Why I am a Tom King Completionist

Cover art by Trevor Hutchison.
In September of 2016 I sent Tom King a naïve message on Facebook informing him of my intentions of becoming a comic book writer. I asked him how I could get started and let him know that I was a big fan of his previous series The Omega Men because of its references to Catholicism (I was majoring in Religious Studies in college). I’d recently listened to an interview with him on the Word Balloon podcast hosted by John Siuntres where he spoke at length about his writing process and the books he referenced while plotting, structuring, and scripting comics. If your memory operates at a high capacity in terms of comic book publications, you will recognize that this was around the completion of Vision, which many would point to as the comic that ultimately granted Tom King massive recognition, sales, and even a write-up in The New Yorker. He had, in effect, reignited my interest in reading comic books, and inspired me to become a rapacious consumer of intellectual property. Tom responded kindly, recommending Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics and Dennis O’Neil’s The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics in a two-sentence message that blunted my imagination that we might somehow become friends or professional acquaintances over Facebook; he was not to be my mentor, unfortunately.

I had been interested in comics in early high school, where I became enamored by the works of Grant Morrison - with little to no vocabulary about art, or what, visually, made a comic interesting. To me, comics were good when they had good writers with strong authorial voices. To be frank, I didn’t even know what was so great about Grant’s authorial voice. All I knew was that The Invisibles was the coolest, most subversive, and innovative thing I’d ever read. So I followed Grant Morrison’s career as much as I could. I laid in bed and thought about the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, and the opening page of the first issue of The Invisibles where Dane McGowen yells “FUCK!!!”: luminous images. Of course, I had a parallel interest in punk and other forms of cultural subversion that are prominently represented in Morrison’s oeuvre. I wanted to be cool, and, to me, this shit was cool. Metafiction was cool. The disintegration of meaning into nonsense was cool. “Cool”, to me, was a Grant Morrison character. Unfortunately, I’d read most of that by the end of my sophomore year of high school, and I’m not one to be interested in numerous rereads, so comics became less interesting without any more Grant Morrison to read. Besides, I had just joined the school’s academic team, so much of my free time was consumed with practice and hanging out with my teammates. Moreover, in 2012 it was difficult to find anyone who really cared about comics in my immediate surroundings; or, if they did care, someone who actually read comics. So, after a few years of religiously following the contemporary comic landscape and its cast of writers (Matt Fraction, Brian K. Vaughan, Garth Ennis, Brian Michael Bendis, Warren Ellis, etc.) I left all that behind and decided that comic books were something I was only formerly interested in - saving my arcane continuity knowledge for walks through theatre parking lots after an evening showing of the latest big-name comic book film.

So, Tom King appeared as a bolt from the blue. What was specifically alluring to me was that he was every bit as present on the page as Vision or Batman or Kyle Rayner. Not unlike Grant Morrison, the objective of reading a Tom King comic is hearing and, in some cases, seeing him. Most of the big-name writers have this quality in common in superhero comics, and, if you have a long-standing interest, it isn’t particularly difficult to look at a page without knowing its author and discern who it was that wrote it. In an infamous interview with Kevin Smith, Grant Morrison calls this ability “perfect pitch”, but at this point in my life I’d say that’s a bit self-aggrandizing. In any case, I loved Tom King’s voice, particularly as it was represented in The Sheriff of Babylon. The comic is full of half-complete sentences. Of repetition and nonsense that obscures its meaning and fortifies it in the process. Moreover, it was a comic that I could easily identify as something that someone wrote. It had an author and intentions, which, for better or for worse, seemed like an achievement to me after reading issue after issue of homogenous dialogue in the pages of whatever else was available at the time. At this point I decided Tom King was the best writer of the day, and hitched my line to his career. I’d read everything he’d write, and if I did I would learn something.

From The Sheriff of Babylon #12; art by Mitch Gerads, lettering by Saida Temofonte.

Not too long after I’d made this silly solemn vow, I read in some publication that Tom King was previously a CIA counterterrorism operations officer. Twitter users were particularly mad about this for reasons I agree with, primarily that they disagreed with the headlining writer of the period being an agent of U.S. imperialism with a specifically active role in the Iraq War. This would have probably been apparent to Tom King readers had they looked more closely at his work, considering almost every comic with his name on it prominently features some form of guilt complex or trauma-informed response to violence. In fact, if I had finished that Word Balloon interview on my drive between Ohio (where I was attending college) and South Carolina (where I lived) in 2016, I would have known about this years prior to the discussion that has orbited his career since; namely, is it morally OK to read comics by a person who has played a role in the rampant colonialism of the United States government in Iraq? Nevertheless, Tom King isn’t one to obfuscate his personal issues or standpoints in his comics, nor is he about to concede that his clandestine military history precludes him from pursuing a career in the culture industry. Between the message I’d sent to Tom King on Facebook and the development of the conversation about Tom King’s involvement in the Iraq War, I had gotten substantially interested in the form of comic books such that I was no longer exclusively interested in superhero comics. I had, more or less, moved onto bigger and better things. Comics was, as I’d recently come to understand in 2017, an artform that had more to do with art than writing, and alternative comix appeared much more worthwhile. I had read at least one volume of Love and Rockets: imagine my surprise. In the interest of being a comprehensive student of comic art, however, I did remain in touch with the critically-acclaimed comic book publications, a rank which almost always featured whichever Tom King series of the day, be it Mister Miracle or Heroes in Crisis.

I graduated from school in 2018 and moved to New York where I worked at a comic book store, ardent that I would get a job writing for Marvel or DC if I just stuck around, knew the right people, and read every book of note on the stands so I could have something to talk about at an industry event, of which I attended only one as an accessory to my boss. I read comics all the time, and I wrote on my days off. I talked about comics everyday because it was my job to do so. But -- and I didn’t know this at the time -- I didn’t have the temperament for it. I hated most of the books that came out, and was way too vocal about it - I still am. All of this, of course, resulted in an absolute disillusionment and a complete burnout on the prospect of achieving whatever I thought my dreams were when I was twenty years old reading Omega Men. I failed, basically, and I was certain that this was my fault. So, in an effort to shield my ego and to carry on in the medium I loved fervently, I shifted my interest in superhero comics, completely, into the category of academic curiosity. It didn’t matter as much anymore if I thought the comics were good. I just, basically, just read them to read them. I disengaged from evaluating the quality of these tainted entities - and that, I suppose, is how I justified to myself that my favorite comic book writer was personally involved in the Iraq War.

What was wonderful to me about Grant Morrison, and I suppose about Vertigo in its original conception, was that it had a fully-developed appearance of subversion. The anarchic Generation X style of writing created a landscape of total honesty. For Morrison specifically, the work they did for Vertigo was about identity formation. How to be a person, and how difficult it is to see past what you seem to be and how to arrive at what you are. How it’s society and money that tells you that you need to be something that you aren’t, and how you, really truly you, are there waiting to be found. Cynically, that’s not what interests me about superhero comics anymore. Appreciation of the works of Tom King, and the current state of the industry at large, cannot operate on terms as honest as that. Between the Department of Defense contracting Marvel Studios for their films and the military consulting on Zack Synder productions, the Islamophobia of Wonder Woman 1984, and the techno-fascist aesthetic of Batman after Christopher Nolan’s Wayne Industries Panopticon scene in the The Dark Knight, there is genuinely no plausible deniability about this section of comic art. It is, explicitly or implicitly, about submission to dominant cultural attitudes under the guise of nominally progressive sentiments. Why even find out who you are if whatever that is can get drafted into a neocolonialist enterprise? Identity doesn’t seem to matter as much to me if that identity fits neatly under the umbrella of militaristic sovereignty or, equivalently, the free market. Tom King’s Strange Adventures primarily concerns the war crimes of Adam Strange in a conflict between planet Raan and an alien faction. By issue #10, the reader becomes aware that Strange did, indeed, gas and torture these sentient life forms in an effort to save his planet. Though this development is cloaked in a larger agreement that somewhat subverts these implications, it serves as an admission that is emblematic of the relationship the Western comics industry has with the United States military. Inglorious as it might be, I believe Tom King, former CIA agent during Operation Iraqi Freedom, is the comic book writer that is emblematic of this time in the cultural consumption of superhero media.

Art from Strange Adventures (2020) #9; art by Mitch Gerads & Evan "Doc" Shaner, lettering by Clayton Cowles.

Frankly, I’m not even saying that King is, himself, fully honest about what this means or about his involvement in any military conflict. Considering the outcomes of King’s protagonists and the culpability they avoid in the course of their narratives, there’s sufficient evidence to say that he isn’t transparent about the implications of his military involvement. What I believe is that the presence of the author in these stories creates a matrix with which we can evaluate this honesty and is, consequently, much more intriguing than the basic portrayal of Iron Man as a repentant technocrat, of Batman as a bleeding heart aristocrat, or of Green Lantern as a really well-intentioned police officer. Even if it’s poorly intended (Rorschach), even if it’s fraught and horribly written (Heroes in Crisis), and even if it’s an explicit excuse for whatever he's done to harm others (Strange Adventures), a Tom King comic is a comic about engaging with what the rest of them are afraid to say: it’s all propaganda and it always has been. Thinking back to that Facebook message I sent Tom King in 2016, I really didn’t know any of this. I honestly just thought he was a uniquely good superhero comics writer. These days I wouldn’t defend that idea, but I still think it’s true. He’s got an eye for dialogue, how it looks and flows on the page, that very few others have. I was right to think I could learn something from him, and I have. In 2019 I went to New York Comic Con with my brother. I took some time to go by myself down to Artist Alley. I wanted to give my new comic to some creators that I appreciated at the convention. As I walked down the aisle I saw that Tom King was signing comics, and I noted that his table had a line that wrapped around the bottom of the aisle into the next. There were signs along the way that noted how long it would take to stand in line. The sign nearest to the last person said three hours. I thought to myself, “There’s no way I’m standing in that line to talk to Tom King,” and I walked away.

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Front page detail from Strange Adventures (2020) #1, art by Mitch Gerads.