In the open air of San Diego’s marina docks, DC Comics’ star writer Tom King asked a key question about his new book, Heroes in Crisis. The mood was meditative — DC supplied reporters at its press event with white terrycloth bathrobes and cushions for seats, meant to echo the calm of “Sanctuary,” the mental health retreat setting of King’s series — yet the title alludes to some of the most tempestuous events in the history of the DC Universe. King read the room. “Why is it a crisis?”
“There are no worlds blowing up, there are no worlds merging, there are no little Lex Luthors trying to escape from things,” he continued. “But to me what “Crisis” is [...] is an event that was going to show superheroes in a different way, and change them forever. This was an event that was going to last, and this was an event that was going to change how the audience saw the superheroes and how the superheroes see themselves.”
In a space of manufactured calm set to the side of San Diego Comic-Con’s hustle and bustle, King revealed his plans to build a similar oasis for the heroes of the DC Universe, Sanctuary, and then shatter its ability to heal — maybe forever.
From the announcement of Heroes in Crisis in June, it was clear that this was the culmination of a concept close to King’s heart: Sanctuary, a mental health retreat for the superheroes — and sometimes villains — of the DC Universe. The isolated farmhouse that hides the super-science-fueled interior spaces of Sanctuary is based on the home his grandmother was born in, and her death was part of the moment that lead him to seek help himself.
“For the last two years I’ve spent my life trying to put myself back together [...] and the big thing I’ve learned from that process is that I’m not alone,” King said, while speaking of his own personal mental health crisis to Comic-Con reporters. “I know that’s a stupid cliche thing to say, but I like cliches. I write Batman and he says ‘I’m Batman’ sometimes.’”
During that process, King said, he learned that there was no contradiction in being a person who used to fight al Qaeda, and a person who had trouble keeping his hands from shaking. “You can be a man and also and also be a little weak. You can be a man and still love your family. And still say that ‘I got help’ and ‘I got through this with help.”
King isn’t just drawing on a common experience of recovery with DC characters, but a common experience of trauma from his time as a counterterrorism officer with the CIA. He described how the most towering accomplishments can feel like nothing if you believe you could have done better.
“I pulled off [an operation] and we were literally on the cover of every newspaper in the country,” he said. “And I found out the next day I missed something even better, and it broke me. It just broke me that I could have saved someone else. I know it sounds fucking arrogant, but it does break you to not be able to save people.”
When superheroes of the DC Universe find themselves broken, they go to Sanctuary, a place built by their most powerful leaders. Sanctuary was designed by Batman from Kryptonian technology, with with the guidance of Wonder Woman’s compassion fueling the place’s AI caretakers, who are modeled loosely after Ma and Pa Kent and Lana Lang.
In a setting where everyone has a secret identity, “patients” at Sanctuary wear the white robes and gold masks seen on the book’s cover (Above and to the right). Privacy is protected; the distressed heroes only reveal themselves when they feel ready, and can come and go as they need. Sanctuary itself is equipped with hologram suites that can reproduce any environment a superhero might need to feel safe — or help them safely confront their own fears and traumas. King described each half of Firestorm being able to speak to one another as if they had their own bodies again, and Batman being able to spend time with his Robins as the young boys they once were, and not the hardened men they’ve become.
“Everything I say sounds corny,” King told Polygon, “but at least for me, what worked for me, what got me through shit, was the people I loved. Now that could be friends, that could be your wife, that could be your kids, but turning to that love instead of away from it I think was the key to everything.”
For the heroes in Heroes in Crisis, that love is found in the superhero community. When a person leaves Sanctuary they’re presented with a pin, designed by Heroes in Crisis artist Clay Mann: The symbol of Superman (the ‘S’ stands for ‘Sanctuary’), held by three hands to represent the Trinity. Reporters at the Heroes in Crisis event and a lucky group of fans at the Tom King Spotlight panel were given replicas (left).
Expect to see the pins in other books from time to time, as superheroes in the DCU wear it to show their comrades that they have a shared experience, or that there’s no shame in needing to visit Sanctuary. King wants Sanctuary to create a greater sense of interconnectedness to the DC Universe, calling out Justice League: Unlimited as a version of the setting that accomplished that very well.
But every story needs an inciting conflict, and Heroes in Crisis is no exception. Sanctuary works for the DCU because it is anonymous and safe, but King’s story begins when that safety is ruined and its anonymity becomes a problem. We already knew that Heroes in Crisis would be a murder mystery, but at San Diego Comic-Con King revealed the scale of that mystery. The inciting moment won’t just be a murder, but a mass shooting.
“It starts with something we see everyday in America,” King told reporters in San Diego, “Something I saw when I was overseas and I never thought would come here, but it’s here and it’s fucking everywhere. And it starts with a massacre at Sanctuary — in this space, in this safe place, in this place that Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman dedicated their lives to keeping safe — a dozen heroes are killed and they don’t know who killed them.”
Polygon asked King how the idea of using a mass shooting in the story came about, and his answer was simple. His youngest child was about to enter kindergarten, and he’d realized that among all the usual fears about how his son would fit in with his classmates, was the fear that he’d be harmed by a school shooter.
“And because I have a fucked up job, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea for a story,’” King said. “That’s how I was thinking of Sanctuary. It’s a safe zone; it is someplace that you can’t violate. And that would happen there, there would be a massacre in the one place that that shouldn’t happen. That’s where the idea came from.”
So, the question raised by Heroes in Crisis isn’t simply whether Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman can figure out who the killer is, but whether Sanctuary itself can be a place where anyone can feel safe ever again.
The DC Trinity aren’t the only leads of Heroes in Crisis — King is also weaving in the story of two Sanctuary visitors: Booster Gold is there following his own breakdown from a harrowing adventure in time travel gone wrong, while Harley Quinn, King said at his spotlight panel at San Diego Comic-Con, is around to support her lover, Poison Ivy, deal with a recent breakdown (and bid for global domination).
In order to wrap his head around Harley Quinn, King turned to an unusual source: He asked Harley Quinn cosplayers to tell him why they loved the character. Universally, they had the same answer.
“They all say she’s a survivor,” King told reporters, “That she had that bad boyfriend that a lot of them have had, and then she went through a bad relationship and she came out of that on the other side and it affected her and changed her and moved her, but she’s still going forward. That just is endlessly inspiring to people, and I think that speaks to the themes of the book.”
The other major theme of Heroes in Crisis is resilience, and how difficult it is to maintain, which King links directly to the history of post-9/11 America. The writer, who graduated from college in 2000 and joined the CIA after 2001, told reporters that he felt that a post-9/11 point of stability had finally been reached, or at least the feeling of it, but that stability has since been shattered.
“When I saw those towers fall, I was like, that’s the craziest thing I’ll ever see in my life. [Today] I see six crazier things every day in the fucking news. And I think that idea, that’s where we start this. We were in a place of comfort. We finally found our way out of the pain and here’s more pain and can we come back? Do we have the strength to come back from that? Do we have the strength to fight, the strength to resist?”
Earlier in the Comic-Con weekend, Polygon had a chance to speak with DC Comics co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee about DC Comics characters and how they should respond to current events. They agreed that allegory is powerful tool for drawing in the reader, and, moreover, there’s a lot of precedent for it.
“If you follow the start of comics in the forties,” DiDio said, “when you look at World War II and its impact on comics in that period of time, heroes aren’t going to fight World War II. They’re not fighting the Germans, they’re not out there fighting the Axis. They were out there portraying a mood and a feel that was prevalent in society in that moment. And we’ve got to always be that reflective lens, for society.”
Heroes in Crisis #1 will be released on Sept. 26, 2018, with art by Clay Mann. The final thing that even DC readers who don’t pick up Heroes in Crisis should expect to see — other than telltale brooches — is confessions, written by King and drawn by Mann, in which superheroes describe their own mental health struggles and how they made it through them. The one-page, nine-panel stories, all delivered by a different DC Comics character simply facing the reader, will run in multiple DC books. We’ll see confessions from Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman; as well as from less well known characters. Art reveals at San Diego Comic Con confirmed Harley Quinn, Booster Gold, Arsenal and Blue Jay.
“I do think the power of [Heroes in Crisis] will be in kids and teenagers just seeing their superheroes make their confessions,” King told reporters. “That’s everywhere,” he continued, referring to the inclusion of information about mental health resources alongside content that addresses mental health, “that idea, here’s the next thing. What they haven’t seen before is Superman saying it, what they haven’t seen before is Batman saying it and what they haven’t seen before is the symbols of what is best in America, the ideals of both masculinity and femininity, saying that to them. That, to me, is the most important part of it.”