More Like Heroes in CrisiSUCKS: A Review by Ronnie Gardocki and Chris Ludovici, AIA
Event comics are not usually good. They’re not meant to be; companies rely on them to goose sales, wrap up storylines and plot new directions for characters. There are so many moving parts, so many masters to serve, that it should come as no surprise that even talented creators struggle churning out something readable. So what happens when a hack does one? Well, then you get Ultimatum. Modification: what happens when an auteurist hack does one? Because that’s what we have with Heroes in Crisis: the work of auteur/hack hybrid Tom King. King took the comics world by storm with his well-received Vision and Mister Miracle series. He deftly examined trauma through familiar genre setups and explored the dehumanizing effects of superheroism. His work became more divisive with his Batman run (so much so he was allegedly kicked off the book) and Heroes in Crisis was the crest of the Tom King backlash. As you’ll soon find out, it’s much deserved.
King apparently thought Harley Quinn wasn’t obnoxious enough so she does this sing songy nursery rhyme shit for no apparent reason.
Heroes in Crisis (or HiC for short, because you’d have to be stinking drunk to think this is any good) amplifies all of King’s problems and adds new ones to create a potent brew of bathos (not pathos!), trauma porn and general obnoxious incompetence. To his credit, King creates an intriguing concept for the DC Universe: Sanctuary, a mental health treatment center for superheroes. Of course, he immediately has a massacre of patients occur that renders the place unusable. That’s the premise of Heroes of Crisis when you strip away the bullshit (and there is a lot of bullshit): who killed a boatload of DC D-listers? The series is first and foremost a murder mystery, which is a problem because Tom King cannot write mysteries. That doesn’t stop him from trying, though. It begins with Booster Gold and Harley Quinn each accusing the other of the massacre in a protracted scene that involves a Nebraska diner and Harley ironically claiming she hates pudding. Sure. Fuck it.
I’ll have you know some people pay damn good money to live out that fetish!
Why are Harley and Booster the main characters? You know… reasons. Flashpoint starred the Flash because the story involved time travel and alternate realities, two staples of the Flash’s domain. Civil War was a story about a fracture within the superhero community so Cap and Iron Man, the two most prestigious members of the most prestigious team in the Marvel Universe, were logical focal points for the rift. Booster and Harley are kind of scruffy and unreliable, so that’s something, but neither character is really in the mass-murder-milieu so the book has to work overtime to justify their inclusion at all. Booster, generally characterized as a cheerful loser/hustler continues to act like the manic nutjob that King inexplicably decided he was back in his Batman run. And Harley has to shed the “What If Deadpool Was a Pretty Lady and Shopped At Hot Topic” persona that made her such a hit and embrace the “Broken Victim of Domestic Abuse” that might be more realistic but moves fewer Daddy’s Lil Monster t-shirts. They spend most of the series unhappy and confused, which makes them easy to relate to (maybe they’re the protagonists because they mirror the experience of reading HiC) but not a lot of fun to be around.
Tom King recycles from his spec script for the short-lived Cavemen TV show.
Oh, if you’re wondering why Harley Quinn, a character who was until very recently a violent criminal, would be allowed in what must be an extremely high security area where vulnerable people are processing their trauma, don’t worry, because she wasn’t supposed to be. It seems that Poison Ivy sneaked her in because it was obvious she needed counseling. Why Ivy, also a convicted felon, had access to Sanctuary and how they were able to circumvent security designed by Batman and enforced by Kryptonian technology is never explained. But who cares, right? What matters is that Harley can use the same gripe that Dante does in the face of all the shenanigans that went down at the Quick Stop. Supposedly King pitched Heroes in Crisis with no characters specified and DC picked them for him; if so, that makes sense because nearly everyone is out of character in service of a story that doesn’t justify the work. I’m not one of those people who rages that “in Batman #365 Bruce Wayne said he was allergic to oysters yet in Detective Comics #829 he eats them without issue” but if the characters aren’t going to even be approximations of what they’ve been in the past, why use them at all? Why not create PTSD Guy, Abuse Girl and Captain Breakdown?
I always thought peekaboo needed a gritty reboot.
So anyway, yeah, a bunch of characters no one cared about (or even heard of) are found dead at the beginning of the story; also Wally West, Poison Ivy and Roy Harper. Harley thinks Booster did it because she saw him do it, and Booster thinks Harley did it because he saw her do it, immediately underscoring that neither of them could have actually done it and thereby draining the central drama of any real mystery or tension. Instead the audience has to wade through seven issues of waiting for the characters in the story to reach that same conclusion and the real killer reveals himself, not because of any detective work or train of deductive reasoning, but because King has the guilty party step forward to explain what happened and why. Beats working.
“Sure, they all come back, but do you know how much sidekick-sized coffins cost?”
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Harley and Booster are on the run, from each other and the superhero community at large. Harley is confronted by Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman and manages to best them all in combat and escape because nothing means anything anymore and teams up with Batgirl (Batgirl? Really? Yeah, okay, whatever) to find Booster and bring him to justice. Booster gains the trust of his old buddy and fellow dirtbag hero Blue Beetle by going for a fist bump and saying “bros before heroes” because I guess the fact that they used to run together is more important than the possibility that Booster might have committed mass murder.
“I couldn’t even give those savages in the Middle East democracy!”
Meanwhile, a mysterious party emails all the supposedly destroyed and completely confidential recordings of all the superhero therapy sessions to ace girl-reporter Lois Lane. Tangential to the plot but perhaps the centerpiece of Heroes in Crisis are these interview/confessional segments. King drops these in three or four per issue to showcase the anxieties faced by the superheroes. Characters as notable as Batman and as obscure as Blue Jay populate the moments. Here, here is what Sanctuary was intended to do, King is saying. These scenes also happen to be riotously funny in the course of trying to inject some pathos into these long underwater pieces of intellectual property. Cry for Justice’s beautifully rendered gorilla crying has nothing on this. It took an exhaustive effort but we managed to narrow down the ten funniest confessionals, listed below:
- Hal Jordan doesn’t know what will is.
- Roy Harper makes a finger gun to signify “two things” while discussing his addiction to painkillers and eventually heroin.
- Batgirl devotes her confessional to showing the bullet entry and exit wound from The Killing Joke. The artist, of course, depicts this as tastelessly as possible.
- Will Magnus admits he’s in love with one of the Metal Men.
- Protector, the anti-drug superhero, reveals he was on drugs THE WHOLE TIME.
- Catwoman’s consists of her saying “meow”, you know, like a cat.
- Doctor Light (the Asian woman one) complains about her name’s association with the villain, meaning Tom King casually brought Identity Crisis into DC canon for some reason.
- Firestorm’s head is on fire. Sometimes King tries for comedy and shows resolutely he is no king of comedy.
- Wally West thinks therapy can be done in three weeks or less.
- The final, and best, one can only be seen to be believed.
“Well, I hope you’re happy, Spectre. Thanks to you, God is at home crying like a little girl!”
There are two kinds of comedy in Heroes in Crisis: intentional and unintentional. The intentional stuff doesn’t work not at all; the unintentional, however, succeeds famously. Booster has the nervous flop sweat of a comedian bombing on Leno while Harley Quinn is rife with stupid rhymes and the kinda adorable homicidal tendencies that alternative girls wore on t-shirts in 2005. Like a cute bunny rabbit accompanied by some pithy remark about the voices inside their head. Half of the interview segments go for laughs. None of it works and clashes with the otherwise dour and maudlin tone of Heroes in Crisis. Look, I never served, and I’m sure that soldiers have mourning rituals that seem peculiar to outsiders and it’s important to respect those rituals. Further, I’m sure that King, who never gets tired of reminding us that he joined the CIA after 9/11 and was sent to the Middle East (because we still think that’s somehow unambiguously heroic in 2020? Or something?), knew people who died in terrible, tragic ways and that those losses weigh on him. That said, the sight of Green Arrow solemnly bow shooting his former sidekick Roy Harper’s red trucker cap off a cliff and into the ocean during magic hour is fucking ridiculous. The man’s wearing a green unitard and has a Van Dyke for God’s sake. Superheroes are operatic and ridiculous by their nature, and exploring real human emotion through them is a tightrope. King absolutely teeters off that tightrope and the result is utter nonsense.
Everything you need to know about Tom King in one image.
Back to the “plot”. I wonder how seriously we are meant to consider the possibility of either Booster or Harley as the culprit. With Booster it would gel with Tom King’s previous characterization of him as “weird incompetent idiot who might be on some spectrum” in his thankfully truncated Batman run. It’s plausible insofar as I could see DC character assassinating him; he’s got no movies or TV shows coming out and there still seem to be elements in the company that despise everything associated with the Bwa-Ha-Ha era Justice League. The idea that Harley might snap and take her rage out on the heroes who pledge to save people but didn’t help her has merit, but HiC isn’t really interested in what motivates violence; if it did, the explanation for the murders would be the beginning of the story, not the ending. Then there’s the fact that by sheer force of marketing alone has made Quinn into an anti-hero at the very least. They’ve walked back most of her despicable deeds and now she’s the BPD girl who’s fun at parties of the superhero community. Attaching a murder beef to her doesn’t fit with company policy.
No it’s absolutely cool to use domestic abuse as a cheap cliffhanger. Honest!
It’s hard to tell if I’m describing the plot well enough because the plot is simultaneously threadbare and a tarpit. Just when I think it’s over, shit, I’m still only in Saigon. Blue Beetle and Batgirl receive substantial roles as the support staff for Booster Gold and Harley Quinn. Blue Beetle, the white one, makes sense, whereas Barbara Gordon comes off as ill-advised corporate synergy. Yes, they’re both victims of the Joker, but beyond that the (condescending) female solidarity between a superhero and a mass murderer’s willing co-conspirator seems a stretch at best. There’s a particularly awful sequence where Batgirl tries to help Harley, making the claim that Batman and men as a whole see them both as “broken” and will make assumptions. I don’t even know if she’s supposed to think Harley committed the murders or not. It culminates in this emotional hug between them and it’s got me incensed like I’m a fucking Republican. “You’re hugging a criminal, you damn bleeding heart!” Things don’t improve as the series marches on as Batgirl’s role consists of reminding Harley not to kill people. Haha, it’s so WACKY. She’s created orphans, either directly or by proxy, but fuck it, she looks like a Suicide Girl, that’s cool and alternative because we still live in 2005. I notice we’ve not mentioned that Poison Ivy dies and is resurrected over the course of the series yet. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t fucking matter and affects nothing. It gives reason for Harley to be mad, as if “being framed for murder” wasn’t enough.
If you don’t look sexy while you’re reborn, why bother being reborn at all?
Booster makes the observation that Wally West’s corpse is older than it should be (corpse age determination is one of Booster’s special skills), so something is afoot. Yep, turns out Wally is the culprit and he brought himself from the future to throw everyone off his scent. He also quickly reprogrammed the Sanctuary holodecks so Booster and Harley would see each other committing the murders. Now the all-important question: why? Well, King immediately tries to divest responsibility from West by making the massacre an accident, the result of him losing control of the Speed Force. What, the Speed Force doesn’t do that? How does this square with Lagoon Boy being stabbed with a spear? Fuck you, that’s why. (On Twitter Tom King chalked up the continuity violating discrepancy to bad writing, to which we say: isn’t it all bad writing, Tom?) While Heroes in Crisis doesn’t couch it in such crass terms, those expecting a satisfying explanation will be left out in the cold. The end result sees Wally behind bars (surely he’d have to reveal his identity, which then would unravel the identities of half the superhero community) and Sanctuary reopened. You know, usually facilities at which everyone dies and everyone’s privileged information is released to the press don’t bounce back that well.
How dare Batgirl steal Joey Tribbiani’s classic catchphrase!!
Identity Crisis was famously a DC event mystery that was impossible to solve and that was written by an honest to god author, so with King at the wheel the attempt becomes even more muddled and confusing. There’s simply no way to solve Heroes in Crisis with the information the series presents. Even if you’re charitable, you have to make several assumptions, such as “time travel is involved” and “everyone grew up in households with high concentrations of lead paint”. Wally freaked out, the Speed Force electrocuted everyone to death, he used superspeed to program the computer so Booster would see Harley commit the massacre and vice versa, and he did this to fool Lloyd Braun–I mean he did this (including faking his own death via time travel duplicate) to buy some time to also doxx all the heroes’ therapy tapes and come up with his confession. If you were able to work that out from the clues presented in the previous issues, you deserve to have every ear necklace Tom King accrued in his foreign sojourns.
Look, you know how it is. You check into a mental health facility, everything’s going great, you’re on the holodeck in the middle of Nebraska, and then somebody kills you with magic speed lightning.
Tom King wants to have his cake and eat it too: Wally killed all those people, but not really because he actually lost control of the Speed Force and it went and killed everybody. So what if the Speed Force isn’t some destructive entity that you have to keep in control at all times, who gives a shit about “continuity” and “precedent”. The Speed Force is now a dead man’s switch, get over it. So the heroes aren’t that mad about it, because he didn’t mean to kill everybody. Sure, Wally has to go to jail, but “bros before heroes”, as Booster Gold points out. The resolution to the series takes on a chilling dimension if you subscribe to the theory that all of this is about PTSD from Middle Eastern Misadventures. It’s not hard to read Wally as a soldier who committed a horrible crime and his compatriots excusing it because, shit, he was under a lot of stress and the normals can’t fucking comprehend what WE go through. I’m not saying Tom King killed 30 Iraqis while he worked for the CIA, but I’m not not saying it.
Hey, look on the bright side: if Trump pardoned Eddie Gallagher of all people, Wally’s got a good shot.
We would be remiss if we didn’t at least mention that this comic allegedly went through severe rewrites. The finished product lends weight to that; it would explain why some plot elements, such as the nature of Sanctuary itself, figure prominently in the beginning but play little to no role by the end. Things like Lagoon Boy’s shifting cause of death make sense if there was behind the scenes turmoil. Apparently the original conception of the story had Wally West going on a super speed killing spree, with guns no less. If the Flash snapping and going Parkland on the likes of the Tattooed Man and Solstice makes you giggle, well, you’re not the only one. Perhaps someone at DC realized having a character who is literally featured on children’s underwear gun down a dozen fellow heroes was in poor taste or “stupid as shit” and thus the recalibrated tale depicts the deaths as accidental and fantastical. Maybe Poison Ivy was also meant to die for real; that would explain the half-assed “she’s reborn from a flower bud” rebirth she receives late in the series. The only other aspect of the original iteration we know is that Wally would’ve joined the Suicide Squad. A once beloved hero having to work with the shitbags he helped lock up is a germ of an interesting idea, so it makes sense DC botched it, created an incomprehensible muddle that still left an entire generation’s Flash a radioactive property.
I may be giving King too much credit, but I believe this to be an homage to the classic headline of
On the one hand HiC wants to be a sober meditation on the cost of repeatedly putting yourself in harm’s way in service of maintaining peace, and on the other it wants to be a juicy, exciting whodunit where the heroes of the DCU race against the clock to solve a terrible crime. Yet the foundational notion of Sanctuary is too dour to let the series be any fun, and the mystery is too damn silly to ever allow any notion of thoughtfulness or seriousness to ever take root (not that King is a particularly thoughtful or serious writer anyway; more on that later). It might be possible to do a comic where Green Arrow’s sidekick explains his slow decline into heroin addiction and Harley Quinn beats Wonder Woman and Batman in a fist fight, but this ain’t it. HiC is long, it’s tedious, confusing, ponderous and really dumb all while seemingly being under the impression that it’s really saying something. It’s a remarkable self-own by a man on his way to being comics royalty. That explains its appeal as a trainwreck. A lot of bad comics are just lazy crap meant to fill out the schedule; this was made with PURPOSE. Blood, sweat and tears went into this very dumb debacle.
I can’t NOT think of Donny’s ashes blowing in The Dude’s face with this scene. “Roy died–he died as so many young men of his generation, before his time. In your wisdom Lord you took him. As you took so many bright flowering young men, at Khe San and Lan Doc…”
This brings us back to the scene with Green Arrow chucking Roy’s hat into the ocean. King clearly wants us to recognize the profound grief that comes with losing such a close friend, but he either doesn’t have faith in himself as a writer or his audience as readers because he soaks us with sentiment when only a drop is required. Maybe if Ollie had been in his civilian clothes, and it hadn’t been sunset or if he hadn’t been standing on a cliff or if he hadn’t stuck a trucker cap onto the end of an arrow like an asshole, the scene would have worked. But King wants to make sure we understand how serious and sad this all is so he loads up on the imagery and the moment plunges into farce like a fat guy crashing through a rickety bridge into a rushing river.
“I also got a mosquito bite right between my breasts, you want me to show that too?”
HiC is rife with those kinds of scenes, moments that are clearly supposed to make you think, but instead they make you wonder what the creators were thinking. Why are robots the therapists at Sanctuary and not, you know, trained professionals? Why does therapy seem to often consist of forcing the patient to relive traumatic events over and over again? That’s probably the kind of thing a human mental health provider would know is a terrible idea. Why is Sanctuary overall sterile and alienating when it’s supposedly created using the best aspects of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman? Why do the patients at Sanctuary maintain their anonymity from one another by wearing a terrifying robe and mask combination that makes them look like they were preparing for an Eyes Wide Shut orgy? Why is there an obsession with anonymity at all? I thought all the superheroes knew each other these days, or couldn’t they just keep their everyday masks on? And if they’re all dressed in those weird robes and masks, why isolate them from one another? Isn’t group therapy a really useful tool in helping folks cope with PTSD? There were like five plotlines in that Punisher show that argued it was. Why the fuck did Superman create robotic versions of his parents to serve as helpers there? Why go to the trouble of recording those sessions if they’re just going to be destroyed immediately and how then how does one use the Speed Force to go about reconstructing those recordings? Why do Superman and Lois collude to release the confidential files of the therapy sessions of their colleagues and why is it presented as a triumph of journalistic integrity and not a horrible moral, ethical, and legal breach?
“Tom, why don’t we take the phrase ‘Superman kicking in a skull’, and we tweak it, you know, just a hair, to something like, what, like ‘Superman strolling through a dewy meadow’.”
All of these strange and inexplicable decisions drive HiC farther and farther away from any kind of recognizable reality that a reader could draw some sort of useful allegorical moral from and into Tommy Wiseau territory. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer you have to, you know, think about things and put them in an order that makes sense while discarding ideas that you may like but that distract from the overall point you’re trying to make. King never takes the time to take all these fragments of real world things he wants to address and cool comic book shit he’d like to see and weave them into some kind of story with a momentum and internal logic of its own, instead he just jams it all in and hops from moment to moment while also trying to weight each individual moment with so much pathos and significance that you hopefully never notice that nothing actually fits with anything else.
Here King engages in a bit of wish fulfillment by offing a guy who does nothing but bleat on about philosophy. Wish King was around for a couple of my college courses…
Here’s the thing: we’re at a particular moment right now where we’re using superheroes to talk about anything and everything under the sun, and it makes sense why. This is a time when it’s really hard to have faith in any authority figure: soldiers, police officers, politicians, clergy, lawyers, doctors, teachers, parents, everyone we traditionally think of as servants of the culture all seem creepy, suspicious, fatally flawed. Superheroes are perfect because they don’t actually exist, so they’re incorruptible, they can never let us down because they never actually do anything at all. We’re a generation of adult children of divorce figuring out the world with the toys that kept us company as lonely latch key kids. I get it, but maybe there are just some things that superheroes can’t explore. Superheroes die in comics all the time, and then they come back, that’s part of the deal, I mean, Green Arrow himself died during Crisis on the Infinite Earths back in 1985, and then again 1995. It’s hard to take his mourning Roy that seriously when his resurrection at some point in the near future is virtually assured. King actually resurrected some characters (or brought them into current continuity, whichever) just to kill them again. If that doesn’t show you the weightlessness of death in superhero comics, I don’t know what does.
Imagine how alarming it’d be if actual journalists were saying this.
At their core, superhero comics are reassuring power fantasies for children (or the child within, whatever); everything, from the codenames to the bright costumes and weird powers and colorful villains are designed to function as simple morality tales and modern mythology. They can certainly be stretched to examine more adult concepts, and they have been used to great effect to explore our adult attachment to such childish creations, but using them to tackle a heavy concept like PTSD in such a literal way is kind of like dressing Scooby-Doo up like Lincoln and having him deliver the Gettysburg Address. You think it’s elevating Scooby but really it’s cheapening Lincoln.
The hug, also known as Stage 1 of Roy Harper’s Plan To Bum $20.
The art is fine in comparison to the writing, not worth the 37 paragraphs we heaped on the writing, yet that doesn’t necessarily make it good. Clay Mann is talented, yes, but is he suited to the material? Well, the material calls for a sensitivity that Mann either lacks or doesn’t bother with in the art. The problem comes down to the fact that he goes the cheesecake (read: mildly sexist at best, fucking gross at worst) route more often than not. By and large, conventional wisdom is that you don’t try to make dead bodies look sexy, but that’s what he does with Poison Ivy. Speaking of Ivy, DC actually pulled an issue’s cover (at Tom King’s request, displaying a sense of restraint he lacked when dealing with the goddamn hadjis) because it depicted her dead, dead eyed with her ass up as though Mann traced the image from a gentleman’s spank rag. Things have to be pretty fucking bad if a cover for a superhero comic is pulped for being too horny. The less said about Batgirl’s confessional by way of baring the flesh that has her bullet wound the better. Mann dedicates a splash page to the image of Lois Lane in nothing but a Superman t-shirt and panties. What in the fuck does that add to the story? It’s almost as if Mann was mistakenly told he was to work on the office-only porn parody Heroes in Cris-tits.
See, it’s like a mystery you also want to fuck… A fuckstery!
Who the hell knows what the “lesson” of Heroes in Crisis is; it’s buried under a pile of gaffes and bad puns. After some deliberation the best I could come up with is “that [Wally killing all the heroes] is why pencils come with erasers”. King clearly wants to make some point about trauma and mental health but does so with the nuance and subtlety of Brian Wood at a female artist’s convention table. No matter what, know this: Heroes in Crisis is a bad comic. Reading it is like getting teeth pulled without the luxury of painkillers. As a story, it’s convoluted and stupid. As an event, it lends little to nothing to the grander tapestry of the DC Universe. As a meditation on trauma and the sacrifices that come with being a damn hero, it suggests therapy will either kill you or depersonalize you enough to become a mass murderer. Scientology couldn’t come up with a better anti-shrink tract. It’s telling that Heroes in Crisis has had no real ramifications for DC. (Wally West started a redemption quest in some presumably terrible comics by definitely terrible Scott Lobdell, but #MeToo finally took down Ol’ Lobstrosity so now it’s a part of Scott Snyder’s eternal quest to clean up everyone else’s messes in whatever corner of Death Metal can accommodate that storyline.) It’s as though this comic is an Afghan male taken to a CIA black site: doesn’t exist and never did exist.