A Once Crowded Sky is a smart, well-written novel that contains a pinch of poetry. Knotty, existential, and somewhat clever, it succeeds at being brainy and nerdy at the same time. If you’re looking for a quick sound bite (or a back cover blurb), the novel exists as a mash-up between Watchmen and Crisis on Infinite Earths. In many ways it’s an affectionate nod to both Alan Moore and Marv Wolfman.
The book is not without its faults, however. Most notably, the author has created a huge, messy superhero universe but he couldn’t create a single character that the reader would care about. And that’s a problem.
What we get is a bunch of former superheroes who are struggling to find a place in the world. Six months ago they were zipping across the sky in brightly colored spandex costumes. And now their powers are gone. The heroes faded away leaving a hushed peace across the earth that went undisturbed by “the constant clash of bionic swords against oversized reptile tails.”
But these former demigods couldn’t let go of their glory days. They were a pathetic bunch at being normal. Everybody else in the world managed to live day to day without the ability to throw mountains into the ocean. But these mopey goons couldn’t do it. They weren’t happy microwaving hotdogs for their kids on a Saturday night. They missed their rayguns, their batbelts, their boxing glove arrows, and their Fantasticars. They missed all that crazy shit.
There’s only so much of this existential navel-gazing a reader can take. This is the story about a group of superheroes suffering from the traumatic effects of losing their super powers. Boo hoo! How awful. Why should we care? Let them work a double shift at Walgreens for a change. Let them dish beans and rice at Chipotle Mexican Grill. We have no sympathy for any of them.
In a way, we feel like the author wasn’t totally unaware of this problem. Like a conscientious storyteller, he fills in the gaps when needed (btw, some of this backstory represents the book’s best moments, Soldier of Freedom’s insane family history, for instance). And by the end of the book he’s even nice enough to connect the blue dots for the reader. He’s doing his best to make lemonade out of lemons. But no matter what he does, he’s still stuck with a bunch of unsympathetic losers.
Thankfully, the book contains a little bit more than superhero crybabies. The author has something else on his mind. Like, for example, he wants to acknowledge the passage from childhood to adulthood. And, as we all know, superheroes are a nice metaphor for that sort of thing. He doesn’t come to any tidy conclusions. How could he? He knows that we are all stuck between two worlds, no matter how far we travel, or how old we get. One thing is for certain, however. The past always inspires the future. And one way or another, our heroes always come back to us. The game never really ends.
[A Once Crowded Sky / By Tom King / First Printing: July 2012 / ISBN: 9781451652000]