In September, we examined the impact of the classic “Kingdom Come” story on the DC Universe and the comic industry as a whole. This month we look back with Alex Ross upon the “Thy Kingdom Come” storyline that encompassed the third volume of “Justice Society of America” #1 – 23 along with several one-shots.
The return of Ross to “Kingdom Come” was plotted with Geoff Johns, DC’s current writing ace, and mainly illustrated by Dale Eaglesham and Fernando Pasarin. Amongst his co-plots, cover art, and various interior pages, the event would see Ross accomplish his first solo written and illustrated book in “Kingdom Come Special: Superman.”
POP!: How long was the Justice Society of America/Kingdom Come storyline supposed to run?
Alex Ross: It changed a lot. The original plan when I first came on the “JSA” book ages ago (in 2005) would have been to introduce Superman relatively soon and then have his storyline last, I don’t know, maybe six, seven, maybe eight issues. Basically, it was the build-up before issue #100, and the culmination was going to be issue #100 of the “JSA.” Because of “Infinite Crisis” and all the rebooting to the entire DCU, [DC Comics’] redoing of “Justice League of America” as a new #1 put the pressure on that we would be doing a new #1 of “Justice Society,” which at the time seemed like, “God, how can you be this close to #100 and then not go for it?” But we were basically told, “You know what? Nobody cares about the numbers except for those first issue sales, and that will be a bump, and you’ll get more people paying attention to what you’re doing if you do the reboot.” Which I guess was true in terms of what numbers were, but it was something I didn’t necessarily – I mean, it’s not what I would have done, but it’s what I went along with.
The story started up in “JSA” when Geoff [Johns] was first building up his own stuff that he had planned for a little while – his storylines related to the “Legion of Superheroes” crossover thing. That thing first starting off was something I had next to nothing to do with. I had a lot more input over the development of the character and background of the new Citizen Steel. That was something I gave the basic bare bones of. Instead of having this guy be another case of a broken body repaired with science to be a bionic man, I thought, “Have it be almost like a metallic disease, and he catches it in battle as a mistake. It’s a freak accident that he should wind up like his brother and father.” I also tried arguing with Geoff that it should not be a lineage of being another son, or passed on through this father-son kind of dynamic, but he was so hooked into that idea, I couldn’t talk him out of it. So I thought, “Have it be someone who’s a cousin or a little bit more removed instead of exactly another Heywood.” But the whole thing about him being a character who couldn’t feel, that was a lot of the stuff that I was trying to throw at Geoff, and he worked well with me on it. We seemed to be all on the same page with the way to develop the physicality of that character, that they had to pretty much just heat the suit up around him – it’s poured metal – to create this super-suit that, to get it off, he has to pretty much rip it off.
Well, I was trying to ask about was that the only major public criticism was with the amount of issues it took to tell this story.
Well, the thing that really did it in, I feel, is there was a hell of a lot more time taken with this part of the storyline that I had nothing to do with, which is the dispatching of the original Gog that was created by Mark Waid – which really wasn’t even reflecting what he had done with it originally. It just became this weird distortion, because everybody ignored what [Waid] had done with it in the “Kingdom” miniseries. He was used by Chuck Austen in “Action Comics” as just this Superman killer who showed none of the scars of what had happened at the end of the “Kingdom” series. And I’m following all this stuff, thinking, “Is anybody minding the store over there?” Somebody should have noted that the guy looked completely different. In fact, it seemed clear that Mark intended that Gog would become Magog. I didn’t get that as a concept because, metaphorically, it was supposed to be two different characters representing these two cities of the Book of Revelation. It’s also two giants in mythology, so it should be two separate characters in my way of thinking, but obviously he was going for a different thing.
So, he had that character injured, where he looked like he had the entire left arm of his body all screwed up. Basically, he would get the transformation, ultimately get the gold arm – the Cable arm of the character, as it were – to look like the character in “Kingdom Come,” so that he would eventually wind up being that guy. Although, how would he wind up being that guy if he spends his first days being this Superman killer? Magog in “Kingdom Come” is not some mass murderer. He’s representative of the modern superhero, the Punisher-era, Cable, gun-toting superhero who shoots first and asks questions later, the guy who will just put the Joker down. He’s not somebody that should have had this blood feud with Superman where his whole goal in life is to destroy the legend of Superman. I didn’t get that. I didn’t connect with that, myself, at all, and so to me the whole thing was kind of lost.
So the Gog that’s in the “Justice Society of America” books has the backstory you originally envisioned?
This is what I pitched to them back in 1996, when I pitched a series called “The Kingdom” that would follow up “Kingdom Come,” because they didn’t want to do just a Superman-specific project, which is what I recommended, initially. They wanted to do a Magog book. I thought, “Ugh. Magog is not the coolest character out of ‘Kingdom Come.’ Superman is.” So I tried to divert them by making it a book that was part of continuity, but it was outside of all the main guys’ books. It could evolve, sort of like “Trinity” involves Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, without having to be trapped by any of the writers of those three books. This would have been the same. It would have dipped in and out of the lives of all the DC heroes that we could want to play with, and it would bring about the legend of where Magog came from by first introducing Gog.
The whole idea that Gog was a giant who came from the pre-New Genesis/Apokolips planet was something that I had [come up with] back in ’96. Ironically, within, I think, two months of when I first was putting this idea down on paper, not for many people to see, they had launched “Jack Kirby’s Fourth World” that John Byrne was drawing. He pretty much offered up that the pre-New Gods gods were, metaphorically, the gods that Kirby left behind at Marvel, the third gods, because he had Thor, a red-bearded version of Thor, show up within the first issues of this “Fourth World” book. And I thought, “Ah, man, there’s my idea blown.” The only reason I wound up being able to go back to that idea some ten years later is because it didn’t seem to become canon. Nobody was really saying, “This is the law. This is definitely what happened on that pre-New Genesis planet.”
So this was one of the big attractions of the project for you? To establish Gog as this deity?
Yeah, and I can tell you, I have the absolute lamest motivations for all of my ideas in comics. In fact, I believe this is the third time – I can’t remember all my ways of doing this – I think this is the third time I’ve done a tribute to the movie and musical “Tommy.” And I’m sure you can’t guess how. [Laughs] The idea that a sort of self-proclaimed messiah is walking around trying to save people by pulling them all together, having them follow him and he’ll heal them all and whatever. This is kind of the set-up I had in “Justice,” where the villains are setting themselves up as the healers of mankind, who will actually dole out real cures for all illnesses, help people escape from the trappings of modern society by bringing them to these cities in the sky. That was my pulling from “Tommy” the whole bit about Tommy’s holiday camp. I kid you not. And so I did it then and there, and that was the same concept with Gog is that, when he shows up in Africa, he’s helping people in the world who have the greatest need, and that was something to definitely fight for, to not have it happen in America again. I’m so sick of every Western superhero story taking place on the American continent. It’s just seems like, “Really? You can’t come up with any other place in the world that we ought to be?”
New York. [Laughs]
Yeah, everything’s got to be in New York, huh? So, yeah, that’s where this crazy idea came from. I’ve wanted to make my little minor contribution to what kind of creative hay you can make out of the pieces that Kirby left behind, but I’m sure I’ve made no great ripple throughout history, and somebody else will come up with another reason why there is something else to be added with the pre-New Genesis planet and whatever. But everything I was doing was kind of a tribute to the Promethean Giant from the “New Gods” run. That was just a two-page spread that was in there of a giant, which showed up on the cartoon show, “Superman,” as well.
It was interesting to read how desperately these superheroes were looking for saviors to their problems.
Well, the one thing that I had to give up on was the idea that it would be a more complicating separation of details later, that the Gog character is here offering exactly what he promised, and that there’s no catch to it. What Geoff fought for is that there has to be a catch, and the catch is that, if he’s not declared as our God, and if he’s not somehow savaging the planet by being here and offering what he’s offering, if there’s not some sort of thing where he’s somehow hooking us, hooking the planet, in effect, then…
Geoff wanted him to be a salesman, it was all some sort of pitch.
Well, so did I. At heart, he’s a drug pusher. If he can come around and say, “Hey, I’ll fix everything for you guys,” which is what you hope that superheroes could do, but if they do it, then we’d just get fat and lazy if we never do anything for ourselves. So it’s playing with that idea. But within the course of the storyline, it has to go dark, and so we had a debate about that point, about when it has to really turn, and you get your big battle at the end. So it’s bittersweet, because, in a way, you could appreciate that the character of Gog is, in a weird way, a petulant child, and when he’s taken out, he’s taken out because you have to get him off Earth so he can no longer do this to mankind and cause nobody else harm in the universe. But it also puts in Superman’s heart a sense of failure at having to dispatch somebody who was really offering something. He understands the morality of it, but he has to feel like a dick, basically, getting rid of this guy. There’s just this anger in him that’s boiling up, and that’s where it ultimately blows up by the time we return him to the world of “Kingdom Come.”
By the end of the “JSA” storyline, we’re left with the Magog that will be in “Kingdom Come.”
Absolutely. It’s meant to link up in a very organic way, that if you reread “Kingdom Come,” you’ll see the way the character is represented; he’s not a character without a soul. He’s a character that’s part of the rough-housing quality of the modern superhero. He’s also military. I always thought that part of his design would sort of [imply] he was military. I gave him a gun holster on his belt because I was imitating the look of Cable. I was mostly swiping Rob Liefeld’s work, and Rob Liefeld knew that I was swiping his work when he saw the character. He actually realized the character was kind of a metaphor for all the things that Rob had designed in comics. [Laughs] But I was throwing these bits together. I didn’t mean for the character to come off looking at all like a supervillain, because that’s not what he is. He’s not supposed to be the bad-ass villain that you go after, who’s siding with the Joker. This is the guy who killed the Joker, and at the first outset of the series, he’s kind of the leader of the modern Justice League. I mean, I think it’s even acknowledged as the Justice Battalion, isn’t it?
Given that he’s leading the Justice Battalion, which is made up, visually, of new versions I came up with for the Charlton characters, which was not just a nod to them. I thought it would be kind of fun that, in a way, you’re beginning with the characters that are the same archetypes that Alan Moore reworked for the sake of “Watchmen.” So you’ve got Peacemaker, Thunderbolt, Captain Atom, Nightshade – God, who else? Judo Master. I didn’t throw in the Question here, although, if you can see at the point where Superman is looking at all these TV screens of the damage that was done, one of the TV screens shows a lineup of these Justice Battalion guys, and you see the version of Peacemaker I designed next to the very Golden Age Daredevil version of Thunderbolt that I reworked, standing next to Blue Beetle and the Question. Of course Magog is not a Charlton character, or even a stand-in for one. But it was meant to show that this character is just simply the leader of the “now,” the tougher, more go-in-and-kill-them kind of base of superheroes. The pitfall of that was a poorly managed disaster, where a low-level villain like the Parasite is able to siphon off of a nuclear-powered hero and that creates a nuclear devastation.
Did you volunteer right away to illustrate segments throughout all those “Justice Society” issues?
Oh, yeah. They were generally my idea, but Geoff came up with a lot of the key opportunities, deciding where they would be placed. I really wanted to do the one that, I don’t know what issue it is, but the one that recreates that first page of “New Gods” #1.
I think the first time your interior art shows up is when Starman’s thinking about the “Kingdom Come” universe.
Well, actually, the very first painted piece I did is in issue #1 of the new “Justice Society” book. You can see at the end of that issue there’s a sliver of Kingdom Come’s Superman, acknowledging the storyline to come. It was a real early thing that we were trying to plan. Of course, by the end of issue #2 you see Starman saying where he came from was blown to kingdom come, and then, of course, behind him, behind the figure that Dale Eaglesham drew, I painted a war pastiche of all this fighting going on that’s basically meant to confound the viewer a little bit because I wasn’t throwing any of the recognizable superheroes at you, yet. I wanted to save that up.
What about doing your own book, “Kingdom Come Special: Superman,” when you had to write and illustrate it alone. Was it planned ahead of time that you were going to do this special, or did it just come about during the development of the storyline?
I knew I wanted to do interior pages to address a lot of these things I had pent up in me. I knew I wanted to retell what happened to Lois in the exact detail that it appears in my special, and I knew that I wanted to be the one to draw Superman looking up my dad [Norman McCay]. I was realizing as the writing of the book was going on that very, very little of the main “JSA” book was ever dealing with the fact that you’ve got this monumental Superman character here. He’s really just a passive participant in most of whatever was going on with the main “JSA” book. My feeling was that Superman has to have his story told in great detail. That’s why my special came into existence, because I was going to have to ultimately take the reins of that.
Surprisingly, Geoff responded to that with a lot of ambition, saying, “Why don’t we create three specials? One will be focused on Magog, and then the third one was to be determined.” I pitched the third one actually kind of reclaim the title “The Kingdom” from the project that they originally did without me. So I kind of retook my legacy. Which is, of course, what this is all about, in some way. It falls into the perception of, “Oh, well, this is what Alex would have done without Mark.” Which is a sucky thing to have to be caught in the middle of, because it really is simply just a shame that myself and the co-creator of “Kingdom Come” didn’t work well together. It sucks. I didn’t want to be involved in any kind of drama like that, but here was this story that seemed like it was cool to tell, and I don’t believe – aside from what we just said about the bad guy, Gog – that we really did such a grand disservice to his work, especially when it comes to the work of “Kingdom Come,” the series itself.
When we ultimately lead up to our conclusion, the link to “Kingdom Come” keeps that work largely pristine. This work itself is somewhat meant to be a repudiation of the sequel to “Dark Knight,” where the original author continues a tale that I believe was meant to be the last great adventure of that hero. What I wanted to make sure I did not do, when you see the pages that follow up at the end of the entire series in issue #22, we jump ahead into the future. I show you that, in the years to come, there wasn’t any getting back in costume for Superman, or Batman, or Wonder Woman. They had a family. They didn’t just have one kid, like they did in “The Kingdom.” They had a whole slew of kids. You get the acknowledgement of life just going on. The shot in issue #22 that shows the funeral of Batman is meant to show all the survivors of “Kingdom Come.” They’re all people who were left alive at the end of that series, and you can see, twenty years later, they got twenty years older. Batman has, at that point, grandchildren. There’s a sense that life went on, and it went on in a very normal way.
I wanted to jump ahead into the far future by showing with hundreds of years, then a thousand years passing, that what was key to me about “Kingdom Come” is that it really was the end of this age of superheroes. The next age would be the age of the Legion. So it would happen again, just not within a couple years of the end of “Kingdom Come,” which is ultimately the series that I think many people would have wanted me to create – another painted miniseries that just continued with more of the same. This work, this entire thing in “JSA,” is kind of an elaboration on why that wasn’t appropriate.
Now that you’ve revisited these characters, you don’t plan to do so again for a while, right?
Well, yeah, I should have put this to rest, that’s for sure. At the end of the day, despite the fact that this “Kingdom Come” storyline is being collected in these standard, small hardcovers, this is not going to rival the readability and success or the legacy of “Kingdom Come.” If anything, it’s a footnote. For my part, I have put a fair amount of work into this, especially with the one-shot I did. It’s probably going to prove to be a thing of its time, because the next people who take on doing the “JSA” will overhaul the characters, and God knows who they’ll kill next, but it’ll be completely unrecognizable, I’m sure, within just a couple of years. One might look at this storyline as being something a lot like a lot of DC continuity from the Nineties, which is so reworked now, compared to what it is today, that it’s unrecognizable. What we did here was more of an entertaining fantasy of the moment. For those who have been curious to see me re-approach this material, I hope this was an interesting answer.
Well, I thought you were successful in fleshing out Superman more.
God knows, it would be easy to spend a lot more time with this version of the character. I really like Superman. I like Superman in all his different forms, but I particularly like the sense of his having the weight of the world on his shoulders. I like drawing his face and not having to hold back.