The first thing we must address regarding Heroes in Crisis is that it is a ruin. It’s a six issue miniseries stretched out into nine issues, and it shows. There are several points in the narrative where it’s clear that the wheels are spinning, everyone’s just waiting to get to the bit where Wally West confesses everything. I’m tempted to argue that the series would have been better suited for a more Columbo-esque structure where the reader is aware of who did it and the rest of the series is spent finding out why, rather than having that why provided over the course of an issue long monologue.
But, as with all ruins, what doesn’t work, what caused the ruin, is often the least interesting part. What’s more interesting, however, is what a ruin can show us. What we can find within the ruin that shows us what it could have been. Not that it was secretly good (though I’m quite aware that some are invested in that project), but rather what hidden depths can be found by taking what’s there seriously.
[Content/Trigger Warning: Suicide, Depression — Help is available at the National Suicide Hotline: 800-273-8255 ]
Let us begin, then, with an absence. In the final issue, we are presented with a variety of confessions from the superhero community. Brief looks at what the heroes have and don’t have to talk about. Not the whole picture, but a snippet of one. Within these fragments, there are moments featuring every single Green Lantern but two: Simon Baz and John Stewart. While their absence is no-doubt due to the amount of space Tom King and Clay Mann had in their five nine panel girds, the absence of John Stewart is intriguing for one simple fact: He was the star of a story very much like Wally West’s.
In the Jim Starlin/Mike Mignola miniseries Cosmic Odyssey
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, a small selection of superheroes must team up with various New Gods (including those aligned with New Genesis and Apokolips) in order to prevent the sentient Anti-Life Equation from destroying all of reality. Among the tasks to prevent this from happening is ensuring that a set of planets do not blow up. Among the heroes is John Stewart, who is tasked with defending the planet Xanshi alongside J’onn J’onzz.
They fail, miserably, and it’s all John Stewart’s fault.
John Stewart repeatedly acted with the hubris of believing that his ring could do anything, bringing about the death of an entire world of people. And, in the wake of this, John Stewart tried to kill himself. He put a gun to his head and tried to pull the trigger. J’onn talked him out of it by… telling him to just shoot himself because he’s too weak to be a superhero. Too weak to do the right thing. Too weak to live with himself for the mass genocide he’s brought about.
To say that this is a terrible methodology to help someone who wants to kill themselves would be saying the obvious. But, since this is comics, it does. Moreover, the larger universe aligns with this worldview. Consider one of the Green Lanterns who does appear in the final issue of Heroes in Crisis: Hal Jordan. After the events of Cosmic Odyssey, Hal Jordan would experience a psychotic break that would lead him to kill the entire Green Lantern Corps (or, at least the alien members) and also rewrite reality. This would culminate in a chance for redemption where Hal sacrifices his life in the name of saving the universe. In essence, where John Stewart rejected suicide, Hal embraced it.
We don’t often think of the term “self-sacrifice” as an act of suicide. Certainly Albert Camus does in his book length essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. But the general cultural view of self-sacrifice is the peak of heroic action. The moment where everything is reliant upon the death of one individual in the name of the greater good. We valorize these people in fiction all the time, and yet we do not call these actions suicide, even though it is what they are.
It’s perhaps a good idea to actually look at what J’onn says to John to convince him not to kill himself. Specifically, “We also have to be able to live with the consequences of our actions and to learn from our mistakes.” Now, keep in mind, this is in response to John causing a planet to explode. An entire people to die out horribly and pointlessly. And these are the terms by which J’onn is talking to John.
As such, it’s worth noting that Hal Jordan was absolved of his responsibility. It turns out that Hal Jordan didn’t kill all those Green Lanterns (who weren’t dead in the first place). It was an evil space bug named Parallax that’s more powerful than the will of God hirself! But not more powerful than Hal Jordan, who handily defeated the evil space bug and returned to his life of being the best damn Green Lantern who ever existed. And in the wake of overcoming this evil force that corrupted him and made him a villainous force, Hal was returned to his status as The Green Lantern, returning things to the way they always should have been. (Tellingly, when Parallax possessed Hal’s replacement, Kyle Rayner, Hal had to save him.)
By contrast, John Stewart is constantly reminded time and time again about his failure. Every arc he has had since Cosmic Odyssey has focused on how much guilt he feels for unintentionally leading a planet to death. And when they’re not focusing on that, the comics talk about how sad he feels about his dead wife or his militarism. Rarely do they focus on the core appeal of John Stewart: he’s an activist and an architect. He’s a man of the people who wants the world to be a better place. Who will butt heads with Hal Jordan because he’s acting as an extension of the powers that be. Someone who will do the hard work to make the world a better place. But no. It all comes back to Xanshi.
Sometimes, I wonder why John Stewart still has Xanshi as part of his history. Why it hasn’t been taken off the board the way that Hal Jordan’s murder spree has been. Why hasn’t John Stewart gotten his own Parallax or whatever? And I know what fans are going to say. They’re going to say “Hal’s was an intentional act of violence whereas John’s wasn’t. He didn’t mean to kill an entire planet. It was an accident.”
To which I reply, “Same with Wally. Why did he get a Parallax?”
At the end of Heroes in Crisis, it’s revealed that Wally West had a nervous breakdown that caused his powers to overcharge and kill a number of superheroes at the psychiatric hospital for superheroes known as Sanctuary. In response, Wally spent five days leaking the information he discovered about the hospital to Lois Lane in the hopes that the specific reasons he had the nervous breakdown (due to the anonymity of Sanctuary, he believed that everyone was placating him about his psychological issues and he was the only one going through this, which, relatable) wouldn’t happen again. He believed that his suicide would make the world a better place.
In the wake of these events, various writers have written stories that, in one way or another, negate the events of Heroes in Crisis. While not bringing any of the dead heroes back to life (because really, who cares about Lagoon Boy or Gunfire), the Flash runs by Josh Williamson and Jeremy Adams actively took away Wally’s responsibility for his actions, be it by claiming it was all the machinations of Savitar or some nebulous speed force thing. By the end, everything Wally did ended up not being his own damn fault. Even his reaction to the events was all because of Professor Zoom doing a convoluted scheme to make Barry Allen slip on a banana or something. So Wally can return to being the One True Wally West we all know and love and no one ever has to consider Heroes in Crisis ever again.
Of course, this begs the question: Why am I talking about all of this? What do these heroes doing problematic things and having their responsibility removed have to do with anything? Well, simply put, there is a hero that likewise got all his complicity in a mass death removed. A moment that is revisited within the pages of Heroes in Crisis: Barry Allen. In the comic DC Universe: Rebirth, Wally West is returned to the proper DC Universe after five years of being off the books (and a non-white counterpart being introduced). In this comic, Wally West explicitly tells Barry that the Flashpoint event that wiped away the old DC Universe was not his fault. It was, unbeknownst to either of them, caused by Dr. Manhattan.
However, within the pages of Heroes in Crisis, Dr. Manhattan and his big blue schlong are never once referred to as causing the events of Flashpoint. In fact, it is quite explicit in who is responsible, as it time and time again refers to the event as “Barry’s Flashpoint.” Throughout the comic, emphasis is placed upon the characters being responsible for their actions. For what they have done. And, as such, the decision to credit Barry with the Flashpoint feels marked.
When reading this book, it’s hard not to see it within the context of the modern superhero comics landscape in general and in conversation with the works of Geoff Johns in particular. Certainly, the final couple of issues gesturing around the complexities of being the representative of hope while everyone you ever loved is either dead, doesn’t exist, or doesn’t remember you feels like it could be commenting on Wally’s current state of affairs, how he was basically tossed aside in the whole “Watchmen in the DC Universe” thing. Literally only being brought back to play on many a 90s kid’s nostalgia and absolve Barry of any wrongdoing.
However, there’s more going on here than just that. King likewise marks the death and return of Barry Allen as key moments in Wally’s personal issues. His death mortified the young speedster and his return led to the collapse of his personal life. The story of Wally’s nervous breakdown is not simply caused by one person, one villain who can be punched, but rather by a set of interdependent and largely unrelated forces that culminate over years of unchecked trauma. It’s all just another brick in the wall.
But the more important thing with regards to Heroes in Crisis’ interests is what Wally does in the wake of all these deaths. As his anxiety about Sanctuary being built for him specifically builds, one of the questions he asks himself is about the anonymous nature of the facility. There are certainly sensible answers to this question regarding a desire for privacy, but the very existence of such a place? The fact that, up until this comic, the idea of a mental health facility for superheroes had never been broached in a sensible and meaningful way within the main DC Universe (i.e. more than one therapist in one well liked, if oft forgotten run who isn’t a supervillain)? Surely someone would have talked about this, right?
Further contextualizing these feelings Wally is having is the other hero from the pre-New 52 who is brought back for Rebirth: Superman. Unlike Wally, Clark comes into the Rebirth era with his wife and son in tow. Wally comes in without anyone, his wife doesn’t remember him and his kids essentially do not exist. In the one interaction the pair share prior to Heroes in Crisis, Clark essentially tells Wally a bunch of vague platitudes about how unfair life can be. He does not provide any support, any musings about how they are both strangers in a strange world, or even how Wally basically got a raw deal while Superman is the man who has everything. Is it any wonder Wally didn’t trust Sanctuary?
So what Wally does is reveal the existence of Sanctuary. He does this so the world will understand that their heroes are not broken because they need such facilities. They’re not perfect individuals, they need help sometimes. And if people knew, then maybe they’d get help too. (This is among the many parts of Heroes in Crisis where its nature as a ruin is best highlighted. The comic feels like it needed to spend more time on this moment, as well as Lois Lane’s article about Sanctuary, to fully express the idea. It’s there in the comic, but it needed to be there more.)
This desire to help is, ultimately, the driving force of Heroes in Crisis and its core interest. Though muddied by the rest of the comic, at its heart, Heroes in Crisis is about the line where one is beyond redemption. Beyond the point of no return. At a point where the best thing you can do is kill yourself for the greater good. There are moments that poke out about this, from the presence of Harley and Ivy in Sanctuary to Batman’s line about “Our hope for… redemption… is now just another hunt for vengeance” to the ending itself.
The failure of the main superheroes is not that their hearts were in the wrong place. Rather, it’s the belief in this line between heroic and broken. A line that says that those who are broken are defined by and made lesser by their broken status. As Superman himself notes, “To be a… I guess a hero, you have to be perfect.” It’s this base assumption that, ultimately, leads Wally to have a nervous breakdown. It’s this assumption that leads to the anonymity of Sanctuary. Because to be perfect means one can never acknowledge the ways one isn’t.
And, in the end, our cast of heroes in crisis reject this conception of heroism. This idea that to be a hero, one must be perfect. One cannot react to the death of one’s parents, one’s children, one’s world by breaking. One has to become Batman. And if you break, there’s no coming back. To which Heroes in Crisis replies “So?” So what if you’re broken? So what if you’re hurting? You’re not alone. There are other people out there who are also hurting, who are also broken. Don’t kill yourself. Just try to make things as good as you can and do better next time.
And I’ve been there. I’ve been in a place where I believed the people who care about me were just placating me. Where I’ve felt like they were humoring my diseased and broken mind that doesn’t work the way normal people’s minds ought to work. (Or, god forbid, are actively using my broken mind to their advantage.) Where I’ve done something truly awful to people and just let those feelings fester rather than deal with them constructively because that would mean I’d have to acknowledge that I am capable of monstrosity and evil. Where I’ve tried to fix a bad situation and only made things worse.
And I’ve been hurt by well meaning people who thought they knew what they were doing.
But more importantly, I’ve met people with experiences very much like my own. People I feel comfortable talking about some of these experiences with. People who don’t make me feel like I’m being placated towards. Fellow neurodivergent people who have been through enough of the wrongness of mind so that it doesn’t feel like I’m alone in a sea of people. I can breathe.
Which makes the final page of Heroes in Crisis all the more disappointing. For the majority of the final third of Heroes in Crisis, it rejects various base assumptions made about broken characters. It goes on about how the heroes should band together and work to help those who need to heal from what has happened and what they have done. And it gestures in the right direction by framing the superhero community as a family (rather than specific aspects of it that aren’t the Justice League to highlight how special those aspects are). It even explicitly states the need for those new directions with Harley’s response to the old way being forced with a reckoning: “Okay. Good. &$@@ the world. It needs changing.”
But the comic ends with Wally West alone, in jail. It’s just the same old solutions we’ve done time and time again within the pages of the superhero comic: vengeance over redemption. Those who do wrong must be punished rather than rehabilitated. Again, there is limitation to the amount of space within the pages of Heroes in Crisis, but one feels the comic would have been improved with an alternative to mere imprisonment. One that aligns itself to the themes of communal support the book is largely aiming for with its talk of “Bros before Heroes.”
That isn’t to reject the consequences for Wally’s actions. Certainly the death of numerous heroes is something that’s going to have to be dealt with by more than just a slap on the wrist. But there are surely other, more restorative solutions one can offer rather than the same old punitive ones. Something that would continue to make things better for the various superheroes dealing with the trauma of being a superhero and all the other people who likewise are hurting and could seek help. (After all, if we must read Superheroes as being kin to soldiers, it should be noted that, on average, 20 veterans kill themselves a day.)
But Heroes in Crisis is, ultimately, a ruin. Rarely are answers on how to move beyond the limitations of the ruin to be found within. What we do find is lost potential, what could have beens. We can imagine a better version of Heroes in Crisis. Ones that did what it wanted to do, but better. But when dealing with what’s actually there, we have to work with what we’ve got.
And what we’ve got is something that doesn’t work. But it’s also an extremely interesting comic that doesn’t work. The implications of the book are fascinating and worth poking at with a stick. Which, ultimately, is the job of every single critic out there: to find what’s interesting and poke at it with a stick. That doesn’t mean the comics are always good, but why spend a couple thousand words talking about something if you’re not the least bit interested in it?
And what I’m interested in is the ways we can heal. Not simply wipe away what happened or what we did with some magic spell, a deal with the devil, or the devil himself. Not just tossing it all away for the sake of making things look sexy. Or even just tossing the problem children aside in the name of normality. But rather the ways in which we can be there for each other, even when things are horrible, even when we’re horrible, and help each other be better.
There’s no such thing as perfection, but we can always do better.
Benjamin Barack says
Damn good essay. “Heroes in Crisis” has a very good premise (superheroes go to therapy) and squanders it for another dumb murder-mystery. You know, because the last DC murder-mystery was so well-received? /s
I mean, why bring deep-cuts like Lagoon Boy and Gunfire and the Protector if you were just gonna kill them? Why not, I dunno… have them go through therapy? Get help?
And Sanctuary isn’t even a good therapeutic resource! It’s an AI based on the minds of the Trinity (none of whom are doctors), and instead of talking to another person, they talk to a camera.
As you talked about, Wally’s culpability has been retconned out, but, personally speaking, I’d like an explanation for everybody else’s stupidity!
For example! If they can just clone Wally’s body… Why don’t they just do that… for everyone? (Plus: When it comes to making a murder-mystery, ya can’t just introduce an out-of-nowhere plot-contrivance to answer a question at the last possible moment).
Also… While showing that everyone (even Superman) struggles with mental-health IS a noble intention… YA DON’T JUST RELEASE CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION WITHOUT PERMISSION, WALLY! What the actual Hell.