What On Infinite Earths is: Kingdom Come
Since I have completely abandoned ship on Marvel, I have finally been giving their biggest competitor the time of day. I have always had a soft spot for Batman, just like everyone else on the planet, but the whole Superman situation always highlighted the massive ethical problem with superheroes and, frankly, religion. If creatures exist that are capable of stopping every evil that befalls the world and they choose not to, aren’t they culpable for every evil they allow?
A few years back, in response to the Dark Age of comics in which “edgier” and more murderous heroes, DC produced an alternate future cross-over event called “Kingdome Come” which went about deconstructing them. In the alternate version of the DC Universe new “dark and edgy” superheroes came along and won over public support with their willingness to kill the villains who would otherwise constantly return to commit mass murder over and over again. In response, Superman and his allies in the Justice League retired, leaving the world in the hands of this new breed of hero.
The story picks up with Superman coming back out of retirement after realising what a terrible mistake he has made and trying to get his errant children, the next generation of superheroes, back under control. Which leads us to the slight problem when you have a whole cast of characters who have almost godlike powers, they can defeat any foe in combat, they can lock them up in a prison, but their incredible might does nothing to persuade others to the rightness of their cause. For all of their power, they cannot force change, no matter how much it may frustrate them. The framing device for this story is an old priest who becomes the physical tether for the semi-religious energy being known as The Spectre, who serves as a guide to show both the priest and the reader all of the key events in the conflicts that follow, with the supposed intention of helping to decide who is guilty and deserving of punishment for the events that will unfold.
Beyond the immediate conflict with the younger heroes, the old villains of the DC universe are still hard at work and, more importantly, the human race itself is finally getting involved in the action, refusing to allow superhumans to continue ruling over them. Ultimately the four-way conflict is catastrophic for everyone involved and culminates in a “new attitude” from the superheroes where they are suddenly going to “guide” humanity rather than intervening on their behalf without consulting them.
The book seemed a lot less concerned with its own story and a lot more concerned with the meta-plot about why the Dark Age of comic books was a bad thing. Hammering on the same point that superheroes need to be inspirational to mankind and future generations as much as they need to be practical in their actions.
Thanks to the framing device, the book layers on many biblical references, not the least of them being naming the villainous dark age hero who replaced Superman “Magog” after one of the world ending armies in the Book of Revelations. For all of its delusions of religious grandeur and artwork that wouldn’t look out of place on the roof of the Cistine Chapel, the story lacks nuance. There was a space in this story to really address the ethical issues surrounding power, and the slippery slope towards authoritarianism that the ubermensch of this genre represent, particularly in the context of the sometimes literal gods that are strolling around in DC’s universe, they instead chose a third option on the central conflict after they had practically negated it already with their overpowered protagonists.
For all that the book enjoyed hammering on the real world pseudo-crisis of people caring more about dark heroes, it left its own internal contradictions completely unresolved. The rightness of judicial killing, which should have been central to the story, is left on the table. From the blurb of the story it seemed as though the pure heroic Superman that we know and love would have to confront an enemy who cannot be reasoned with, a nemesis that would keep on returning until his moral position was worn down, instead “Magog” was broken from the outset.
I appreciate the effort to create a memorial for the golden age of comic books but the whole arc of the post-heroic age was already handled far more efficiently, if not tastefully, in the Dark Knight Strikes Again. This book was more elaborate and wide reaching, but lost a great deal of the emotional kick that Miller’s messier work overflowed with. Meanwhile, Superman's "future" was far more satisfyingly concluded in the excellent "Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow."