Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Kingdom Dumb - Why Mark Waid and Alex Ross' "Kingdom Come" is Over-rated, Stupid, and Coldly Conservative


This is going to have lots of spoilers in the article, so even though it's a 17 year-old comic at this point, just so you're aware going in. Enjoy!

"Kingdom Come" is one of the most boring, overrated, and simply bad "event" books from DC I've read. It lacks a coherent narrative, competent writing, strong characterisation, and, maybe most basic of all, an interesting story. Mark Waid's writing on this book is truly abysmal. The saving grace of this book is Alex Ross' artwork which may be the reason so many people think it's a "classic" of the superhero genre. But even Ross' photo-realistic art can't save it from the literary quagmire it drives itself into and fails to leave for the entirety of this book.

The story setup is most baffling of all. Superman has "retired" for 10 years because he lost his parents and Lois. He just felt he couldn't be Superman anymore. Uh... ok. But then everyone else in the Justice League, except Batman, decide to call it a day too! Green Lantern builds himself a giant green space station and sits on his throne, Hawkman flies about the Pacific North-West, Wonder Woman disappears back to her island, Flash runs endlessly in circles. Why?! Just because Superman hung up his blue and red costume? It doesn't make sense and it's never explained. So in the vacuum the JLA left, a new, younger generation of superhero arrives. These guys aren't really superheroes, they don't care about honour or protecting the innocent, they just fly about the place, smashing things up, firing off lasers, doing all kindsa nutty things - for no reason. It's never explained just why these new superheroes have no conscience - except that that's what Mark Waid wrote in his script, so that's it. Great. Arbitrary nonsense.

So after Magog - who is now the superhero the world deserves, I suppose? - makes a mess by accidentally killing the Atom, thus triggering an atomic explosion that destroys Kansas, Superman finally returns. Why? Because it's his "home state"? There have been other terrible incidents in the 10 years he's been away but this causes him to return, which consequently brings the rest of the JLA back at the same time! They basically do whatever Superman tells them to do, I suppose, they're not individuals, at least not in the hands of Mark Waid.

Now it's Superman and the JLA, the "classic" superheroes who stand for truth, honour, justice, etc. against the arbitrarily stupid, evil, ignorant, and conscience-free "new" superheroes. For some reason, their fighting will bring about Armageddon. But not really because it's humanity who will do this because they don't much like superheroes anymore. The humans, led by Lex Luthor, have had enough of superheroes or "meta-humans" and have decided to build an army to fight them so that humanity will be left alone to make their own decisions (and mistakes). An old and battered Bruce Wayne, held together by an exo-skeleton, joins Luthor and promises to build an army of Bat-robots like the kind he uses to police Gotham. But it doesn't matter because the United Nations decide to fire a nuke into the heart of America at the superheroes who are gathered at the site of Superman's gulag to fight, thus bringing about Armageddon. So it's the humans' fault, not the superheroes'.

But before going into how utterly stupid this scenario is, let's talk about the unnerving undercurrent of right wing politics appearing in this book. Superman and co. are "old" therefore "good" while everything "new" is instantly portrayed as "bad". Superman reiterates that "all life is sacred", he destroys a bar's alcohol because "it doesn't help", and he builds a gulag - yes, it's called a gulag in the book! - to house the rebels! Their stance on crime is extreme. There's a scene where some kids mug a man and run off only to be cornered by not one, not two, but four giant Bat-robots! Police state = good. And throughout the book are quotes from the Bible. So, in this book at least, we have pro-life, prohibitionist, security obsessed Christians as the heroes. Sounds pretty conservative and damned repulsive to me. I don't know Waid's political views but judging from this book I'd say he's an ardent Republican.

If Superman's characterisation is disturbing, it's nothing compared to Wonder Woman who pushes for military action right from the start, urging Superman to build a prison as an answer to any kind of theological opposition. Democracy's bad I guess, Stalin had the right idea! Two of DC's flagship characters behaving like fascists is very disturbing to read but at least they got to speak - Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkman? They never say a word. They silently stand about, helping Superman, like colourful goons and then disappear when he doesn't need them. They are simply ciphers. And the book is filled with weird character moments that were so out of place they took me out of the story like, why does Superman need an oxygen mask to breathe in space, or why is Red Robin piloting the UN's nuke?

Batman is maybe the one character I thought Waid did justice to. Despite being some kind of Transformers-obsessed creator, his personality was right even if his Batman outfit was basically a robot suit and, besides one scene, he's never in costume but he's still called Batman, not Bruce Wayne, which is kinda weird.

There's also the framing device of the Spectre taking an elderly preacher called Norman McCay on a ghostly trip through the book, so they're constantly in the background witnessing events unfold. This is because we're told by Spectre that Norman is to decide the fate of everything - are the superheroes to be saved or damned? It's up to Norman. Who? Why? But in the end this premise proves completely redundant as it's actually Billy Batson who decides. Shazam! Yup, another narrative dead end.

Alex Ross' artwork is great and I always enjoy it. He employs real people wearing real superhero costumes to pose as models and then paints them onto the page, giving his work that photo-realistic look that's much lauded. And it's great, except when you have people pose for each panel, you don't get a good sense of motion in the book. Every pose is static because it has to be in order for Ross to paint it. He doesn't do movement very well - and this book is full of movement! Not once does it seem like the characters are actually moving. Also, as great as his art is, I feel like there can be too much of a good thing, like eating a ton of lobster and garlic butter and making yourself feel sick. I like seeing Ross' work on covers and maybe the occasional short, but a 212 page book? The "wow" factor really diminishes by the end.

The story made no sense. Superman's story arc from retired superhero to returning hero to fascist leader to saviour again made no sense and was horrible to witness. Luthor's plan made no sense. The UN's behaviour made no sense - nuking Superman does not work, yet they do it anyway. And of course afterwards he shows up and trashes the place (it was this scene in particular that made me see where Waid got his inspiration for his "Irredeemable" character, Plutonian, from) and could easily have killed them all if he wasn't stopped and reminded of who he is. Yeah, there's one of those scenes included here. The story of the old and new superheroes fighting one another made no sense and the whole point of Armageddon was really forced. Nothing that happens in this book has any relevancy in later, or earlier, story arcs. It stands alone as an empty, pointless, uninspired and directionless disaster. Everything about this book is flawed beyond belief and beneath it all beats the cold dead heart of conservatism and a fear and hatred of modernity and changing attitudes.

It's another example of the kind of superhero book that tries to be relevant by being as "real" as possible. But the biggest problem for me was the basic requirement I have for any piece of fiction: entertainment. This book is SO BORING! Once you get past the nonsensical plot, there is nothing here that is of any interest. The characters are bland and despicable, the tone is joyless and morbid, and the plodding "story" is utterly bland and uninteresting. If nothing else, this book should be avoided due to it being so purely dull.

For comics fans who've read and enjoyed the wide range of superhero comics DC offer, coming to "Kingdom Come" is a jarring and unpleasant experience that throws up too many questions, offering no answers, and manages to create a miserable, soggy piece of storytelling with some of the most interesting characters ever created. It's bad on every level and serves as one of the nadirs of crap comics - "Kingdom Come" is to be avoided by any and all readers.


Kingdom Come TP New Edition

6 comments:

  1. I agree with you completely. I recently bought a few Superman graphic novels. I enjoyed reading Red Son. It was amazing. Then I read Kingdom Come. And I was utterly disappointed.

    I absolutely hated the story. I hated the old man narrating the story.(It seemed unnecessary.) Once it was revealed what the Armageddon was, it felt anticlimactic. I actually disliked Superman after reading it. He seemed to be the exact opposite of the Superman from Red Son. He was just a whiny little tyrant, expecting everyone to just do as he says, after being gone for so long. Most of the other characters in the book seemed to be put in there, just so they would look cool in the team artwork.

    I think Batman should have just let them all die in the nuclear blast. At least that would have gotten Superman and Wonderwoman to shut up. The end scenes in the restaurant were cringe worthy. I wish I could get a refund for the book.

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  2. The new ones aren'y arbitrarily bad. They're supposed to be superheroes like The Punisher and Spawn and Prophet who killed people in the 90s comics. Mark Waid was saying we should get back to old-school Silver Age heroics instead of worshipping people with no conscience. And, if you look at modern comics, he got his way. Those kinds of heroes are back, and that's a good thing.

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  4. I dont think you understand the story. Superman didn't retire because Lois died. He retired because Magog killed The Joker in cold blood, and the people praised him for it. Superman left because his brand of heroism wasn't accepted anymore. The others quit because Superman was their leader and inspirational figure. Personally, I've never been a fan of the "Superman is the single most important superhero" idea, but this is Waid's interpretation, and it's not exactly unprecedented. Also the point of Batman not going by Bruce Wayne is that like Superman, he's completely forsaken his place in humanity.

    You seem to not realize that at no point in the story is anyone completely "right". Superman's 10 year negligence contributed to the rise of the new breed of metas. They're indiscriminately violent and cause destruction without heed for the civilians. Batman has turned Gotham into a fascist state. Wonder Woman is always looking for a fight. On the whole, the heroes have begun to see themselves as elevated above the people they protect, believing this gives them the right to rule like gods. In response to this and the violent new breed, the humans have begun to fear them. This paranoia is what leads to them dropping a fucking nuke in America to get rid of them. Speaking of which, Superman doesn't react to Kansas because it's his "home state". An entire state, along with the food it provides to the world, was wiped out. He HAD to react that time.

    The story is about superhumans' place in the world and questions the morality of what they do. There are definitely right-wing qualities, but many of those are shown to be character flaws.

    Kingdom Come isn't the best comic book of all time. That being said, you seem to misunderstand basic aspects of it, and I don't think it's fair to judge it.

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  5. I have to agree with PJ. It seems you somehow breezed through the real story on this one.

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