Tom King is impossible to miss right now. His books have won multiple Eisner awards, he’s appearing on late night TV, and if he’s putting out a new book, it’s sure to be on virtually every “must read” list before the ink is dry. Even his backstory is everywhere:
Originally a CIA operative in the Counter Terrorism Center, King left the agency after the birth of his son, stating “the type of career I wanted at the agency did not fit with the type of father I wanted to be.” He returned home to pursue writing, eventually working at the same places he’d interned for while in college — DC and Marvel.
That reads like something straight out of a Golden Age book. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to imagine King in his stories which feel filled with concepts like secrecy, family, and internal strife. These themes appear again and again in his stories, so much so his separate books each combine in a way to form a “macro-narrative” where the setting, characters, and genre change yet the story stays the same.
This gives his stories a haunting quality at times, giving his characters weightier backstories that press uncomfortably on their present. This bestows an extra amount of humanity to his characters as their struggles feel as inescapable as our own. To highlight this is going to require a deep dive into the forces of his shared universe.
The Trilogy of Best Intentions
The Trilogy of Healing Trials
- Mister Miracle
- Heroes in Crisis
- Batman (Editor’s note: Due to its length, complexity, and on-going status, we will be saving Tom King’s run on Batman for a dedicated article elsewhere. If you want to catch-up with what he’s doing on the title, check out the reading order here)
Each of King’s books could be seen as both a reference to his own time in Iraq and as a commentary on the perpetual state of comic book universes. Each book isn’t set merely in the aftermath of the most recent “event” book, but instead each feels like a tiny blip set against one overwhelming and unstoppable conflict.
Sheriff of Babylon’s opening splash (above) encapsulates the whole history of the place. The American Humvees and the burning city of Baghdad set against Saddam’s royal gates, a testament to another war. All with a quote from the Book of Revelations, written close to some 2000 years before, describing another war either long gone or yet to come. And of course, blood on the ground, as it ever was and will be, forming a pool that will set the events of this book into motion and yet it’s almost insignificant against the sheer scale of the rest of the scene. This is the backdrop that main character Chris Henry, an American cop in post invasion Iraq, finds himself in as he — and his country — try to come to grips with Iraq’s long history of war.
- Omega Men’s Kyle Rayner is a White Lantern, a single space cop sent to bring peace to an intractable civil war on the far end of the universe.
- Vision is an Android built for murder who chose instead to fight tirelessly as an Avenger in their unending war for peace.
- Mister Miracle (Scott Free) is the God of Escapism, born in heaven, raised in hell, and stuck in the eternal conflict between Good, Evil… and himself.
- Harley Quinn, Booster Gold, and Wally West are part of an endless cycle of violence in Heroes in Crisis.
The Warrior and the Wound
The core conflict of every Tom King book is “protagonist vs. self.” Sure, there are mysteries and intrigue. There are gunfights and space battles. When these appear they are always fun, but they seem somehow incidental.
Instead, the primary conflict of the book comes from inside the protagonists themselves. It’s hidden from reader and character at first, but the wound’s presence can be felt like gravity, an inexorable pull coming from deep in each character’s past, from the unseen light they lead before the book began. Each character carries with them a trauma or shame which only fully reveals itself through time.
Vision cannot come to grips with his own creation or his life as a superhero. Worst, however, is the tremendous guilt over his failed marriage to the Scarlet Witch (above, left). Maybe it’s his fear of hurting her, or failing his first family, or simply his inability to accept perfection that causes him to literally create a second family. A second family that will fall apart like the first.
- Rayner struggles with being the least popular Green Lantern from his space sector. There is an unmistakable sense of awareness on the part of the character throughout the book.
- Henry joins up in a war he doesn’t understand, in a land he doesn’t know, to train people he cannot reach. And when someone under his charge is killed, he fears he truly is the failure he already felt himself to be.
- Free tries to escape his memories, his family, his very life. And yet again and again, he mentions his torturous upbringing as evidence of some kind of strength or worthiness to his task, imposing value on his trauma as a way of “dealing” with it.
- Harley and Booster each feel unsure of their role in life. Harley and Wally feel responsible for the loss of their loved ones.
The first issue of Mister Miracle asks the biggest question in this huge splash: has the escape artist escaped anything at all? Here we see the character as we’ve never seen him before. Broken, defeated, dying on a bathroom floor. It is so totally different from his psychedelic Fourth World persona, and yet fits so perfectly with his history that the scene feels both discordant and perfect, all at once. Like any good escape, it’s distressing but somehow not alarming.
King’s macro-narrative exists entirely through the lens of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the way it abstracts time itself for the sufferer. Each of King’s characters feel trapped not only by circumstance, but in time. Their pasts are too painful to address, and yet emotion and memory constantly interrupt their trains of thought. This symptom is called “intrusive thoughts” and it is a key sign of trauma, the brain trying to solve an incomplete puzzle by forever rearranging the pieces. (This can be seen in each book, and when viewing all of them together.)
Without access to their pasts, and with the ‘endless conflict” of their surroundings, King’s protagonists become unable to conceive of a future. They can’t truly plan and become purely reactionary.
In other words, they exist (or struggle to exist) in a state of hyper-now. An endless present that stretches to infinity and can be dealt with in the smallest increments of time. This, too, is a notable indicator of PTSD. A common therapy is to give sufferers a notebook and have them notate their day to day lives in simple terms with the hopes that doing so helps ground them in their own lives. You build a life out of the hours that you’ve slept, the food that you’ve eaten, whether you went outside, if you talked to anyone. A check mark for medication. A smiling face for going to therapy that day. You work up to buying food and doing laundry, each one seeming as far away as learning a new language. You break each day into its base components, then you try to try to do it ahead of time.
King captures this state of hyper-now by working in incredibly small scale. In Sheriff of Babylon, Omega Men, Vision, and Mister Miracle, he works in a period of only a few days and focuses on a tremendously small number of characters. The effect is each character is given time to breathe and even small interactions fill the page with nuance, meaning, and struggle. His characters work so hard to get through this instant. These moments amount to such beautiful tragedy.
One of my favorite examples of this comes from Sheriff of Babylon. Chris Henry is in the middle of a war zone, surrounded on all sides by danger, and driven against all odds to seek retribution. Every aspect of this keeps the story rushing forward. And yet the book steals a moment out of this maelstrom to allow Henry to get drunk with the wife of his new “partner.” This stolen moment sets them outside of time metaphorically and sets up an exchange in which they talk about stolen Iraqi antiquities and how worthless history can feel during a war. Under King’s touch this moment opens up, revealing the truth of the characters in a way that is both charming and tragic.
Christopher talks about trying to do the right thing when no one can decide what that is. He says how “someone will find” this priceless treasure, which they left here in the garbage as they looted the paintings and bathroom fixtures. Fatima, his partner’s wife, throws the artifact away saying that there is no real place for it in Iraq today. And both walk away, having given up themselves but hopeful that someone stronger and smarter will be able to find where they left off.
Earlier, I mentioned the character’s “wound.” This concept comes primarily from Jung, who said that people suffer an early trauma and we all (to greater or lesser degrees) try to “treat” that wound through avoidance, denial, or the accumulation of money, power, sex, etc. But these things only serve to damage us further.
This shame mixes with another aspect of PTSD: rules. It’s not uncommon for sufferers to become “hyper-functioning” to try to force an impossible level of order on a world they see as chaotic and dangerous. In this way, power becomes pain avoidance; If I become strong enough, accumulate enough power, then I can make the world stop hurting me.
You can see that in Kyle Rayner’s dead eyes as he traces the Lantern symbol (right). Rayner entered into this story trying to overcome his wounded pride by becoming the ultimate Lantern, thus “proving” himself. He believed he would not only solve this civil war, but he would do it “by the book.” In committing to this, not only does he ignore his true reason for joining this conflict (redemption), he completely disregards the fact that a civil war is not the kind of conflict to be solved by a “space cop.” He cannot conceive of a realistic outcome, and suffers torture and agony as he clings to impossible Lantern ideals.
In this page, we see him trying to hold onto his identity to the point he’s drawing with his own blood in what feels like a complete psychotic break. Look at his blank expression as he touches the wound at his throat and roboticly repeats his Lantern’s oath like a prayer; it’s a haunting testament to the damage of insisting on a single world view, even in the face of such brutal contradiction. This is not heroism so much as self-sacrifice at the feet of those in power.
- Henry tries to overcome his feelings of guilt and powerlessness by responding with what makes him feel strong: Being an American cop. Unfortunately, that power doesn’t overlay well in Iraq. He’s an outsider, his tools are not easily applied to this country, he has little jurisdiction, and can barely speak the language. Worst of all, he has no idea who to trust. All of this leads to a mix of awkwardness and despair that’s palpable.
- Vision’s new family falls apart in an echo of his first. His wife goes mad, his children are “killed.” And as terrible as this is, it’s not the true tragedy. All of this happens because Vision never accepted his role in the failure of his first marriage (to Scarlet Witch). Even when the Avengers, his friends, try to tell him he’s on the wrong path, he resists them violently rather than accept the truth and give credence to his obvious fears.
- Mister Miracle escapes. He’s mentally run from his torture on Apokolips. He’s run away from his father who abandoned him there. He’s run from his “brother,” And now he can’t stop running as he tries to escape being “Mister Miracle” or “Scott Free.” When his father dies, he runs away rather than address their history. When his relationship with Orion becomes toxic, he runs from the truth for as long as he can. Most tragic of all, when his relationship with his wife, Big Barda, blossoms with the birth of a child, his need to escape reaches a fever pitch. He wants the happiness of a family and peace, but he seemingly cannot imagine his life including them. He runs towards physical pain and tries to flee emotional pain. He’ll fight for family, but he seems terrified of peace.
- Harley tries her best to make a sane, stable life with Poison Ivy. But when Ivy is killed while getting therapy that Harley suggested, the guilt and rage push Harley to falling back into type. Hard. She actively tries to let go of her sanity, lashing out in violent acts that feel performative as she constantly tells us that she’s a “villain.” Booster, who went in for help with his own trauma and his constant feelings of inadequacy, reacts to this event by overcompensating as the “hero,” throwing himself in way out of his league and derailing his previous search for help. Wally, who lost his family in a previous event, falls to pieces. Whereas Booster clung to being a hero and Harley reverted to being a villain, Wally — facing one more unimaginable loss in a life already filled with so many — seemingly gave in to his trauma and gave up any previous morals or identity.
In Tom King’s books, success isn’t a “condition” so much as a “compromise,” and usually a difficult one. But this is to be expected; one cannot defeat one’s self. We can either remain ourselves but remain a part of the endless conflict, or we can look for peace but change ourselves.
The “lesson” of each book feels like something between therapy and Buddhism, offering to the reader that maybe the answer is unconditional acceptance. Which is not to say each character embraces this. In fact, most struggle to fully break free from the patterns of their lives, and we’re left to measure them between the willingness of their failures and the bravery of even the smallest change.
The possible lesson for readers is that sometimes problems don’t get fixed by overt action. Sometimes, just sometimes, there’s no bad guy to punch or blast, and our search for one is in vain. That we — like King’s characters — have been looking externally for a fight when what they needed was to turn inward to become strong enough to face what’s outward.
Final Thoughts and Criticism
When King’s writing works, it feels amazing. His characters feel grounded in a world that interacts with them as much as they do with it. Stories feel deep, with problems that impact the reader but still leave us hopeful for resolution. When this works, his heroes feel changed. Braver, somehow, or at least noble for their efforts. His books are filled with private moments and it infuses his characters with a confessional quality, vulnerable and unguarded. When it all comes together, his books can feel absolutely intoxicating.
King’s work is excellent. But the problem with “excellent” work is that it is fragile. It exists by narrow degrees and even the slightest change can break the spell. Great racers lose by hundredths of a second, great boxers by a single punch, even the environment is measured in parts per million.
And when King’s work doesn’t meet his excellent expectations, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly why.
Which brings us to Part 2 of this analysis: Heroes in Crisis which has been met with uncharacteristically bad reviews. And it’s painful to see why, but it’s a great illustration on this idea of a “parts per million” difference that can have enormous consequences.