This post contains spoilers for Heroes in Crisis #9. Proceed at your own risk.
Corporate superheroes are some of the most malleable characters in all of popular fiction. They can survive reboots, revamps, retcons, alternate realities, new costumes, the return of old costumes, live-action portrayals, rebooted live-action portrayals and just about anything else thrown their way. Batman has reached the height of camp (Batman ’66) and the grimmest of grim-darks (the Nolan trilogy; anything by Frank Miller or Brian Azzarello). Spider-Man has been an Afro-Latino Brooklynite, a past-his-prime slob from Queens, a teenage girl, a noir-ish detective, a Japanese mecha and a pig all in the same movie. But some narrative choices have little precedent, even in the hyper-saturated market of 2019. DC’s Heroes in Crisis, which concludes today, turns one of the publisher’s most beloved characters into a mass killer. Can a hero who caused the death of a dozen of his peers ever shake off that kind of stigma?
Heroes in Crisis is one of three concurrently running DC “event” comics, along with Doomsday Clock and Event Leviathan, so a refresher if you’ve been sitting this one out: at an undetermined time off-panel, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman founded The Sanctuary, a trauma center for heroes (and a few villains) to work through their mental-health issues via a combination of robotic therapists and holographic recreations. Sanctuary was briefly mentioned in writer Tom King’s Batman run, but the first time readers actually see the facility is in Heroes in Crisis #1, where it’s littered with the bodies of DC B-listers like Lagoon Boy and Hot Spot.
Across nine issues, King and artists Clay Mann and Mitch Gerads (with assists from Travis Moore, Lee Weeks and Jorge Fornes) tease out the mystery of who killed the Sanctuary patients, with Harley Quinn and Booster Gold fast emerging as the key suspects, and Batgirl and Blue Beetle helping their respective pals clear their names. Along the way, thousands of hours of therapy videos revealing heroes’ insecurities and issues are made public, either convincing the population that heroes are human, too—or eroding what trust civilians have in costumed vigilantes.
Of course, both Harley Quinn and Booster Gold are red herrings, framed (through a convoluted super-speed explanation) by the real killer: Wally West, former Kid Flash, lost in time following Flashpoint and still reeling from his traumatic reintroduction to the timeline in the pages of Rebirth. If you haven’t been following DC Comics closely since 2011 or so, that sentence probably didn’t make a lot of sense. Here’s a simpler version: a fan-favorite character was rebooted out of continuity, then got brought back, but was left reckoning with a world that forgot him and a family that no longer exists.
None of this prompts Wally to actively commit murder, exactly—Heroes in Crisis #8 is an issue-length confession, in which the former sidekick explains that he is constantly holding in a vast amount of power thanks to his connection to the Speed Force. His momentary lapse of control, brought on by grief over a wife who doesn’t know him and children who were never even conceived—plus the super-speed consumption of all of the Sanctuary sessions from other heroes—causes his abilities to cut loose, killing over a dozen of his fellow patients, including Wally’s close friend Arsenal. If Wally’s sins stopped here, there might be a possible hard-won redemption in his future. Alas, Wally’s first impulse is…to program holograms to make survivors Harley and Booster think the other one did it, leave false evidence to confuse Batman and time-travel five days into the future to kill himself and plant his future-body at the scene of the crime.
Here’s where I make a confession: several DC sources tipped me off to the true identity of the HiC killer long before the first issue hit the stands. I dreaded seeing Wally West, the first real sidekick-made-good, the literal symbol of hope returning to the DC Universe in the pages of 2016’s Rebirth, placed in the role of a mass murderer in a clear echo of America’s epidemic of mass shootings. It’s not that characters like The Flash aren’t flexible—they are, as evidenced by his popularity across cartoons and live-action television and a dozen different Speed Force-powered characters. It’s that some character developments can never be forgotten, no matter how much time passes or how many reboots pile up. And Wally’s crimes, which some readers feel perpetuate the stereotype of trauma survivors as ticking time bombs waiting to injure others, are going to be pretty hard to forget, no matter your feelings on Heroes in Crisis as a whole.
While almost all long-lived superheroes have bizarre stories in their back-issue bins, few of these tales permanently taint a character’s legacy or public perception. Aside from the occasional meta-joke, the Punisher’s stint as a literal avenging angel has been lost to time. Wolverine, whose list of retcons is longer than some characters’ entire fictional biography, emerged unscathed from the poorly received introduction of Romulus, a character now all but forgotten. Steve Rogers has even bounced back from having his likeness appropriated by sci-fi Nazis. But these missteps are pure pulpy nonsense—Heaven-powered assault rifles, god-like feral ancestors and sentient Cosmic Cubes. Narrative developments that hit closer to reality, like domestic abuse, sexual assault and mass murder, are much harder to shake off.
Founding Avenger Hank Pym, known alternately as Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Yellowjacket, Goliath, Wasp and now Ultron (as he’s currently bonded with his most infamous creation) is remembered for many things. Pym has founded multiple Avengers teams, birthed one of the Marvel Universe’s biggest threats, trained new generations of heroes, enabled several other size-changing champions and has made the leap to the silver screen at the accomplished hands of actor Michael Douglas. Hank Pym also physically assaulted his ex-wife, Janet Van Dyne, in a 1981 Avengers story that has cast a shadow over the character for almost 40 years.
At the time, Pym’s violent outburst earned him a divorce and dismissal from the Avengers, but it wasn’t long before he joined other teams, and he and Janet have even rekindled their romance off and on throughout the years. Still, Pym’s history of abusive behavior is a permanent asterisk on the character’s deeds, brought back to the forefront when writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch updated the storyline in the pages of The Ultimates. It’s easy to excuse accidentally building a genocidal robot—something technically possible, yet unlikely in our reality—but significantly more difficult to overlook an all-too-real threat faced by intimate partners the world over.
If Pym’s legacy is tainted, then Doctor Light’s is fully null and void. For years, villain Arthur Light was a punching bag for the Teen Titans and other DC heroes. Then, in the pages of 2004’s Identity Crisis—a clear predecessor to Heroes in Crisis—writer Brad Meltzer and artist Rags Morales reveal that Doctor Light raped Sue Dibny, the wife of the Elongated Man. Rather than bring him to justice via traditional means, the Justice League (sans Batman) opt to mind-wipe him, leaving him a pathetic shell of his former self. This, of course, eventually backfires, and Doctor Light emerges from the series with full knowledge of his crimes. From then on, Doctor Light has been defined by the sexual assault, with fellow villain Cheetah eventually betraying him as a result, and his once-final comeuppance being visited upon him while he’s in the midst of staging a rape fantasy with women dressed up as the Teen Titans (yes, it’s exactly as repugnant as it sounds).
Both Hank Pym and Doctor Light have appeared many times following these revelations, and Doctor Light was even rebooted for the New 52 era, but longtime readers haven’t forgotten the uncomfortably close-to-home nature of their transgressions. The other Doctor Light, hero Kimiyo Hoshi, even questions why she still shares a name with a rapist—in the pages of Heroes in Crisis #9, no less, as if writer Tom King is acknowledging the long road Wally has ahead of him. While Speed Force-killing his colleagues isn’t as real-world-chilling as sexual assault or domestic abuse, Wally’s loss of control is depicted throughout Heroes in Crisis as a clear nod to mass shootings and their fallout, and King has repeatedly gone on the record about how the series is his attempt to reckon with the mental-health toll of being a hero and a survivor, which makes it impossible to brush aside HiC’s central tragedy as typical capes-and-tights drama.
Of course, King is no stranger to heavy topics. Both the widely acclaimed Mister Miracle and his long Batman run have reckoned with suicide, and breakout Vertigo series Sheriff of Babylon dealt with trauma, guilt and King’s experience with the C.I.A. in Iraq. Unlike those outings, Heroes in Crisis is a jumble of interconnected plots, with much of the page count devoted to Harley/Batgirl and Booster/Blue Beetle shenanigans, or flashbacks from more obscure Sanctuary patients. Even reading the series with the advance knowledge that Wally is the culprit reveals little to explain how one of DC’s most beloved heroes could lose control so horribly—or why he’d go to such convoluted lengths to cover his crimes, rather than face the justice he’s devoted his whole life to upholding. Artist Clay Mann’s contributions add to the tonal inconsistency, with characters like Lois Lane, Harley Quinn and Batgirl depicted at their most sexualized even during moments of great somberness.
Heroes in Crisis #9, the final chapter of King and Mann’s saga, just barely drags the story over the finish line. The core plot of the issue is Wally debating whether or not to kill himself—not to commit suicide, but to kill the five-days-in-the-future version of himself and kick off the cover-up all over again. (If you thought Endgame had confusing time-travel mechanics, Heroes in Crisis more than gives it a run for its money.) Batgirl, Harley Quinn, Booster Gold and Blue Beetle arrive to prevent Past-Wally from killing Future-Wally, but immediately acknowledge that they couldn’t stop a speedster if they wanted to. They even bizarrely question whether or not they’re empowered to arrest him—as if heroes have ever hesitated to bring killers to justice before. Instead, the four heroes (and a reborn Poison Ivy, the one Sanctuary victim who has already returned to life) stand around while one Wally gives the other Wally a pep talk.
There’s a suggestion made that Wally leaking the Sanctuary tapes is his attempt at making up for his sins, but that nothing will ever really be enough. And when Batgirl and pals eventually do decide to help, they do so by using Booster’s time-travel tech to go to the future and clone a dead body for past-Wally to plant at the scene of the crime, allowing Wally to close the time loop without murdering himself or altering the past and risk devastating timeline repercussions.
Booster Gold then fist-bumps Wally West—who, it should be remembered, has just accidentally killed a dozen fellow heroes, and is currently in the midst of time-traveling to frame Booster and Harley for it—and prompts Wally to repeat after him: “Bros before heroes.” It’s almost aggressively farcical, as is Harley kneeing Wally in the groin before the heroes depart. Nine issues of unpacking tragedy, opening fresh wounds, killing off B-list characters and tarnishing Wally West’s legacy culminates in a “bros before heroes” fist-bump, tying a messy bow on a series that never seemed sure whether it was a sensitive examination of living with trauma or a sexy whodunit murder mystery.
Over a final monologue from Wally West, in which he laments the pressure he felt as an embodiment of hope, Booster and Blue Beetle drink beers on the couch, Harley and Ivy take a lovely stroll through nature, Batgirl visits a seemingly reopened Sanctuary and Wally turns himself in to Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. Wally’s final speech is about acknowledging the burden he carries, not trying to ignore it. There’s an oddly redemptive tone to the captions, which end by noting that Wally (as he sits in a prison cell) is “still running”—but the same can’t be said for Solstice, Kid Devil, Nemesis, the Tattooed Man or the other heroes Wally killed during his loss of control. While Wally West is no doubt much more popular and important than characters like Gnarrk and Gunfire, there’s an uncomfortable implication that the Sanctuary deaths are just a teachable moment for Wally, who now understands that he can’t run away from his pain, but must learn to live with it. For readers sensitive to HiC’s parallels to real-world tragedies, framing the perpetrator as the protagonist and his victims as character development is unlikely to go over well, no matter King’s good intentions.
Adding to the frustration, readers of Heroes in Crisis are left with little indication of where the story will continue from here. DC just announced that Tom King will be stepping down from Batman after issue #85—15 issues short of his announced 100-issue run. He’ll transition to Batman/Catwoman, a 12-issue maxi-series drawn by HiC collaborator Clay Mann. Writer Joshua Williamson’s current arc of The Flash is a flashback to Barry Allen’s first year on the job, and the next arc in line dives into DC’s “Year of the Villain” initiative—not fallout from Heroes in Crisis. There was briefly a rumor circulating that Wally West would seek redemption as part of a new Suicide Squad, but if that’s the case, DC has yet to announce such a relaunch. There’s also little indication that the events of Heroes in Crisis will ever be reflected in titles like Superman or Wonder Woman, which are involved in plots wholly unrelated to The Sanctuary.
If not for the brief tie-ins earlier in the series, before Wally was revealed as the killer, it might even seem like Heroes in Crisis takes place out of continuity. After all, how can you reconcile the lively Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman of Scott Snyder’s bombastic Justice League run with the morose, culpable Sanctuary founders of King and co.’s Heroes in Crisis? It’s tempting to claim that this is the one time readers might have accepted or even preferred an “it was all a dream…” explanation. Instead, DC fans have nine confused, confusing issues of Heroes in Crisis to ponder over. If King’s goal was to drive home the senseless tragedy and muddy motives of mass shootings, then perhaps he accomplished what he set out to do. Heroes in Crisis may finally be over, and DC may choose to largely move on from the event, but unless Hal Jordan hooks him up with a gig as The Spectre, it’ll be a long time before Wally West can do the same. Not even The Flash can outrun mass murder and a staged cover-up. But hey—bros before heroes, right?