Heroes in Crisis: Toll of Heroism
Tom King has slowly made a name for himself as one of the boldest and most unique voices in the comic book landscape. With acclaimed series like Vision, Mister Miracle, and his ongoing Batman series, King has challenged these characters inner workings (can Batman be Batman if he is happy?), with deft social commentary (Vision as a race allegory of African-Americans integrating into white neighbourhoods). The one underlying thread in King’s work is exploration of mental health and the toil heroism takes on an individual. This is brought to the forefront with King’s graphic novel Heroes in Crisis.
Heroes in Crisis is set around a place called Sanctuary, a place built by the Trinity (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) to act as a therapy centre for the heroes of the world. The heroes remain anonymous and vent their inner-thoughts to the AI program Sanctuary which records their sessions, crafts virtual worlds, and deletes it all so as not to leave any evidence. One day, 8 heroes are killed at Sanctuary, and Booster Gold and Harley Quinn are the prime suspects.
We don’t like to find out that our heroes aren’t perfect. Even more so when they have super powers; the question then becomes what kind of risk are we at if or when they snap? When they come home from the fight, how long until they bring the fight home with them? Being a former CIA agent, King has personal experience with service, having spent seven year overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan following 9/11. The ‘voice’ he brings to these characters is not one you can write without personal experience.
Depression isn’t seen in the graphic novel as one all-encompassing mind frame; but in the form of anxiety, survivor’s guilt, isolation and PTSD. The heroes feel remorse, shame, failure, doubt, and self-loathing. Characters from all corners of the DC Universe are seen making their ‘confessions’ to Sanctuary. The most striking ones are the Trinity’s. The pillars of not just DC but all superheroes, are seen to be vulnerable. Depression is stronger than steel, it doesn’t know fear and it doesn’t submit to any lasso.
Batman is reserved, until he pulls back the mask, in both senses, to reveal his sense of failure. He trains child soldiers to fight in his never-ending war on crime, and has to watch as they suffer for his crusade. It’s something readers know, but hearing the Dark Knight admit it is something else. He acknowledges his issues and how much of a toll it takes on him. He’s failed constantly, and when he breaks down crying and apologises, he apologises not just because he let his guard down but for his ‘failure’. You can help as many as people as possible, and do hundreds of things right, but that one incident, that one screw-up, no matter how insignificant, will eat away at you. It can push you to that edge, especially when you hide it behind a mask.
Superman’s confession is reminiscent of the Kill Bill Vol. 2 speech about how Clark Kent is the alter ego to Superman. Kal-El has lost that sense of who he is; is he the farm boy with powers, or the alien trying to fit in? In true Superman fashion, he claims that being a superhero means not having these thoughts; that you have to be perfect. That strive towards perfection is a doomed prophecy; much like Batman, that one mistake will ruin you. Even revealing these thoughts and emotions, for Superman, are weaknesses because it isn’t perfect. Admitting your failures and those dark thoughts is that final nail in the coffin, that acceptance; I’m not normal; I’m broken.
Die-hard fans and casual audiences can tell you something is wrong with Batman, and other media has addressed the issues with Superman’s identity crisis. But what eats away at Diana of Themyscira? A lack of self-compassion. The reason Wonder Woman doesn’t show flaws is because she hides it to help others. She suffers but when she wants to ask for help, she sees those in need that she prioritises them above herself. She never takes the time to care for herself. She bites her lip and carries on. There are people worse off than myself. I need to help them and once everyone is happy, then I’ll look after myself. Much like a war on crime, it is an unachievable goal.
Outside of the Sanctuary, the two suspects, Booster Gold and Harley are seen to go on their own therapeutic experiences. Booster, a favourite of King based on his appearance here and in the Batman series, is the most vulnerable. He is notoriously, one of the dumbest super heroes; he tries to prevent events he knows are happening but ultimately makes things worse (like creating an alternate reality where Bruce Wayne’s parents survived, as a wedding gift to Batman). And he knows it. All those good intentions, don’t change the fact that he resents himself because he thinks everyone else does. When given limitless potential in Sanctuary, Booster can only find help in sitting in a room, being belittled, by himself. That inner critic is comforting, like a warm blanket; that squeezes your chest and stomach. That’s why ‘trying to be happy’ doesn’t work, because depression will pull you back in. No matter how much therapy you do or medicine you take; 2 steps forward, 1 step back. It is a glacially slow process, especially when taken alone.
That feeling of isolation is key to the case of Wally West, the accidental killer at Sanctuary. In 5 panels, West’s therapeutic journey is surmised; trepidation about beginning, confession of faults, optimism at progress, resignation to the progress, and finally refusal to continue. In the penultimate issue, he gives his confession. Sanctuary is a con set up purely for him, and that he is the only one suffering. If everyone else was like him, how would he not know? And if they do suffer, why can’t he control his suffering better? In a fit of rage, Wally travels into the Speed Force and is able to piece all of Sanctuary’s footage together as it is destroyed. Wally realises he is not alone, but at a price. He is bombarded with everyone else’s pain, and the realisation that everyone suffers. It’s too much to know that everyone has the voice inside them, eating away at them. Cause now everyone is broken, like you. And you’re supposed to help people in suffering, or at least feel compelled to. But if you can’t save yourself, how can you even attempt to save someone else?
Wally’s isolation and sudden exposure, results in him killing the 8 residents of Sanctuary at the time. Wally came to Sanctuary because he felt isolated. Having being brought back into existence (comic book logic), Wally has to adapt to the world that forgot him. Friends remember a younger version of him; his wife and kids don’t know who he is; and he’s burden with this expectation of representing hope and carrying on as a superhero. Wally isn’t the killer at Sanctuary, it’s loneliness. Without a network of support, Wally’s mental health only gets worse. Other heroes, like Harley Quinn and Booster Gold, have that network. Harley has Poison Ivy, a victim of Wally’s lack of control; and Booster has Blue Beetle, or Beetle has Booster?
In a smaller, intimate moment, King’s message of the importance of friendship in fighting mental health issues manifests itself. Harley Quinn is confronted by Batgirl, and instead of fighting, Batgirl whittles down Harley’s defences. Not physical defences, but emotional. They are both victims of Batman and Joker’s ongoing war. Batgirl warns that Batman will see them both as “Another product of his failure to capture the stupid Joker…Another scared, scarred girl on his conscious”. The pair collapse into one another’s arms, bonding over their shared trauma and resulting in a simple question; How are you? It’s such a simple question that can lose its meaning and equate to a greeting, with no interest in the answer. It’s a pleasantry that we abide by. But when used appropriately, it’s a powerful reminder for those that need it. You are not alone. People do care about you.
King’s intention is clear; if you have mental health issues, don’t fight it alone. Therapy helps, but if you don’t find support with friends or family, what little progress that is made won’t feel like enough. It’s scary. Confiding the truth with friends and family. These people have known you all or most of your life. They see you in a certain way, whether or not that conforms to your self-identity. And now, you are something else. You think they’ll see you as damaged goods, broken and not worth loving anymore. You let that inner voice think for you, because it knows the strength in numbers, and tries to fight it. The strongest of heroes can’t fight mental health alone, and neither should you.