From the first pages – even from the cover – Kingdom Come made DC readers feel as though they had entered another world, the world where their comic book heroes are real. Alex Ross' art, which is painted rather than drawn, is as unlike the halftone color printing of the past as reality is unlike a dream. With respect to the visuals alone, Kingdom Come, like Ross' Marvels before it, is categorically transcendent, and automatically a classic.
The story itself, by Ross and Mark Waid, aspires towards greatness. Its scope is grand, the passions run hot, the new characters are wonderfully creative, and the world of Kingdom Come is more complex than most of what had come before it.
This starting point for the story closely resembles the premises of a trio of stories from the previous decade – The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and the unpublished Twilight of the Superheroes. With those stories in mind, many have observed that Kingdom Come is not entirely original, and that is hard to deny. Nor do the creators try to deny it – a copy of the book-within-a-book Under the Hood by Watchmen's Hollis Mason appears on Kingdom Come's eighth page, and we soon learn that KC's Batman has become the field general commanding an army of younger crime-fighters much as he was at the end of DKR. Kingdom Come acknowledged those creative debts, but it makes them its starting point, not its conclusion. It may more closely resemble TOTS, though those commonalities go only so far.
Though it opens with minor and almost pointedly mortal characters (Norman McCay, an old man, and Wesley Dodds, the now-dying Golden Age Sandman), it soon comes alive with colorful – and frequently wonderfully original – super beings. The realistic art drives home a dark theme, that the brief era of superheroes such as we have known, eventually gave way to a kind of super-chaos as a tiny oligarchy of super-powered beings turn the whole world into a mere arena for their non-stop brawling. There are no longer heroes or villains, justice or injustice – there are simply battles unleashing tremendous forces, and the non-super-powered majority cower and can only hope to avoid becoming collateral damage.
KC, like DKR, adopts the opening gambit of Homer's Iliad – a great hero is physically able, but unwilling to fight, until something goads him back into the battle. KC's Superman has, in the story's past, lost a non-physical showdown with a violent superhero named Magog. In a tragic turn of events, the Joker has killed Lois Lane. Magog executes the Joker on the street, violating the moral code the superheroes had previously respected. But here, justice and the law became tangled, with Superman expecting a court to convict Magog for this act of vengeance, but neither of them feeling completely vindicated when it did not. Superman retreated entirely from the world, and Magog became just one representative of a new era, one in which heroes were not quite heroes anymore. A few years later, as the story opens, things are pretty rotten, but they soon become much worse. A handful of heroes pursue the Parasite from St. Louis westward across Kansas, and when the villain is cornered, he panics and rips open Captain Atom. The resulting explosion kills one million people, including Superman's adopted hometown of Smallville. When Wonder Woman brings the news of this to Superman, he returns from his self-imposed exile to try to set the world straight.
At this point, the major players and their positions are as follows:
• A new breed of reckless hero – exemplified by Magog, Von Bach, and 666 – operates outside the law. They execute supervillains preemptively, and risk civilian lives needlessly in their battles. Their lifestyle is not as squeaky-clean as the heroes of the past.
• Superman and his Justice League want to corral the reckless heroes, and are willing to imprison those who don't fall in line.
• Batman and an urban league including Green Arrow, Black Canary, and Blue Beetle keep order in Gotham, Star City and elsewhere using their expertise and a squadron of younger enforcers.
• Luthor and several former supervillains, whose Mankind Liberation Front conspires to turn the conflict between the erstwhile superheroes into a battle that rids the world of superbeings for once and for all. Batman and his allies seem to throw in with Luthor, but that is a ruse.
• The world's civilian authorities, led by a UN Secretary General named Wyrmwood, another reference to Revelation.
Unlike the comics of the past, the sides do not merely engage in super-powered battle, although there is plenty of that. They take time out from the usual superhero-vs-supervillain kinetic activity to philosophize, negotiate, argue, and deceive.
And it is on this deeper level that the script falters, badly. Every panel and every speech balloon in Kingdom Come seems to come from a passionate and wonderfully scripted epic, but Kingdom Come is not wonderfully scripted. Ross and Waid's writing aspires to greatness but fails to grasp it. A large fraction of Kingdom Come is devoted to talk and arguments, but the arguments do not make sense, or they are exceedingly shallow, or the characters talk past one another. On several occasions, they argue passionately for a viewpoint, are willing to go to battle over it, then suddenly appear to be arguing for or acting for the other side of the argument. When these changes take place, there is never a reason given as to why the hero changed their mind, nor do the other characters seem to notice the discrepancies. Perhaps this because Waid and Ross didn't notice them, either.
• Batman calls Superman's efforts "totalitarian" while running Gotham and other cities as a police state run by fear.
• After Batman's ruse to double cross Luthor is completed, he once again tells Superman that he is not on Superman's side. A few minutes later, he shows up thousands of miles away with his allies to fight on Superman's side.
• At the end, Batman looks on smiling when Superman finally agrees to operate with the cooperation of civilian authorities, but Batman and his allies have spent years running law enforcement in several cities "our way… ourselves."
• Superman and his allies call the prison they build a "gulag" – a perjorative term completely opposite in connotation from the noble intentions they have for it.
• Superman and his allies say that the new, reckless breed of heroes risk innocent lives, but Superman places his prisoners in the middle of the country, which – he admits – is a safety risk. He says that this was necessary so the reckless heroes could be monitored and taught, which does not justify why someone who could effortlessly bury Brainiac's parts on Saturn would collect the world's most dangerous superbeings in one location in the middle of the United States.
• Wonder Woman joins Superman's crusade against superheroes who are too aggressive, too reckless, and willing to kill, and in her efforts to control them, she is too aggressive, too reckless, and willing to kill. Yet, she is adamant that they must be stopped.
• In an argument before the final battle, Batman argues that perhaps it would be for the best if all the superbeings die. Superman vehemently disagrees. Minutes later, Superman says that perhaps he has no right to stop the bomb from killing all the heroes, but Batman does everything he can to stop one of the bombs. The two have exactly switched positions, and nobody seems to notice.
• When Batman incapacitates a temporarily-powerless Billy Batson, he does so with his foot alone and does not, for example, tranquilize him. This mistake risked the fate of the world.
• When Superman incapacitates a temporarily-powerless Billy Batson, he lets Billy decide whether or not to let him stop the final bomb, even though Billy had up to that very moment been guided only by the derangement that Luthor had induced in him. This mistake risked the fate of the world.
• While Batman and Wonder Woman are fighting on the same side, he insults her until she stops fighting their common enemy and turns to fight him. With the fate of the world at stake, they disengage from the battle to settle an argument of no apparent value.
• Superman spends the entire story trying to educate the reckless heroes because they needlessly kill villains. After the bomb kills many superbeings, Superman is on the verge of killing the civilians who dropped the bomb.
• After the bomb explodes, the Spectre describes the status as: "There were survivors. They are fewer in number, and their pain is great… but their war is over." Batman, minutes later, says that there are "enough [survivors] to leave us with the same problem as before. The same impasse. The same dangers."
• The problem that the story opened with was that there was a new breed of reckless superhero. At the end of the story, there are still enough of them to leave "the same problem as before." How are the problems solved? Superman tells the civilian authorities his solution, not counting the description of what it isn't, in only these words: "We're going to solve them with you… by living among you… We will earn your trust." An unmasked Batman offers a cockeyed grin of approval; the emptiness of those words is one of the strongest impressions I take away from Kingdom Come. Superman in no way articulates a solution to the problem of the reckless heroes. He merely says that the superheroes (who failed to solve the problem) will solve the problem with the civilian authorities (who were unable to solve the problem). During an epilogue, Wonder Woman says that what they went through gave the reckless heroes "plenty of incentive to learn." Batman, who had argued that Superman's methods were totalitarian, has the MLF working for him subdued by inhibitor collars.
Upon any but the shallowest scrutiny, Kingdom Come's script is shockingly disappointing. The entire middle half is devoted to telling us that imposing authority on superbeings by force is doomed to failure, then the epilogue breezily suggests that now it will work out fine.
And yet, there are fine moments along the way. Orion, having overthrown his father Darkseid as the ruler of Apokolips, describes the difficulties of ruling a former dictatorship in terms that consciously parallel the then-current situation in the former Eastern Bloc countries, commenting cogently on instability in Russia and war in the former Yugoslavia. The political rants of old Ollie Queen are both in-character and easy to imagine coming from the lips of a real former radical. Snippets of dialogue in several different languages capably give the story the feel of a real international drama. The shallow Planet Krypton aptly portrays modern fascination with pop culture in a world where that pop culture is about real people. And then there are gems such as the interaction between Ibn al Xu'ffasch and his father, the Batman:
"And they're prepared to fight tooth and nail with the generation that sired them?"
"Aren't all young people, son?"
Despite the very serious failures in the script, Kingdom Come is nevertheless a landmark and a must-read. It looks like an important story, usually feels like an important story, and as a result, is an important story. A small minority of readers (some 5%, based on Amazon reviews) focus on the script flaws and find the work to be outright bad. Most readers consider it an unqualified success. The truth lies between these: The art is a triumph, and Kingdom Come does enough right to keep readers paying attention from the start through the last scene – enough right to keep many readers from even noticing just how much goes wrong in all those speech balloons along the way.
Several works in the second half of the Eighties demonstrated that superhero comics can potentially be a vehicle for art on the highest level. The fact that a work so superficially pretty but deeply flawed as Kingdom Come can stand as one of the genre's landmarks doesn't reject that proposition, but it suggests that the potential has not been exercised that often.