Tom King and Clay Mann’s mini-series Heroes in Crisis has been a major cornerstone of DC Comics’ storytelling this year. King, a juggernaut who’s been celebrated for his runs on Batman and Mister Miracle, is using his experience as a CIA to inform Heroes In Crrisis. Zeroing in on the superheroes’ mental health — or lack thereof.
The main conceit is that Superman has used Kryptonian technology to create Sanctuary – a robotic hideaway deep in the Kansas cornfields were heroes in distress can learn to cope with their PTSD. However, something goes horribly wrong: someone has viciously murdered all of the patients at Sanctuary, including Wally West and Roy Harper (Arsenal). Booster Gold, who has no memory of the incident, and Harley Quinn, who is set on taking Booster down, are the prime suspects, though they are clearly working at odds with each other. As the classic Trinity, with the Flash’s help, bare down on Harley and Booster, it’s a race against time to see who really done it.
We’re now four issues in to the nine-issue series, so it’s a good time to take stock of DC’s would-be blockbuster. In spite of the headline, there’s a lot to love about Heroes in Crisis and, barring anything as truly fucked up as Identity Crisis, I plan to read the whole thing. There’s a reason Tom King has won an Eisner Award and it shows here.
So far, Heroes in Crisis has followed a non-linear timeline, cutting between C- and D-list heroes’ therapy sessions with the current narrative, where our favorites scramble to solve the murder mystery. To preserve anonymity in Sanctuary, the patients wear masks to disguise themselves in all common areas. Instead of human therapists, patients speak to an AI, which programs immersive holograms that supposedly help the heroes process their traumas (more on that later.) This convention gives us the opportunity to see people at their most vulnerable — including Bruce, Clark, and Diana. It also gives King the opportunity to flex his muscles, deftly bringing new interpretations to three of the most-written characters in the 20th century. I didn’t think there were too many more stones left to turn on the Trinity, but King proves that wrong. Clay Mann’s pencils and layouts give the story a cinematic feel. And the marriage of the two produces some truly guffaw-inducing and gut-wrenching scenes — often in the same page.
For all that Heroes in Crisis accomplishes, there’s a good deal to critique. Let’s start with the series’ central conceit. King’s depictions of people in distress — people who believe in their moral code but don’t understand why the violence so disturbs them; people who are trying to regain their sense of self after being on the receiving end of the same violence — is devastatingly pitch-perfect.
It’s Sanctuary itself that I question. I fail to see how immersing trauma survivors in the worst moment of their lives ad nauseam is an effective treatment plan that any reasonable person — even in a comic book universe – would create. There are often times when the computer sasses the patients like Booster Gold. Except, that’s not what therapists do.
In the real world, PTSD is caused precisely because our brains play those traumas in never-ending loops, too caught up in the replay to learn how to create new responses to other anxiety-producing situations. A good therapist will guide patients towards creating a distinction between the past and present.
In other words, given that this is a story about therapy, the book’s writing seriously calls into question whether King understands what therapy even is.
Maybe I’m jumping the gun and this is part of the story. In issue 4, we learn that not only have all of the patients’ “therapy” sessions been recorded (according to Clark, they’re supposed to be deleted immediately), but somebody has leaked these sessions to the Daily Planet. It’s not unreasonable that somebody has corrupted Sanctuary into a malignant influence, one that deepens the malaise these heroes suffer, forcing them to hang up their capes and cowls for good. While that make for a good story, I think it would actually work at cross-purposes with King’s broader message: that these feelings are normal and that it’s okay to seek healing from others. If we’re supposed to be more accepting of therapy, then implying that therapists can brainwash you for their own ends is not the way to go about it.
Speaking of which, King anticipates that the whole world will react in horror to Sanctuary, that nobody will trust superheroes if they seek out therapy. I live in New York City and most of the people I know (myself included) go to therapy regularly and talk about it openly. While I understand that I’m in the minority, the global backlash King anticipates is perplexing. Given the number of veterans in the US who are depressed, addicted, violent towards their loved ones, participants in mass shootings, and have committed suicide by cop (as it’s called), I don’t think that we, as a nation, dismiss the connection between combat experience and mental illness. And I certainly don’t think we would be collectively upset that people who have experienced trauma seek help.
I think it’s more believable that ordinary people would be relieved that super-powered people have a place to go to instead of taking out their rage on an otherwise unsuspecting populace. King’s anticipated audience reaction rings hollow; he doesn’t trust the reader to sympathize with his characters’ mental anguish, weakening his relationship with his readers. More damaging, though, is that King’s own ambivalence about the benefits of therapy has the potential to push readers away from considering it for themselves.
If that weren’t icky enough, let’s get back to Clay Mann’s art. Mann has very clearly based his characters on their cinematic counterparts where applicable — Harley Quinn is a good likeness to Margot Robbie. On the one hand, I like that I can imagine the story playing out on the silver screen. But also, it’s fucking creepy, particularly because Mann takes a perverse delight in cheesecaking the characters up as possible. Mann is equal opportunity, at least; in issue 4, Booster Gold and Blue Beetle have bedonkadonks to write home about and everyone has a bulge just shy of a Tom of Finland illustration. I guess if I were being charitable, I’d say that Mann’s depiction of the human form is “idealized.”
But we don’t see the male characters explicitly sexualized in the same way the women are. Tom King requested that the cover for issue 7, which shows Poison Ivy on the floor, covered in blood and in a torturous posture akin to that Spiderwoman cover, be pulled. The cover was supposedly a draft and supposedly leaked, but I have to question why anyone, in the year of our lord 2019, let it get past stick figure stage. Furthermore, Lois is half-naked in issue 4 for skimpy reasons. While we find out that Clark is a boxer briefs man, he isn’t given the same luxurious splash page to talk about journalism ethics while lounging in them seductively. I am both disappointed and unsurprised that we are still talking about how women are depicted in comics.
For me, at least, none of these things are objectionable enough to make me stop reading the story — yet. But for the next five issues of Heroes in Crisis, I’ll be holding my nose.
How do we rate this Event? 4 Sodas
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An educator and music writer in her native island of Manhattan. Rachel co-hosts the ‘Adobe & Teardrops’ Podcast with Von Cloedt of Americana Rock Mix.
Rachel recently self-published the first issue of her fantasy minicomic ‘Artema.’