I bought this book in 2012 and had it signed by Tom King in 2013, but I never read A Once Crowded Sky until this past month. Little did I know I’ve been neglecting a great story with a unique structure and comic book attributes galore. It addresses a simple question that no one has really bothered asking before: If there are no more superpowers, are heroes still necessary?
A Once Crowded Sky tells the story of a world that was full of super-powered individuals, both good and bad, that were forced to sacrifice their powers and abilities in an effort to stop a massive force only known as “The Blue”. Villains committed suicide while heroes volunteered all their powers as a sacrifice to be destroyed along with its messenger, the greatest hero of all: Ultimate, the Man with the Metal Face. The only hero to retain his powers is the former sidekick to Ultimate, aptly named Penultimate, who failed to show up for the final showdown because he chose to quit “the game”. Now, a clairvoyant called Prophetier has been claiming “Everyone comes back” as the heroes start acting heroic again, despite their normalcy. New threats, old memories, and a great dilemma of morals fill these pages, giving the reader a roller coaster ride of twists and loops.
Tom King uses his background writing comics to full effect in this novel. All of his original characters have nods to well-known superheroes while each retain originality and depth. I especially enjoyed Soldier of Freedom, the illegitimate grandson of George Washington who was raised by Abraham Lincoln’s White House staff before becoming an experimental tool by the U.S. military during times of war. Soldier was frozen during peacetime so that the most could be made of his skills for as long as possible. It sounds somewhat reminiscent of Captain America, but Soldier is much grittier and prone to shoot first, ask questions later. King also plays the comic book angle the entire time via his section titles. His chapters are broken up into “issues” that focus on characters, origins, or storylines as though they are actual comics. While this is extremely confusing at first to transition from “The Runt #174” to “Doctor Speed #327”, once the structure is laid out the book flows much easier. These headers even include volume numbers and limited series (#1 of 4) to sell the concept. Also included are full issue scripts with panel descriptions and mapped out dialogue. If this want enough, each larger part of the book concludes with an actual page or two comic art, illustrated by Tom Fowler, which directly or indirectly relates to the part preceding it. While the comics are not in color, I understand why and they still really enhance the story.
This book is extremely heavy on motif and thematic elements. The title of the book is more about the idea of a lack of superheroes than a literal expression of the content of the story, but King does discuss how our former heroes miss flying. “The Game” is frequently referenced and is what our heroes call the never-ending battle between heroes and villains. Although it’s dangerous and the stakes are very real, being a superhero is treated like a constant inevitability which must be played in order to survive. Another recurring motif is the color blue. From the strange force that demanded all powers to the sky which was once our heroes’ playground, blue is the prevalent color throughout the book. I actually wish the font was in blue to drive the point home. The last main theme is that “everybody comes back”, meaning that heroes don’t die and the game never ends. When the game comes to a screeching halt after the Blue, Prophetier insists Penultimate is the key and that through him, the powers will all come back and with them, the heroes and the game itself. I mean, look how Tom signed it…
I refrained from reading this book because I justified that I have so many unread comics and collections that reading a book about comics is unnecessary. I was wrong. I have been putting so much stake in the artwork in my pull list that I may have neglected to appreciate great writers telling great stories. A Once Crowded Sky is a story worth reading, with complexity and conflict and action and heartbreak. I was very emotional during some issues and feel as though making this story into a book rather than a comic was a stroke of brilliance from Tom King. I recommend this to all comic book fans who tend to avoid novels and anyone who enjoys a good superhero story.
Powerful, Four out of Five Stars.