Few things in life are as satisfying as a good origin story — and among comics writers, few possess one better than Tom King. Over the past several years, the writer has risen in the industry ranks to become a truly original voice in superhero comics.
Works like The Vision, King’s acclaimed 2016 graphic novel about an android who wants to be human, and Mister Miracle, a reimagination of a classic Jack Kirby superhero, have transcended genre, drawing on King’s fascinating pre-comics background and tapping into deeper human concerns.
More recently, King has taken on the starting lineup of D.C. Comics characters—the bulk of the Justice League, including such characters as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and The Flash—in Heroes in Crisis (with artist Clay Mann), a new graphic novel which will be published this month in hardcover by DC.
Heroes in Crisis is a kind of murder-mystery wrapped around an underlying story about emotional pain and trauma among superheroes. The book centers around a massacre that has occurred at Sanctuary, a secret rehabilitation facility set up by Batman to treat superheroes suffering from PTSD. Sanctuary, which uses A.I. and virtual reality technology to treat its powerful patients in secret, becomes a horrific crime scene after the brutal murders of a group of superheroes and former super villains, among them Poison Ivy and the Flash, who’s secret identity is Wally West.
As the story unfolds, it reveals something far deeper than the standard battle between good and evil. It’s a story of heroic, larger than life characters who must also deal with the very real fallout of post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of the brutal circumstances surrounding their adventures. And like all of his best work, King looked inward to his own unique life experiences for inspiration.
King’s background working for the CIA in the seemingly endless War on Terror played a key role in the story’s inception. So, too, did the lead up to and fall out from Donald Trump’s election. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” he says dryly, “but there’s some tension going on in the country right now.”
“Similar to Mister Miracle, DC came to me and asked if I wanted to do something bigger in the DC Universe with more [DC characters.],” King explains. “I actually wanted to do something smaller. I didn’t want to do the end of the world or some stakes like that.”
“I wanted to write about how it’s okay to have trauma, and there are ways to get through it,” says King. "There are so many people who are still suffering and asking for help is such a hard thing to do. There are better words for it, but it feels almost unmanly. If I could have the most powerful people in our dreams — these superheroes — and show that everyone goes through this, that no one’s alone. Hopefully that would be something positive I could contribute to this tumultuous time. Just like after 9-11, you try to do what you can to help.”
In the wake of 9-11, King wanted to know how he could contribute to the defense of his country. At the time he was a recent college graduate with only a pair of internships at Marvel and D.C. Comics to his name and King suddenly found himself applying for a job on the CIA.’s website. “I went to the first meeting,” the writer recalls. “It sounds like a Men in Black parody, but the guy next to me had six PhDs in foreign languages and affairs. The guy on the other side of me was a special forces dude who was ready to fight. And I know six Thor origin stories.”
Convinced that his career at the agency would be over as soon as it had begun, King nevertheless managed to work his way up the ladder at the agency's Langley, Md. headquarters. He became an Operations Officer, recruiting spies to “stop the bad guys from doing bad things,” in his words. But after nearly seven years, King wanted out to spend more time with his young family.
“I couldn’t figure out how to be the best father I could and also be in the CIA,” he says. “I was doing counterterrorism work overseas in a war zone. My wife and I spent the first half of our marriage apart. We were looking for alternatives to that. I didn’t have education to do anything else, so I took a year off to become a writer. It was my last chance to live the pipe dream. I was 30.”
With his wife (who is a lawyer) supporting the family, King took a year off to write what would become his first novel, A Once Crowded Sky, published in 2013 by S&S/Atria. The book mined his childhood comics obsession to tell the story of superheroes forced to carry on after being stripped of their powers. The book, which featured illustrations by cartoonist Tom Fowler, was well received and King was off to the races, living out his lifelong dream of writing comics after DC tapped him to write Grayson, the story of the titular Robin, now the Nightwing character, a new superhero hero persona for Dick Grayson, Batman’s longtime partner. The book also featured a nod to King’s previous life, as the former Batman sidekick became a member of a spy agency called Spyral.
King then wrote the 2016 Green Lantern off-shoot The Omega Men, followed by The Sheriff of Babylon (Vertigo), which is based on his own experiences working in counter intelligence in Baghdad. King’s lengthy run writing the Batman series was well received, but it was a brief move to Marvel that produced his next acclaimed work. Teaming with artist Gabriel Hernández Walta, King wrote The Vision, a story about the android character attempting to create a wholesome American family living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
After his work on The Vision, D.C. co-publisher Dan Didio suggested he take on Mister Miracle, an immortal superhero created by Jack Kirby for DC in the 1970s. King says that he connected with the work on a personal level.
The revered creator of such iconic Marvel characters as the Fantastic Four and the Black Panther, Kirby left Marvel disillusioned about his relationship with the publisher, taking the idea for Mister Miracle and other characters to DC. Like the rest of his creations, Kirby’s cosmic characters were the heroes of grand, sweeping epic comic book sagas that also bear the deeply personal marks of the artist’s own life and struggles.
“When I read that work, to me I’m reading the work of a guy who’s been through something,” says King. “I feel like it’s incredibly personal work. I see in it a lot of pain from war [Kirby was a WWII combat veteran] and also a lot of love — the love of his wife which helped him through that. Maybe I’m just reading myself into his work. But I think that what makes Jack Kirby special is that you can read yourself into his work.”
Mister Miracle ultimately helped King collect four Eisner Awards—best writer, best limited series, best short story and best graphic album—at this year’s San Diego Comic Con. For his next act, King will revisit Kirby’s New Gods, a series about a fictional cosmic race first published by DC in the 1970s, but this time in cinematic form. In May, it was announced that King will begin co-writing a screenplay based on the New Gods series with Ava DuVernay, director of such films as Selma and A Wrinkle in Time.
King speaks about the project with characteristic modesty. “I feel like I have this genius, Jack Kirby, who created this [series] and this genius Ava DuVernay,” he explains. “I see them as parallel figures, both taking their uniquely American backgrounds and using them to push American art forward into places it’s never been before. I feel like it’s my job to bring those two geniuses to together and to make it work.”