On its web site, DC describes Heroes in Crisis (2018) as a “ripped from real-world headlines” story concentrating on a single question: “How does a superhero handle PTSD?” To customers visiting comic book shops that provide free copies of DC Nation #4 (also available for free on Comixology), the series was advertised in a slightly different way: for devotees of continuity and the stakes that canonical stories offer them, the publisher has loudly promised that a major character in the DC Universe will die in late September, right in the pages of Heroes in Crisis.
To further promote the seven-issue event series, DC Nation has teamed up with a “real-life psychologist” to provide psychological profiles of the book’s main characters. We learn about Batman’s “denial of his emotional vulnerability,” the “attachment disorder” governing Superman’s approach to intimacy, and the difficulties Wonder Woman faces processing death due to her status as “a demigod.” It’s all very strange, especially when it’s followed by a section that provides odds on whether particular characters will live or die.
The first issue of Heroes in Crisis begins in a small-town diner in Gordon, Nebraska (population: 1,602), where popular antihero Harley Quinn seems ready to confront perennial supporting cast member Booster Gold. The door of the diner rings to announce the villain’s arrival. “Well now,” the waitress asks when she sees Quinn. “There going to be a fight?” “Yeah.” Booster replies. “There’s going to be a fight.” Conflict is inevitable in superhero comics, and eventually Quinn and Booster throw down. Diners are appropriate settings for things that are routine and recognizable, conventions that are acknowledged and lightly tweaked but ultimately retained. The size of the town suggests that, unlike many major event stories, Heroes in Crisis will be slightly smaller in terms of its cast. The decision to begin with a bit of small talk, repetitive and unremarkable, might hint at what resides beneath these familiar exchanges.
Booster Gold and Harley Quinn are an odd couple, chosen by DC Co-publisher Dan DiDio, according to writer Tom King, in an attempt to transform them into “pillars of this universe.” Despite her ubiquity (due to the popularity of Batman: The Animated Series and, more recently, 2016’s Suicide Squad film), Quinn’s standing as a sinner on the side of the saints has worked more as a marketing tactic than as a storytelling decision: her previous life as confidante to one of the DC Universe’s most violent and unrepentant villains has been acknowledged but uninterrogated.
Booster Gold is a character who keeps showing up after every reshuffling and reimagining of DC continuity: a former athlete from the 25th century who has traveled back in time to play hero and right perceived historical wrongs. He’s often played as a comedic figure, a hero whose misguided motivations and drive for fame call attention to the nobler pursuits of the company’s “Trinity” of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. He seems more of a man out of time in 2018 than he did in the 1980s: Gold is one of the few time traveling characters in recent years who seems to come from a bright future free of the effects of climate change and apocalyptic shenanigans. He’s not missing limbs, or branded, or suffering the effects of having watched everyone he knows and loved violently killed. He’s kind of just a boring white guy bored with his life, a fool who flees his privilege in search of some imagined authenticity gained through hardships that, he presumes, only reside in the past. He’s Elon Musk with a time machine.
Both characters are defined by pasts they can barely stand to look at in the present. “I think I’m…a bit scathed,” Quinn says in the diner, reflecting on her time with The Joker indirectly via a quote recalled from Freud. Then she stabs Booster Gold in the shoulder, apparently having gazed too far inward, preferring the comfort of present action to reflections on their origins and motivations.
There’d be something more here if the inevitability of the bodycount, the predictably-raised stakes, the convenient whodunit, weren’t all kind of getting in the way. Despite the explicit reference to “crisis” in its title, the book’s creators seem to be channeling Kingdom Come, the End of Days imagined by Mark Waid and Alex Ross in 1996. “Smells like…America,” Harley Quinn notes, eating peach pie in a Rockwell-esque diner shortly after a two-page spread of Superman soaring above a corn field.
Kingdom Come was in many ways a meditation on growing old as a superhero fan, meeting new developments and younger tastes with fear and disdain, turning inward, and ultimately doubling-down on the generational divide, transforming what comforted you in the past into canonical, idealized traits and conventions. If we can’t live forever, we can at least die knowing that we won the culture war. And leave behind a few legacy characters to carry on our mantles. Remember Red Robin? Ooof.
The closest Heroes In Crisis comes to a Kingdom Come moment is in Superman’s reflections on Hot Spot, a young African-American hero who wears a hooded sweatshirt, an innocent victim of the violence at the core of the story. King, artist Clay Mann, and colorist Tomeu Morey begin by zooming in on the face of Hot Spot, his life extinguished despite the presence of tears on his eyes, his head cradled by Superman. Superman is at a loss for words as the panels zoom out, until Hot Spot is no longer visible. “I can’t remember,” Superman says, his gaze looking into the future, to the right of the page, where new pages and new stories wait to be created and read.
Unlike Kingdom Come, which framed the violence of its present as unprecedented (primarily, the nuclear destruction caused by the actions of Gog and The Joker’s murder of Lois Lane; it is unclear where the violence of “A Death In The Family” fits into the dividing lines drawn by Kingdom Come, though perhaps its antiheroes were the ones calling for Jason Todd’s head at an early age in 1988), Heroes in Crisis seems to recognize these actions as familiar, choosing instead to focus on how its protagonists have grown distant, cynical, desensitized over time. Both books are linked by a sense that foundations have been shaken and may be in danger of total collapse. And while Heroes In Crisis has significantly fewer players on its stage, it’s clear that the reflections on the smaller world of superheros are meant to reflect the larger canvas of America, or at least an America that its creators view as legible, as something worth investing in.
Something Heroes in Crisis might wrestle with at its own peril is the conditions of serial superhero storytelling, an unending series of crisis points, a universe governed by investments in new adventures on a monthly basis. The feeling that despite our motivations, actions, and precautions, these things will keep happening to us. An Infinite Crisis, if you will. But it seems clear that King isn’t as interested in unraveling and reassembling these stakes as Grant Morrison was back in 2005, and that’s probably a good thing.
It would be interesting to see superhero storytelling responding to the demands placed on us by social media news cycles, by our ability to watch, on our phones, the conditions of reality decay in real-time. And maybe that reality is shaping a story in which a literal place called Sanctuary is desecrated and destroyed.
My biggest issue with Heroes In Crisis so far is with its pacing, its rhythm, its use and re-use of particular arrangements like the nine-panel grid. For example, throughout the issue we see heroes and villains talking in the grid, shuffling awkwardly in their seats in scenes reminiscent of the “confessional” booths of reality television (and mockumentaries like The Office). These sequences seem to document sessions in which the characters talk until their problems reveal themselves to an invisible therapist (and to readers). Despite the odd marketing and promotion surrounding this book, King does seem to want readers to see the value in mental health resources like therapy. But it is odd to see therapy made formulaic and so cookie-cutter in the name of a story’s beats. The revelations become formulaic, inevitable.
In a Panel x Panel interview on his Mister Miracle work (Vol. 1, No. 4), King argues that the nine-panel grid is “the best” in part because it is governed by the rule of threes, a convention of formulaic joke telling (“set-up, pause, punchline”) that also lends itself well to other storytelling patterns. The first issue of Heroes In Crisis is almost overwhelmed by the rule of threes once you identify the pattern. The nine-panel grids are governed by the familiar beats of comedic monologues and stand-up routines: even when the punchline comes second, as it does in the initial sequence with Harley Quinn, we’re waiting for the third beat to follow. And in stand-up, a comedian retains an element of surprise with their pacing, whereas here all three beats are already visible on the printed page.
King also notes in the Mister Miracle interview that he’s not into “heavy captions” in his current work. I don’t have much of a problem with sparse dialogue, though again I think variety might help. Despite its scarcity, the rhythm of this book seems to be governed more by the pacing of its dialogue than by the attention readers pay to its imagery. The imagery is very repetitive at points, most visibly in the therapy session pages. This clearly seems by design, especially on pages where King wants his readers to focus on what is and isn’t said. Outside of these rigid confines, the blocking of the book still feels a bit stiff in the service of its comedic rhythms.
The book’s story is neatly divided in three, juggling the Booster Gold / Harley Quinn A story, the B thread of “The Trinity” discovering the violence at Sanctuary, and the C thread of the nine-panel therapy sessions. We also have a number of three-panel pages. It would not surprise me if Booster and Harley get another companion in the next issue to round out their group along these lines. To be fair, many comic books don’t have anything resembling a neat or familiar structure or rhythm. But I think the investments in threes seen in this issue are pretty distracting.
To be blunt, this $3.99 installment of a still-unfolding story didn’t take me all that long to read. If I’m purchasing an omnibus of Tom King Batman comics for six bucks on Comixology, I might care less about the time it takes me to complete an individual issue in that collection. And it was interesting to re-read this book to take a closer look at its structure and storytelling techniques. I do think comic book creators working in serial formats should anticipate and consider how the reprinting of their work in collected forms might impact their storytelling decisions. In fact, more readers will likely read the collected work than the initial serial installments. I do wonder how creators consider the economic factors when working on individual installments under these conditions.
DC Nation #3 includes a “Breaking Down The Page” segment where King, artist Lee Weeks, and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser document the work that went into a page from Batman #52 (2018). King divides a page where Batman loses control against Mr. Freeze into five panels: each panel, perhaps unsurprisingly, has three captions. Removed from the art, the captions read like three-line stanzas in a poem, as Bruce Wayne, detached from his identity as Batman in the context of a jury deliberation about Freeze’s arrest, thinks out loud about the consequences of losing control of one’s emotions. The “blocking” offered by King in the script is vague, likely due to his confidence in Weeks’ veteran abilities. The images Weeks and Breitweiser deliver in juxtaposition with Wayne’s dialogue reveal how consumed Batman is by his rage: Freeze is gradually obscured by the red of the violence, and the form of Batman descends into it by the final image.
In short, this is a really great page, a testament to King’s particular investments in pacing and rhythm, an exciting record of comics as collaborative art, and a demonstration of juxtapositions between captions and action working really well. It’s clear why King sees the value in adhering to particular forms and structures. The aforementioned page featuring Superman’s discovery of Hot Spot adopts similar strategies to great effect. It will be interesting to see where King and his collaborators continue to work within self-imposed limitations of panel arrangements and grids, and I’ll hope for more variety and experimentation on these fronts.
Questions? Comments? Jim is on Twitter @JimMc_Grath (for more academic approaches to comics, pop culture, and media studies) and @poolhalljames (if you’re more interested in out-of-context panels from comics and live-tweets about professional wrestling). You can also email him: jameskennethmcgrath[at]gmail[dot]com