In the beginning, there were heroes, and the heroes were with man and the heroes were man. This is the way it was in the beginning. We, as a species, as a culture are in love with heroes. Since the dawn of recorded time, we have elevated those among us who have risen above the rest of us to protect and defend us from the ravages of the more base among us. Mythology and legend. That is what drives us as a culture. These are those whom we idolize, and with good reason. They form the best of us, and drive us as people. And yet, since the dawn of the age of superheroes, there have been “rules of the road” so to speak. “Heroes don’t kill,” “With great power must also come great responsibility.” Once established, there have been writers who have attempted to deconstruct those rules (Kick-Ass, Brat Back, Super).
This is the rarified atmosphere that the debut novel from former CIA counter-terrorism, and one-time intern at Marvel and DC Comics comes. Tom King’s delightful novel A Once Crowded Sky delves into this colorful world of men and women wearing spandex and fighting for the greater good. Combining prose, comicbook panels, and pages of scripts, King fuses the sensibility of over-the-top, comic-book-style storytelling with modern literary fiction to deliver a thoroughly compelling tale of men and women who are larger than life itself who all have made the great sacrifice of rising above and taking on the mantle of protecting the rest of us because they are driven by the greater good.
However, King has chosen to give us this story from a new angle, A Once Crowded Sky reveals not so much a tale of powerful men and women protecting the rest of us, but life in a universe of formerly super men and women who have, due to an overriding incident have been stripped of their powers, and now, these newly-mortal individuals are forced to confront a new danger in a world without its superheroes. Sure, it is easy to face down dangers when you can leap tall buildings in a single bound, bend steel in your bare hands, or change the course of mighty rivers. Now try doing it when you are no stronger, faster, or more adept than the few you are facing.
In Arcadia City the de-powered superheroes used to fight a wonderful war and play a wonderful game, forever saving yet another day. However, after sacrificing both their powers and abilities by willing giving up those wondrous abilities to fight The Blue, an unknown force that was threatening all of the word. They all stood together, to bequeath their powers to Ultimate, the greatest hero of them all, in order to defeat the latest apocalypse, these comicbook heroes were, all at once, transformed from the marvelous beings they once were into the mundane of the rest of us.
That done, they believes us all to be safe, only it wasn’t to be. These are the the dayof of the heroes after too many battles won and too many friends lost, The Soldier of Freedom was fine letting all that glory go. However when a new threat blasts through his city, Soldier, as ever, accepts his duty and reenlists in this next war. Without his once amazing abilities, he’s forced to seek the help of the one man who walked away, the sole hero who refused to make the sacrifice — PenUltimate, the sidekick and young ward of Ultimate, the man with the metal face who is this world’s premier hero. However Pen, through his own rejection of the game, has become the most powerful man in the world, the only one left who might still, once again, save the day.
King gives us a rare glimpse into the spandex, muscle-bound, testosterone-driven world of Superheroes, written in a style that mirrors the sensibilities and style of comicbooks in such a way that glorifies the medium rather than diminishes it. Clearly Kin is a fan of the genre, and his love of the medium is reflected in not only his respect for the field, but his desire to add to the mythology rather than deride it. Ultimately, A Once Crowded Sky delivers to us a story that is not predictable as to its potential outcome, which makes it read much better than the comicbooks it purports to mirror (we all know how the next Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man will turn out, not so much with this story, and that is truly where the fun lies. So, if you are looking to read a new chapter in the mythology of superheroes, you would do yourself well to seek out and read, Tom King’s book.
Robert J. Sodaro has been reviewing comicbooks for some 30 years. During that time, his reviews and articles have appeared in numerous print publications, as well as on the web. Subscribe to receive regular comicbook articles and reviews.