Tom King just might, professionally speaking, have a screw loose. He has, and is fascinated by, the mental chemistry that compels some people to save lives at the distinct risk of their own. You and I might call it courage. King simply calls it “crazy.”
“I’m in the right wheelhouse of crazy,” King says one afternoon this week in Washington. He is talking about what qualified him to work in the CIA for seven years, often overseas as an operation officer with the Counterterrorism Center. “You’re going out and you’re going to go places and you have to be willing to die for your country and not betray your country.
“You have to be crazy enough to go to these horrible places — and be insane enough to know you won’t go mad.”
If that last line sounds like something out of a daring adventure tale, King says that “it probably will be.” He may have the soul of a field agent, but he also has the ear of an author. And such language permeates his current line of work.
“You’re crazy, you know that, right?” a sidekick says to the “insane” title character in King’s latest comic book, out this week. At another point in the story, an older character says of becoming a doctor: “The sick need someone crazy enough to believe they can be better.”
King, who turned to scripting his own stories after leaving the CIA in 2009, has found the perfect character to suit his obsession with lifesaving “insanity.” He now writes Batman.
And King, whose missions once took him to Iraq, says that inheriting the iconic DC Comics crimefighter from such rock-star writers as Scott Snyder and Grant Morrison has instilled its own kind of trepidation.
“Honestly, it’s scary,” King says of creating “Batman: Rebirth” (issue No. 1, co-written by Snyder and drawn by Mikel Janin, debuted Wednesday as part of DC’s wide relaunch of its monthly superhero comics). “I feel tremendous responsibility to the character, and to the readers who are shelling out good money for this series.
“I want to offer (my) take on this character, who’s been around for 75 years,” says the author, whose Rebirth debut pits the Caped Crusader against a villain’s environmental threat.
“I think that’s a good thing when I’m not relaxed,” King says. “Whenever I’m writing scared, I’m writing good.”
Ever since he was a kid, King has reveled in the art of storytelling. He grew up mostly in Southern California, where his mom worked on the business side for film studios. “My Jewish mother wanted me to be a lawyer or doctor,” says King, who as a young boy would visit the Warner Bros. lot where “Die Hard” was shot. “By the time I was 7, I wanted to make up stories for a living.”
That desire led King to intern at Marvel and DC Comics beginning in the late ’90s, while he was studying philosophy and history at Columbia University. He relished the work as an assistant, vividly recounting how he was in the room when writer Garth Ennis and editor Axel Alonso were working on the DC/Vertigo comic “Preacher” (on which the hit new AMC show is based).
Upon graduation in 2000, though, King didn’t pursue writing. “I thought that was beyond my abilities,” he says. “I thought maybe I’d be a lawyer.”
While weighing law school as an option, he headed to Washington and went to work for the Justice Department, helping victims through a Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) program. There, sitting at the next desk, was a woman he would soon date; today, Tom and Colleen King are married with three children.
“She’s my best reader,” he says of his wife’s editing contributions. Although she didn’t read comics when they met, he notes, she was “superhero-ready.”
King might have continued with justice, but then came the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He says he felt called to serve his country in a direct and immediate way. So he logged on to CIA.gov.
“I literally applied (to join) through the website,” says King, who was in his early 20s and had almost no relevant experience — no overseas travel, no foreign languages. “I wanted to be as close to the action as I could get. I don’t know who was more surprised (by the application) — me or them.”
King endured the agency’s battery of tests and interviews. “It’s a real tough process to get hired,” he says, before getting a bit more vague and close-lipped. So just how long did it take? “That’s classified.”
Despite his inexperience, King had certain skills. “I’d been fortunate to have been in diverse environments, and I am a quick learner — I get things real fast. Those two qualities made them see: This is a guy who can see different sides of things, and who can pick up things quick.”
Also classified, King jokes, is whether his CIA experiences directly find their way into his comic-book tales. After he left the agency, he was a stay-at-home father for a time, and so he began writing at night, in various genres. Eventually he began pitching ideas at comics conventions, and within a few years, his career was gaining traction.
King is at liberty to talk about why we, as Americans, gravitate toward heroes and superheroes in different eras. “I think during the Cold War, people liked Westerns and the idea of the good guy and the bad guy,” he says of that geopolitical clarity that came out of World War II. By comparison, King is intrigued by today’s less black-and-white climate — by “the ambiguities … in a time of perpetual war.”
“The world you encounter is much more gray,” King says, so the challenge becomes how to write with moral clarity in muddled times, even as superhero comics still traffic in grand themes.
“There are no easy answers,” King says, “so the best Batman can do is to actually be a hero at the end of the day.”