A Once Crowded Sky by Tom King
Over the course of 2016, I became enamored with the writing of Tom King. King was responsible for penning Marvel’s The Vision as well as The Omega Men, Batman, Grayson, and The Sheriff of Babylon (Vertigo). I have yet to read Grayson and still have half of Babylon to read, but I can safely say he has become one of those writers I will actively seek out. This led to my discovery of his 2012 novel A Once Crowded Sky. King was an intern to writer Chris Claremont before joining the CIA and becoming a counterterrorism officer. After a decade he left that position so he could write the novel we’ll be talking about. This would eventually transition into his current spot writing exclusively for DC Comics now.
A Once Crowded Sky feels like Watchmen and The Dark Knight processed through a post-9/11 lens. The world of the actual comic didn’t seem to produce a definitive work of this period like it did during that. While never directly addressing the War on Terror, the novel presents a world where the literal superpowers are gone, and a wave of bombings terrorize Arcadia City.
The story focuses on a number of character with chapters titled like issues of fictional comic books featuring them. Foremost is Penultimate, the sidekick of the deceased Ultimate. Ultimate was an android, much like The Vision or original Human Torch, whose creator was killed at the moment of creation. Inspired by a Superman comic he glimpsed early on, Ultimate became a caped crusader. He ends up being responsible for the death of Penultimate’s parents during a battle with a villain. He adopts the young boy, nd the two become the most iconic heroes in the city. An event occurs before the start of the novel where a cosmic force known as The Blue began to leak into the universe. This phenomenon caused villains to commit mass suicide and threatened to tear reality apart. Ultimate sacrifices himself by taking on the powers of all the other heroes and flying into the heart of the force. Penultimate became afraid in those final hours and fled leaving him the only remaining superhero, and a lot of resentment from his former allies.
One of Pen’s tenuous allies is Old Soldier, a version of Captain America who was kept in a sleeper state until the United State’s government needed his services, dating back to World War II. He is a deeply troubled figure who resorts to violence as instinct but always with a pained heart and full of regret. In the years before The Blue he was in a relationship with Masallah, a devout Muslim heroine. Their relationship is lightly touched upon and was one of those parts of the book I would have loved to see developed more.
Filling out the supporting cast are Strength, a combination of Shazam and Wonder Woman, who greatly resents Pen after how much she sacrificed. There’s Devil Girl, a very enigmatic young woman who Old Soldier seems to remember from throughout his life and claims to be the actual Devil. Star Knight is a successful businessman who uses his wealth to continue his crime fighting. There are a lot more and King is very good at filling in the blanks on each one just enough so it feels like a lived in world. He also has a penchant for ending their lives quickly and tragically, in line with the fear of terrorism the city is under through most of the book.
There are moments in the middle of the book where the story feels like it is a bit stalled. But when the third act begins things go fast and character’s have a heavy finality brought down on them. The themes of the book deal with sacrifice and facing your calling in life. So many of the characters either want to push away what they once were or desperately seek to get it back. Once upon a time they all knew who they were and then an event forever changed their world and left them stumbling about in the dark trying to relearn how to be a person. A Once Crowded Sky feels very much a piece of literature of our time, but with ideas and themes that keep it from becoming an irrelevant relic for future readers.