I think the term “literary” gets thrown around an awful lot. So allow me to throw it as well if you please. Tom King’s trilogy (which I will call the Trifecta of Powerlessness or ToP (Trademark Pending)) is literary. Also, his medium is the comic book. Or, “graphic nooooovel” if you hoity toity folks can’t bring yourself to agree a comic book is a masterpiece of literature.
The three constituent parts of the ToP are The Omega Men, The Sheriff of Babylon (vol. 2 here), and The Vision (vol. 2 here). They are from DC, DC/Vertigo, and Marvel, respectively, but don’t let that scare you off. Yes, I can hear you already saying “I don’t read superhero comics and they are not serious Literature” (notice the capital “L” that you can actually hear in some academics’ voices), but hear me out on this one. You don’t need to be aware of any past continuity in either universe, in fact you shouldn’t be in order to get the full effect that I believe King was going for in these.
Let me start with the similarities they have that make this the ToP rather than the CBbTKtaVGbNL (Comic Books by Tom King that are Very Good but Not Linked, which isn’t nearly as catchy). The most obvious similarity between the three titles is the definite article “The” in the title. What’s that? Too minute? Okay, moving on.
All three of these books start with a murder in issue 1 (or in the case of Omega, in the sneak peek thing that comes before issue 1). In Vision a lead character commits it in self-defense, in Sheriff the lead characters are affected by the murder of an ancillary character, and in Omega the lead character (one of them) is the victim. This sets the tone and the greater philosophical message that each book has: Vision is about the powerlessness that those on the outside of the societal majority feel, whether it be a racial minority, an idealistic minority, any group that can be misunderstood by a larger group basically. Sheriff is about the powerlessness we feel when faced with problems bigger than ourselves that are beyond our scope to solve. And Omega is about the powerlessness we feel in politics…more or less. It’s the most allegorical of the three since it takes place in another solar system.
The act of murder in each of these three books is representative of those messages. Committing a murder in the act of self-defense is the result of being pressured and forced to do it. The murder of the ancillary character that brings together the three leads in Sheriff is the metaphor for a problem that people from different backgrounds (a.k.a. the world) must come together to solve. And the murder of Kyle Rayner, one of the lead characters in Omega, is pretty much a metaphor for the death of honesty and goodness in a larger body, which is what Kyle tends to stand in for in a lot of his appearances anyway.
To speak about each one individually now, I’m going to talk about them in the order I think is best to read them in: Omega, Sheriff, and finally Vision. This isn’t any hard and fast rule, though, I just think it works best for two reasons. One, it goes from largest scale (cosmic) to smallest scale (single family). Two, Vision has the least depressing ending.
Omega is a story about White Lantern Kyle Rayner. Again, if you are unaware of how there’s a White Lantern because you don’t read DC but are aware of Green Lantern in one way or another, do not worry. The in-universe continuity does not matter. Kyle goes to a solar system that is normally undisturbed by the rest of the universe. Kyle wants to bring them into the fold with the rest of the universe but first he must negotiate a cease-fire between the rebels and the local solar system government.
The Omega Men has the most lifelike art of the three, courtesy of Barnaby Bagenda. When considered as part of the greater trilogy, this tells us something about the aforementioned allegory the book is telling. Despite the fact that this is the most distant story of the three (since it’s the only one that doesn’t take place on Earth), the story of corruption and resource harvesting is one that resembles most closely a real world situation. It’s also very colorful, and that is a bit of symbolism, too. It represents the wide range of positions that are taken when it comes to political issues.
Another aspect of Omega that I loved was the panel layout that King and Bagenda went with. That is to say they went with a Watchmen-esque 9-panel per page layout. This allows for a lot of story to happen on each page, but also allows them to slow down or speed up the pace greatly in just the span of a page. The final panel in each issue is all black with a William James quote, and with the 9-panel setup, you’re forced to consider the content of the quote with regard to everything else on the page and, by extension, the rest of the issue and the whole series.
If you don’t know about William James, fret not, because all I knew about him was that he said the things in the final panel of issues of The Omega Men until I read up on him on Wikipedia. I recommend reading up on him a little bit if you can before you tackle Omega, it might give a little different lens with which to read the comic. But, as I said, I had no idea who it was until after and I still loved Omega so do what you will with the information.
In closing regarding Omega, I think this book features a very interesting and very real progression for Kyle Rayner, the White Lantern at the heart of the story. He is made a martyr, brought back to life, and forced to fight with a rebellion he believed he was sent to quell. He represents the United States soldiers in so many ways. He goes in to do what he thought was right, only to question that and still be forced into fighting. He’s a Catholic, but the Catholicism isn’t specifically harped on, more a strong faith in something that so many soldiers do have so he becomes the every man. This was an interesting way to see Kyle Rayner, and he has been my favorite of the lanterns even despite his more unfortunate contributions to comic book (and fiction in general) tropes.
Sheriff is a story during the US occupation of Iraq. Set in 2003 in Baghdad, a trainee for the Baghdad police department is found shot to death. Chris Henry, the trainer for the Baghdad PD, is contacted and told to handle the case. Actually, he’s just told the body was found. He takes it upon himself to investigate because everyone else in the military is so disinterested with everything that they don’t care. Chris has to enlist the help of Nassir, a career policeman from before American occupation, and Sofia, an Iraqi-American that’s a fixer of sorts. Tom King was in the CIA and he was in Iraq at this time (or so he says!) so take that however you like as you approach Sheriff.
Mitch Gerads is the art man for this one and holy moly, he kills it. He walks a line between realism and impressionism for a lot of the book which is actually really astute when you consider how most Americans think of the Second Gulf War. They (we/I) know it was real, and yet they only had an impression of what was going on. Well played, Gerads. Well played indeed.
I don’t want to say a whole lot about this one individually because there are a lot of twists and turns it takes. I will comment on why I say this one is about the powerlessness up against big problems. Chris, Nassir, and Sofia are constantly stonewalled in their efforts to do what they need to do. Sometimes it’s the American government, sometimes the Iraqi government or other Iraqis that disapprove of the American occupation. Sofia specifically hits walls because she is a woman in Iraq, something that King explores pretty well I thought.
Finally there’s Vision. Ohhhhhh Vision. This book is interesting in so many ways and many of them different from the other two. It explores things that stories involving Vision always explore. Mostly the ethics of A.I. and the relationship between creator and created. What sets this apart from any of those is Vision’s family, all created by Vision himself.
There is a sequence in issue 10 that I think should go down as one of the greatest in storytelling history. Viv, Vision’s daughter, is kneeling by her bed preparing to pray when her father walks in. Vision apologizes and starts to leave, but she says she hasn’t begun yet and doesn’t know how. She asks her father to join her and he agrees. They both kneel, hands together, and they pray. First, that there is a God, then for souls to be real, then to let a certain soul be at rest. The page where the actual praying takes place is one of the single most profound pages I’ve ever seen, and I think a lot of that credit does go to Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s art, but King’s text is pitch perfect as well. The austerity in the frames of the panels, as well as a few of the images in those panels, present this idea of praying for there to be a God just hit me on a deep emotional and I think purely human level because it’s such a universal want. I realize I’m building it up a lot but I hope when you see it you’ll agree. I linked part of the sequence that King has on his Facebook here, but it will spoil who died. And it’s not my absolute favorite page of the sequence, still incredible.
Another note about Walta’s art: it’s the most simplistic of the trilogy. And I don’t mean that in the sense that the panels are boring or don’t look like they’re filled with effort. It is a very deliberate decision, this art style. The philosophical implications that King has in his story demand an art style that does not draw attention so much to the things happening outside the character’s heads, because philosophizing takes place inside the head. When big external events do happen, there is plenty of detail, but never so much that the ideas in the text are forgotten.
Why this is part of the ToP? Vision and his family represent minorities, as I mentioned before. Their skin color is different, yes, and that is one aspect. But they are treated as different. So much of Vision’s desire is to be considered “normal” as part of the majority, but the majority is unwilling to accept him. Despite the fact he has saved the planet “thirty-seven” times, he is not accepted by society. Despite the fact he has a nuclear family, he is not accepted. It’s a heartbreaking story because of how real it is now and throughout history.
I have rambled on long enough now I hope to have worn you down and convinced you to buy and read all of these. King is currently the writer of Batman for DC, and he is doing great things with the character. His first issue is one of the greatest single issues of Batman if you ask me, so I highly recommend you check that out too.
Buy these comics. Read these comics. Read comics. Read.