Tom King and the Trouble With Multiple Timelines

What year is it?

With two big releases out this past week, writer Tom King’s stories bring readers to many different points in his main characters’ lives, to varying results.

After debuting writing the adventures of superspy Dick Grayson during the waning days of the New 53, King burst through the DC Comics zeitgeist with his 2015 12-issue maxiseries The Omega Men, King has established himself as one of the publisher’s premiere storytellers. The Omega Men was highly acclaimed and its dedicated fanbase saved the series from being cut short after only six issues. The former CIA operative followed that up with another critically praised maxiseries, MISTER MIRACLE, and a long run on DC’s flagship title, BATMAN. While I wasn’t always a fan of his Batman run, the overall narrative was great and King always managed to draw me back in.

With the Batman run over, so is King’s time playing in the main DCU sandbox. Instead, King is writing three maxiseries for DC’s new mature readers label, Black Label. New issues of two of those series – Strange Adventures and Batman/Catwoman – were released last Tuesday. Reading those two issues back-to-back really stressed a storytelling device that King seems to fall back on regularly: using multiple timelines – and regularly jumping between them – to give a complete picture of whatever story he’s telling.

The narrative device works particularly well in STRANGE ADVENTURES. The series is set up as an action mystery thriller starring Adam Strange, the archeologist-turned-hero who saved the planet Rann from an attack from the invading Pkkt. After publishing his memoirs on Earth and becoming a media darling, the Justice League opens an investigation into his Rannian exploits. The investigation strains his relationship with the other heroes, which makes things awkward when the Pkkt attack Earth and Strange – the only man to lead an army to defeat them – needs to lead the charge.

Each issue of Strange Adventures bounces between the current day – with Strange and his wife dealing with the investigation led by Mister Terrific and the Pkkt invasion – and the war on Rann. King continues to tease some questionable actions from Strange and possibly wife Alanna during the Rann timeline, as both get increasingly frustrated with the situation in the present. The different timelines are clearly defined with different artists, as Evan Shaner takes one while Mitch Gerads takes another. The delineation helps define where we are as readers and establishes the timelines as they happen.

Nine issues into the planned 12-issue Black Label maxiseries, we’re about to enter the story’s final act. With this issue, the Justice League has released preliminary findings of the investigation, and its caused even Superman to suggest that Adam Strange not be on the front lines of the coming war. Whatever big reveal is coming – and I have the sense that not even Strange himself actually knows what happened – it’s coming soon and King is doing a great job building the anticipation to a fever pitch.

On the other hand, King’s BATMAN/CATWOMAN feels like it’s being hindered by its timeline hopping instead of being helped like Strange Adventures.

The second 12-issue Black Label series from King released last week, Batman/Catwoman is a continuation of the story King started during his run on Batman, which included Batman proposing to Catwoman and having Catwoman leave Batman at a rooftop ALTAR after Bane got inside her head. The story jumps between three different points in their relationship – past, present and future – and involves both the Joker and the Phantasm, an animated villain and ex-girlfriend of Bruce Wayne’s, making her comics debut.

With only one artist handling all three timelines, it often feels like there’s little distinction between the storylines running in the past and present. That muddied line between the two different story points sometimes makes the narrative a little confusing. The future portion of the series – where Bruce is dead, Selina kills the Joker and the couple’s daughter, Helena, searches for answers as Batwoman – is probably the best part of the series so far. Unfortunately, it’s only a third of any given issue. I’d love to see more of that part of the world King is creating and how Helena deals with the case of Joker’s murder, and I find myself wildly disappointed when the narrative shifts back to the present or the past for an exposition dump about Andrea Beaumont – the Phantasm – and her murdered son.

Granted, King still has time to win me over with Batman/Catwoman. We’re only on the fourth issue of the maxiseries and King has a pretty good track record (HEROES IN CRISIS notwithstanding) and could pull a win out with this story, but it feels like he’s starting in a hole. The three different timelines feels forced when one particular timeline is a standout over the other two.