Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, they are The Sheriff Of Babylon #1, written by Tom King (Grayson, The Omega Men) with art by Mitch Gerads (The Activity, The Punisher) and The Vision #2, written by King with art by Gabriel Hernandez Walta (Cable And X-Force, Magneto) and colors by Jordie Bellaire (Magneto, Injection). These two issues showcase the talent that has made King a breakout star of the past year in comics, offering two very different narratives that are equally complex and immersive. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
Since launching Grayson with co-writer Tim Seeley and artist Mikel Janin last year, Tom King has made a thrilling ascent through the ranks of comic-book writers. He proved that he can do spectacular things on his own with The Omega Men, a title that has taken a C-list DC superhero team and made it the focus of a complex, politically charged sci-fi narrative, and the scope of his skill has only increased with his new launches this fall: Marvel’s The Vision and Vertigo’s The Sheriff Of Babylon. Both comics are bright spots of major publishing initiatives. The Vision is one of the few “All-New, All-Different Marvel” titles that actually does something genuinely new and different with the character, and The Sheriff Of Babylon exhibits a confidence and precision that the majority of Vertigo’s new debuts have lacked.
King has three new releases hitting comic shops this week, and they all spotlight a different facet of his talent. Robin War #1 shows how well King works as a company man, and he does strong work satisfying editorial demands as he kicks off the latest Bat-family crossover. The issue is dragged down by artistic inconsistency (the book’s art team consists of 10 different creators), but King’s story delivers plenty of the dynamic action and social commentary that have been the driving forces of the Robin titles this year. (More on that in this Big Issues on Grayson and We Are Robin.) Sure, the crossover is basically the concept of Marvel’s Civil War reinterpreted for Gotham City, but King sets it up in a way that feels fresh and relevant to the current climate of the Batman line.
Robin War is entertaining, but it pales in comparison to the greatness of King’s work on The Sheriff Of Babylon #1 and The Vision #2, two highly ambitious books that give King considerably more freedom. A crime story set 10 months after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, The Sheriff Of Babylon is a deeply personal project for King, drawing on his time as CIA Operations Officer living in Baghdad during the especially turbulent time chronicled in the comic. Many of the new Vertigo debuts have suffered from overstuffed, rushed first issues (which you can read more about here), but, as has become the usual for King’s work, the pacing of The Sheriff Of Babylon is very smooth, easing the reader into the story by taking time to establish the setting and flesh out characters through their actions instead of with weighty exposition.
After a chilling opening scene showing two America soldiers discovering a dead body underneath the Swords Of Qādisiyyah, King presents three separate vignettes for each of the main characters, and each is a satisfying short narrative on its own. The individual threads are weaved together in the final pages, but they are connected before that by a shared plot point: a gun going off three times. It’s a tactic that unites the three characters through violence, and this repeated refrain of gunshots ties into the first issue’s cyclical structure. The final scene bringing Christopher, Sofia, and Nassir together through a series of phone calls begins at the same point it ends, and the first image of the entire comic—the face of a dead Iraqi man staring blankly at the reader—appears again in the last panel, although now the man is in a U.S. military tent instead of on the street. King’s work stands out because he makes bold, sophisticated choices informed by a comprehensive understanding of how to use the comic-book medium. He knows when to effectively use a nine-panel grid versus a widescreen layout, and he makes smart structural decisions in The Sheriff Of Babylon #1 that provide a sturdy foundation for artist Mitch Gerads to build on with his meticulously detailed linework and rich, textured coloring.
One of the most exciting things about Tom King is his versatility, and he writes in two drastically different styles for The Sheriff Of Babylon and The Vision. The former is gritty and driven completely by dialogue, whereas the latter is polished and brilliantly uses third-person omniscient narration as it tells the story of Vision and his new family moving into the Washington, D.C. suburb of Arlington, Virginia. The narration adds significant dimension to the story, particularly in its use of foreshadowing, teasing disastrous future events that give the Visions’ present-day actions extra weight. Blending the language of a John Cheever short story with the sci-fi social commentary of The Stepford Wives and the tense psychological drama of Breaking Bad, King has created a title that defies genre categorization, and it reads unlike any other superhero comic currently published.
As King details in his essay in the back of The Vision #2, his Marvel ongoing is also a very personal work, largely because it focuses on themes of alienation and self- realization that are tied to King’s relationship with the superhero genre as a reader since childhood. The Vision and his family’s struggle to integrate into their suburban environment is a wonderful metaphor for the difficulties faced by families trying to hold on to normalcy as kids get older and spouses drift apart, and King has found multiple ways to use the title character’s complicated history to advance this metaphor.
The tension between Vision and Virginia is amplified in issue #2 by her lying to her husband about the attack on their home by Grim Reaper, the brother of the man whose brainwaves were used to create Vision, and King gracefully recaps Grim Reaper and Vision’s backstory as Virginia makes up a scenario to hide the truth that she murdered Grim Reaper with a metal serving dish. Virginia’s lie gives artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta the opportunity to indulge in the kind of kinetic superhero action this book actively steers away from, and colorist Jordie Bellaire marks this change in atmosphere with a palette of bright yellow and red that lends a fiery intensity to the fabrication. It’s a severe shift from the grounded look of the rest of the comic, which is far more toned down and quietly evocative.
Gerads and Walta are both artists that put extensive work into their environments, and that strong sense of place draws the reader deep into the world of these titles. This specific skill is highlighted by powerful splash pages from the two artists: Gerads’ stark, expansive opening shot of Baghdad draws attention to the setting’s violent history by prominently displaying the Swords Of Qādisiyyah, and the ongoing turmoil of the city is indicated by the trails of smoke emanating from the buildings. The tiny soldiers serve as a reference point for the massive scale of the urban landscape, and the image presents the city as a huge, intimidating entity containing myriad hidden dangers.
That size dynamic is flipped in Walta and Bellaire’s The Vision splash, which shows Vision and his wife Virginia flying high above their suburban neighborhood after a heated meeting with their son’s principal, and the perspective accentuates how small the suburban environment is compared to the grandeur of these characters’ fantastic lives. The image showcases Walta’s commitment to creating a fully realized neighborhood with distinctive houses and foliage, as well as the autumnal palette Bellaire uses to reinforce the gradual degradation of this world as the Visions become a bigger part of it. Winter isn’t here yet, but it’s coming, and it very well might be a nuclear one. This splash page occurs after the Visions are accused of being living weapons by Principal Waxman, and the shadows Vision and Virginia cast on the cloud beneath them could easily be mistaken for the silhouette of two bombs being dropped from the sky, a visual touch that exquisitely speaks to the larger themes of the comic.
In both The Sheriff Of Babylon and The Vision, King places a lot of trust in his artists, and he doesn’t let his writing overpower the imagery. That’s an especially impressive feat considering The Vision’s reliance on narration, but he still manages to strike an effortless balance of text and visuals. Given the continued success of The Omega Men and Grayson, the future looks very bright for both of these new titles, and as long as King continues to write with intelligence, imagination, and faith in his collaborators, he could keep this winning streak going into 2016 and beyond.