Review: Heroes in Crisis hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

September 29, 2019


Tom King's Heroes in Crisis is a deeply flawed story, which is unfortunate because it's probably also one of the most important stories of the current era. This is a book about depression and trauma that I think reads very true, and the basic motivation of the book's antagonist is brilliantly tied in to a very relatable pathology of mental illness. Of course, tying mental illness to murderous impulse (inasmuch as Heroes in Crisis does or does not do that) is problematic, and that's only one of a number of places I wish Crisis would've zigged where it zagged. But I'd far from dismiss this book entirely.

Heroes in Crisis arrived just as DC Comics began to transfer out of its successful Rebirth era and into its also successful New Justice era of Scott Snyder's Dark Nights: Metal and Justice League. While DC seems to be going strong overall, the late releases of Doomsday Clock, and the Justice League and Superman titles getting ahead of Doomsday's big returns, suggests Rebirth petering to a close. I wouldn't speculate which creators like or side with whom behind the scenes, but only say that within its pages, Heroes in Crisis contains a sharp reprimand of some of Rebirth's central tenets, one that I think is highly correct and long overdue. Coming as it does in Rebirth's final days, this too makes Heroes in Crisis highly interesting.

[Review contains spoilers]

Character Assignation

Believe me, Wally West was my Flash for a very long time and I have great affection for the character. But as successful as Wally's titles have been, I think it's easy to forget that shortly before Flashpoint, Wally got a title cancelled out from under him, even so far as the final issues weren't ever collected. Even if you particularly liked Wally and Linda West's children Iris and Jai, the "Wild Wests" era wasn't a sales success (else it would have continued), and ultimately sales rules all. It was not at all a surprise that Rebirth reintroduced Wally and Linda to the mainstream but made no mention of Jai and Iris; it seemed to me Rebirth wanted to re-set Wally West to the status quo in which he was the most popular.

In essence, Wally's return to the DC Universe was largely about reaffirming the quasi-New 52 status quo. Much of Wally's narrative in DC Universe: Rebirth involves aggrandizing his uncle, Flash Barry Allen, cementing Barry's position as DC's primary Flash. With Wally's return, the Rebirth DCU regains the concept of "legacy," which had been truncated in the New 52, but it is with Wally at the outset — wearing his Kid Flash costume — as sidekick and secondary to Barry.

Wally had returned, but it wasn't really about Wally. This is evidenced in a number of ways including that this "symbol of hope" was then written as deeply, personally unhappy about the loss of his past life (not to mention the children he didn't remember) even as his return was celebrated as a new beginning for others. This struck me as immensely cynical then as now, using Wally more as figurehead than character. Readers unhappy with Wally's treatment in Heroes in Crisis should at least acknowledge that the roots of this characters difficulties were set long before now.

I grant that DC ought have been prepared for backlash in having former Justice Leaguer Wally West accidentally kill at least a dozen other heroes and then muddle with their corpses. But at the same time, I also think Heroes in Crisis should get some credit for taking up Wally's cause. Crisis's sixth chapter is unflinching in presenting the flip side of DC Universe: Rebirth — one in which Wally is praised by a parade of heroes for returning hope to their lives without any one of them worrying about Wally's own struggles.

What we come to find at the end of Crisis is that Wally, seeking to determine if he indeed was or wasn't alone in his trauma, then set off a chain of events that resulted in the other heroes dying. There is some implication that had Wally not been so taken for granted, perhaps none of this would have happened. Yes, "Tom King turned Wally West into a murderer," some might say, but it also seems to me that King, through a certain narrative cause-and-effect, has spoken up for Wally here in a way that few others have of late. What I find perhaps most fascinating about Crisis is the way it demonstrates DC's willingness to hold two conflicting ideas in its own "head," so to speak, and present them both as true — one, the idea that Wally West's return is a victory, and two, the idea that Wally West's return is a tragedy.

You Are Not Alone

If one removes the controversy over the "who" from the assessment of Heroes in Crisis, the "why" is among the strongest aspects of the book. Ultimately we learn Wally triggers Sanctuary's emergency protocols when he infiltrates its database, and he infiltrates its database to prove true or false Sanctuary's claim that Wally is not alone in his pain. Wally even suspects Sanctuary was created just for him and that no other hero has had Wally's difficulties before.

It is a common refrain of mental illness, indeed one of its pathologies, this idea that the individual is somehow uniquely flawed, lesser than all the people around them. It is what makes sufferers reluctant to seek help (without discounting, too, the actual societal stigmas faced by people with mental illness). People who struggle often think they struggle alone. As King's Wally says, "I felt like ... this pain can't be in others or I'd know. I'd see it on them," a statement the book holds out to be false; King demonstrates this poignantly in the last chapter, in which each of the (in-continuity) Robins praise the others while secretly believing that they themselves don't fit in.

(It is unremarked upon in the book, but bears mentioning, that among all the third-, second-, and first-tier heroes shown to have sought help at Sanctuary, one who seemingly has not is Wally West's mentor and idol, the Flash Barry Allen.)

Everyone thinks they're alone, even though they're not. It's first that fear and then that realization that drive Wally's actions in the book, both hacking Sanctuary's computers (because he thinks he's alone) and then revealing Sanctuary's secrets to the world (to demonstrate to everyone that they're not). That this is seen as a potentially super-villainous act underscores the idea of social stigma — that heroes must hide the fact that they experience trauma and need help, that the revelation of such might make people fear them.

"Whodunnit" is not particularly mysterious in Heroes in Crisis (perhaps intentionally), but King's "whys" are especially well crafted to resonate far beyond the pages of this book. Moreover, in the genre of comics that remind us "superheroes are people, too," Heroes in Crisis seems exceptionally appropriate for its time and place. Though you might struggle with mental illness, the book says, and though you might seek help for it, you are no less than even Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman themselves.

Creative in Crisis

It piques my curiosity further that despite how cogent, daring, and thoughtful I find Heroes in Crisis, it also contains such a variety of awkward and bizarre elements. Just eight pages into the first chapter, in only the second of the book's signature interview pages, character Blue Jay recalls the death of his friend Silver Sorceress, shot with an arrow. This is a reference to the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Justice League International, an adventure that devoutly could not have taken place in DC's combination post-New 52/Rebirth continuity. The book continues blithely from there — the sheer inclusion of Lagoon Boy (letting alone his time with Titans East) and Solstice, a mention of Terra betraying the Teen Titans, and references to Blackest Night, whereas at the same time Batgirl Barbara Gordon and Blue Beetle Ted Kord seem never to have met.

It is perhaps designed to confuse, in a story that also contains conflicting viewpoints on the same events, but even so it's astounding the extent to which King is allowed to blend timelines willy-nilly here for the purposes of this story. Given indeed that Heroes deals heavily with illusions and false faces, I suspected for a while that Blue Beetle wasn't actually even there. He is, but that only contributes to the strangeness of the story, that Beetle suddenly appears inside Booster Gold's Hall of Justice cell and then is able to bust him out in the book's fourth chapter.

(For a variety of reasons, including this improbable breakout, I actually suspect Batman knows Wally is the culprit from the jump.)

King has a tendency to punctuate drama with absurdity; his Batman never goes on too long without King taking the piss out of it (witness how many serious conversations happen at Bat Burger). I think we see this strongly in King's writing of DC's Big Three, whom King depicts as close enough to constantly rib one another. That humor is among Crisis's mis-fits; outside Heroes, it's great writing for Superman to kid Batman about Harley Quinn getting the drop on him; with Wally West and Roy Harper seemingly dead, that humor is ill-timed.

Ditto, for instance, King's final pages meta-reference to his own Marvel Vision series, and also the Spoiler kicker to his Robin riff. Inasmuch as King's series of Robin vignettes at the end is strong — with each Robin revealing they feel insecure and think the others don't — I should mention that he ends with Spoiler saying, "Do they talk about me? I bet the don't. Everyone forgets." It's true — in King's imagining, the Robins don't talk about Spoiler, and she is forgotten and alone. It would otherwise be a funny cap on the Robin vignettes under less serious circumstances, but here it undercuts King's own "no one is alone" point. Why it was necessary to include, I'm not sure, except that after abbreviated study I conclude King's writing is just like that.

Similarly off-kilter is main artist Clay Mann's work. There are not problems throughout the book, but that fourth chapter seems to have been a particular difficulty, between the Lois Lane "What do you want me to do?" pin-up and Batgirl's seeming striptease to show off her scars. The latter I think is accidental; granted that throughout the book, Mann draws Batgirl as if her costume were painted on, but in the Batgirl interview it seems Mann can't negotiate the nine-panel grid to present this any other way. The Lois image, however, is tone-deaf to the extreme given the book's subject matter; there's a similar bit in the first issue with Harley's trailing "Smells like ... America" that also feels like art and story not quite meshing. In all of this, when the whole of Heroes's creative team is rowing in the same direction, the book works, but when they get out of step with one another, it really shows.

(Assuredly, too, the final scene should have shown Wally returned to Sanctuary and not imprisoned in a jail cell.)

The Medium and the Message

Heroes in Crisis could do with a director's cut, something to take the lessons learned in hindsight and apply them to smooth the story's rough edges. And it is perhaps unfortunate that controversy over the culprit, the "who," has largely overshadowed the "why" of the story — though I wouldn't call for Wally to be removed from the story, as I think the most notable and yet overlooked part of Heroes in Crisis is the way it uses Wally to critique the basic tenets of Rebirth here at the shaky end of that story. If Wally hadn't been brought back, Lagoon Boy would still be alive, but then the world Wally returned to is a world where Lagoon Boy didn't exist anyway, so the sum total is precisely the uncertain continuity that Rebirth has consistently suffered from.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Heroes in Crisis

Hopefully, though, when the furor dies down, when Wally West has been rehabilitated in a Green Lantern: Rebirth blaze of glory, some of the other messages of Heroes in Crisis will come to the fore. As Superman asks, "If we need peace, if we need to heal, if we need anything, does that mean that we are broken?" Despite the tragedy of Wally West, Heroes in Crisis' answer is a resounding "no": "Whatever I was going through a lot of others go through. And it's not big deal, it's everyday, it's everyone, it's just your turn now. We're all heroes. We're all struggling. We're all in this together."

And also: "The thing is, and it's pretty much everything. And I swear it's true, I swear, even if it sounds like a lie right now. Even if you feel in your heart it's just made-up crap. ... Kid, you're not alone." It's as important a statement as ever before, and Heroes in Crisis arrives just in time to deliver it.

Review Date
Reviewed Item
Heroes in Crisis
Author Rating
4.25 (scale of 1 to 5)

Comments ( 6 )

  1. I am normally a big King fan, but this was just bad. I'm not even a big Flash fan (Wally is my Flash, I suppose, but I never found myself missing him from Infinite Crisis to Rebirth*), so my issues aren't in the "how can they do this to Wally?" camp too much. Just, everything about this failed for me as a story. This is the only Crisis I will probably never double dip on (I get all the issues, then the best OHC/omni format for me, normally).

    I can see what King was trying, but all of the mechanical stuff regarding storytelling just failed for me. Why did Barbara, et al. happen to appear where the two Wallys met? What were they tracking? If Wally had already had the meeting with his future self and seen everyone talk him out of killing himself, why did he still send the video to Lois explaining what happened**? I can go on with more questions, but . . . well, ugh.

    My biggest issue is that the story doesn't seem to have any clear idea on if Sanctuary was good or not. The system clearly failed Wally in, frankly, unbelievable ways***, but they put it back together and other people seem to want/need it. So, was Wally particularly flawed compared to the rest of the people there? Did they fix some flaw in Sanctuary's programming? Did anyone learn anything from this?

    I think the answer to my last question is no, because none of this plot is being addressed anywhere except Flash Forward, where it kind of has to be addressed while Lobdell tries to absolve Wally and move him forward (no shots - I hope Lobdell is successful). Everyone else at DC sure seems to be pretending HiC didn't happen and I imagine that's probably best for everyone.

    *While I'll grant the point that Wally and family didn't sell well, the way the Flash property was handled between Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis was comics malpractice

    *All time travel stories fall apart under close scrutiny to the mechanics, but this one falls apart if you think about it for longer than a page flip.

    ***I'm betting Batman doesn't erase data by transmitting it to random places on the Internet

    1. "Everyone else at DC sure seems to be pretending HiC didn't happen..."

      I think DC has beaten their land-speed record for exiling an over-hyped event series to the Memory Hole (the previous record-holder being "Haven: The Broken City").

  2. The whole story was depressing to me.

    So, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman build an unlicensed mental health facility that compounds and makes Wally's mental health crisis worse.

    Wally, due to the failure of his "treatment", murders a dozen or so people.

    Wally frames Booster and Harley and resolves to kill himself.

    Wally is captured and put alone in a cell without any sign of real treatment for his mental health issues.


    Also, they can jump around through time to get a clone, dead Wally but they can't stop the murder?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Is this regular trade size or deluxe edition size?

  5. I think the greatest tragedy of Heroes in Crisis is that now with Solstice dead we'll never see a Solstice-Equinox team up.


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