In the final pop-culture-laden monologue of Quentin Tarantino’s reference-heavy epic Kill Bill, David Carradine espouses the difference between heroes with alter egos (like Batman and Spider-Man), and Superman, a born superhero who assumes an alter ego to blend in. But what if Superman and every other superhero in the world had to give up what makes them special in order to save the world, and become their meek alter egos forever? Tom King’s debut novel, A Once Crowded Sky, explores a city of superheroes and villains reduced to normalcy. The narrative structure roughly separates into chapters titled as if they were comic-book issues, weaving a dense mythology through a wide array of original characters. It’s a visceral prose response to the War On Terror era, but with added costumed fighters. The conceit is reminiscent of Alan Moore’s Cold War doomsday dread.
The novel opens in Arcadia City, just after the world has been saved once again, but at great cost. The Blue, a mysterious energy force leaking through a tear in space, threatened to end all existence—and caused a behavioral disorder in all supervillains, leading to their suicide. Ultimate, a deified robotic hero dubbed “The Man With The Metal Face,” uses a belt belonging to über-wealthy hero Star Knight to absorb all the superheroes’ powers, then burns to nothing while using the energy-filled belt to seal the rift. His once-faithful sidekick PenUltimate refused the call to surrender his powers, and is the only remaining superhero. But attacks on the city keep coming, and some unseen puppetmaster is pulling the strings to bring Pen back into action; he unites with bitter, aging former hero Soldier Of Freedom to uncover why Ultimate’s sacrifice hasn’t quelled the disasters.
In spite of the original character names, A Once Crowded Sky is heavily indebted to previous superhero stories and high-profile comics characters. Star-Knight has strains of Ozymandias from Watchmen. Prophetier is a blend of Watchmen’s Rorschach and Unbreakable’s Mr. Glass, with a little dash of Spider Jerusalem from Transmetropolitan. Strength is a cross between Watchmen’s Silk Spectre and Wonder Woman. And Soldier Of Freedom is a heavily darkened version of Captain America. But King does create some heroes who escape the shadow of well-worn characters, like alcoholic super-surgeon Doctor Speed, devout Muslim superheroine Mashallah, and Devil Girl, a maniacally charming woman who pops up throughout Soldier’s story as his supernatural companion.
But while it’s a little too obvious about its influences, A Once Crowded Sky is more than some chop-shop Frankenstein of Watchmen, The Avengers, and The Incredibles. It hits its highest notes when it departs from the heavy influence of totemic, complex superhero tales and mirrors modern military concerns—a natural fit, since King is a former CIA officer who worked in counterterrorism. One of Watchmen’s greatest aspects is how it oozes with Cold War paranoia, and its structure mirrors the ’80s impending fear of nuclear apocalypse. A Once Crowded Sky strikes an eerily similar note about the War On Terror.
King’s heroes give up their power to fight The Blue. After the threat is gone, those heroes remain as shells of their former selves, much like soldiers returning from war, adrift in a world they no longer connect with or understand. Some, like Strength and Doctor Speed, descend into self-destruction, even as their city continues to get blown apart. It turns out that taking a page out of war films serves the story better than any comic influence—the book conveys the sense that at any moment, anywhere, danger can strike. Friends can die quickly and without warning, in concussive, seemingly never-ending succession. It’s simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting to read.
The world in The Avengers never truly seems in danger, because the film is designed as such a raucous good time, and the characters are such well-established canon heroes, there’s no chance the filmmakers will let them fail. Not so in A Once Crowded Sky. All the characters are wounded, missing parts of themselves—even PenUltimate, who retains his powers, but loses his mentor and his self-confidence. The terrorist attacks are sudden and confusing, with unclear motives and no one to claim responsibility for the horror. It’s like a comic-book interpretation of The Hurt Locker, with adrenaline-junkie former heroes hurling themselves into danger, while others watch from the sidelines, transfixed with crippling guilt.
There are certainly rough patches. King tries to create his own transcendent crosscutting Watchmen sequence three times, with different characters, but only fully hits the mark once, with the grieving PenUltimate. And it’s hard to read a novel this blatantly patterned after comics without wondering whether it would have been better off as an actual graphic novel, rather than as prose capped with the occasional illustrated page. Though the story packs a meta-narrative wallop concerning the repetitive, cyclic nature of comic-books plots (yet another Watchmen influence, though more subtle and integral to the plot than Tales Of The Black Freighter), the twists are compacted by the end, jolting the characters around in a way that threatens to be unsatisfying.
But A Once Crowded Sky carves out some small semblance of originality and novelty from all the direct influences. It’s a story of coping with limitations and repeating history in an epic interconnected scope. This is an exciting post-millennial conflict allegory, which echoes the terror of Alan Moore’s writing for Watchmen while sidestepping out of its shadow.