The first issue of Kingdom Come hit stands back in May 1996, at the height of the so-called “Dark Age of Comics”. This was an era when writers and artists at DC, Marvel and Image shunned the sunny optimism and unabashed heroism that had defined superhero comic books of yesteryear in favour of stark nihilism and moral ambiguity, spurred on by the critical and commercial success of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.
With Kingdom Come – which sees Superman lead his middle-aged peers into battle against a new breed of amoral crimefighters – creators Mark Waid and Alex Ross rejected the Dark Age mentality, delivering a blistering rebuttal of then-current superhero storytelling sensibilities that championed hopefulness over cynicism. Their epic tale is as powerful now as it was 25 years ago, but looking back, it becomes clear that this four-part mini-series is more than just an extended 90s comics diss track.
Instead, Kingdom Come is a full-blown deconstruction of every era of comics – stretching right back to the Golden Age itself – that ultimately pushes a reconstructionist agenda designed to put the ‘human’ back in ‘superhuman’.
Exposing the horror of heroes who don’t know the meaning of truth and justice
Of course, Waid and Ross do spend a fair amount of Kingdom Come throwing shade at the story’s younger heroes, who serve as stand-ins for the violent vigilantes prevalent at the time – but there’s more to this than mere spite.
See, Kingdom Come’s ruthless new breed of anti-hero are also surrogates for every fan or creator who believes that the heroism and aspirational tone that characterised the comics of old doesn’t work anymore. By rubbing our face in just how awful these guys and gals are – in their belligerence, brutality, and callous disregard for human life – they force us to question if this is really what we want from our heroes.
It’s a jaded reader indeed who’d answer in the affirmative, especially when Waid and Ross render the consequences of these spandex-clad juveniles’ behaviour in such vivid, harrowing detail . For the rest of us, the carnage that spills out of the senseless conflicts Kingdom Come’s junior superheroes engage in is all that’s needed to make us re-think the merits of costumed adventurers untroubled by moral restraint.
From here, the natural response would be to embrace the old school heroism embodied by Superman and his veteran Justice League – but that’s not what Waid and Ross want us to do. Sure, the creative team’s sympathies clearly lie with the Man of Steel and his allies, and rightly so; however, the deeper into Kingdom Come’s narrative we get, the more we realise that the senior superheroes aren’t exactly perfect, either…
Calling out the old guard for their outdated mindset
On the contrary, Superman, Wonder Woman and the rest of the old guard are portrayed as dangerously out of touch with the society they’re trying to protect. For all their noble intentions and principles, they’re trapped in an unconsciously paternalistic mode of behaviour that’s out of step with what those they serve want from their heroes. Superman’s Justice League might value human life – but that doesn’t always extend to respecting humanity’s right to self-determination.
It’s fitting that the Man of Steel himself best embodies this dilemma; as the proto-hero – the first “true” superhero who defined the archetype almost a century ago – how could he not? Fitting or not, though, it’s still gut-wrenchingly difficult to watch Superman’s well-intentioned efforts keep making things worse and worse, simply because he can’t adapt to the world around him.
It’s not that Superman’s values are outdated or his beliefs off-base. It’s just that, like the rest of his peers in Kingdom Come, he’s guilty of losing touch with his humanity. In an era where humanity wants more from its champions than superpowered quick fixes, superheroes should be willing to shift gears accordingly – only Superman can’t.
He’s more comfortable punching out bad guys and rescuing innocent bystanders than stepping into the role of a world leader. While this speaks to Superman’s humility – despite his near-infinite power, he doesn’t see himself as someone qualified to wade into global politics – it also betrays a troubling detachment from human concerns, something that could spell disaster for humans and metahumans alike.
Introducing a new approach to heroism grounded in humanity
Unsurprisingly then, as Kingdom Come reaches its suitably bombastic climax, things are looking dire.
Either humanity will be wiped out by an all-out, planet-wide superhuman war, or the superheroes will be killed off by a last-ditch nuclear strike orchestrated by humanity. Fortunately, the wisdom and self-sacrifice of Captain Marvel – a hero who’s both human and metahuman, existing in both worlds – prevents either of these catastrophes, and better still, lays the groundwork for a better future for everyone.
Thanks to Marvel’s decision to preserve all life, as well as the grounded counsel of everyman preacher (and Kingdom Come protagonist) Norman McCay, Superman is ultimately motivated to reject his god-like stature and advocate a fresh approach to heroism founded on working alongside humanity, not above it. At long last, he’s become who we always needed him to be: a superhero for our time.
Here, finally, Waid and Ross reveal their revisionist take on the superhero concept geared towards a post-Dark Age audience, and it’s a thrilling vision. The neo-superhero model put forward at the end of Kingdom Come continues to emphasise courage, compassion, and a code of ethics – but with the added responsibility of tackling problems with more than a strong arm and a smile and a wink.
It’s an approach that blends optimism with pragmatism in way that’s perfect for modern readers, while still honouring the best aspects of what came before it. And that’s why 25 years on, Kingdom Come remains the perfect roadmap for ushering in a new era for superhero comics – not a second Golden Age, but something far, far brighter.