Tom King seems to be the new “it” writer in comics.
Similar to how Geoff Johns exploded onto the scene in 2005 and Scott Snyder made his name around 2012, King has slowly carved a niche for himself as a writer who can do little wrong. His books explore the intricacies of war, detail the psychological after-effects of violence, and have fun with the cliches of the super-spy genre. Wander into any comic shop and ask what books are good right now – the shop keeper will, more than likely, point you to at least one of King’s recent products.
Currently, King writes the bi-weekly Batman book for DC Comics, but tracing his work back to his big mainstream debut shows the five books he’s worked on over time and how each one is a good read in this age of peak comic books.
-Grayson: Debuting in the aftermath of the mega-crossover Forever Evil (which is worth skipping), Grayson showcases the adventures of Dick Grayson – former protege of Batman, who was “outed” as the hero Nightwing during the crossover – as he
joins the secret global spy organization Spyral. Working alongside new allies within the organization like Helena Bertinelli and Tiger, Dick makes a name for himself as Agent 37 – all the while acting as Batman’s inside man to figure out the connection between Spyral’s leader, Doctor Dedalus, and the criminal organization Leviathan.
This book is peak James Bond action for fans, but wasn’t King’s own, singular vision. He shared writing duties with Tim Seeley, a proven comic book writer who knew the format of scripts and what would work on the page. It allowed King to get the hang of writing a monthly book while telling a fun story. This isn’t to say it isn’t still a good book – it’s a rollicking action story that changes the character’s dynamic into something not seen before – it just doesn’t have the same feel as King’s later works. A good read, but not as soaring as some of the other books on this list.
-The Vision: The crown jewel of Marvel’s books last year. Period. The Vision showcases the titular hero trying to build a life for himself outside of the Avengers – literally, as he constructs a family for himself to spend his time with when he’s not saving the world. But as they settle into the suburbs just outside Washington, D.C., secrets begin to fester between the family of androids and the idyllic life that’s built on a house of cards begins to tumble. Equal parts gut-wrenching character drama and foreboding science fiction parable, The Vision is a stellar example of what can be accomplished in the medium.
I wrote about the first collection of the series a few months back, so if you’re interested in the book that will give you more details on what it’s all about. To me, this is King’s master work, as it shows him at the top of his game digging into a pre-established character and adding new wrinkles to Vision’s mythology. Due to King’s recent DC-exclusive contract, the series only lasted twelve issues before ending on a thoroughly satisfying note. If you try only one of the books on this list, make it this one.
-The Omega Men: The series begins with the death of Kyle Rayner – former Green Lantern, current White Lantern – and doesn’t let up. King takes a long-forgotten space opera franchise and injects modern sensibilities and nuances to the story of the Omega Men, a group of freedom fighters/terrorists waging a guerrilla war against the overlords that rule the star system they live in. The series utilizes an important prisoner of the Omega Men as lens for the reader and alternates the outlook of what these “heroes” accomplish throughout the run. Are they the kind of people who are looking to make real, positive change in the universe for the better? Or are they just power-hungry, wannabe-despots willing to make large sacrifices for their “greater good”? There are no easy answers for anyone in these pages, adding to the drama.
Out of all the books on this list, this might have the most unique backstory to it, as DC originally cancelled the series outright after a few issues (due to low numbers in sales). Yet the fan outcry to see the conclusion was so strong that DC brought it back to finish the twelve-issue arc King originally outlined. It’s the spiritual sibling to Sheriff of Babylon, published at roughly the same time and dealing with similar themes of war and violence. With the veil of science fiction around it, the messages stand out and are as weighty as any real-world story. For fans of more meaningful science fiction beyond the airy delights of Star Wars and the antiseptic feel of Star Trek, The Omega Men is your book.
-Sheriff of Babylon: King’s foray into more adult comic work, Sheriff of Babylon is a murder mystery set in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein. Christopher Henry, a military officer training the citizens of Iraq into a new police force, finds one of his recruits dead in the streets. The mystery soon envelops an American-raised Iraqi who sits on the governing council and a former member of Saddam’s police force involved in dark dealings. The mystery slowly takes a backseat, however, as the symbiotic relationship between the U.S. and Iraq is revealed and the personal lives of the three protagonists come to the forefront of the story and threaten to tear their tenuous alliance apart.
While I may think The Vision is King’s best work, Sheriff of Babylon might be his most personal. After 9/11, King enlisted in the military and worked as an intelligence officer in the Middle East during the fall of Saddam Hussein. Many of his experiences there have been incorporated into the book and it shows on each page, with Mitch Geradis drawing the series in washed out yellows and reds. King has said there will be a “second season” following the twelve issues currently published, but Vertigo has yet to announce more Sheriff of Babylon. Definitely a book for readers who enjoy a military story with heft and meaning to it.
-Batman: DC took notice of King’s popularity and strong writing and made him the man to headline the Batman franchise for last summer’s “Rebirth” relaunch. King’s Batman is a solid throwback to the stories of the Seventies and Eighties, which saw more action-oriented, globe-trotting Batman adventures. While the opening arc had Batman training a pair of new heroes known as Gotham and Gotham Girl, later arcs brought in the Suicide Squad, Psycho Pirate, and one of the more underrated Batman villains in Bane, whom King has done tremendous work with, including the most recent arc “I am Bane.”
King’s Batman is a mixed bag. While not bad, it is a sliding scale of quality. There are some issues where he nails the characterization of his heroes and villains, like his two-part Catwoman story. But these are weighed down by uneven tales like his “I Am Suicide” arc and the line-wide crossover story “Night of the Monster Men”, a necessary sacrifice in quality for working on a premier character like Batman. This is coupled with the shifting artists – Mike Janin and David Finch alternate between arcs – that adds to a uneven look to the series, compared to the singular vision of Greg Capullo on the previous volume of Batman. While not terrible by a long shot (it’s one of the few DC books I’m reading on any regular basis), it is a step down from his previous three books.
You can’t go wrong with any of King’s books. True, some of them aren’t as tremendous as others (his main DC books, Grayson and Batman, seem to be the most weighed down by corporate mandates), but they all still deal with universal themes of survival and finding meaning in life and pack an emotional wallop to make any of these purchases justified.
The books of Tom King – including Grayson, The Vision, The Omega Men, Sheriff of Babylon, and Batman – are available as both single issues and graphic novels in comic book shops and digital retailers everywhere.