Spotlight Sunday 9.30.18

Spotlight Sundays

The passing of a legendary artist and the opportunity to support a worthy cause mean that there are spoilers ahead for…

Heroes In Crisis #1
Writer: Tom King
Artist: Clay Mann
Cover: Clay Mann
Variant Covers: Ryan Sook, Mark Brooks, J.G. Jones, Francesco Mattina

“Yeah. There’s going to be a fight.”

Before we dive into the issue at hand, I want to comment on the recent passing of artist Norm Breyfogle. For an entire generation of readers, Breyfogle is the definitive Batman artist; his clean, yet slightly surrealist style, with the physics-defying, endlessly swirling cape, and a Dark Knight who always seemed to be couched in shadow no matter the lighting conditions, was uniquely his own, yet evocative of some of the great artists, like Aparo and Marshall, who preceded him.

While he has rightly-earned his place in the pantheon of the greats for his lengthy tenure on the Bat-titles, and I am a fan of what he did in that time, my personal preference is for his work with J.M. DeMatteis on The Spectre, a series in which he upped his already-considerable artistic game.

Breyfogle was the first pro I ever met and got something signed by back when I was in college. I didn’t really speak to him, because I’m an awkward geek, but while I didn’t know him, I’ve long felt a personal connection to him. Not just because I admired his work, but because he was like me.

That is, he’s from where I’m from, or near-enough: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Further, he and I share an alma mater, though he was a dozen years older, so our paths never crossed, other than at that signing that occurred when he returned to the area for a visit.

In a way, though, they did. In my student job as a janitor, I worked in the Fine Arts building, and during one shift cleaning the drawing studio I happened to see something lying on a shelf at the back of the room that caught my eye. On closer inspection, I realized that it was pages of original art from an issue of Prime, a comic that had recently launched with Norm Breyfogle as the artist. There was a note from Breyfogle explaining that they were a gift to his former teacher, who was still on the faculty at the time and gave instruction in that studio, to thank him helping him achieve his comic book dreams.

It was a very cool experience – though I will say that it was decidedly uncool of the professor to just leave them lying around like that – and is one of my favorite memories of my time at Northern.

The funny thing is that back in high school when I first saw his work on Batman, I had no idea that he was from the area. I didn’t actually find that out until that signing years later, when he was interviewed on the local news for the standard “local boy makes good” story.

(I also learned some time later that my brother, who is only a few years younger than Breyfogle, did know him.)

I had him sign this mini-poster, which was an insert in issue #604 of Detective Comics.

I say “standard,” but the fact of the matter is that there was nothing “standard” about it in that area, because local boys very rarely made good, which is why I wish that I had known that he was a Yooper back when I first discovered his art.

Few will admit it – and it may be that they just don’t see it – but for all the natural beauty of the place I’m from, and the admitted advantages of life in a small (miniscule, practically non-existent) town, growing up there imbues you with a kind of hopelessness, or fatalism. Or rather, it lowers your expectations and stunts your aspirations, in no small part because its very nature – sparsely-populated, remote, economically-depressed, and more often than not buried under snow – limits your opportunities and blinds you to the very existence of opportunities.

As a kid, I had dreams, and hopes, and aspirations, but as far back as I can remember they were always undercut by the suspicion that achieving them was impossible, and that working towards them – really working – was a fruitless endeavor. “Sure,” this small voice inside me would say, “try, but just, you know, don’t try too hard. You’re just some Yooper after all. No one even knows this place exists.”

It’s not my intent to blame my own self-doubts and limitations on the place of my birth, but that little voice was amplified by exceedingly rare examples of any kind of counterargument, and I can’t help but think that if I had known then that someone like me, a Yooper, had gone on to achieve the kind of success I’d longed for…well, things probably wouldn’t have turned out any differently. At least, that’s what that voice tells me.

But it would have been nice to know. To have that source of inspiration.

A hero.

And that’s why the death of someone I didn’t even know has hit me so hard, because even if I was late to discovering it, he was a hero to me.

I’ll wrap things up and get to the comic in a moment, but I want to mention something else. A few years ago, Norm Breyfogle had a stroke, and, as is so common now, crowdfunding efforts arose to meet the costs of his medical care, because, like most comic book creators, Breyfogle was a freelancer, and like so many freelancers, getting by with little or no health insurance.

So I want to mention the Hero Initiative, an organization that works to help comics creators in need. There are lots of ways to help support Hero Initiative, including buying comics signed by their creators. I have several comics in my collection that were signed by writers and artists for the Hero Initiative, and it’s a great way to help heroes who find themselves in crisis.

Which leads us, finally, to the comic at hand.

Tom King is, of course, no stranger to the Spotlight, and one of the aspects of his work that I find so appealing is the unflinching manner in which he uses comics, and the super heroes whose adventures those comics chronicle, to take an unflinching look at issues of mental health and the pervasive impact of physical and emotional trauma.

While that is a clear theme of his work in Mister Miracle, with Heroes In Crisis, that approach to grappling with those issues is front and center and is the very core of the concept.

In order to help the world’s super-heroes work through the trauma and stress of their lives, the Trinity – Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman – established a place called Sanctuary, hidden deep in a location nearly as remote as the place of my birth, a retreat where heroes can get the kind of specialized help that they need.

We open in a diner in Gordon, Nebraska, a place that’s not accustomed to seeing many super-heroes, where Booster Gold is having a cup of coffee. He’s soon joined by Harley Quinn, and we then get a double-page spread splash showing a red blur streaking through the sky over farmlands.

Next we see Harley in the first of the many “confessionals” sprinkled throughout the issue, part of the intake process at Sanctuary.

Back at the diner, Harley enjoys a piece of pie, and makes another confession.

“I hate pudding.”

Superman – the red blur we saw on the splash page – arrives at Sanctuary, where it’s clear, based on the scavenging birds enjoying a bloody feast, that something has gone terribly wrong.

At the diner, Harley finishes her pie and moves on to the real dessert: attacking Booster.

At Sanctuary, Superman discovers the bodies of several minor heroes, and is in contact with Batman and Wonder Woman, who are both en route.

Among the bodies he discovers are those of Arsenal – whose confessional about his struggles with addiction tie the super-hero lifestyle to the real-world opioid epidemic – and Wally West, who only recently returned to continuity as part of the “Rebirth” event.

Harley takes advantage of the fact that Booster doesn’t want to hurt her to hurt him as much as possible, until he finally grabs hold of her and takes to the air, intent on bringing her to justice.

At Sanctuary, the rest of the Trinity arrives, and are shaken by what they see. The dream of Sanctuary, along with the people who were there, is dead.

A message on the wall proclaims “The puddlers are all dead.”

Wonder Woman explains that a “puddler” is someone who works with metal to make weapons, skimming the surface of the molten metal to remove impurities. As to what it means, Batman says it means what it always means.

In the skies above, despite – or because of – the fact that they’ll both fall, Harley stabs Booster, who does what he can to save her life as they fall, and we get a sense of what they were fighting about. The gravely-wounded Booster asserts that he saw Harley kill everyone at Sanctuary, and that he fled in a panic.

Harley, meanwhile, saw Booster kill everyone.

The issue closes with Booster’s confessional.

Crises are a staple of DC stories – fittingly enough, among the comics I have that were signed for Hero Initiative is a complete set of Crisis on Infinite Earths signed by Marv Wolfman and George Perez – and though the nominally final one occurred ten years ago, it’s appropriate for this story, which is more personal than cosmic. Advanced press likened it to Identity Crisis, which no doubt prompted many to give it a pass, but while it’s an apt comparison in a broad sense, it feels very different, at least in this first issue. Yes, there are shocking deaths, and the kind of grittiness and “realism” that can often feel so utterly incongruous in stories about people who put on costumes and beat up criminals, but, particularly knowing the work of King as I do, nothing in it feels like it’s being done merely for shock value, and the weightiness of the subject matter does not feel out of place or an attempt to be edgy.

I’ve talked before about King’s ability to transform the mundane into the mythic and the mythic into the mundane, and that is on full display here, especially in the quiet moments before the violence – the violence we all know is coming – at the diner, and in the confessionals, which, like their counterparts in “reality” TV programming, help us feel a sense of connection with these characters as they seem to speak directly to us.

The fractured approach to telling the story, jumping between scenes with Booster and Harley, scenes featuring the Trinity, and the confessionals, works well building a sense of tension, and mimicking the disorienting effect of trauma. There’s a sense of dread that comes with the slow reveal of the carnage awaiting Superman at Sanctuary, as does seeing the Man of Steel so utterly shaken.

That’s part of what makes comics, and specifically super-hero comics, such a potent medium for telling stories that have heft and impact. Not just the unique features of the form and structure that allow for stories to unfold in a way that’s not possible in any other medium, but in the history, in that shared understanding of mythology. This is an event that left not only Superman and Wonder Woman shaken, but Batman as well.

The art by Clay Mann is stunning, and I’m most impressed by his storytelling in the quiet moments in the diner, which are just as dynamic, in their own way, as the action sequences. His use of body language in the confessionals adds depth to the monologues, and in the pre-fight sequences conveys the impact through Booster’s subdued posture. From that very first page it’s clear that Booster is in shock.

This was originally slated to be a seven-issue mini-series, with two supplemental books – with art by King’s brother in comics, Mitch Gerads – but it was recently expanded to nine, incorporating the tie-ins into the main series. Even though it’s just getting started, I have a feeling that long before the end arrives this story will be regarded as a modern classic.

As always, special thanks go out to my comic shop, Comic Logic Books & Artwork. Please remember to support your local comic shop, and if you need to find one, click here.

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