Welcome to #1 Comic of the Week, a series where our comics editor, Susana Polo, tips you off to a neat new story or series that kicked off in comics this week — just in time for some weekend reading.
Superhero comics are no stranger to depicting superheroes dying. It happens in loud explosions or bright flashes of light, disintegrations or fading-outs. More often than not, we don’t even see a body (the better to resurrect them later). That is not how it happens in Heroes in Crisis #1, the first issue in Tom King and Clay Mann’s prestige DC Comics series.
In 24 pages, King and Mann don’t tell us much that we didn’t already know about the upcoming story, about Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman hunting for the perpetrator of a massacre in the Justice League’s mental health facility. But in a genre where death is so frequent and reversible that it has become truly routine, Heroes in Crisis #1’s willingness to spend its entire first issue dwelling on it is both a weakness and a strength.
[Editor’s note: This piece will contain some spoilers for Heroes in Crisis #1.]
In Heroes in Crisis, character death is about the aftermath, and mostly the emotional aftermath. The most arresting idea in the comic might be Batman and Wonder Woman zooming across the midwestern sky as they try to catch up to Superman, while reminding him as delicately as they can that he cannot touch the bodies. He can’t contaminate the crime scene.
He does it anyway, even though, as the book reminds us, his telescopic vision means he can see every detail on the bodies in the fields, and his x-ray vision means he has already seen through the walls of the house to the dead inside. He does it anyway, to clasp the hand of a fallen teen hero in futile comfort.
King has said that Heroes in Crisis was partly inspired by the moment he realized he feared that his son might be harmed in a school shooting. Not all the dead heroes in Sanctuary are young, but the issue spends the most time with those who are, including two who were the sidekicks and defacto children of members of the Justice League.
But Heroes in Crisis #1 isn’t just about surviving loved ones, it’s also about survivors. Mixed in with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman are Harley Quinn and Booster Gold, seemingly the only survivors of the massacre. With them, we learn the issue’s real kicker, that Harley and Booster both saw the other person murder all of those superheroes.
As a penultimate page reveal, it isn’t exactly a heavy landing. We don’t get to see Batman, Superman or Wonder Woman react to it as a twist, and it’s not contradicting anything we previously understood about the storyline. But if we only learn one thing from Heroes in Crisis #1 that we didn’t already know going in, the issue itself is still a work of art.
Mann’s command of facial expression is on full display in 9-panel ‘confessional pages’ where Sanctuary visitors describe the problems that lead them to seek treatment. But the overwhelming visual motif of the book is a geographic one, as Mann and colorist Tomeu Morey fill the book with vistas at every possible opportunity.
In a genre of characters who dominate urban skyscapes, here the relationship is reversed against dominating stretches of wide Nebraskan horizons. The sky and ground are opposed and ever-present. Even the floor of the diner in which Booster and Harley begin their traditional (and lamp-shaded) superhero fight has been tiled to look like the squared-off farmland of the midwest.
The metaphor is strong. To bring Harley to “justice,” Booster slams through the ceiling and into the sky, only to plummet out of it and into a complicating realization. To confront the desecration of the Sanctuary they created for their community, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman must come down out of the clouds. Superheroes are synonymous with the sky, and Sanctuary isn’t your usual superhero stuff. Heroes in Crisis #1 establishes that in every way it can, including giving the discovery of a crime scene a full 24 pages of a first issue.
Here’s a good deed that has not gone unpunished. Here’s a failure that the greatest heroes in the DC universe can’t just fly away from.