THIS REVIEW OF ‘HEROES IN CRISIS’ #1 IS SPOILER-FREE.
by Brendan Hodgdon. The word “Crisis” has a particularly loaded significance in DC Comics history. It denotes a grand storytelling event of cosmic significance and celebrated quality (Crisis on Infinite Earths), a controversial, upsetting whodunit with surprisingly grim content (Identity Crisis), and a singularly bizarre vision that bends a universe to the will of one creator (Final Crisis). Now it has the potential to represent all of these things in Heroes in Crisis, the new DC event series from Tom King, Clay Mann, Tomeu Morey and Clayton Cowles.
Their tale about Sanctuary, an isolated therapy center for DC’s superhumans, feels like both a clear extension of King’s work and an event with serious (and questionable) ramifications for the DC Universe. With the reaction to the book as polarized as it already is, it seems like it’ll be a rough few months for DC’s heroes in more ways than one.
As far as the structure of the book goes, it’s the usual Tom King material: an intricate, nonlinear, 9-panel-grid-heavy narrative ouroboros that contrasts the macro and the micro to tragic effect. The issue cycles from talking-head interviews with the patients of Sanctuary, to the Trinity’s discovery of a massacre there, to Booster Gold and Harley Quinn’s face-off in the aftermath. It is as impeccably paced as anything King has done, and is clearly tied together by a deeper thematic core (much like King’s most notable works). It is a tightly-wound tension machine that plucks at very painful heartstrings, with King’s attention to detail often paying dividends for both.
From Superman’s struggle to confront the destruction at Sanctuary to Batman’s exhausted disgust at the conclusion that it’s just another revenge plot, King’s eye for characterization shines through. One of the best minor touches is Harley’s revelation to Booster that she’s always hated pudding, a particularly sly layer to her history with the Joker. As always, King uses such details to highlight the humanity at the core of these fantastical tales and emphasize their impact, once again to great effect.
Clay Mann is really working on another level. He renders the characters in uniformly gorgeous detail, and he handles the various different staging throughout the issue very effectively. The fight between Booster and Harley is well-choreographed while still feeling unpredictably vicious, and the destruction at Sanctuary is carefully balanced between intimate and detached. In the talking-head sequences with the patients of Sanctuary, Mann does wonderful things with body language, posture, and facial expression to capture uniquely-vulnerable moments for these characters.
So, as you might expect, this issue turns out to be a perfectly-tuned narrative instrument. But it’s being used to play notes that not everyone will enjoy, and that are much more up for debate. The deaths that occur in this issue—several of them major, fan-favorite characters, all of them off-panel—have already proven to be a source of consternation for many. (It recalls the bleakness of DC’s controversial event, Identity Crisis.) For me personally, this was not an immediate issue, as the characters in question are not ones that I have a long history with as a fan. But there is still a question of whether those deaths are justifiable, and whether they are worth the emotional turmoil they cause. They also cut to the heart of a years-old division in comics, over whether the medium needs to be more or less “grim ‘n gritty” in the pursuit of maturity and cultural respect.
For me, the honest (albeit wishy-washy) answer right now is that we have to wait and see. We don’t yet know what the plan for this series is, and where the plot will take us and our heroes. Since I can’t imagine that the big-name deaths will be left so unceremoniously dispatched, I assume there will be flashbacks or Rashomon-style plot mechanics examining what happened at Sanctuary. Perhaps such beats will give us a proper sense of closure for these characters, or reveal the deaths as a feint. This being comics, perhaps by the end they won’t even stay dead at all. While I understand the presumption that this is cheap bloodshed, we don’t know that for sure just yet.
It is also interesting to consider Heroes in Crisis in relation to Tom King’s other work and the critical reaction thereof. Thus far, King has largely told contained stories that zero in on specific characters (Dick Grayson, Vision, Mister Miracle, Kyle Rayner, Batman) and has examined them through heavy, traumatic circumstances. Heroes in Crisis is by far the largest story he’s told yet, in terms of the amount of characters involved and the potential impact on continuity. For better or worse, King seems to be proceeding as usual, committing to his concepts and themes to an uncompromising degree. But with this larger canvas comes greater impact, and it will be interesting to see if King factors that into his storytelling… or if the fandom can still appreciate his emotional brutality when the whole universe has to go along with it.
For the time being, I have yet to see anything from Heroes in Crisis to give me much pause, but I also haven’t seen enough to be sold on it either. The question of the series’ success rests not on whether Tom King can tell a good story, really, but whether that story will work as a major throughline for the whole of the DCU. And we can’t really know that until we really know what this series is, at its core. But even if King is completely off the rails here, at least Clay Mann is here to make sure he looks good while doing it.
Written by Tom King.
Art by Clay Mann.
Colors by Tomeu Morey.
Letters by Clayton Cowles.
8 out of 10