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.