Author’s Note: I didn’t mean for both of my first two comic book pieces to cover the work of Tom King, but here we are I suppose…
Event comics are tricky things. In one regard, they’re the primordial soup of the modern superhero film. For instance, while most of Avengers: Endgame was an original story, it drew heavily from Kurt Busiek’s 1998 Avengers Forever. On the other hand, in a medium as played out and prone to repetition as the modern superhero comic, how do you keep the audience engaged? For that matter, what’s left to say?
For those not in the know, an “event comic,” is any limited run story that stars multiple characters from the same universe and is heavily marketed by the publisher. Event comics are like summer blockbusters. Usually, they’re more focused on action and grand spectacle than they are on character writing. To give an example, at the time of writing, Marvel is publishing Jason Aaron’s epic War of the Realms, a story where Earth is invaded by the forces of Norse Mythology. In the first issue, trolls and frost giants trample through New York while the Avengers fight in the streets. As you might imagine, there’s not a lot of room for subtlety or nuance in the format. But every now and again, you get a different kind of event. Some brave writer/artist team sit down and say “hey, let’s try something new.” And when that happens, or rather when they’re successful, you get something like Heroes in Crisis.
When it was announced that Tom King and Clay Mann, the pair behind DC’s ongoing (and largely successful) Batman: Rebirth series would be writing DC Comic’s next big event people were excited. The book was promoted heavily at SDCC, the hottest ticket in nerd culture. But as details began to emerge, folks began to wince and cross their legs, so to speak. The story would be a murder mystery set in and around a new locale in the DC universe. The site: Sanctuary, a hidden retreat for superheroes. The crime: a mass shooting. From the start, the concept was transgressive. It evoked some of the most tragic and unnerving imagery of the modern news cycle. Then there was the title. The word Crisis carries a lot of weight at DC Comics, going back to Marv Wolfman’s seminal Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985. There have been three “major” crisis stories in DC Comics (On Infinite Earths, Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis) and one “minor” one, Identity Crisis. To put that word in the title of a book is a big deal, but this time it would be different. In every other story, the “crisis” is external one. It’s something that the superheroes can fight, usually an invasion. It’s a punch-able crisis, something superheroes were built to handle. The exception to this rule was Identity Crisis, but the identity in question didn’t belong to a hero, and that story is mired in its own issues This time, the crisis would be internal, something the heroes themselves would be fighting.
So with all this build I’m pleased to say that Heroes in Crisis is a great comic. Is it as good as the last King-written comic I talked about? Well no, but frankly few things are. But it’s a damned good story and what’s more, it feels like the sort that needed to be told. The basic premise revolves around the aforementioned Sanctuary, a retreat for superheroes dealing with personal issues. The comic makes a big deal out of Sanctuary being a product of “The Big Three,” – Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. It’s located somewhere in Kansas, and staffed by robots that are modeled off of the people Superman grew up with. The technology was designed and paid for by Batman. Most importantly, the facility was run to the specifications of Wonder Woman, the trinity’s most compassionate and empathetic member. The book also makes a big deal of the program’s anonymity, every patient wears white robes and identical gold masks to protect their privacy.
Within the first issue, the peaceful quiet of Sanctuary is shattered by what at first appears to be a mass shooting. There are two main suspects: reformed villainess Harley Quinn and C-Tier superhero Booster Gold, both of whom become protagonists of the ensuing story as they go on the run and try to solve the mystery. That said, I don’t want to turn this into a review of the story. If it were a review though, I’d talk about how Tom King effortlessly writes dialogue for life long friends like Booster Gold and best buddy Blue Beetle. I might go on to discuss how despite being a very personal and human story, this is a narrative that could only take place within a superhero setting. I could talk about how Clay Mann continues to astound me with his artwork. His style feels like a more casual Alex Ross. As always I’m bad at visual analysis but trust me, I intend for that to be high praise. I’d even probably compliment that point by acknowledging that Mitch Gerard filled in for Mann on one issue and it was, as ever, great to see King and Gerard work together. Still, I’d rather sidestep that praise for the moment. Because I’d rather discuss a handful of nine panel pages, and some of the strongest themes in a superhero comic this year.
In my review of Mister Miracle I touched upon King’s rigid, formalist use of the 9-panel grid in his storytelling. For a brief refresher, the 9-Panel grid is a method of graphic storytelling that uses nine equally sized panels to convey the story. In action scenes, the layout works because the very act of moving one’s eye from one panel to the next conveys motion. In a dialogue scene, it can be much like the shot reverse shot setup in a movie. No less than Alan Moore has called the format cinematic and it’s easy to see why. In Mister Miracle, King used the format almost exclusively, with the exception of several full page splashes for dramatic effect. Heroes in Crisis has a much more expressive and varied layout. It bears a lot of similarities to his work on Batman. If Mister Miracle, or King’s previous books like Vision and Sheriff of Babylon gave indication that he may be a very static storyteller, then Heroes in Crisis puts that to bed. But the 9-Panel Grid does return in Heroes for a very particular purpose: Confessionals.
Scattered throughout the narrative of Heroes in Crisis, are 9 Panel pages depicting a heroes simply talking to the “camera” in a room. These are by far my favorite part of the story. They run the gamut from deeply tragic to surprisingly funny. Some heroes talk about a specific problem. Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, discusses the trauma and recovery of the infamous gunshot wound that paralyzed her, inflicted in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. A few subjects are eloquent, even quoting famous poems or literary works. Others are more meandering, or hesitant. Characters stutter and stop as they try and explain some indescribable…something that brought them to Sanctuary in search of peace. A handful claim to have no issues or to be fine, but then if that were the case why would they be at Sanctuary? Some are downcast, others are upbeat. A few mark how long they’ve been at Sanctuary as if it’s all simply a matter of time. All of these confessions share a commonality: They’re talking about their problems. Some characters get one panel, others get entire pages but it’s always the same. A confession.
At first, the book makes a point of using minor characters. King actually manages to pull out several impressively obscure superheros. My personal favorite cameo is Protector. Protector is a literal one note character. He was created for a Teen Titans anti-drug PSA comic in the late 80s during the team’s peak. Marv Wolfman and George Perez were assigned to write the comic but there was the catch. While the Public Service Announcement could use the popular teenage superhero group, they couldn’t use the team’s leader and Batman’s sidekick, Robin. See, Robin was licensed for Nabisco ad campaigns and the drug PSA was being sponsored by Keebler. As such, Perez created Protector, a largely generic vigilante who was Robin in all but name and costume. This purple hued doppleganger could easily slip into Robin’s role in Wolfman’s script. It was an easy solution at the time. In Heroes in Crisis, Protector gets an entire page (the most he’s had in a DC Comic in years) to lament that “don’t do drugs” was his only gimmick. Then he admits he “took a lot of drugs.” Protector goes on to pontificate that, of course, he understood the irony of it at the time. The scene is both darkly hilarious and morbidly tragic. What’s more, one has to ask, who would’ve possibly remembered Protector of all people in the year 2019? Even the most hardcore comic book fan might not recognize him. He was a solution to an advertising contract problem. At the risk of being crass, Protector wasn’t art for arts’ sake. In fact, at first it feels like putting him into this book is a cruel gesture, especially since he’s among the dead in Sanctuary. But I think there’s more to it then that.
The final issue, sees King playing his cards in this regard. Throughout the series we’ve seen the confessions of mostly minor characters: jokes, sidekicks and antiheroes. But as the story progresses, usually in service to the story, we see more recognizable names sitting down in front of the camera. In the final issue, almost every character that appears to give a confessional has been part of a major comic book. All five of the canonical Robins make an appearance. Most of the Green Lanterns, Catwoman, Red Tornado, Black Lightning, Cyborg and no less than Aquaman all show up in that 9th issue to say something. Even the Specter, the most powerful being in the DC universe, the literal Angel of Death is there to say his piece. The implication is clear: everyone has something they’re dealing with. Everyone is working through something. As the Martian Manhunter says in his confession, “underneath, everyone’s screaming.” From the most famous heroes who’ve been played by flesh and blood actors to the one note jokes, everyone’s pain is valid and everyone’s story is worth sharing. In this regard, King’s diligent decision to comb through the history of DC and insert these characters into the story is almost charitable. Which leads me to discuss what I believe is the central theme of the entire story.
I don’t mean to get all…English Teacher-y and I certainly don’t wish to spoil what is a murder mystery but in a very real sense, the closest thing to a “villain” in Heroes in Crisis is miscommunication. That’s not to say there’s a villain who exploits gaps in communication or that a character manipulates others through skewed perception a la Shakespeare’s Iago. It’s one of the reason I enjoyed this book. Despite being sold as a major event in the DC Universe, there is no villain, only a simple lack of talking. It takes many forms throughout the story. The aforementioned confessionals are leaked to Lois Lane who publishes the existence of Sanctuary out of journalistic integrity. The result is a public backlash because the people feel that Superman, and the Justice League have lied to them by omission. In the very first scene of the book, the two protagonists immediately get into a fight. Booster Gold, one of the combatants even seems to poke fun at the concept. When a wary bystanders asks “is there going to be a fight?” His answer is curt and weary, it’s almost predestined. “Yeah,” he says, “there’s going to be a fight.” Because this is an event comic, there was always going to be a fight.
Even the anonymity of Sanctuary is arguably in the same sphere. When DC first debuted the anonymous outfit I thought it looked sinister. It was something I’d expect to see on a cultist in a cheap B-movie, but maybe that was the point. Anonymity is its own stigma. In the real world, there’s a stigma around discussing our inner demons. I’ll admit that I’ve had trouble writing about it in this very piece. Not because of personal experience or lack thereof, but because even in a largely informal format like this, it’s hard to find the words. To an extent, this difficulty itself is exploited against us. King did not chose to model his initial crisis on a mass shooting idly. How many times have mass shootings been explained with the shake of a head and the use of adjectives like “disturbed,” or “crazy?” Yet when the subject turns to mental health, the conversation is again stonewalled. Suddenly, mental abnormalities are an excuse, an alibi. This silence, this isolation can be used as a weapon and has been. Heroes in Crisis offers a simple alternative. It’s a book where the simple act of talking is the most powerful thing a hero can do.
There will be more event comics this year. As I mentioned earlier, I’m greatly enjoying Jason Aaron’s War of the Realms over at Marvel. In addition to Heroes in Crisis, DC is still publishing Doomsday Clock, a crossover with the characters of Alan Moore’s seminal classic, Watchmen. The company is also gearing up for something called The Year of the Villain, which sounds, frankly exhausting. There are no doubt even more that I’m forgetting. Some of these will be good or even great, others not so much. But I think Heroes in Crisis manages to separate itself from the pack, not just through its unique premise but because of what it has to say, about the medium and our own world. The final issue of Heroes in Crisis ends on a surprisingly optimistic note for what has been a very downbeat story. It’s a hopeful ending, but it suggests hope isn’t about looking forward to the future. It’s about understanding the burden you’re already carrying and knowing you can carry more. Knowing that you’re still here. I liked this sentiment quite a lot. I’m still here, and if you’re reading this then so are you. Keep going and don’t be afraid to start talking. Thank you very much for reading.