A Once Crowded Sky by Tom King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If you love or have ever loved reading comics, you need to read this book. It is essentially a love letter to comic book fans. This is a world in which the characters are slightly self-aware. They don’t really know they’re in a story, but it does still have some of the same vibes of Redshirts. The characters know that they always come back after death (view spoiler)[(a tragic fact considering how the book progresses (hide spoiler)] and they know they monologue and then save the world. But they don’t necessarily know they’re in a book or comic.
I love that this book is essentially the written version of a trade paperback. Each chapter is broken into sections with titles like Ultimate Man #454. And you can see how if this were drawn it would be a trade of something like a Marvel summer event.
While many of the characters seem to have analogues to our world – like a Captain America, Superman, Batman, and Superboy – they don’t feel like derivatives or parodies. They seem like fully fleshed characters. It just makes sense that there would always be a Captain America-like hero. Even Watchmen has a demented version in The Comedian.
The main premise of the book is to explore what it means to be a hero and why we want such unrealistic heroism (to an almost black and white level) in our comics. (view spoiler)[ PenUltimate is considered a coward for not showing up when all the super heroes gave up their powers. And, in fact, had he done it, the narrative would have been complete and everyone would have been reborn. (hide spoiler)]
The book also reminds me of Bill Murray’s line in Groundhog’s Day when he claims that maybe God only knows everything because he’s seen it before. (view spoiler)[In the biggest plot point I didn’t see coming – the source of Prophetier’s power (and the reason he still has it) being that he somewhat created the world of super heroes was quite an amazing plot point. But not as crazy a plot twist as the fact that he set things in motion by giving Ultimate the Superman comic (hide spoiler)]
I’ve literally read hundreds of books in my lifetime and so I consider it a mark of a very good writer when he keeps me surprised and on my toes. Tom King did that many times over and it didn’t seem cheap like M Night Shamalyn. There was only one plot twist I saw a mile away – (view spoiler)[ that the evil Ultimate heart from the cat was in ultimate when he came back. It’s the ultimate Chekov’s gun because otherwise why would King keep returning to a stupid cat (hide spoiler)] The only parts that felt a bit contrived were when characters ignored other characters who clearly wanted to give them info and then that person dies or something happens. I know it’s a key part of story-telling so that stories aren’t just a few pages long – but I’ve never liked it even when my original author heroes like Michael Crichton used it.
The front cover makes a comparison to Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The biggest one I see is in the ending. In Watchmen both Ozymandius and Dr Manhattan were willing to kill to allow the greater purpose to win. But it’s all undone by Rorshach’s journal. (view spoiler)[Soldier is willing to kill a good kid to keep the narrative from repeating, but it’s heavily implied that it was for naught. Not only does Anna have Ultimate’s heart and is pregnant, but PenUltimate started his own comic at #1 after spending the whole book in Ultimate’s comic. Anna also starts at #1. And the final panel implies that her daughter has super powers. Also Prophetier’s shortsightedness somewhat mirrors Rorshach’s although the comparison is pretty thin (hide spoiler)]
I can’t reiterate enough how much you should read this book if you love comics. And, just like the comics, it invites rereading once you know the plot twists because there were little details that you could have picked up along the way.
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