For superheroes, there are few battles that can’t be won by a swinging sword, a blast of heat vision or an angst-powered punch. Our heroes are often in peril, but rarely in crisis — that is, until now.
In DC Comics’ latest comic book limited series, “Heroes in Crisis,” the trauma of fighting crime casts a long shadow: At a clandestine hospital called Sanctuary, superheroes get treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. But when its patients are murdered, it’s up to Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman to find the killer.
We’re presented with the two prime suspects: Harley Quinn, herself a former psychiatrist turned antihero, and Booster Gold, a high-tech, time-traveling superhero. Naturally, the two duke it out, offering something of a respite to a largely grim tone, which writer Tom King navigates with ease.
Dark, psychological stories are in King’s wheelhouse, which is no surprise, given that King was a CIA officer before writing a critically-acclaimed Marvel series, “The Vision,” and the latest “Batman” run. In the wholly David Lynchian world of “The Vision,” horrific violence bubbles underneath the surface of a suburban idyll. This aesthetic is one that King also invokes in “Heroes in Crisis.”
Here, the beauty of rural America — rendered with richness by colorist Tomeu Morey — conceals a grisly mass murder, perhaps a metaphor for the mental trauma hidden beneath a superhero’s gleaming, confident demeanor; zoom in, and one finds the scars. In keeping with this theme, illustrator Clay Mann toggles between the macro and the micro, at once depicting large-scale superhero clashes and keying into the gruesome details that such battles too often gloss over.
The tension between the macro and the micro — the grandiosity of superheroes juxtaposed with their private turmoil — is perhaps best represented by the comic’s alternation between traditional page layouts and a nine-panel layout. The latter, popularized by “Watchmen” artist Dave Gibbons to pack in as much content on a single page as possible, is used to depict individual therapy sessions. In each panel, the character faces the reader, as if to directly address us, and the nine-panel layout gives Mann the space to convey the characters’ wide spectrum of emotions with efficiency. These pages are deeply poignant, endowing the minutiae of the DC Universe with a profound sadness, but it’s a creative choice that’s only as effective as the series’ discussion of mental health.
In this sense, the premise of “Heroes in Crisis” promises a thematic richness that its first issue gestures toward, but hardly accomplishes. Its first issue doesn’t discuss mental health, as much as it exploits it for tragedy. Of course, the series has eight more issues to articulate its thesis, but if the first issue achieves anything, it’s the concretizing of readers’ high expectations.
Will “Heroes in Crisis” normalize conversations on mental health, or will it be a thoroughly problematic exercise in superhero spectacle? One can only hope for the former.
Harrison Tunggal covers comic books. Contact him at [email protected].