A man who’s seen war and death has a lot to say.
Gaining a reputation for writing emotionally-driven and thematically-focused character stories, Tom King is a writer that dabbles across the board. But, much like other truly great scribes, all of his work becomes a fascinating tapestry when laid out in a line. The macro-narrative, jumping between publishers, genres, characters and story types fits together to paint a clear image. It’s ever-growing, ever-evolving, with every new addition re-contextualizing and expanding the dimension and depth of it. By examining the past, and exploring how it informs the present, we can get a more solid foundation of what lies ahead in the future.
The Good Intentions Trilogy- The Iraq War
Before his rise to stardom as the chief Batscribe, King worked on three maxi-series: The Omega Men, The Sheriff Of Babylon, and The Vision. The three couldn’t be more different, spread out between a cosmic war epic, a grounded war-noir, and a suburban family drama. And yet, the three couldn’t be more similar. King explores one macro-concept, a singular master thematic, across all three books and exploits every conceivable facet. It’s rooted deeply in his experience in The Iraq War and explores the affects of war and death on the individual. All of them begin and end with a murder.
We start off in The Omega Men, the thematic beginning, wherein a young soldier from the United States (Kyle Rayner) enters a conflict inspired by that of the Middle East and comes out of it broken, defeated. He’s trapped in the grid of the comic, this dominant nine-panel grid, like bars on a cell and he can’t ever seem to escape. Black and white morality is tackled, as Rayner sees and wields multiple shades as The White Lantern. As he’s forced to consistently choose between the binaries of The Alpha and The Omega in the book, he refuses.
The war is ever-lasting, but as with all forms of upheaval and status quo shifts, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Regardless of the face or belief in power, the oppressed and the downtrodden are still very much that. The boot that hurts may change, but it doesn’t go away. All the dire problems that began the war persist, until the next one starts. The civilization falls and power shifts, but what for? Rayner’s efforts seem futile, and by the end, the men and women he fought alongside for freedom became the monsters they were fighting and there remains little to salvage.
From the broken American soldier, who fights in a war not his own and returns to a home equally foreign, we move to another soldier, another cop. The Sheriff Of Babylon is a book that very much explores a civilization after the upheaval caused by American interventionism. A cyclical structure unveiling the futility of war and death once more, like its thematic predecessor. The book effectively builds on these ideas by following Chris Henry, an American ex-cop who now works as a trainer of police in Iraq. The story closest to reality in its setting, it draws on King’s own time there as a CIA Counter-terrorism officer.
Opening 10 months after the fall of Baghdad, and concluding 12 months after the fall of Baghdad, the book is very much about the broken nature of a society that has seen power change hands. A nation affected by American might trying to save the world, only to be left with little to show for it. Henry is a man wrecked by the very system he operates in, and by the end, he’s corrupted like all those around him, showcasing the horror and aftermath of events that are all too real for our world.
Then in The Vision, the thematic finale, we pick up once more with the American soldier, back from the war, having saved civilizations, now desperately trying to fit back into normal life. Vision quite literally builds himself a family in desperate hope that he may be normal, so that he at last achieve what he feel all others already have. Even the choice of suburbia as the setting, with its outlandish premise of a robot family, is to help accentuate this feeling. It’s a man from war trying to find happiness despite all that’s ever happened to him, regardless of what he’s seen and how much his heart’s been broken.
But, like in the previous two installments, it all goes wrong. Tragedy strikes once more, with violence begetting more violence. And in the end, Vision is trapped, as the American soldier has been throughout King’s narrative. But it’s not a comfortable trap – it’s painful and horrifying, and yet what makes it so deeply heartbreaking is that it all sprang from a well of good intentions. The hero, with the best of intent, took action and was met with failure, heartbreak, and tragedy. And that’s the nature of war.
The Healing Trials Trilogy- PTSD
The hero has been through war. The hero has known great tragedy and death. And the hero has failed. That’s how the next act, the second stage of King’s oeuvre, kicks off. The first act was the good intentions being met with failure, with the trap set firmly in place. There was no chance of escape or a hope for agency and happiness. Until now. The second act of King’s master-story builds off those notions and is very much about the hero learning to rise despite earlier failings. It’s these paladins finding solace despite the tragedy, embracing love and hope in the face of those traumatic events which haunt incessantly. It’s the hero getting a chance to escape. And so we must begin with The God of Escape, Mister Miracle.
Mister Miracle is very much the beginning of this new era of King’s work, perfectly synthesizing all the strengths of the “Good Intentions” trilogy whilst pushing forward to a newer place. And the newer place is one that is likely the most fascinating in King’s body of work. Mister Miracle introduces the notion of reality being distorted in a number of ways. The glitch panels which impose existential fear and uncertainty, alongside clever black panels with white text reading “Darkseid Is.” The other approach is the questionable nature of every event surrounding Mister Miracle’s world. The book opens with his attempted suicide and upon awakening, he finds the world changed. Nothing is quite as it seems, everything is off.
One of the first introduction to this notion is Scott pointing out that his wife Barda’s eyes are now brown, but they used to be blue. Barda tells him, to his shock, that her eyes have always been brown. And yet, at the end of that very same issue, we see Barda’s eyes blue once more. What one assumes and believes to be true, what one takes for granted and knows to be the case, simply can no longer be, as things rapidly change and anxiety reigns supreme. This distortion of reality plays out through even the figures of his mythology that Scott encounters, wherein the cruel and sadistic abuser presents themselves as a benevolent and loving individual, one trying to rewrite and cast doubt on Scott (and the reader’s) understanding of events and truth. The radiant founts of joy and love end up being cruel and irksome and nothing is quite what it should be.
It feels absurd, there’s a sense of the world spiraling away, where in things you’d never imagine could even happen do happen. It’s a wild, reflective mirror of our reality and it makes a lot of sense when one looks at the actual world informing this approach. In 2016, King had a panic attack and assumed he would die. He didn’t, but after the event, the world seemed to have changed. The elections went the way they did, Trump became President, mass shootings became even more commonplace. Flooded with the barrage of lies, where absurdly horrifying events take place, the world felt different. Mister Miracle is a book that reflects the feeling of living in just such a world.
In the end, Scott Free, despite the very distortion of reality, found a way forward with his true love and his hopes for a family. Picking up from The Vision, the hero actually builds a family. Except this time, it does not fail. This time, the hero, who is trapped in this world, this nine-panel grid, has agency and he chooses the trap. He’s granted the path of escape and he succeeds completely, but he willingly wishes to remain in the trap, because despite all the horror of this distorted reality, there’s his family. And how can a hero ever give upon or abandon the family?
Following this conceit, the next step, the middle chapter is Heroes In Crisis. The hero has family, and it’s his salvation. But what happens when that family is taken? When the very basis of your established foundation is torn down, made unreal, as if it never was? Exploring family and distortion of reality from a drastically different lens, whilst progressing from the thematic ideas of Mister Miracle, the book is an evolution, or rather, a cracked mirror, a giant-sized “what if?”
Wally West is very much the heart of this book, the hero struggling greatly with the pain of having had a family that meant everything to him, only for them to no longer exist. Like Scott Free, he had a wife and two kids. But now they do not exist in the universe. Offered a chance to escape during Rebirth, Wally emerged from the trap of the Speed Force. He made a choice, one he thought would payoff. But it didn’t. He lost what Scott Free still has. And the distorted new reality he’s now awoken to is nothing but emptiness and pain, of what was yet no longer is.
Built around the concept of Sanctuary, a place of healing, where heroes who’ve experienced trauma may recover, where PTSD can be conquered, the book explores the notion of horrific events occurring in places assumed to be safe. Being conceived from King’s own fears for his kids and safe spaces, such as schools, the story explores and examines how, if at all, there can be any hope and redemption. In this distorted reality, where what was real and right no longer truly exists, where sacred places are tarnished by horror, can there be some salvation? Can the hero overcome such tragedy and ascend? The story, which is still playing out at the moment, explores just that. If the first trilogy was about the Iraq War, the second is very much about PTSD.
Meanwhile, one the other end, King’s Batman is the final installment, the long-form epic and the conclusion. Batman, too, is intimately familiar with tragedy. He, too, dared to hope and put his faith in love and family, but it was all shattered when his wedded bliss crumbled. We now know that every part of Bruce’s life and reality has been manipulated by Bane and a cadre of antagonists from day one. Currently, held by an antagonist quite literally from another reality, Bruce is trapped in distorted nightmare realities.
The foes have manipulated everything and everyone such that Batman is distanced from his family. Dick Grayson was shot and Gordon no long trusts him – Bruce is truly all alone, utterly broken. But can the hero rise once more, despite the distorted reality that seeks to tear everything down? Can there be happiness and celebration after all, at the end of everything? Can all be made right once more, despite the tragedies and horrors we see as insurmountable? It’s the question King asks consistently and explores thoroughly across his books, with distortion of reality serving as a running element of the struggle these heroes face.
Multiple books, genres, and characters, all unified under one master thematic – that is Tom King’s oeuvre. It’s a fascinating beast and one well worth studying, for it has a lot to tell us about how we may stand against the tide of our own distorted reality.
Tragedy and conflict surround us, but in spite of them, we all have a choice. What’s yours?