When I first read the premise of Tom King’s new novel, A Once Crowded Sky, I was doubtful — a novel about a world of superheroes and villains where they’ve all lost their powers? Seriously? The title of the book is obvious, but I was really wondering if a story about heroes and villains minus powers could be called a superhero novel? Of course, there are plenty of comic books out there with heroes (and villains) who have no real powers given to them by magic or science experiments gone wrong. But an entire world without super powered humans? Hmm….
Okay, that’s not 100% true. There is one left — PenUltimate. Pen was the sidekick of Ultimate, The Man with the Metal Face. Ultimate sacrificed himself by taking all of the powers from the heroes to stop a world-ending catastrophe — a catastrophe that mysteriously forced all the villains to take their own lives. And where was Pen? Home… with his wife. He’d given up the superhero gig before the world changing event and didn’t answer the call to show up, shed his powers, and let Ultimate save the day.
Why didn’t he show up? He was a hero, right? Heroes do the right thing — they make sacrifices. They don’t worry about their own lives. It’s all about those they protect. But Pen is an outcast in the ex-hero community. Oh, they’re still civil to his face, but he’s totally aware of the coward label they use when speaking about him. But he doesn’t care. He’s got a good life with his wife Anna. He’s got some great memories of fights galore with Ultimate, and he’s still pretty unstoppable.
As for the ex-heroes, however, life goes on. And it’s not all that great when you’ve had the powers and the glory and admiration all taken away. Then you’ve got to find work. You’ve got to deal with the fact that your bones ache. Your bruises and cuts don’t heal so fast. Your aim is off. That’s what heroes like Strength (the strongest woman on the planet) and Prophetier (knows the future) and Dark-Knight (no powers, but super rich) and Soldier (think Captain America with twin pistols named California and Caroline) experience as the story unfolds. They’ve got to deal with the real world now, and ex-heroes really aren’t cut out for it.
The days fly by, with only Prophetier to remind them all that heroes always come back. That they’ll all get their powers back. But no one’s listening. Because they all know the truth. They’re not coming back. Ultimate took their powers and died. And their home, Arcadia City, is currently under attack by an unknown enemy who targets normals and ex-heroes equally. A few, sans powers, are ready to investigate, help the injured, jump into the fire. Many more are perfectly willing to duck their heads, powerless to do anything.
And then there’s Pen. He’s still got his powers. And he’s being hounded by a few ex-heroes to join the fight and try to help. He’s got a good life, so he’s not interested… until the attacks become personal. Only then does he begin putting the pieces together, uncovering secrets that were meant to be kept hidden forever, and questioning just who are the good guys and who are the bad?
A Once Crowded Sky is a novel, not a comic book. But apparently no one told Tom King. He’s crafted a series of scenes that read like a comic book; there aren’t chapter numbers either. There are Ultimate Battle Call One Shot #1, Soldier of Freedom Annual #11, Adventure Team-Up #25. And scattered here and there between stretches of text are actual comic book pages, illustrated by Tom Fowler, that do a great job of reminding you that you’re reading a series of comic book panels converted to pure text (as well as provide visuals of the various characters and the occasional plot device or hint).
Everything we love about comics — origin tales, a worthy villain, team-ups (a team-up is only two heroes — there’s some great rules provided by actual dialogue between ex-heroes that is awesome), conspiracies, super technology, disgraced heroes, redeemed villains — it’s all here. And it’s a fun read. There are surprises galore, and I really didn’t see them coming. I think it’s appropriate that the last page of the book be an actual single page of three panels that you might find at the beginning of an actual comic book. And maybe that’s a sign that the story isn’t over yet for the ex-heroes of Arcadia City. In my mind’s eye, the cover of this book has a big Collector’s Issue #1 on it. Maybe Issue #2 is already in the works. Maybe a comic book that doesn’t have actual super humans in it could work. This book has certainly proven that it’s the ex-heroes, not their powers, that can save the future… or destroy it.
I’d like to thank Jessica at Touchstone Books for providing a review copy.