It’s been a while since we talked about the real-life near-apocalypse, the Cold War expectation that the world would end in a fiery conflagration. In the aftermath of a Cold War that ended with more of a wet fart than a bang, the 90s became a decade whose most pressing question was, “Now what?” The world was supposed to end, and it didn’t–but far from inspiring hope, this led to confusion and despair.
In comics, this took the form of heroes who weren’t–dark, violent characters modeled more after the Punisher than Superman or Captain America. “Maturity” became a codeword for characters who weren’t so much morally ambiguous as they were the kind of “angsty badass loner” that LEGO Batman so expertly skewered.
But as the 90s continued, tastes began to swing in a new direction. The letters pages of Batman and Robin Adventures and Superman Adventures are full of praise for those comics’ decision to buck the general trend to “darkness,” and 1996’s Kingdom Come is similarly an attempt to reject that trend, or at least move beyond it.
Indeed, Kingdom Come is sometimes referred to as the beginning of DC’s move away from the grimdark aesthetic of the 90s and toward the hybrid of Silver Age aesthetics with darker thematics–which is to say, toward the New Sincerity movement which increasingly characterizes present pop art. However, as we just noted, this combination was already present in the DCAU and DC’s all-ages Adventures lines, while if we restrict it to mainstream comics, a likelier starting point is a few months later, with the beginning of Grant Morrison’s run on JLA. (About which more in a future entry.)
Nonetheless, Kingdom Come is a significant work, albeit more for how good it looks than any real meat. Alex Ross’ watercolors (guache, technically) give the book a feeling of solidity and seriousness, probably because paint is a medium we associate with museums more than the flimsy, cheaply printed short magazines that comics are published as. That very portentousness is key to the book’s effect: we are tiny, looking up at the battles of godlike beings, desperately trying to stay out from underfoot, but also compelled to stare in awe as the fate of the world unfolds before us.
This is compounded by the book’s general distance from its characters: there are a lot of superheroes in here, and none of them have much in the way of interiority or positionality. This is not necessarily a flaw; the Book of Revelation, quoted repeatedly throughout Kingdom Come, likewise has no characters to speak of, only archetypal figures who exist to fulfill roles in an extended allegory. This is a generic feature of apocalypses, particularly the classical apocalypse genre of which Revelation is the most well-known example: as revolutionary literature, they employed heavily (yet transparently, for those who understood the references) coded language and stories of catastrophe in a mythic past or prophesied future to express hope for the overthrow of contemporary oppressors.
In the case of Kingdom Come, the catastrophic conflict is located in neither the mythic past nor the prophesied future, but a fictional present. Here, two groups of heroes collide. The first group is initially motivated by altruism, saying they’re working for all of humanity, but quickly slide into a more dictatorial mode, quashing freedom in the name of safety and putting their enemies into a place literally called the Gulag. The other group are motivated by self-aggrandizement and love of power for its own sake, claiming an individualistic freedom-to-bully that quickly deteriorates into chaos and, in spots, erupts into outright fascism. At its climax, this conflict threatens to spill out and engulf the world, bringing with it a threat of nuclear annihilation.
The allegory is heavy-handed: the old heroes are Communism, the new Capitalism, and their clash could be the apocalypse–but isn’t. The “Western World,” and especially the United States, entered the 90s with a general sense of unease and malaise, a feeling that the other shoe never dropped. It is natural, since the forces of good never showed up for the final confrontation, to wonder if that means there are no forces of good (which is almost certainly true), and maybe even no forces of evil (which is debatable). Just varying shades of gray, in a world gone grubby and dim.
However, Kingdom Come is ultimately not an attempt to find a way out of the gray world of grimdark, despite that it is often positioned as such. It provides no way forward; instead, it follows the beats of the near-apocalypse of the 1980s, right up until the verge of nuclear annihilation–and then has Captain Marvel, who has been positioned (both within the text of Kingdom Come and in comics generally) as the representative of the kinder, simpler, better Good Ol’ Days, sacrifice himself to save a handful of heroes on both sides.
Herein lies the problem: there were no Good Ol’ Days. The past is as full of horrors as the present, often more so, and the impulse to seek safety within it is a reactionary one, guaranteed to perpetuate the horrors of the present. But ultimately this is all Kingdom Come has to offer, as its hagiographic art suggests: that we little people should look to the powerful to turn back the clock to a time when things were comfortable for them. Its ending, in which Wonder Woman and Superman are having a baby which they plan to raise jointly with Batman, is straightforwardly dynastic; it is the flipside to the vision of Wonder Woman as revolutionary, inspiring, uplifting goddess, instead commanding us to kneel before the gods in the hope that maybe they won’t slaughter us in their battles with one another.
In terms of comics, this means perpetuating the Silver Age: at the end of the story, the violent antiheroes are a broken, beaten lot, studying at the feet of their elders, to be more like them. There is no pushing forward into something new and different, which might incorporate elements of the Silver Age without being a part of it–something like Morrison’s JLA–but instead a retreat into comics’ past, when “things used to be better.”
As it ultimately had to be; if the role of the superhero is to prevent apocalypse, as indeed the closest thing Kingdom Come has to a main character, Norman McKay, spends the book attempting, then it follows that a conflict between superheroes can only end in near-apocalypse. The closest thing to true revolution–the annihilation of both sides and liberation of the people beneath their feet–is the attempt by the allied supervillains to nuke the heroes, and that is precisely what the walking symbol of the Good Old Days sacrifices himself to prevent.
The present is dark and scary and violent, Kingdom Come warns; the past is colorful and vibrant and familiar (and violent). But regardless of efforts to hold it back, the future still comes, one day at a time; endings are inevitable. Apocalypse cannot be held back forever.
Indeed, it has already begun.
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