At the end of the nine-part DC Comics series Heroes in Crisis, police officer Jim Corrigan appears in a single talking head panel to say, “I asked the Lord our God why we suffer. He didn’t answer. He couldn’t speak through the tears.”
Corrigan appears alone, responding to an unseen virtual therapist at Sanctuary, a secret hospital where superheroes and villains care for their mental health. But he is, in fact, one of many people on the page. The white borders between panels suggest the isolation Corrigan feels, but the page design shows him to be in a community, a society of the suffering.Heroes in Crisis gives us superheroes who don’t live up to these ideals, struggling to find community with other screw-ups instead of struggling alone to be something they’re not.
The main plot of Heroes in Crisis involves an attack on Sanctuary and super-people on the run, but that’s all in the service of writer Tom King and artist Clay Mann’s exploration of mental issues such as PTSD and suicidal depression.
That’s heavy stuff for a superhero book but, make no mistake, Heroes in Crisis is absolutely a superhero book. Time-travel, resurrections, and secret identities all figure heavily into the plot. These elements offer avenues for characters to question their ability to be heroes despite their problems. How can someone do good when she’s failed so much? How can someone be a hero when he feels so alone?
Those questions bring the mental health aspects together with the series’ superhero fiction, allowing King to redefine heroism. Iconic DC characters like Superman and Wonder Woman sometimes seem too perfect, too strong to be believable, let alone relatable. Even Batman, the original traumatized superhero, channels his brokenness into a peak physique and a diamond-sharp mind. In thousands of stories, these totally-together heroes hunted down lunatics, mad scientists, and other people who aren’t doing so well, punched them in the face and abandoned them in insane asylums.
Heroes in Crisis gives us superheroes who don’t live up to these ideals, struggling to find community with other screw-ups instead of struggling alone to be something they’re not.
King and Mann illustrate this heroism with a wonderful scene in issue #4. Batgirl finds Harley Quinn, who immediately attacks the hero while singing demented nursery rhymes. But Batgirl refuses to fight back, insisting, “I’m trying to help you!” Colorist Tomeu Morey mutes the normally vibrant colors of their costumes while Mann uses tiny panels to zoom in on the two women’s hands. As Batgirl catches a punch, her fingers tightly clutching the villain’s clenched fist, she tells Harley that she’s helping her escape Batman. “He’ll see you,” she explains,
“The same way he sees me. As pitiful. Broken… And he’ll make assumptions about you. What you can and can’t do. Who you are. What you did.”
By the time Batgirl tells Harley, “I know how much you’re hurting” and “They… you don’t know how good you are,” the hands have slowly shifted from fists to palms resting on palms to two hand grasping in solidarity. “We can figure it out together,” Batgirl declares, choosing love and empathy over punching.
For all the comic book craziness in Heroes in Crisis, King resolves the plot with scenes like these, in which broken people love one another in their brokenness, revealing their wounds to one another to create a community of healing.
The joy I feel at the end of the series mirrors the joy I felt when finding my nerd communities. We all remember what it’s like to meet “our people,” those into the same strange things we’re into, whether it be playing video games with players across the country or cosplaying as obscure anime characters or developing strong opinions about Batman. In these communities, we don’t have to be anything other than what we are, we can be free to celebrate our weirdness with one another.
At their best, churches do the same. They’re founded on the principle that we’re all sinners, that we’ve all screwed up and we’re all trying to love each other better. There’s an honesty and freedom in such places, one that welcomes and builds up one another.
But we know that both nerd communities and churches can too often turn hostile, with people arguing over what’s right or wrong, whether that be a canonical interpretation of a character or a canonical interpretation of the Bible. We too often decide to fight instead of forgive.
Heroes in Crisis makes a desperate plea against that type of thinking by giving us heroes who accept their brokenness and the brokenness of others. Which makes Corrigan’s quote at the top of this essay all the more important. In the DC Universe, Corrigan is the host for The Spectre, the living embodiment of God’s vengeance. The Spectre never appears in the series, nor does Corrigan beyond this panel.
But his line sums up the series’ theme. Suffering alone silences God with tears, but when we share each others burdens, we save the day and save each other.