Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Wednesday Comics: The Rise and Fall of Tom King

Let me say this at the outset: Tom King is a better writer than I will ever be.

I write this article with the understanding that he is someone of superior skill.  My critique here is not based on his ability, but his choices.  And from this point of view, I write from a place of sadness as I see the deterioration of someone with the potential to be one of the truly great comic book writers.

The first thing I remember reading from King was his run on Grayson in the days following Forever Evil.  I remember the stories vaguely, but nothing really stood out.  But then King took over Batman in the DC Rebirth era.  His first issue stood out to me as Batman was trying to safely guide a crashing plan into the river, knowing he was going to die.  In his last moments, he was communicating with Alfred his final goodbyes.  It was an issue that was action-packed, while at the same time being intensely emotional.  While I enjoyed this issue, King had yet to jump out at me as an writer of note.

But then he wrote Batman/ Elmer Fudd.  I almost passed up this issue, but my comic book guy recommended it.  It is difficult to stress how much I was blown away by this book.  As I wrote in an earlier post:

Nothing about this book should work.

This should be a ridiculous one-off that would soon be thrown onto the rubbish bin of memory.

And yet this is the best one-shot I have read all year.

The book almost dares you hate it.  As soon as you open the book, the title of the story uses Fudd's speech impediment and is titles, "Pway for Me."  And the first page is an interior, dramatic, noir monologue completely done in Fudd's voice.  And in one page you go from scoffing at the stupdity of the premise to in awe that the monologue has sucked you in to the story.

And it is a dark story of murder and revenge while at the same time being filled with joyous cameos.  Writer Tom King deserves the most amazing credit for embracing the ridiculousness of the pairing and turning that weakness into the book's biggest strength.  The degree of difficulty alone in what this book has accomplished is one of the reasons why King has cemented himself already in his short career as one of the greats.

This made me sit up and pay attention more to his work on Batman.  He was developing a rich inner life to the character while complimenting it with exciting action.  His re-introduction of Bane was fantastic, as he brought gravity and dread upon the entire story by his mere presence.  I know that some people complained about his focus on the interpersonal relationships, but those early stories were so enjoyable for me.  The "Double Date" issues were insightful and funny.  The Annual #2, which summarized the love story between Batman and Catwoman was touching, tender, and tragic.

At the same time, he launched his boldest experiment yet: Mr. Miracle.  You could see that King was taking a page from greats like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, and James Robinson by taking a little-used character and taking them in a bold direction with the freedom that comes with writing a non-A-List hero.  And those first few issues broke through the noise.  Comic shops sold out of them and caused some genuine buzz.  King's book was so funky, like being trapped in a dream where you get this sense of some overarching unseen logic holding the chaos of the story together.  This experimental style seemed to fuse well with the type of story King was telling.  By the half-way point in the series I wrote:

I think this book cast a spell on me.  

The reason why I say this is because we are about half way through the series and I still have no idea what is going on.  Normally, I would have given up on a book like this the way I have on tons of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison works.  

But there is something compelling about this book for reasons I cannot explain.  The book feels like being trapped in a nightmare.  To use a quote from the movie Titanic, "there's truth but no logic."  

Even when the plot is confusing, I cannot help but be emotionally connected to the events of the story.  

For those who don't know, Mr. Miracle is the son of High Father of New Genesis.  When he was a baby, he was exchanged with Orion, son of Darkseid, as part of a peace treaty.  As a result, Mr. Miracle, aka Scott Free, grew up in hell until he was able to escape to Earth to become the world's greatest escape artist.  

The series begins with Scott's failed suicide attempt and goes immediately into a war with Darkseid.

Nothing is as it seems and as compelling as the book is, you cannot help but feel like you want to escape the madness too.  Maybe that's the point.

I will have a better assessment of the book when all is said and done, but I cannot think of another book like on the stands now.

It was at this point in 2017 that I told my comic book guy to pull any comics written by Tom King.  I gave him my Catholic Skywalker Award for best comic writer and his stories also won several of my awards.

But then came "The War of Jokes and Riddles."

King had set up a book with a fantastic concept: the overly analytic Riddler went to war with the chaos-minded Joker with villains on either side tearing up Gotham with Batman in the middle.  The idea was so exciting and the first issue set up one heck of a tale.  But right away things began to go wrong.

First of all, King made the story a flashback, so there were no real stakes going forward for any of the main characters.  Second, he focused on side characters like Kite-Man that felt more like distractions than anything.  But the main problem was that at last King was beginning to show his fatal flaw.

To explain, you have to understand that standard super-hero fare reads like an action movie.  That is not to say that it does not have strong dramatic elements to or that it lacks depth.  But like an action movie, the story builds to a conflict, usually some kind of fight.  Now, imagine watching a movie like Avengers: Infinity War and just as Thanos showed up on Titan to fight Iron Man and the other heroes there, Tony Stark began a voice over saying, "And so we fought and lost and he took the time stone," while we saw a quick 1-minute montage of the fight.

That is what started happening in King's writing.  A gigantic confrontation was about to take place and instead of letting it play out, Batman would narrate a vague description with a collage of the action.  It was so odd and it really took the wind out of the sails of the story.  It was almost like King got bored of his own story and wanted to fast forward to the parts he liked.  And that is when I discovered his main problem as a writer:

Tom King does not write for plot.

For King, he is much more interested in theme and character when it comes to his stories.  He wants to convey a certain big idea or a strong emotion.  I am someone who thinks that stories, especially comic book stories, should be thematically rich.  But they need a strong plot.  Plot is like the skeleton that holds up the body and the theme is heart.  A plot without a theme is like a well-formed dead body.  But a theme without a plot is a formless blob.  In a similar way, character needs plot.  Having characters sitting around talking about their feelings rarely works (though there are notable exceptions).  To paraphrase Aristotle, plot is character.  But character without plot is not a story.  

I think King became the victim of his own success.  Many like me praised is power as a writer.  But he appears to have bought into his own hype.  Instead of forming tight narratives and letting the characters and  theme develop through that, his style began to tilt to a much more experimental style that eschewed traditional story-telling methods.  The problem is that King was unable to sustain a good story in this new method.

I am going to give examples of this in his work to illustrate.  


Mr. Miracle's second half fell victim to King's descent.  The plot became more and more difficult to follow, with issues following each other with little to no connection to the previous events.  The worst came about with his treatment of Darkseid.  Throughout the book, King established the overarching evil, almost a disembodied malevolent omnipotence.  And then, in a move of Rian Johnson level of expectations-subversion, King makes a joke out of Darkseid.  Not only does the joke fall flat, but it makes a mockery of the entire story up until this point.  The series ends with an empty ambiguity that leaves the reader completely unsatisfied intellectually or emotionally.

Batman began to fall deeper and deeper into this plotless hole.  After the shaggy dog story of Batman and Catwoman's wedding, the series became an indulgent exercise in the main character navel gazing.  There was a glimmer of hope after Dick Grayson was shot in the head and Thomas Wayne returned to the picture.  But for months, King indulged his weird side with dream-sequence stories that brought the series to a grinding halt.  But even after the story picked up again nothing made sense.

Bane took over Gotham and put the villains in charge of the police force.  It was something that felt like a lame retread of "No Man's Land."  With a little bit of work, King could have come up with something to sell the reader on these strange circumstances.  But he didn't seem to care.  This was King's Gotham and we were just visiting.  But the place where he went from diminishing star to fallen star was what happened with Alfred.

Batman abandoned Gotham.  The heroes were warned not to return.  Robin (Damian Wayne) sneaks in but is caught.  Then, with a page focusing on Robin tied up and the action occuring off camera, we are treated to a giant image of Band snapping Alfred's neck.  This character is much more than Batman's butler.  He is the surrogate father to Bruce and in a sense is a fatherly figure to the entire Bat-family.  His death allowed for no emotional build-up and was disgustingly presented for shock value.  And then what happened in the series?

Batman lounged on a beach with Catwoman for two issues.

Here is one of the clearest examples of King's inattention to plot killing his storytelling abilities.  How in the world can I give a crap about the whiny love-life of Batman when his surrogate father was just murdered?  King belongs to that breed of modern comic book writers who do not understand the emotional connection that long-time readers have with the characters.  They are not simply Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Nightwing, Batgirl, Stargirl, etc.  They are Clark, Bruce, Diana, Dick, Babs, and Courtney.  We actually care about them.  They are not mere pawns.  They do not belong to the writer.  The writer is the caretaker of these characters and must treat them as such.  Again, think about this: one single panel was used to deal with Alfred's death followed by several issues going over Bat/Cat relationship angst.  The entire time I was reading those issues, I felt a sense of anger and betrayl.  Alfred was cast aside like old tissue so he could indulge wallow in relationship melodrama.

It was at this point I emotionally dropped out of the story.  I think a lot of people did as well as King planned 100 issue story was cut short to 75 by DC.  He had pulled in a lot of readers like me early, but began to hemorrhage them as he became more full of himself.  

The finale of his run did not improve things.  The final issue was classic Tom King in that the plot did not matter.  The final issue is set up as the clash between Thomas and Bruce.  But within a page, the fight is peppered with flash-forwards which tell us that the fight doesn't matter.  Its result is a foregone conclusion.  King didn't care about the fight.  Again, he wanted to skip ahead to the stuff he liked.

But his worst offense was Heroes in Crisis.

I give him a little bit of leeway because some of the story's worst plot points were mandated by Dan DiDio.  But even the execution was excruciating.  As I wrote in an earlier post, Heroes in Crisis #8 is the worst comic book I have ever read.  I won't repeat the whole thing, but it involved King using a nonsensical plot point in order to ruin one of the greatest DC characters of all time.  As I wrote:  

The story ruins a character loved by fans.
The story is based on motivations that make no sense.
The story requires an emotional crisis that the confessions cannot provide.
The story invents potentially fatal problem for all speedsters going forward.
The story uses time travel in the least effective way imaginable.
The story fails at all of its goals: logical and emotional.
The story makes me less likely to buy the next issue.
The story makes me less likely to buy more DC comics.
The story makes me less likely to buy anything by Tom King.

And in another post I wrote about the entire Heroes in Crisis fiasco:

The issue has writer Tom King trying to bring his story to an emotional conclusion.

The only thing that is conclusively proven is that Tom King does not understand super hero comics. 

It is abundantly clear that when he sees these iconic characters, he sees them as a heap of psychological problems.  He does not see the whole person, just their issues.  He thinks because he can find some mild or severe psychological problem in a character then he has discovered the core defining characteristic of their personality.  King does not understand that we are more than our traumas.  Batman's life has been shaped by his trauma, but he is more than his pain.  Heroes in Crisis took Wally West, stripped away all that was relevant to his personality and his heroism and defined him by his loss. 

What was really disgusting was Booster Gold telling Wally that he would work with him to help smooth over his crimes when he says, "Bros before Heroes."

That is the antithesis of heroism.  It says that dealing with emotional trauma trumps what is morally right.  This is an ethically insane thing to believe and it is particularly noxious because it foists it on someone who is supposed to be a hero.  Heroes are the ones who go above and beyond.  Heroes are the ones who take on the burdens that no one should ask of them, but no one else can.  That is the Wally West we all know.  Anyone who has read Geoff Johns' "Blitz" storyline would find the Wally West in Heroes in Crisis unrecognizable.  And the transformation is not earned, not by a long shot.  I have heard rumors that King was mandated to do this to Wally by DC Editorial.  It makes no difference.  He should have said no.

The entire affair is capped off by Harley Quinn kneeing Wally in the crotch for... reasons?  Seeing that scene felt like the entire mini-series summed up in one panel. 

On top of all of its problems with theme and plot, it is a horribly written comic.  King does not seem to understand that comics are a visual medium.  Page after page is flooded with dialogue that almost pushes out the images, not that it matters much since all of them are mostly just standing around an open field for 20 pages. 

I write all of this not to condemn Tom King.  I hope for his literary redemption.

As I said at the beginning, King is an immense talent and still has potential to be one of the greats.  You can see glimpses of this greatness in his Superman: Up in the Sky.  But he keeps indulging in his own perceived elevation above the traditional comic book form.  Ironically, it is when he works within the traditional plot-centric structure, his writing truly soars.

As in history, it is not uncommon for a king to rise and fall.

But there is still hope for this King to rise again.

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