Superhero fiction, as a genre, has flourished in nearly every storytelling medium except prose novels. Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in the spring 1938, and by 1940 there was already a radio program featuring the character, with film serials, cartoons, and television shows to follow. A novel, The Adventures of Superman did appear in 1942, but it would be another 30 years before the next one,Elliott Maggin’s The Last Son of Krypton (though it’s worth noting that superhero progenitors like the Shadow and the Spider first appeared in serialized pulp novels).
There have been several prose novels featuring Marvel and DC characters in the years since, but few stories featuring original characters, particularly in comparison to the glut of movies, live-action TV shows, and cartoons that introduced their own characters and mythologies apart from those owned by the dominant comic book publishers. The reasons aren’t difficult to piece together – superheroes were born in a visual medium, and so bright colors and dynamic action are essential to the genre. Which isn’t to say that a writer couldn’t simply describe a character’s costume, or the burst of energy exploding from a gauntlet, but the impact is somewhat muted in contrast to seeing the same thing rendered by Jack Kirby, or Wally Wood, or Frank Quitely. Novels about established characters work because we know what Superman and Batman look like and aren’t called on to invent so much – the world is established, and these are just more stories to populate it.
Debut novelist Tom King addresses that mismatch in A Once Crowded Sky by having comics veteran Tom Fowler draw comic book pages that illustrate key moments in the characters’ pasts. The pages serve as the prologue and appear at the end of each section, the artifacts of a would-be comic book world. Fowler is in fine form – his clean, bold line work recalls Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez’s era-defining work for DC in the 70s. And the character designs are like little museums of genre history, rich with signifiers that anyone who’s ever enjoyed a superhero comic can decipher. In the hands of a lesser artist it could all feel like a distracting gimmick, but Fowler makes the art necessary to the experience of the novel, even crucial to the plot at times.
That art is particularly useful in completing the illusion of decades worth of published history, which turns out to be the novel’s key strength. King, like any other kid who grew up with superhero comics, relishes in filling out the details of his own fictional universe, imagining team-ups and rivalries and secret origins; in other words, creating a continuity that, if you squint just right, seems to be growing and evolving on its own. He reveals those connections gradually, and with each new reveal or bit of back story I found myself wanting to read these comics and spend more time in the stories that took place before the novel begins. King’s characters aren’t reinventions of the superhero concept by any means, but they’re compelling and rich and could support their own stories, outside the bounds of A Once Crowded Sky.
It’s too bad, then, that most of the novel sees those characters depowered, out of costume, and coping with “real” problems like aging, troubled relationships, and guilt. A Once Crowded Sky is very much a post-Watchmen superhero novel, in which the writer is more interested in psychoanalyzing fantastic characters and emphasizing their hang-ups, moral failures, and deviant inclinations over struggles against evil and world-saving heroics. Among King’s characters are: Doctor Speed, a Flash analog who struggles with alcoholism and self-doubt; Strength, whose pursuit of danger and violence after losing her invulnerability is a form of suicide; and Penultimate, the only character to retain his powers, wants nothing more than to retire from saving the world and live a normal life.
Exploring those conflicts makes for interesting drama, but it subordinates the action and spectacle of superhero fiction and turns it into a context for neuroses. Alan Moore did the same thing in Watchmen, and while that was a radical move in 1986, it’s since become almost a default tactic for writers looking to inject gravitas into their stories. The superhero has been thoroughly deconstructed in the 26 years since Watchmen, how much more digging is necessary?
King also seems weighed down by too many characters, and not enough room to fit them into the rather trim plot. The mysteries that drive A Once Crowded Sky – the nature of the blue energy that took everyone’s powers as well as the life of their champion, Ultimate, and the cause of the mysterious explosions ravaging the city – are interesting enough that brief detours into the lives of minor characters, like Runt and Star-Knight, feel underdeveloped. King’s world is rich and contoured, but maybe overpopulated for the bounds of this particular story. An “Untold Tales of A Once Crowded Sky” short story collection might do those ancillary characters justice – another trope of superhero comics, and possibly a reason why monthly comics are the medium of choice for writers interested in superheroes.
The characters that do receive King’s full attention stand out – their backstories more intriguing, their decisions more consequential. Particularly compelling is Soldier of Fortune, a Captain America stand-in whose preposterous origin – George Washington’s illegitimate grandson, later adopted by the Lincolns and eventually trained to be a super soldier who is then kept in stasis until a war breaks out – doubles as a commentary on patriotic characters and a motive for his otherwise indefensible actions later in the novel.
A Once Crowded Sky often feels stuck; King hasn’t quite wedded his interest in superhero comics with the structural demands of a novel. But even under the best circumstances they’re an ill fit. The great superhero novel is still to come, if it ever does. In the meantime, King should (and probably will) write other novels. And he should give monthly comics or graphic novels a shot too – his superhero characters and stories would be better served by the medium that inspired them in the first place.