Heroes in Crisis, DC Comics big event from 2018 by Tom King and Clay Mann, is a masterful piece of dramatic storytelling and one of the best dramatic superhero comics ever.
Heroes in Crisis is also an utter mess that is totally rushed, has a completely unsatisfying conclusion, and severely hurts a fan favorite character in Wally West (until we see how his mini-series Flash Quest concludes). That is a lot of descriptors for single 9 issue comic series to have, and it is. It’s able to be all of that through its structure, art, and rushed ending.
Its structure follows three different plot lines running through the book. The first two plotlines follow the Trinity as they investigate the mass murder of a group superheroes at the Sactuary a mental health safe house for the heroes to center themsleves after traumatic events. The second follows Booster Gold and Harley Quinn, the only survivors of the Sanctuary and are on the run because they each believe the other killed all the heroes. The final plot line centers on the heroes of the Sanctuary talking about the stress of the job, and those videos being released to Lois Lane for publication by the Puddler. Only, the videos are destroyed after being filmed.
These plot lines allow the book to consistently shift to different genres to keep the book fresh, and explore different parts of the DC universe. It also does not make the person who should be the main character, Wally West – Flash, in the center of the narrative until the final issues. That would not be a problem normally. Two or three full issues devoted to telling the story around everything you’ve been reading is a very common convention in mystery novels (And Then There Were None jumps to mind). However it doesn’t work in this context.
The main reason it does not work is because those big reveal chapters are often for the villain of the piece to monologue and explain how and why they did everything they did. There is a similar chapter in Heroes in Crisis. It explains everything we saw and our characters saw, but also is not satisfying because its twist was that it wasn’t a mystery.
Okay, well that’s not completely untrue. It was a mystery, but a mystery no one could have called until the end of the issues before the reveal. In order to explain spoilers for the rest of the book will follow. So the reveal is that Wally West, the second Flash was the one who killed all of the heroes at the Sanctuary by accident and instead of just turning himself in the first time he goes to the future and bring a dead Wally back to be with the dead heroes, then frames Booster Gold and Harley Quinn by taking them to the holo-deck/training room holograms and making them see the other kill the heroes, and finally Wally runs through time to find the recorded videos, piece them together and send them Lois Lane for reasons… I think it is so he can release his confession video to the world, but that’s not explicit, and makes no sense.
Now that you have the breakdown, do you see the problem? If you haven’t its the word “accident.” He kills all the heroes by accident. Not that accidents don’t happen, but setting a whole murder mystery around an accident the person didn’t mean to cause is damaging to the character. It damages them as a person in the world they live in like any event would, and it also damages them to audience. We see a heroic person do something not heroic and then try to cover it up. That is not inherently a problem. Only, we get very little personal time with him after the inciting incident, and even less time to take in the events after everything is revealed to make him sympathetic (and if they did not want to for some reason that seems like lazy writing). If that’s the point the book is trying to make, and it is (we’ll get to that), there are better ways than killing heroes and making another hero the murder.
These problems arise because it feels like the story was planned to have 12 issues (a pretty good assumption considering that is what Tom King usually does – Miracle Man, Sheriff of Babylon, Omega Men, Vision) and then was suddenly cut back to 9 halfway through the run. This comes from the fact that it starts with a strong deliberate pacing that devotes much of its time to atmosphere, contemplation, and themes over a strong mystery narrative. It even stops what narrative was moving to detail why each of the murdered heroes were at Sanctuary, give them growth and depth to make you feel for them, and then kill them off. It’s a strong issue. One of the best. It is also a waste when it is now an 8 issue mystery book where a third of each issue is devoted to the actual mystery. That change is prevalent at the end of issue 7 leading into issue 8 where the reveals begin. From there on it is hardly contemplative. The book just races to explain it’s dumb muder mystery plot and rushes to the final pages and resolution by acting like Wally was the main character who had to learn something when he was barely in it in comparison to some of the other characters.
Inhale And Exhale.
Hey, so I said this book was also beautiful and one of the best dramatic comics but wasted a lot words saying how dumb it was. That makes no sense. Let’s rectify that. Heroes in Crisis is beautiful. Beautiful in both senses of the word.
First: Clay Mann’s art (and all the art other contributing artists) is just drop dead gorgeous. I mean just look at all the pictures in this post. The pencils, composition, and colors make the book incredibly vibrant and colorful like all superhero comics should be. He has a real eye for detail that makes the big moments epic, and the small moments that more intimate and close. It’s amazing!
Perfect is what I want to say, but the structure of the issues, and multiple plot lines make everything muddled. The reason is that those epic and intimate moments are all there really is. Every scene is either only four or five panels of sparse dialogue and action, then dense nine panel grids that give us a lot of details in limited space. This gives no real room for natural storytelling. Everything either blows by or stays for a little too long. That also makes the Wall West reveal hurt because the reveal issue is all 3 panel pages and limited words on each page.Those pages are super nice looking though
The second way it is beautiful is…
Okay, so, it feels like the only why comics have been able to make superheroes feel real and developed is by making them gritty (Dark Knight Returns), bad people who abuse power by taking it out on bad guys and civilians who get in the way (The Boys, Watchmen, The Authority), or to have them do good things for good reasons, and are still not great people (The Ultimates and Ultimates 2). Some of those stories are very good, but it is also not the norm, and not what readers need to expect every time.
Heroes in Crisis, meanwhile, finds a fresh way to make these larger than life heroes feel real, and that is by showing them at their most vulnerable, weak, and saying that they are still great and strong. It says, quite literally at points, that being a superhero is not easy. Wally West says that he doesn’t count the people he’s saved because it was not enough. It says all that and says that they are still good people doing good deeds for good reasons. This is an idea that is perfectly made to be in any issue of a superhero comic, and does not take away the fact they saved someone.
It explores the theme that being a superhero is hard through the videos the many heroes record while at Sanctuary. The videos range in both length and in the starpower heroes. Some heroes get multiple pages dedicated to their struggles, others get a page, and even more get a single panel that contains so much personality and depth for each one of them. The list of characters range from the stars like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman to the overlooked and underappreciated Blue Devil and Lagoon Boy. They all get a moment show why they are heroes by saying why they needed help.
The characters that get the most development and help are (the protagonists?) Booster Gold and Harley Quinn. We follow their journey of trying and struggling to figure out what is going on while evading the Trinity and each other. They each go to more established heroes for help. Booster goes to long time friend Ted Kord – Blue Beetle while Harley goes to find Batgirl. Blue Beetle and Batgirl act as examples to be like and are used for guidance in helping them be better.That idea of being present to help others grow and learn is what being a hero is all about, and one of the main themes being expressed by the piece. It says that being a hero is more than just saving people from harm, but to be better everyday, and help other people better themselves everyday.
Those themes and that artwork make for a beautiful and moving story. I mean Superman gives a speech to the world proclaiming the importance of getting mental health help, and getting that help is a good thing. (It’s the best!) It is just unfortunate that story has to share space with a murder mystery plot where the murder was an accident caused by a superhero and is hardly investigated.