Comic book historians define the Golden Age of comic books as a period of eternal optimism and morality. Superheroes were shining beacons of hope that never wavered in their decisions. To say that the Golden Age died understates the real issue: the world changed, and our superheroes changed with it. In 1996, writer Mark Waid and artist Alex Ross recognized that shift in perspective. Heroes had become antiheroes; “Super Friends” had devolved into temporary allies. In their seminal work, KINGDOM COME, Waid and Ross illustrated this change in the bleak future of the year 2020.

The heroes of today no longer do battle with villains but amongst themselves for the sake of their own egos. They wage wars on the city streets with no fear of collateral damage. Despite the growing amorality of the world’s heroes, KINGDOM COME inspired my love of comic books. I read through it a dozen times growing-up, but because of my age, most of its many themes were distinctly lost on me. Among these lost themes was the death of this character — Wesley Dodds.

KINGDOM COME: Wesley Dodds
Image courtesy of DC Comics.

An Overlooked Passing

The man above appears in one scene for a grand total of five pages. As a kid, Dodds seemed only on the page to introduce and provide motivation to our lead narrator, Pastor Norman McCay. Outside of the apocalyptic visions taken straight from the “Book of Revelations,” Wesley Dodds’ death was simply a place to start the plot and McCay’s characterization.

A large amount of time passed before I assigned a new significance to this scene. With its long and storied history, DC Comics plays host to a number of obscure characters that have been forgotten or lost over the years. Among these forgotten characters is Wesley Dodds, a founder of the original Justice Society of America.

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“Wes’ stories were melodies of wonder,” McCay says about his late friend, “Back then, it seemed, his dreams were of yesterdays, not tomorrows…of times bright, not barbaric. Once upon a time, he said, he’d called himself the Sandman. He was a super-hero. You’ll excuse the expression.”

Image courtesy of DC Comics.

A Man of Historic Importance

Wesley Dodds, as the Sandman, was one of DC Comics’ earliest superheroes. First appearing in April 1939, in issue #1 of “NEW YORK WORLD’S FAIR COMICS,” Sandman arrived a month before Batman’s debut. In fact, Sandman’s creators, writer Gardner Fox and artist Bert Christman, shared many of the same pulp noir influences that inspired the Dark Knight’s creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane. Sandman was created in response to the fading “Mystery Man” genre popularized by The Shadow and other noir characters. In the 1940s, Wesley Dodds became a popular superhero with his trademarks: a green business suit, a gas mask, and a sleeping-gas handgun.

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A character that was defined by his humanity, Sandman’s longest run during the Golden Age was in the ADVENTURE COMICS series. Dodds was popular enough to warrant inclusion in the first Justice Society of America. However, he followed many of his fellow Society members into obscurity with the end of the Golden Age.

Sandman would go through many different reboots and reinterpretations, but it wouldn’t be until Neil Gaiman began his seminal SANDMAN comic that the character surged back into the public view. While SANDMAN doesn’t follow Wesley Dodds, the superhero does have a brief cameo in issue #1. After the capture of Morpheus, the King of Dreams, the chaos his capture creates in the world inspires Dodds to return to a life of heroism.

KINGDOM COME: Wesley Dodds
Image courtesy of DC Comics.

The Death of Sandman

Wesley Dodds’ only known power is a form of precognition. Through visions supplied to him by Gaiman’s Morpheus of violent crimes, Dodds’ used his immense skill as a detective to stop the crimes before they could happen. This is referenced in KINGDOM COME and was the only reason I initially believed he was in the story. The first three pages feature a terrifying image of a bloodied battlefield. The heavens fall, and the heroes of the world burn. Passages of the “Book of Revelation,” which details the end of the world, are superimposed over the images.

These images are Dodds’ own visions of the end — of the great metahuman war that’s coming. The only way his fractured mind can interpret the visions is through the known verse of this book. This is the reason Dodds is chosen for this scene. Yet, that doesn’t seem like enough. As I’ve reread KINGDOM COME, my understanding of this deliberate character choice continues to grow. Waid and Ross wanted Wesley Dodds in the opening to be in conversation with our narrator. We stand beside McCay believing at first that Wesley is losing his mind with age. McCay, though, is the one who’s blind.

Image courtesy of DC Comics.

Dodds’ death in this comic book is a representation of the story’s most important theme: the death of morality. Sandman stood as a pinnacle of righteousness among his fellow Golden Age heroes. Most heroes of the Golden Age donned their costumes for one reason: because it was the right thing to do. They were unafraid to stand up for their beliefs.

Human Achievement in a Super-powered World

Sandman epitomizes this ideal. His crime-fighting stems from violent visions of the future. With each new vision he has the capacity to simply turn his back and walk away. In fact, with no protective powers to speak of, it would be understandable if he did just that.

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After presiding over Dodds’ funeral, McCay thinks of Sandman’s impact while he watches a superpowered brawl. He says, “Before the bitterness overcame him, Wesley and I would walk…pick our way through the city…Wesley insisted that human initiative began to erode the day people asked a new breed to face the future for them.” In the window behind McCay, a sign reads, “Special! Signed Game Ball from LAST EVER WORLD SERIES.”

Sandman fought against crime and evil because he couldn’t stand what he saw. He took action, an everyday human being with a cause and the ability. In his stories, Sandman would take a bullet to the chest and keep pressing forward. He was dedicated to protecting human life.

Dodds’ death, though, is a signal that the old, Golden Age ways are failing. Heroes like Batman sit in their caves, broken physically. Superman isolates himself from the world due to his own cynicism. Green Lantern floats alone in a hard light space station of his own creation. During the Golden Age, even when they had great power, the older heroes never see themselves as above those they served. Now the populace worships those heroes that constantly assert their superiority.

Courtesy of DC Comics.

Kingdom Come

The world wakes up when the Sandman’s life comes to an end. Just after his death, events spiral out of control. McCay is approached by the Specter to judge the upcoming meta-human war. The murderous anti-hero Magog leads a battle that leaves the entire state of Kansas in a nuclear fallout zone. Even if Superman or Wonder Woman didn’t know about Sandman’s death, they felt its reverberations. A light had been snuffed out, and now they must step up to fill his place.

What can we learn from Sandman in this instance?

The world of Earth-22 has come to a crossroads between morality and personal status. The Sandman represented a generation where doing the right thing surpassed any personal stake. An insult in this new world order can lead to the destruction of a city block. The world of KINGDOM COME is an extreme example of the path of unchecked power. Wesley Dodds represents the knowledge that any person can make a difference. By being represented in this story, he gives Norman McCay’s journey credence: McCay becomes a human among gods.

His appearance in KINGDOM COME shows the reader that human morality and achievement still exist. It simply takes a person willing to act on it. Even on his deathbed, Wesley Dodds rises, rips his IV from his arm, and starts dressing in his costume. Would any of us have the same drive?

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