COMICS RETROSPECTIVE: Do we really need Superheroes? A look back at "Kingdom Come"
Kingdom Come (1996), Written by Mark Waid, Illustrated by Alex Ross.
Once I was discussing Superhero comics in my book club, and a question that was put forward to me: why does humanity always want a saviour... why can't it protect itself? That's the core ideology of Bruce Wayne's entire character development. To me, a superhero is what a demigod was to ancient Greeks, and what Jesus is to humans around the world. Superheroes are the right kind of powerful... like the gods up in the sky, and they are human enough for humanity to aspire to, they represent balance and best of both world. And Mark Waid and 1996's Kingdom Come tackles this very question: does the world need Superman or any other superhero? Set in an AU offshore earth, where the second generation of superhumans (called metahumans) roam the planet. They are overly-powered and reckless, have no respect for life, and leave behind a trail of destruction. They definitely are not balanced or the best of both worlds.
I began reading this book last year expecting a narrative that will explore the void left behind by the Big Three (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman), but the book turned out to be just another Superman story. The event that leads to the chaos in this world is because Superman has exiled himself to the life of a farmer in Kansas. He is like the missing moral compass for the next generation of metahumans to learn from. He has shut himself up in the last of the world's breadbaskets. And because of him, the yesteryear superheroes have retired too.
The book is observed from the point of view of Norman McCay, who is a clergyman and inherits the power from Wesley Dodds, the Sandman, to witness a journey to the apocalypse with a mysterious being called the Spectre. Norman is the Greek Chorus to this very straightforward four-act play. A timid man observing the final days of the planet! But soon enough he becomes part of a grand palette of splash pages, gorgeous to look at art, but if we take him out of the story, the narrative is still intact.
The art is glorious but it is dense! It's so detailed and compact that a reader is bound to miss out something on every page. It is also filled with just too many easter eggs, which make me angry. Big action pages make one feel the fear that the metahumans are rampaging through the world without a care. It was craftily done, but the impact of that art gets lost soon. As within few pages, metahumans buzz into the pages like flies on a carcass. The big league superheroes are reduced to cameos and just aged up. It's like I was promised the tour of DisneyLand and only got to see Mickey, Mini, and Donald Duck, while rest of the princesses waved at me from afar.
But what I felt was highly problematic in the art was that despite its beauty, it couldn't catch the actions or the intensity of this world. Instead of having a sense of motion in images and panels, they looked like photographs of an event that happened long past. Technically I read the book twenty-three years after its publication; for me it is a relic. Most of the splash pages were the comic book equivalent of renaissance paintings: realism in capes.
I personally didn't like Wonder Woman's weird dress (what was she was wearing?). It's not practical from the waist down, but when has comics ever considered women's clothing to be practical? Nor did I like what they did to her character! The Wonder Woman I grew up reading—mind it the issues I got in my part of India were aimed at kids below 12—was intelligent, protective, and fiercely kind. She stopped wars and was the ambassador of humanity. She respected the value of life, and even the weakest creature deserved love. But the lady in these pages was a tyrant; she would gladly blow up chunks of earth to control these metahumans.
Superman is not a leader, so when he returns from his exile at Wonder Woman's request, he tries to use dialogue and rebuild the Justice League to tackle the problems of metahumans. Superman can be the poster boy of heroes, but should not be put in charge of any group. These metahumans don't care about the sanctity of life or the preservation of the planet, which is ravaged by radiation. Instead of having an open mind, he treats them like confused toddlers. And when Wonder Woman and Superman go to seek help from Bruce Wayne, who has aged and uses an exoskeleton to move, doesn't like the lack of haphazard planning on their part. He prefers to stay on his path. Batman has turned his Gotham into a Police State and he very much notices that Superman and Wonder Woman are more focused on controlling the metahumans than sorting humanity.
Both Wonder Woman's urgency at ethnic cleansing of the metahumans, and Superman's redeeming the directionless by imprisoning them was annoying. That's not logical; who puts a bunch of overpowered children in the same correctional facility! That's a lame effort and but a very efficient build-up to a ticking time bomb right there! And who thinks that wiping out the metahumans is the best course of action for the planet? When clearly the problem is that villains have given up the sky and prefer exploit the lands. And the metahumans play right into it!
The metahumans are not evil, they just don't have the role model to look up to; they have blurred the lines between vigilantism and exhibition of power. This behaviour of theirs also serves as the fertile ground for Lex Luthor to sow his plan against superheroes. I mean, if I was in Lex's shoes I would try the same.
Kingdom Come has many ideas and themes which have been presented with such nuances, that I need separate threads of discussion for each of them. The main being the topic of the sanctity of life. Who made Wonder Woman the judge of that? Just because you got excommunicated from your island doesn't mean you can go around morally policing others! As for Superman, he chose to be the saviour, now he has to deal with curses that come with responsibility, and what happens when you give up on the only task you are best suited for. I mean, I am sure Clark Kent can farm, but who is he farming for if he behaves like this?
I really loved the part where Superman finally realises he has always been treating humanity as an infant that needs protection, and that's where Norman McCay's role in the story comes of age. But it could easily be done with Batman, because he unveils the plan of Lex Luthor and takes preventive measures to save the planet. In essence, both Lex and Bruce see superheroes as disturbances to humanity's growth. I mean, can I blame UNO for trying to Nuke them all? Though I loved the art of the page where the metahumans have been nuked and turned into grey, it was still very grim. I read somewhere years back that Kingdom Come was a reply to the grim and gritty turn the superhero comics had taken. Well, it became what it sought to destroy, like a certain Skywalker I know.
So when the story tries to end on a positive note of Superman and Wonder Woman announcing they are having a baby, and asking Batman to be godfather, it feels like a forced and toxic positivity. Their kid won't be metahuman, it will be a bag of potential deathtraps. And I bet some villain would steal their baby and brainwash it to kill them all...oh sorry, that's the plot of Attack On Titan!