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Superman Redeemer

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Return of the Superhero: Superman asserts himself in "Kingdom Come."

'Kingdom Come' turns aging superheroes into biblical avengers

By Richard von Busack

THE OTHER DAY, poet and guys' advocate Robert Bly was on the radio finessing some questions about the bad habits of his mentor, Joe Camel. Bly quoted the Chinese saying "The bigger the face, the bigger the back," meaning that a grand figure has an equally grand evil side.

I had heard the big-faced, not to say crypto-phallic, Camel abused as a deluder of youth, but I hadn't known that he taught Bly anything. Closer listening proved that I'd been fooled by Bly's Southern accent; he was talking about Joseph "Joe" Campbell.

Symbols do tend to take on a life of their own. Joe Camel/Joseph Campbell's theory of the (super)heroes with a thousand faces might intellectualize a sentimental interest in the Justice League of America, and how the variously talented and tailored masked men have a psychological effect beyond entertainment. It could be said that they encourage us, in their two-dimensional way, to endurance and bravery.

I had thought I could not be stirred by superhero art, but the prodigious talent of Alex Ross (late of Marvels) did the job. Ross' art can be seen in a new four-issue series, Kingdom Come (DC; $4.95); it is this year's version of the Twilight of the Gods funnies explored in Frank Miller's The Dark Night and Moore and Gibbon's The Watchmen.

In Kingdom Come's future world--about 20 years from now--an elderly preacher named Norman is beckoned by the Spectre (DC's dead avenger, here a sort of Ghost of Christmas Future). "A higher power" (disingenuous, that, considering the extensive Christian mythology to come) wants Norman to witness Armageddon. Norman's world is well on the road there already. Superheroes and villains, the children and grandchildren of the more benign DC characters we know today, have turned duelists, tearing up the cities and irradiating most of the Midwest during the course of their constant, pointless fighting.

The Spectre and Norman go on a tour to see what's become of the retired heroes who sired these destructive gangs. They've ended up as franchises. Norman visits a "Planet Krypton" theme bar, in which the waitresses and waiters are togged out as superheroes; the scene has that same ghastliness as visiting a comics convention and seeing fan boys dressed up like their favorite characters.

As for the real Wonder Woman, she's grown a little matronly. She has ice-blue eyes, and the coldness of her gaze takes the ridiculousness out of that ridiculous costume. Green Lantern is a brooding hermit on a satellite. We get glimpses of the Flash and Batman (the latter probably gone completely nuts at this point).

Completing the superhero circuit, we are given the spectacle of Superman as the Nazarene, bearded, long-haired, holding up a wooden beam with his bare shoulders as he works as a carpenter building a farmhouse. One arm is pointed to the earth; the pose is of Jesus's deposition from the cross, the first stage on his way to resurrection.

THE FIRST installment of Kingdom Come raises a lot of questions that it doesn't answer, the principal one being, "When is artist Ross going be able to work with a writer as good as he is?" Writer Mark Waid is setting a very crowded stage, which, to give him the benefit of the doubt, he might yet be able to direct into some sort of order. If you quote scripture on one page and the title narration from the Superman TV show on the other, both look equally silly. The first issue of this prestige comic is fuzzy-minded; the dialogue is all vagueness punctuated by bursts of obviousness.

Waid posits superheroes as the apocalyptic instruments of the biblical Book of Revelations. The suggestion of Superman playing the role of the conquering Jesus isn't unprecedented. You've probably seen devotees of what they used to call in the 1920s "muscular Christianity" wearing "God's Gym" T-shirts and other pop images of buffed-out Christs bulging with muscle. Turning Jesus into a comic-book character has been done and done again, just usually not by someone outside the clergy.

The first page of Kingdom Come is an allegorical drawing of a bat and an eagle, presumably warring for the soul of America. If the story of superheroes rallying for a last showdown mirrors the one in The Watchman, the conflict between DC's two caped assets was already detailed in The Dark Night. In that 1984 comic, Batman was a libertarian rebel, the one sober man in a nation drunk with power. Superman, his old friend, had become his adversary, a blind instrument of unsavory foreign policy. "A boy scout," Batman called him, an invulnerable Oliver North.

The national mood has changed in the dozen years since The Dark Night came out; even comic book fans are beginning to get the stink of real-life vigilantes in their nostrils. And nobody but the facetious or the simple-minded can help being uneasy about the idea of superheroes. Waid's attempt here to recast Superman as the embodiment of the United States' better nature might just fly, so to speak.

As was almost said of Joe Camel, the bigger the front, the bigger the back. In future issues of Kingdom Come, I hope that Waid makes more complex that bat vs. eagle fight, showing Superman's problems as a parallel version of Jesus': self-absorption, arrogance, an occasional contempt for human frailty and a doubt of the worth of his sacrifice to an ungrateful planet.

Most fans won't be complaining when they see this triumph of illustrative art by Ross, whose gouaches and watercolors of the middle-aged god are a fine vessel for a half-century's worth of pop longings, nostalgia for Superman's own strength of purpose. Some of these fans will say, It's only a comic book. What more can you ask? The answer to that question is a question: how, after seeing what comics can be capable of, how can we ever settle for less?

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From the June 13-19, 1996 issue of Metro

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