In 1996, writer Mark Waid and artist Alex Ross revealed a story to the world that would eventually become one of DC’s most iconic. From Waid’s poignant storytelling to Ross’ impeccable artwork, KINGDOM COME remains a one-of-a-kind tale that presents a vignette of superheroes through the lens of an ordinary man.

Through this mode of storytelling, we come to understand the catastrophes superheroes can create due to their shortcomings. As a result, KINGDOM COME isn’t exactly a cheerful tale. It’s a tragedy that depicts some of our most beloved superheroes turning on what they have always believed in.

So, why would such a bleak story move generations of comic book readers?

Here’s our answer.

Death of a Sandman

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Above: Wesley Dodds as featured in KINGDOM COME. Below: Wesley Dodds as the Sandman. Images courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Wesley Dodds speaks the opening lines of KINGDOM COME. In his statements, he quotes a verse from the Book of Revelation that predicts the end of the world. However, the words he speaks are more than just excerpts from the Bible. Visions of the apocalypse have been haunting Dodds for some time, leading him to believe something catastrophic is about to engulf the world. It wasn’t until Dodds met KINGDOM COME’s narrator, Norman McCay, that he was able to share his dark premonitions with another.

Now, it’s worth noting that Wesley Dodds is no ordinary man. He debuted as the first incarnation of Sandman back in 1939. Unfortunately, his time as the Sandman is long over in KINGDOM COME as McCay reflects, “Once upon a time he would call himself the Sandman.”

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This perception of the Sandman’s death is one that alludes to KINGDOM COME’s representation of superheroes. Dodds once thought himself to be a hero, one lauded by people who truly believed in him. Now, in the era of KINGDOM COME, heroism has been reinterpreted by a new generation of vigilantes, ones that fight only for the sake of fighting. These “heroes” no longer follow a moral code nor do they hesitate to engage in brutal tactics. Thus, the heroes that lived like the Sandman have truly been dead for some time since they no longer fit the definition of the modern hero.

The Wrath of Magog

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Magog as depicted by Alex Ross. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Of all the “heroes” of this new generation, the one known as Magog is perhaps the most venerated by Earth’s citizens. After the Joker murders ninety-three people, including Superman’s wife Lois Lane, Magog took it upon himself to kill the Clown Prince of Crime once and for all.

As a result of his act, people began to perceive Magog as a true hero since he was capable of doing what heroes such as Superman would not. There was no moral code that restricted Magog’s execution of justice nor did he feel remorse for what he believed to be heroism. Most importantly, Magog didn’t believe that the Joker, or seemingly any villain for that matter, is capable of reformation. However, though Magog’s actions might be perceived as just, his decision and capability to kill provide him with a great sense of autonomy. As a result, without any guidance or law to follow, Magog is truly capable of saving, and killing, anyone he believes to deserve it.

Now, after Magog murdered the Joker, he challenged Superman to a fight. He claimed that the winner would obtain the role of Earth’s ultimate guardian and continue serving as a hero to its people. However, in response to Magog’s challenge, Superman simply flew away and exiled himself from the rest of the world, leaving Magog as Earth’s newest, biggest superhero.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Some may interpret Superman’s denial of Magog’s challenge as an act of cowardice. However, that is a misguided interpretation as there are a variety of justified reasons for his decision. Firstly, Waid presents Magog as a “hero” who craves violence, seeking it out in every mission he decides to take. His inclination to kill is rooted in that craving. So, if Superman had agreed to fight Magog, he would have given into his foe’s greatest motivator. Their battle would have ended with either Superman or Magog getting killed, and Superman wasn’t willing to succumb to that.

He too would have been fighting for the sake of violence, since the challenge Magog presented was a shallow one. No true reward was at stake, which is another reason why Superman flew away. He knew Earth had already made its choice. Superman had lost the role of Earth’s guardian already, and he wasn’t willing to change who he was to regain that role.

Ultimately, he was unwilling to compromise the symbol he spent his life building.

So, Superman lost hope in the hero he once was because he believed he that had failed humanity’s faith. Consequently, Superman enforced his own form of punishment: exile from the world he always believed to be home.

A Vision Through Ordinary Eyes

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

One of the most distinct aspects of KINGDOM COME is the nature of its primary narrator. Sure, the story is focused on the journeys of superheroes such as Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel. However, Norman McCay is undoubtedly the heart and soul of the series. After his encounters with Wesley Dodds, Norman comes into contact with the Spectre, who informs him that together they will observe the events that will catalyze armageddon.

Thus, Norman proves to be KINGDOM COME’s most significant presence due to his humanity, an aspect of himself that counters the redefinition of heroics by individuals like Magog. Ironically, Magog’s “heroism” is rooted in his lack of humanity. He, along with other new “heroes,” bear no respect towards human life nor the virtues of justice.

Therefore, KINGDOM COME is a story that traverses a reunion with empathy, a virtue that seems to be a definitive factor of a true hero, and Norman McCay is the catalyst for that reunion, an event that will reveal itself later.

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He serves as the bridge that redefines heroes of the modern age for the better because, through his observations with the Spectre, he witnesses the costs of apathy. Norman has never been bestowed with amazing superpowers, yet he understands the faults one can succumb to when granted those gifts. He’s witnessed those consequences and their impact on armageddon during his voyeuristic journey with the Spectre.

McCay understands the innate vices of the human being and the hold they can maintain over an individual.

The Death of Justice

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

As aforementioned, KINGDOM COME isn’t solely a story about Superman’s return to heroism or Norman McCay’s experiences with the Spectre. Rather, it features an intersection of the trials for the heroes who have lost hope in the world. At the end of chapter one, Superman reemerges after Wonder Woman convinces him that Earth needs him as Magog’s violence has only escalated. As a result of her convincing, the Justice League reforms itself with several of its iconic members.

However, one particular ally doesn’t join the new League: Batman.

To this day, he resents Superman for abandoning Earth years ago and leaving it to Magog and a vicious army of metahumans that call themselves heroes. As a result of the two’s strife, they maintain varying perceptions of the current state of the world’s newest superheroes.

Superman believes they are simply misguided, pursuing a code they don’t entirely understand. They have been raised in a world without Superman and other heroes who respected human life. As a result, this new generation maintains a perspective of justice they believe to be the only way. Thus, Superman believes they are capable of reformation.

A Hopeless Cause

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Batman on the other hand believes the world would be better off without those metahumans, since he believes them to be evil by nature. He doesn’t believe it’s Superman or anyone else’s responsibility, or place, to reform them. In fact, Batman believes that humanity comes with an inherent respect for life. So, to him, this new generation of heroes is far from human. 

Ironically, both of their perspectives result in a multitude of deaths. Through Superman’s beliefs, keeping the metahumans alive will allow them to continue killing those they believe deserve to die. Batman’s beliefs suggest that letting them kill each other will benefit the world in the long run. However, there are surely metahumans who don’t abide by Magog’s actions. Thus, surely, innocents would die among the rest.

As a result, KINGDOM COME presents an impossible choice as either decision results in an inevitable loss of life. So, what’s so heroic about that?

A Man of God

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Now, of all the heroes of the past age, from Superman to Wonder Woman, the one who experienced the most tragic change is Billy Baston (AKA Captain Marvel). With his powers being bestowed upon him as a child, Billy always maintained an optimistic view of the world and the superheroes that protected it. His childlike naivety grounded him along with his innate human nature. Thus, the wonder and magic surrounding the existence of superheroes inspired him greatly.

Therefore, when Magog entered the fray, Billy could no longer comprehend the world he once admired. Despite his powers, his understanding of superheroes — as well as the world — was still through the lens of a human. 

He couldn’t fathom that heroes would define themselves by the lives they took. So, Billy Baston and his alter ego encountered a rift within themselves as the child lost faith in superheroes. Additionally, Lex Luthor broadened that rift by brainwashing Billy into believing all superheroes were evil, even those he once fought alongside. 

Thus, Captain Marvel is undoubtedly one of KINGDOM COME’s most essential figures. He is both a god and a man, and he struggles to reconcile those identities throughout this tale. His disillusionment with superheroes catalyzes a loss of faith in what he’s capable of. As a result, he became susceptible to Luthor’s influence.

Interestingly though, what all the superheroes of this story tend to forget is that redemption is always a journey, even in a state of total desolation.

The Return of the Light

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

The latter half of KINGDOM COME features a chaotic, brutal fight between the vigilantes of the past and present that exemplifies one of the most melancholic portrayals of superheroes. A large-scale battle erupts between the Justice League and the metahumans of the modern age, one so grand that it threatens the safety of the rest of the world. In the ensuing carnage, Batman betrays Lex Luthor and joins Superman’s cause. However, Luthor initiates his own plan as he sends a brainwashed Captain Marvel to kill the Man of Steel.

The battle eventually catalyzes the UN’s decision to send nuclear warheads into the fight. Despite the efforts of Batman and Wonder Woman, the bomb is beginning its descent.

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As the two most powerful beings in the DC Universe continue to fight, Superman manages to get Captain Marvel’s attention for a brief moment. Clark informs him that he can prevent the Man of Steel from stopping the warhead, therefore letting it destroy all the metahumans and superheroes in the battle. Alternatively, he can allow Superman to destroy the warhead and let the war continue as it may.

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

A Shred of Salvation

Of course, either option results in catastrophe, and that’s unfortunately immutable. Despite Superman and Captain Marvel’s amazing abilities, they cannot change the fact that the events of the past have led to this very moment. They were incapable of changing the hearts of individuals like Magog or even the Joker. They were incapable of stopping evil from spreading from one generation to the next. Though that reality is a hard pill to swallow, Superman has come to accept that. At this moment, he is allowing Captain Marvel to do the same.

Billy Baston couldn’t bear to witness the change in the world he loved so much; neither could Superman.

However, a hopeless world can still be saved if a hero can inspire it to some degree, and that’s what Captain Marvel decides to do.

Good and evil will continue to persist in the world, and at times the latter will prevail. Sometimes, lives will be lost in the fight, and that’s a tragic aspect of the world that one must accept; one Superman and Captain Marvel struggled to accept. Yet, in the darkness of it all, even in the face of Armageddon there’s always a choice.

Superman’s words manage to resonate with Captain Marvel. He rescinds Luthor’s influence from his mind and regains control of both of his identities. Recognizing his humanity as well as his godly nature, Billy destroys the warhead, sacrificing himself to save as many lives as he can.

Sure, Captain Marvel didn’t necessarily save thousands or millions of people in that exact moment. He only saved as many as he could, yet that’s still enough to be a hero.

The Sins of the Hero

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Perfection isn’t an ideal superheroes are necessarily meant to strive for. Of course, that is difficult to acknowledge when the rest of the world expects them to and loses faith whenever they fall short. Heroism requires selflessness, as exemplified in Captain Marvel’s actions. Of course, sacrifice doesn’t always come in the form of loss of life. It can come in the form of exile, as Superman established at the beginning of the narrative. Sure, some may perceive his actions as selfish. However, it was a period of solitude he needed in order to redefine himself.

If Superman hadn’t exiled himself, he could very well have assimilated into Magog’s idea of heroism. Yes, Superman lost faith in himself, but the journey of a hero is one abundant with self-doubt. The ultimate point is that a hero is capable of overcoming that doubt and believing in the good within themselves, the good that evokes one’s empathy for those who are in need of saving whether from external or internal evils.

Thus, heroism also finds a root in the human ability to forgive and redeem oneself. Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman, Wonder Woman, and various others had to forgive themselves in order to reclaim their roles as heroes.

Now, following Captain Marvel’s encounter with the nuclear warhead, Superman comes to realize that the destruction also resulted in the death the majority of metahumans. Distraught, Superman flies to the UN headquarters, prepared to kill those responsible. Before he can act though, Norman McCay intervenes. He stops the Man of Steel from making a devastating mistake that would rid the world of Superman for good.

What Lies Beyond KINGDOM COME

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

KINGDOM COME is such a definitive work because it reminds us that superheroes are far from infallible. Many of them are capable of using their abilities entirely for good. Though, the temptation to take advantage of said abilities persists. Additionally, the presence of their powers will often lead them, and us, to believe that they are capable of anything.

Yet that isn’t true.

Superman cannot save every life, and, at times, he wants to act like Magog. It’s in moments such as those that humanity must prevail. Norman McCay’s intervention proves that even a simple man can inspire others. He doesn’t need superhuman abilities to do so. He can simply use his words to save lives, since humanity is the true foundation of heroism. It provides an individual with the empathy that motivates them to value life.

Thus, though KINGDOM COME depicts a world abundant with loss and hopelessness, it also depicts a world where anyone is capable of being a hero, even if they are far from perfect.

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