|"...let the boy know that though some of us pass away, all of us, eventually fly."|
I just finished reading A ONCE CROWDED SKY, the debut novel by Tom King. Mr. King served in the CIA as an operations officer in the Counterterrorism Center. Prior to working at the CIA, he interned at both Marvel and DC Comics. Mr. King knows something about heroes, both real and imagined. I am here to tell you that Mr. King can flat out write and ONCE CROWDED is, in my humble opinion, one of the best prose examinations of comic book superheroes I've ever read.
The text is supported by sturdy black and white illustrations by Tom Fowler liberally spaced throughout the book. Each chapter heading is the title and issue number of a comic book devoted to one of the many heroes in this story. For instance, the novel begins with ULTIMATE, THE MAN WITH THE METAL FACE #566. The setting is Arcadia City where Ultimate, the greatest superhero of them all, has just made the ultimate sacrifice. In order to stop the reality destroying menace of The Blue, Ultimate, using Star-Knight's power belt, has gathered all of the powers of all of the super-heroes unto himself and stepped into the abyss to stop the threat. He dies, the world is saved and all of the super powered men and women now find themselves ordinary people.
Except one. Pen Ultimate, the boy sidekick of Ultimate, chose not to surrender his powers in the moment of crisis and stayed home with his wife. Now, he's the only one left with super powers (some of Ultimate's superior robot technology was transplanted into him years ago). But the trouble is, according to the Prophetier, a super-hero who used to be able to see the future, "they all come back."
Another major player in this drama is the Soldier of Freedom, an ageless warrior who has fought in every American war of the 20th century armed only with his guts and twin automatics. Soldier, in a neat inversion of the Captain America trope, is deliberately put on ice at the end of every major conflict that's he called upon to fight in and thawed out to serve whenever his country needs him again.
Prophetier knows that Pen's story isn't over, that there's still a sacrifice to be made in order for the ongoing story to continue. That's because Prophetier is privy to the secret of The Blue, a well-spring of realities in which all of the heroes' lives, their team-ups, their adventures, their victories, their defeats, are displayed in vividly colorful comic book panels. The Prophetier knows that they are all living in a never ending story loop of life, death, redemption and resurrection. He wants that cycle to continue and Pen must play his part in this predetermined epic.
The trouble is, the Soldier doesn't want the story to continue. He's tired of all of the death and destruction. He wants the story to end, to quit playing "the game" as the heroes' refer to their adventures. Pen, Prophetier and Soldier collide head-on in a battle to keep the narrative going forever or to end it once and for all.
ONCE CROWDED is a gorgeously written meta-textual meditation on the need for heroic myths, for stories, for narratives of good vs. evil in all of our lives. There are plenty of well rendered action sequences but it's the characters inner-lives and their complex relationships to their fellow heroes that ring true. Heartbreakingly beautiful and lump-in-the-throat inducing at times, A ONCE CROWDED SKY fully gets why these silly stories of men and women in capes and tights ultimately matter so much to us.Thank you Mr. King for giving us a truly great book.