The superhero novel is something that’s relatively new or, at the very least, a rather specific sub-genre of the greater speculative fiction world. Tom King’s A Once Crowded Sky is a meta-fictional superhero novel. It’s an original tale but one that plays within and with the conventions and tropes of the comic book world. As a result King’s novel will likely be a bit obtuse for readers who aren’t well versed in the tropes and in-jokes of the comic book world. Indeed, one of the novel the novel’s primary themes and oft-repeated phrases that heroes “always come back” is one of the biggest and most well-known tropes of the comic book world. There have been numerous real-life comic books that have addressed, avoided, lamp-shaded, acknowledged this trope. A Once Crowded Sky tackles the effects from the death of heroes and massive change enacted by the many large crossovers that occur in the comic book world and examines them in greater detail.
While King’s novel is enhanced by illustrations from Tom Fowler (Venom, Quantum and Woody) it is a story primarily told through text rather than image. There is a part of me that wonders why A Once Crowded Sky wasn’t written as an original graphic novel. However, while there are many scenes that could be beautifully conveyed through art (and Fowler would certainly have chops to convey it) the novel’s heavy focus on the interior lives of its heroes, and the need to quickly construct a familiar yet unique comic book world, is well served via prose rather than sequential art. The novel opens in the fictional city of Arcadia where all the superheroes have given up their powers to the world’s greatest superhero Ultimate so that he could defeat the mysterious threat known only as the Blue. The only hero that refused the call to action was Ultimate’s former sidekick PenUltimate who has retired from the superhero life. Now, as Arcadia’s only hero Pen finds the call back to action growing ever louder.
Part of A Once Crowded Sky deals with the ramifications of a hero losing their power. The question at hand during parts of the novel seems to be whether it is the powers or man (or woman) that defines the hero. King examines this through a variety of character’s whose responses cover all the ground between denial and acceptance. For several of the characters in the novel the notion that heroes “always come back” becomes almost a religious mantra and for others a curse. Watching the interplay between these contrary reactions is part of the novel’s fun. There is a surprising amount of depth to the examination of the notion of sacrifice and identity that belies the four-color Ben-Day dotted feel of the world of Arcadia. The primary means through which the reader experiences the inner-conflict is the character Soldier of Freedom. As perhaps the world’s oldest hero (in the story he has typically been frozen and unfrozen during times of conflict) he is perhaps the most knowledgeable as to how that notion on the cyclical nature of violence and conflict and it is through his thoughts and actions that the reader really gets to grips with the toll that cycle can inflict upon a hero.
King’s obvious major influence for A Once Crowded Sky is Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. Whereas Watchmen lightly employed the metafiction through The Tales of the Black Freighter, A Once Crowded Sky instead ties the elements of metafiction more directly into the story itself. I don’t want to get too deeply into those elements here, lest I spoil things, but King’s use of metafiction more directly examines the role of reader within the text and how expectation shapes the comic book form. This last bit is slightly problematic as I think it might only be more apparent to readers familiar with comics. It’s the sort of examination that might be tiresome if done with a heavy hand but King’s adept characterization and deft hand at world-building smooth the edges between the various deeper elements of story to create a seamless whole.
A Once Crowded Sky is a book that seems expressly designed for comic book readers. While readers of fiction might enjoy the overall story thanks to King’s skills they will likely miss out a thought provoking examination on a form and its consumers. This is a particularly impressive debut novel from Tom King and I can’t wait to see what else he will cook up.