. Chris Wuchte

    Kingdom Come hit at a time right before I got back into comics, so everyone was telling me I had to read it, that it was the best comics had to offer at the moment, it was a masterpieces, etc.

    I do remember enjoying it – nice art, epic storyline, some cool moments. But it fared worse with each reading. I’ve never grown to hate it, but it does drive me nuts when people suggest it as a great comic to give to new readers. It’s a terrible comic to give to someone new to the genre, quite possibly the very antithesis of what you should give to a novice. Filled with in-jokes, meta commentary, Easter eggs, and it’s depressing and goes nowhere. Why would a new comics fan feel the need to explore more after reading it? The one time I lent my copy of the trade to someone, they said they couldn’t even get through it.

  11. adam barnett

    It was like taking out a pretty girl who had nothing else going for her other than her looks. Marvels was a much better story and I would have preferred seeing Ross likewise interpret big moments in DC history. Maybe someday…

  12. fk2

    I still maintain, with certainty, that Earth X genuinely holds up as an example of the best things the Marvel universe can be. The “here is everything that character has ever done”-style fits Ross much more.

    The thing with Kingdom Come is that it (an its subsequent iterations) never got to be what it should have been in the first iteration: a weird Morisson/Waid explain everything Hypertime crossover – extremely convoluted and yet intensely interesting.

  13. Jim Kosmicki

    Going to agree with one of Prankster’s points: Kingdom Come always felt to me like Waid and/or Ross trying to improve on Moore’s Twilight of the Superheroes outline.

  14. Jim Kosmicki

    and remember, when Kingdom Come came out, Twilight of the Superheroes was known of, but very, very, very few people had seen it yet.

    I did like Offspring – hated Magog

  15. LCB

    This reminds me of the time I was at a comic shop around the time Kingdom Come had come out and one day I was in the store and suddenly, out of nowhere interrupted a conversation a couple of people were having at the counter, loudly enough to be heard throughout the store without actually shouting that Kingdom Come had an “inferior resolution”.
    “The heroes who were caught by the bomb going off at the end should have been turned into mutants. That would have been a superior ending.” and after that a moment of awkward silence.

  16. Veteran of the Psychic Wars

    Like Prankster, I was solidly in the target audience for this thing when it came out and didn’t see what the hype was all about (but then that’s hype for you). I didn’t like Ross’s art in Marvels either, but that was nonetheless a better book.

    “Self-defeating” has been pretty much the operating word for the Big Two for a very long time now, hasn’t it?

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