I heartily recommend Elliot S. Maggin's novel Kingdom Come.
I enjoy fiction. I read many short stories without knowing anything about what I'm getting into because they represent relatively little time lost. But before investing the time to read an entire novel I generally know enough about an author's reputation, or a novel's commendations, to be fairly certain that it won't be a waste of my time. Maggin is not a major novelist; he has had a very successful career as a comic book writer. Kingdom Come did not win any Hugos or Nebulas or such. It was probably not considered for such awards, simply because its superhero niche and media-tie in status.
But it has been quite some time since I have so thoroughly enjoyed a novel by an author I was not familiar with. Kingdom Come is about DC Comics superheroes: Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and many more. But this novel bursts free from the constraints of its subgenre, turns convention on its head, and masterfully and respectfully deconstructs an entire mythos. Kingdom Come may be one of the best superhero novels every written, and there have been well over fifty prose novels published in this subgenre. Moreover, Kingdom Come is excellent science fiction, and is simply a fine novel, period.
You're never going to see Kingdom Come on any reading list in an English class or mentioned by "mainstream" New York literary critics such as Walter Kirn. Author Elliot S. Maggin and his comic book subject matter come from deep within a ghettoized literary genre and medium: superheroics and the comics most often used to tell such stories. I've read thousands of comics and can attest that, from a literary perspective, most of them are garbage. But that doesn't mean they aren't thoroughly enjoyable. Most Super Bowl football games, most dinners at Spago's, most mainstream NY Times-reviewed novels, and most Jackie Chan films are, from a literary perspective, garbage as well. Normal people enjoy a wide variety of things that aren't particularly literary.
Never mind the fact that Maggin's subject matter is taboo in some circles that would rather discuss Lolita than Lex Luthor. Kingdom Come is a novel that most people should quite enjoy, and comic book fans will love it. However pretentious a person might be (and highbrow pretentiousness is out of vogue these days, in case you haven't heard), we all know who Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are. Maggin plays on our familiarity with these icons of American pop culture. Because these three main characters are familiar to television and film audiences as well as comic book readers, the novel is enjoyable by the widest possible audience. But Kingdom Come also oozes with details drawn from 50 years of DC Comics history, highlighting moderately well known characters such as the Flash, Robin, Hawkman, Aquaman, Catwoman, Captain Marvel (from Shazam!), as well as characters only comic book readers would know about: Mr. Miracle, Blue Beetle, Martian Manhunter, Black Canary, Power Woman, Donna Troy ("Wonder Girl"), Speedy, Obsidian, Jade, etc.
Familiarity with DC Comics will heighten a reader's enjoyment of this novel, but is in no way a prerequisite. Because the novel takes place some thirty years in the future, virtually all of the characters have changed considerably. Also, a new generation of colorful superpowered individuals has arisen, created uniquely for this story. Many are the sons and daughters and proteges of today's heroes.
Surprisingly, the main character in Kingdom Come is not a superhero, but a Dutch Reformed minister named Norman McCay. This is the only science fiction novel outside of L. E. Modesitt's Of Tangible Ghosts and The Ghost of the Revelator I'm aware of that mentions the Dutch Reformed. There is nothing distinctly Dutch Reformed about McCay, however. In the novel he
presides over an aging Presbyterian congregation in Metropolis; his preaching and personality are mainstream Protestant.
In Dickensian fashion Rev. McCay is spirited around by the enigmatic being known as the Spectre to be a witness to events which culminate in an important turning point in superheroic history. McCay's adopted home of Metropolis is, circa 2030 A.D., ground zero for ceaseless battles between costumed "heroes" and "villains." In this near-future DC Universe Maggin has projected the eventual outcome of certain contemporary comic book trends. The diminishing boundaries between the good guys and bad guys seen today have, by Rev. McCay's time completely eroded. The old guard of clearly noble superheroes such as Superman, Aquaman, and the Green Lantern have retired or retreated from a world which seems to no longer their brand of heroism. The new generation is brash, more violent, and willing to kill their opponents. But nobody really knows who is on which side any more, and their destructive "rumbles" are apparently little more than gang warfare, over turf or sparked by trivial affronts to personal honor.
Superman withdrew from serving as the protector of Metropolis, and the world, when he came to believe that the values he had long championed had been rejected by those he had sought to protect. Ironically, Superman comes to be blamed for allowing things to get worse by his absence. Then, when a freak accident sparked by Magog in a supercharged battle destroys most of Kansas, Wonder Woman convinces Superman to return to activity. Superman leaves his isolated Antarctic retreat and, along with Wonder Woman, reforms the Justice League and begins recruiting all superpowered types who will stand with him to his cause. He visits the United Nations and declares the metahumans under him to be an independent state, and he begins to round up and imprison all superpowered people who will not agree to halt their troublemaking ways. Needless to say, the Justice League is not unopposed in their new unilateral measues.
McCay is not simply an incidental narrator, but a fully developed character in his own right. With an aging minister in the driver's seat, Kingdom Come explores faith and doubt, good and evil, religion, ethics, etc. with a mature, balanced approach extremely rare in contemporary fiction. Rev. McCay faces considerable crises of faith as he bears witness to the adventures of heroes and gods, but he also encounters much that bolsters his beliefs. Maggin is never apologetic, but is always thoughtful about this subject matter. No particular viewpoint seems favored and this novel should please religious and non-religious readers alike. In its penetrating yet respectful approach to religion Kingdom Come seems most like the works of Andrew Greeley and Orson Scott Card, both of whom Maggin mentions in the Acknowledgments section. Some of the specific philosophical views mentioned within the novel are clearly drawn from Card and Greeley.
One interesting passage has Rev. McCay wondering if his lifelong Christian beliefs are in question when he encounters the actual Zeus, from Greco-Roman mythology. It is Zeus himself who chides McCay and humans in general for being so linear that they suppose their old beliefs must be wrong just because they encounter something new. Despite the presence of pagan gods this is a very Christian novel and could easily be grouped with works by C. S. Lewis, L'Engle, Greeley, Chesterton, Card, Tyers, and Henderson.
I read Maggin's Kingdom Come immediately after reading the trade paperback which collected the six separate comic books by Mark Waid which comprised the Kingdom Come storyline. With about two hundred pages of comic book material, that version took much less time to read. It was much less satisfying. If you are inclined to read only one version of Kingdom Come, I suggest the novel version over the comic book version, if you have time. The comic version is a very strong offering as comics go, but it is not nearly as good. For one thing, it has less time to stretch and explore the may interesting themes that abound in the novel. Also, after a fine build-up, the last chapter is a let down, and basically reverts to a cliched ending involving throwing more superheroic force against the nigh unstoppable villain.
But overall, both the comic book and novel versions of Kingdom Come among the best examples within their respective subniches, and will likely be classics. The thing to be aware of is that the two different versions of Kingdom Come have extremely different plots. In adapting Mark Waid's comic book story, Maggin has utilized many of the plot points, as well as most of the major characters (new and old), but spun from these elements an entirely original novel. The good thing is that even having read the comic version, I was constantly surprised and impressed while reading Maggin's novel. The down side is that Maggin's rewrite is so good that aspects of Waid's comics seem weak by comparison. (Like I said, read the novel if you have to choose only one.)
It took some time before I realized how different the two versions were, which initially made for an odd experience. I kept expecting Rev. McCay to be transformed into the powerful villain Gog, which is what the minister character in Waid's comics did. This never happened: in the novel, Magog (with name slightly changed but appearance the same) is a completely different character from the minister. In fact, in the novel Magog's role is still pivotal, but altered, and focused on much less.
One refreshing element of the novel, in fact, is that there is no overarching villain. Like a good Asimov "Foundation" novel, the central excitement in Kingdom Come stems more from the clash of ideas rather than physical confrontations (although there this novel has plenty of that as well!) There are villains -- Lex Luthor, Magog, Vandal Savage, and many others -- but the central conflicts are between the heroes who are the best of friends, but whose approach to similar noble goals differ in seemingly small but crucial ways. There are many examples of such point and counterpoint, but the battle of philosophies and wills between Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman are central. This trio of heroes was at the center of the comic version as well, but there they were not at odds with each other, and were thus much less interesting.
If you only read one comic-book based novel ever, make it Maggin's Kingdom Come. If you enjoy good novels and have ever been a comic book reader, you will love this book. Kingdom Come is more than simply an extremely well written, page-turning science fiction adventure. It is a tour de force journey through modern myth, spirituality, ethics, and the whole human condition.