'Heroes in Crisis' First Look: Tom King Shares the Personal Story Behind Sanctuary at SDCC

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First look at 'Heroes in Crisis' at SDCC. DC Entertainment

It's 8:30 a.m., and the Hornblower Admiral Yacht is docked in the back of the San Diego Convention Center. Decorated with a DC Comics flag, I would never have guessed what awaited inside: white robes, frozen grapes, orange juice, a scattering of plush pillows and, standing near the bow, Tom King. A gong rings: "Welcome to Sanctuary. Your robe is for your comfort and will conceal your identity," a soft, deep voice repeats.

The vibe sets the tone for King's upcoming series with DC Comics, Heroes in Crisis. Until now, the only thing I knew about the Eisner-nominated writer's next project was that it's about a sanctuary, a place where superheroes can heal from the trauma in their everyday lives — a respite from their violence, their responsibilities and their identity crises. Come to find out, it's about much, much more.

"We are looking at every single character, hundreds of superheroes, the same way we looked at Scott Free in Mister Miracle," King begins, before his masked co-artists reveal themselves. Sitting cross-legged beside him are Clay Mann and Mitch Gerads. The Heroes part of the title, King says, is the easy part, but the Crisis element is a trickier matter. "There's no worlds blowing up or merging or little Lex Luthors trying to escape from things," he says. "I'm just tired of having the world end and everything. I feel like we've seen the world end. Sometimes I think every day we are looking at our own world ending."

tom king clay mann mitch gerads heroes in crisis at sdcc
Clay Mann, Tom King and Mitch Gerads on the yacht at SDCC. DC

But the real reason it's called Crisis is best explained with King's own words. He spoke candidly with Newsweek about this project. What follows has been lightly edited for clarity:

I had my own crisis, I had my own what they probably call a 'nervous breakdown.' It was my wife's birthday. I'm out with my family, I have three kids and a wife, and we are at a hamburger joint. Everything is going well, I'm about to start on Batman, I'm about to finish Vision, I'm on top of the world then all the sudden my chest is on fire. My wife and my kids take me outside, and say, "What's wrong, Daddy?" I couldn't write something more depressing. I got that tunnel vision, that blackout thing … I thought this was it, I was leaving this Earth. But my wife got me in the car, and we get to the emergency room. My father calls me, and we aren't close so he never calls me, so that's weird. He goes, "How are you doing?" I go, "Great, except for the emergency room and the death and all that shit." And he says, "Your Grandma died."

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First look at 'Heroes in Crisis' at SDCC. DC Entertainment

I was raised by my Grandma, and she died that day. I went up to the doctor and looked in his eyes, with my Grandma's death and my own insanity — I tell the doctor, "I think I'm having a panic attack, or I'm dying, so tell me if I'm dead or insane, and I hope I'm insane." And he's like, "Yeah, you're crazy." It was the most relieved I've ever been to be crazy. But what happened next is what this is about.

I had a bad year, because I feel like I'm a tough guy, at least that's how I think of myself. I've been overseas, I've done some hard things, I fought some wars, but I was broken. I didn't realize how brittle I was; I couldn't catch my breath, I'd get weird pains, I couldn't focus, there was something wrong with me. My hands would start shaking, and amidst all that you have to hit your deadlines, you can't let your kids see that way. And you're just falling apart on the inside, but on the outside you have to be the dad. But still, you're shaken, and so for the last two years I have been trying to put myself back together. What's this about? Was it childhood stuff? Was it being in the war? What violence or discontinuity cracked me? And that process has been revelatory, but the big thing I've learned about that process is that is that I'm not alone.

I don't care if that's cliché, I like cliché. I like Batman, and he says, "I'm Batman," sometimes. But the fact that we can reach out to each other, that I can tell somebody, "Look, I used to fight Al-Qaeda, and also sometimes I can't get my hand to stop shaking." Those two things can be true. You can be a man and still be weak, and still love your family, and still say that I got help and I got through this with help. To me, watching my father's generation run away from that help and embrace ponytails and fast cars when they hit that moment, I feel like we can go a different way, especially in this time of anxiety. We can lean on each other and find a way to fight back all this stuff.

Superman went through this. Batman went through this. Wonder Woman went through this, and I started thinking about the lives they lived. I started thinking about Batman watching his second son die and holding him in his arms. I started thinking about Superman. When he's 21, he has to give up his identity. I think about Wonder Woman, raised to be a warrior trying to bring peace and her finding compassion in having to always be the strong one. Batman and Superman are always whining. You never see her whining. I wanted to write about that, and how they got there. They didn't get there by being the silent, tough types. They got there by going through something, by leaning on people, and after getting that help, helping people.

I feel like I discovered Sanctuary because it's been here. They would create a place for people who have lived these violent lives. If you have gone out and saved six people that day, but you didn't save the seventh, that will break you. I remember one time I was in Afghanistan, and I did something I thought was the greatest thing I've ever done. We were on the cover of every newspaper in the country, and I found out the next day I missed something even better. It broke me, and it sounds arrogant, but it does break you to not be able to save people.

So let me talk about how it works. Sanctuary is in rural Nebraska. This all started with my Grandma dying, and I set it where she was born and buried, on the panhandle of Nebraska on the border of South Dakota. It's a little farm house, surrounded by absolutely nothing. You approach the house, you are greeted by three people, AI robots. Sanctuary was built by Batman, from Kryptonian technology, with Wonder Woman's compassion. A Wonder Woman AI, built by Batman with Superman technology.

The first thing I did when I broke was hide it. I did not want people to know. So you go into Sanctuary anonymous, that's what the masks are. Underneath the farmhouse are the chambers. They give you the therapy you need.

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Harley Quinn's confessional. DC Entertainment

If you are Firestorm, and you need to go back and see yourself not as two people, but one, you get to talk to your old self. If you're Scott Free, you get to see Oberon one more time. Or if you just want to sit by an ocean, or be in the desert, it's whatever you need. The end result, the final climax, the whole point is that you get to walk down a dark alley and meet yourself. You get to see what part of you is hurting the most and you confess it. For me, that's what worked. You can say to the world, "This is my pain, this is the problem." And you stop hiding and bring it out so that it's not in the back of your brain, but it's the front of your brain. It's not that you get to fight it, it's that it becomes a part of you. That's what the process is.

It's not punching pain in the face, it's realizing that pain is my strength. That's what they confess, look into a camera and say, "These are my deepest darkest secrets, this is what I was hiding." Then you take off your mask. As you are leaving, you get a pin. If you have been through something like me, you've had that pain, and you are proud, that's when you wear the pin. It's designed by Clay and it's DC's oldest logo. It's the original Superman logo with Wonder Woman and Superman's and Batman's hands, and of course the S is for Sanctuary. This is about DC Comics, and it's about going back to that history and changing that history and making that history.

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Booster Gold's confessional. DC Entertainment

That's the background, but you've read my comics. They don't always have happy endings. Occasionally people don't get married. Occasionally someone cuts their wrists open, or Vision's wife dies. Someday I'll write a happy ending. So Sanctuary is the background, but the book is about a massacre. It starts with a mass shooting, something we see every day in America. It starts with a massacre at Sanctuary. A dozen heroes are killed, and they don't know who killed them. They look at these dead bodies and this horror, and Batman says, "What happened is what always happens. Our attempt at redemption has turned into another quest for vengeance."

We start with a mystery: who did this and why? The effort of everything they've done is torn apart. The second mystery is, can they put this back together? When you fall — we've all fallen — and you get back up and you are so proud, you spent years … and you know what happens the next day? You fall again. Just when you are at your happiest, have stability, you fall again. That's when it's hard to get back up. That's the worst time. This is not something you just have to repair, this is something you have to live with.

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'Heroes In Crisis' cover. DC Entertainment

To me, Sanctuary is about this moment in history. When I saw those towers fall on 9/11, I thought, "That's the craziest thing I'll ever see in my life." And now I see six crazier things happen every day on the news. That's where we start this. We were in a place of comfort, we finally found our way out of the pain, and now there's more pain. Can we come back from that? Do we have the strength to fight and resist? The people who gave us these myths — Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman — when my kids look in these comics, they don't see the crazy of the world, they see the hope of the world — that's what this is about. Can they get us out of this moment? And, it's my comic, so you know … 50/50 chance.

Heroes in Crisis arrives September 26.