The Common Good
July-August 1997

On Earth as in Heaven

by David A. Wade | July-August 1997

The changing role of the hero in comic books

One-eyed monsters. Men turned into beasts. Overwhelming odds. All elements of The Odyssey by Homer. Gee, it’d make a great comic book.

Of course, in order to make it in today’s comic book market, Homer would have to disrobe most of the women, pump the men up with steroids, and arm them all to the teeth. You see, it’s not your father’s comics we’re talking about.

My introduction to comic books came when I was 5. My brother Robert took me to the local drug store. He collected comic book versions of literary works—Hamlet, Crime and Punishment, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. They were on the top rack. But there was another world entirely on the bottom rack. My eyes locked on a guy who was dressed in blue-black and gray with a cape like batwings. He was trapped inside a giant hourglass while this other guy who looked like a rabid clown laughed. I was hooked. I never looked at the top rack again.

Those were innocent days. Good guys were good guys, bad guys were bad. The world of what would come to be known as the Silver Age of the superhero comic had captured me. The relationship would last through the ’60s and ’70s. Comics would take up the issues of racism, drug abuse, and political corruption. Comics, produced by men mostly in their late 40s, were desperately trying to be "hip." They were corny beyond belief and years behind the times, but I loved them.

Then came the ’80s. As a college graduate, then a husband, I put the comics aside. It was time to put away "childish things." Comics were for kids, after all.

But one Sunday in 1986, The Baltimore Sun carried a feature on, of all things, a comic book. There was that guy in blue-black and gray again. But he was different. He was old, gritty, and ruthless. The graphic novel garnering this attention was called The Dark Knight Returns. It would bring an MTV-like visual language to the medium. Violent, sophisticated, and sharp, it definitely wasn’t for kids. It had attitude. It had street smarts. Yet it was still that guy with the cape like batwings.

Over the next 10 years, the comic industry would change. A new type of hero emerged: ambiguous in tone, often unrelentingly violent, cynical, overtly sexual, with complicated and intertwining motives. Specialty shops catering to comic books replaced the drug store. Now racks are filled with hundreds of titles each week creating a cacophony of scantily clad, sword-wielding women and heavily armored men who make Arnold Schwarzenegger look puny.

They are at war. Choose your battlefield. There is an enormous fascination with the occult. Urban areas have become arenas for violence of all types. Organized crime, corrupt corporations, rogue military operatives, and drug cartels have all become fodder for the unstoppable war our "heroes" are fighting. The morality of violence and superior firepower has replaced "truth, justice, and the American Way."

INTO THIS PUBLISHING blitzkrieg comes a story written for those who remember the "days before the war." Titled Kingdom Come, this miniseries is published by DC Comics, the people who brought us Superman. Created by Alex Ross and Mark Waid, Kingdom Come is their response to the changes that have occurred in the industry. Using beautifully painted, realistic artwork, Waid and Ross create a story that simply asks, "What is the nature of the hero?"

Taking place 50 years from now, the story deals with one generation of aging heroes trying to deal with their progeny. The next generation represents this new type of comic book hero—violent, amoral. It’s not a pretty story. Due to personal tragedy and a loss of his sense of meaning, Superman has taken refuge in a fantasy world within his Fortress of Solitude. Batman, left with a very mortal body that has been badly abused and beaten over the years, strives to protect the streets of his beloved Gotham City from behind a computer keyboard. The other original heroes have gone to the four winds. Their children meanwhile are caught up in a melee of carnage, running rampant in the cities with nothing left to do but fight amongst themselves, ordinary citizens be damned.

Bearing witness to all of this is Norman McCay, a Protestant minister who is struggling with issues of faith and hope. His presence shapes the deeper meaning and questions of this "clash of the titans." Does faith have any meaning in a modern world? What is the responsibility of those with power to those without it? Is healing possible?

The answers offered here aren’t easy or clean. People die. Heroes fail. Sacrifice is called for.

Violence as a means to an end is unacceptable. Amorality is a blind alley. The argument is clear. It’s the alternatives that are fuzzy.

I don’t know that the medium gets any better than this. The artwork is stunning. The topics are profoundly real. At turns humorous, at turns tragic, Kingdom Come is a hopeful antidote to the majority of comic book material being published today. It’s now available in a variety of collected editions so that people who missed the individual issues can still get in on the fun. A regular series that would lead up to the events of Kingdom Come is being developed.

Would I want my kids to read Kingdom Come? In time, certainly. At least I wouldn’t fear for their souls if they did.

Kingdom Come. Mark Waid and Alex Roth. DC Comics, 1996.

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