An Analysis of Tom King's Writing

I’ve been wanting to take a closer look at Tom King’s writing for a while now. He is somewhat recent writer in the industry, compared to other big names. Grant Morrison has a legacy deeply rooted in the 1980s, Geoff Johns has a couple decades under his belt, even Scott Snyder has a more established reputation and fan base. And when it comes to Tom King, it doesn’t really matter what people think about whatever project he is working on. It is going to attract a lot of attention and sure to divide a lot of people. And since he doesn’t have as much time under his belt, there has yet to be a consensus on what the majority think of him. So it might be beneficial to understand what is it about Tom King’s writing that makes him stand out. For better or for worst.

Keep in mind, this isn’t going to go over every single project he has worked on. It will be focused on the biggest ones he has written for DC. So the stories being focused on are The Omega Men limited series, the first 85 issues of Batman Vol 3 (AKA the Rebirth series), Mister Miracle, and Heroes in Crisis.

The first thing you might notice is how he writes dialogue. He tends to have characters repeat certain words or phrases. Somewhat like Frank Miller. But unlike that nutcase, there does seem to be a reason why certain things are repeated. They repetition tends to relate to themes he wants to focus on for that particular story. And they are written to be poetic to an extent. Because of this, the dialogue doesn’t always feel the most natural. Might even go against how certain characters act or speak either in a particular scene or for an entire story. But the repetition isn’t overdone and like I said, there does seem to be a reason why certain words or phrases repeat. He also doesn’t really use caption boxes, or at least uses them minimally. Usually either to write dialogue between characters not seen on the page until you get to a certain page. The poetic style of his dialogue works well in certain stories and scenes, it can even enhance the story in certain parts. But it can also go against what is going on and feel out of place. Especially when the dialogue style goes against how certain characters act or speak.

And that brings us to the other big thing regarding King’s writing. For him, story is prioritized over character. That may sound confusing, so let me use an example. In his Omega Men series (2015-2016), Kyle Rayner is seen with in the possession of a cross necklace, one that belonged to his grandmother. I’ll admit, I’m not an expert on Kyle Rayner as a character. But I have recently read through Geoff Johns’s Green Lantern/Green Lantern Corps series from the 2000s and all the Green Lantern books from the New 52 era. I have never once heard Kyle speak about his religious beliefs or even indicated what religion his family practiced. Like I said, this could be because I haven’t read every series this character appears in. But I am willing to bet that this was created by King for this particular series. It makes sense because that particular series is clearly meant to parallel colonialism and religious warfare. There are similarities between the conflict in the story and certain conflicts in the Middle East. The series even takes inspiration from Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. The point is that King had a specific story he wanted to tell and introduced something about an established character that has never once been talked about before because it helped explore the themes and meaning of that project.

For me, I was all right with that and it didn’t distract me from the story. Geoff Johns is another writer that often introduces retcons in several of his projects in regards to characters and events form that past. Keep in mind, retcons aren’t entirely a bad thing. They can sometimes even help add more layers to a character. An example of this can be found in King’s run on the main Batman series. Early on in his run, he reveals that Bruce thought about committing suicide shortly after the death of his parents. But he then instead to take his vow that will put him on the path to become Batman. This is a retcon that sheds more light on Batman’s psyche. That’s not to say that having a character think about taking their own life is automatically interesting. But this fits with the tone and world of that specific character and isn’t out of line of what has already been established regarding said character.

But then there is the horrible downside to this. Because King tends to focus more on story over character, there are times when characters in his stories act or say something that completely goes against what has been established. This is what makes “Heroes in Crisis” so infamous. Tom King needed his story to go a certain way. Meaning that characters had to do certain things in the story, despite the fact that those characters would normally never do something like that. This can also go to show that he doesn’t understand certain characters and their own mythology. Let’s look at Wally West from “Heroes in Crisis”. I know, easy pick. But I want to bring to attention to something very important. When Wally talks about what lead to what happened and Sanctuary and how he ended up killing the others, he talks about the nature of his powers. He talks about how he spends every second of every day making sure the energy/power inside him stays put and pushes back against the urge to unleash that energy. Except…that’s not how Wally’s powers work! Speedsters in the DC Universe get their power from the Speed Force. They tap into the Speed Force for their abilities. It’s not something they have inside themselves that they have to keep in check. There is also another point where he recreates a scene from the Rebirth one-shot in this story. But he fundamentally changes how a certain dialogue exchange happens. He did that because it served the story he wanted to tell, going against the theme and tone of that other story.

This is when the style of his dialogue can go from poetic to pretentious. And that will definitely get people to turn against his writing. It turns the characters from feeling like real people to being presented as tools serving the story. This is why it can be difficult to get people to get on board with his type of writing. There is a fine line between coming off as pretentious or poetic. But one story I feel like does a great job of showing how his writing can work is his Mister Miracle limited series. Granted, when it comes to the New Gods, I am not an expert. At the time I am writing this, I have yet to read Jack Kirby’s run on the New Gods or any of the other previous comic series that center on the New Gods mythology. But I am very much familiar with who characters like Scott Free and Big Barda are and what their dynamic is generally like. From what I can tell, the story of this project and their characterization doesn’t go against how they are usually presented. But I could admittedly be wrong about that. But based on how they are presented when they show up in other series I have read, they still feel real and coincidentally also help King explore the themes and issues he wants to explore. Another reason I feel like his writing works for these characters is because they are part of the New Gods mythology. While they aren’t literal gods, they are similar to Greek or Norse pantheons because their lives and world are presented as one big giant violent soap opera.

And…I think that about covers it. Again, this was never meant to look at every project he has or is currently working on. I have yet to read the Batman/Catwoman series that is meant to serve as the conclusion to his Batman arc. And I have yet to read his Rorschach series as well. Here is a general run down of how I feel about the selected series I have mentioned. I liked his Omega Men series, his Batman run was a mixed bag, the Mister Miracle series was really great, but Heroes in Crisis was awful. But these are my own opinions. I am more than willing to go into more detail regarding any of these mentioned series in the comments below.

And I hope that this helps someone get a better understanding of how Tom King writes and approaches projects.