How We Remain Free
Why Kingdom Come is More Relevant than Ever
by Armond Boudreaux
A Book for Today
Superhero comics have always reflected upon the values, beliefs, aspirations, and fears of our culture. Since the beginning they’ve commented upon what it means to be human and spoken to the particular problems of our times. And every year new stories reinterpret old characters in order to allow those characters to teach us something about the changing world in which we live.
But the comic that perhaps best speaks to the problems of today was created over twenty years ago. Though it doesn’t get quite as much popular recognition as books like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come is a triumph for the genre, showcasing the artistic sophistication and philosophical depth that comics can achieve. More to the point, the book might be deeply prophetic. It diagnoses the problems of our decade even more effectively than contemporary books that are more deliberately topical and allegorical.
A Chaotic World
The basic conflict of Kingdom Come is a generational one: Superman and other heroes of his generation have retired from public life, leaving behind a younger generation of metahumans who lack any of the virtues that are necessary for true heroism. They fight simply for the sake of fighting and have no regard for collateral damage or for human life. When the violence reaches a crisis-level, the older generation returns and tries to inspire the younger metahumans to a better way.
But Superman and his allies find themselves in conflict with other groups that have their own ideas about how to respond to the metahuman crisis. Where Superman tries to lead by example, Batman and the Outsiders take a more violent (and perhaps more “realistic”) approach, while Lex Luthor and his friends plot a more sinister solution. Eventually, everyone who tries to solve the metahuman problem has to resort to force and to despotism, and ultimately, no one’s approach proves to be successful. It takes a nuclear weapon and the death of Captain Marvel to shock the world into peace—an outcome that philosopher René Girard might have predicted (for more on this, see chapter 12 of Superman and Philosophy: What Would the Man of Steel Do?).
Why does it take the shock of Captain Marvel’s death to bring about peace? Why isn’t it enough to be a good example for people? Why is it that even the Man of Tomorrow finds himself turning into a tyrant?
Burke and Self-Governance
Edmond Burke, an Irish statesman and a member of the English Parliament in the late eighteenth century, can tell us why everyone who tries to solve the metahuman problem has to resort to despotic tactics. In his “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, 1791,” Burke described the importance of people’s willingness to rule themselves:
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites. . . . Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
In other words, Burke gives us a paradox: in order to remain free from the chains of a tyrannical authority, people must put chains upon themselves. People who refuse to self-regulate will find themselves subjected to some outside authority. Note that Burke isn’t a king threatening his subjects or a father threatening his children in order to keep them in line. His point is that unless we possess the virtues necessary to put “moral chains on [our] appetites,” it is inevitable and natural that something else will put limits upon us.
Because the metahumans have become unable to regulate themselves, there’s no democratic way to bring them into line. Superman and the Justice League go to heroic lengths to inspire the metahumans to reform themselves, but the harder they try, the more they have to resort to violence and, ultimately, incarceration. In his desperation, Superman even considers relocating rogue metahumans to Apokolips.
But Burke could have told Superman before he even put on his cape and emerged from retirement that the fight ahead of him was nearly impossible. People who can’t self-govern can’t have a democracy.
A Prophetic Comic Book?
Our world isn’t the world of Kingdom Come. Every day Americans prove that they are capable of the virtues that are necessary for self-government. As Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston and other areas in Texas, people from all over the country set aside the business of their daily lives and their politics and set out to help people that they didn’t know. Last weekend when a group of left-wing activists violently attacked right-wing activists at Berkeley, a journalist who was covering the event threw his body across a Trump supporter who was being beaten by the crowd. People like this show a level of virtue that no government regulations or incentives could duplicate.
But even though crises and tragedies often bring out our best, there is also plenty of evidence that we are increasingly abandoning the virtues that are essential to our freedom. Charlottesville and Berkeley are just the latest and most dramatic examples. There are plenty of other reasons to think that we are losing our capacity for self-regulation. We consume with alarming appetite. We’re unable to deny ourselves. We can’t delay gratification. We can’t accept it when our neighbors disagree with us. We can’t respond to disagreement without letting our emotions drive us to incivility—and sometimes worse. We are too busy with our cell phones to be bothered with the knowledge necessary to participate in a democracy.
In other words, we have the potential to avoid the world that Kingdom Come envisions, but we also show an alarming tendency toward the kind of chaos and recklessness that Waid and Ross envision. And just as Superman and Batman find themselves turning into despots as they respond to the metahuman crisis, it’s no surprise that some people have proposed frighteningly undemocratic and illiberal responses to events like what occurred in Charlottesville––some people going as far as arguing that the ACLU “needs to rethink free speech.”
Burke’s Warning for Our Times
The left and right are about as divided as they have ever been, but both political parties seem to think that government is the solution to every problem. For example, consider that both the GOP and the Democratic Party believe that it’s the government’s responsibility to fix the healthcare system. They disagree about how to accomplish that goal, but the fact that both parties think that the state should have a role in healthcare is remarkable––and perhaps discouraging to people who think that government is half the problem with healthcare.
Moreover, I’m willing to bet that most of the people reading this essay consider themselves liberals. So with the current political atmosphere being as it is, it might strike some people as odd that I would recommend Edmund Burke, one of the originators of conservatism, as a guide to understanding and responding to our political malaise. But that’s exactly what I’m doing. Burke understood that when people lack the virtues necessary to govern themselves, they’ll soon find themselves in “fetters.”
In Kingdom Come, there’s a scene in which Superman confronts a group of metahumans partying at a drinking club. In true Superman fashion, he admonishes them to become something better than they have been. He asks them to join the Justice League and to be heroes. He wants them to do this freely, but with the understanding that you can only be a hero by possessing certain virtues and by doing the things that heroes do. Many of the young metahumans are impressed by what he says and join up, but many of them do not. They don’t want someone telling them what it means to be a hero. They want to do things their own way. So they continue to act just as they have before, causing violence and destruction.
So by the middle of Kingdom Come, a bewildered Superman wonders why he has to keep fighting harder and harder, why he has to consult the tyrant of Apokolips for advice about dealing with the rebels, and why he has to create a gulag. What he learns is that there is no democratic way to govern people who won’t govern themselves.
What’s most frightening about all this is that this is Superman––the Big Blue Boy Scout, the Man of Tomorrow. If even he can’t handle the metahuman crisis without becoming a despot, how can we hope to solve our own problems without becoming illiberal and undemocratic? What does it look like when real people must govern those who don’t put “moral chains” upon themselves? History has a list of examples, and it’s a long and depressing one.
So my hope is that as a nation we can recover the ideas of thinkers like Edmund Burke, and more importantly, recover the practice of virtue. Americans are fond of saying that “freedom isn’t free.” In the interest of clarity and precision, I prefer to say that liberty doesn’t come without cost. We pay for it by our ability to develop and maintain certain virtues––courage, perseverance, temperance, tolerance, civility, and others––that make it possible for us to remain free.
Armond Boudreaux is a writer and assistant professor of English who lives in Georgia. He is the author of Titans: How Superheroes Can Help Us Make Sense of a Polarized World, as well as the novels That He May Raise and Animus: Little Gods. He writes about superheroes, politics, and philosophy at http://www.aclashofheroes.wordpress.com. You can read more about him at http://www.armondboudreaux.com.