Heroes in Crisis #4
Written by Tom King
Art by Clay Mann and Tomeu Morey
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
Heroes in Crisis is a series that, if you boiled it down to one word, would be about trauma. Which is why, in certain ways, Tom King and Clay Mann’s fourth issue has a silver lining amongst the clouds - with an issue that says in a world of never-ending pain, death, and rebirth, the only way you get by is with a little help from your friends. While the overarching plot of Heroes in Crisis might be seen as too dark or too disjointed for some - and again, these critics would certainly have a case to present - I couldn’t help but notice the level of experimentation that King and Mann bring to their storytelling, with a unity of themes that only click into place upon a thorough, careful read.
“$%@# This.” The title of this issue can’t help but evoke the classic sequence in The Wire, where McNulty and Bunk illustrate the versatility of expletives as they investigate a gruesome crime scene. And given the way that King likes to play around with storytelling techniques - in particular, the way that “$%@#” is an unsayable word in family-friendly comic books, even though the jarring use of symbols winds up that we all know exactly what it means - he too uses the flexibility of the word to show a variety of emotions bubbling up during a period of grief and stress across the DC Universe.
When the word comes to Batman and the Flash - the greatest detectives of this fictional universe - coming to opposite conclusions as they analyze the murders at Sanctuary, the curse comes across as frustration. For Donna Troy carrying a passed-out Tempest from a bar, it’s the idea of checking out, not just geographically, but from consciousness itself, of retreating from a sadness that’s too big and sudden to grapple. For Booster Gold, it’s the inability to think of the crazy, logic-breaking ways the DC Universe could have potentially made him turn on his best friends. For Harley Quinn, it’s a battle cry against a world that turned her into something terrible, and yet still can’t understand her for who she is. All these variations, from one simple word. In other words, it’s a clever hook.
But it’s also a hook, as cute as it is, that I think might distract from the other themes present in this book. Namely, after the fallout of the initial attack on Sanctuary, we see the various pieces of the DC Universe starting to come back together in interesting ways. The best example of this is Batgirl teaming up with Harley Quinn - I haven’t seen King write Barbara Gordon before, but the way he positions Babs as a mirror to Harley is an inspired touch, as the two are both defined by the struggle between Batman and the Joker, but also fight tooth and nail to escape from being boxed in as victims or collateral damage. (Particularly the way that King tells this story, with a sequence of Harley and Batgirl’s hands entwined with one another, transitioning from angry fists to forgiving open palms.) Additionally, fans of Booster Gold will thrill at his reunion with Blue Beetle, but King also deftly skewers the whole point of Sanctuary, during Beetle’s confessional-style video: it’s not the holograms or seclusion of Sanctuary that gets Ted Kord through his days, but just knowing that he has a friend like Booster to have his back. “I can call him. That’s all. When it’s really hard… he picks up.”
The artwork by Clay Mann, meanwhile, is so virtuosic that when he does stumble, it can’t help but be noticed. On the one hand, his take on Batman and Superman - not to mention the gorgeous double-page homage to Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez as Donna Troy carries Tempest over her shoulder - are astoundingly good, bringing to mind some of the best work of Jim Lee, but with a painterly vibe thanks to ace colorist Tomeu Morey. Additionally, he leans into King’s more experimental works nicely, such as the aforementioned Batgirl/Harley sequence, where he tells so much in terms of the shifting emotion just with the subtle change in their hands. So that is great. However, Mann’s anatomy when it comes to women feels a little overexaggerated - particularly with a scene of Lois Lane and Clark Kent in their underwear, or the way that Batgirl’s figure feels especially focused on her breasts and hips. Some of that is due to her downgraded new costume, but at the same time, it feels almost like a shift to an Ed Benes style - one that doesn’t do King’s story any favors when it comes to autonomous female characters taking control of their own narrative and their own path.
Similar to the last issue, I think that while Heroes in Crisis’ actual storyline feels all too similar to Identity Crisis - a series that itself has not aged particularly well since its release - what sets this series apart is the way that King and Mann tell their story. Execution is often what elevates a boilerplate plot, and watching the way that King and company leverage panel layouts and shots is what makes this book still feel special. That said, there are those who might cry foul at the depressing nature of the very concept of this series, and like I said, they might just have a point - but while wallowing in misery certainly runs counter to the iconic brightness of the DC Universe, the specific ways in which they struggle is what makes Heroes in Crisis worth reading.