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.