Tom King was a recent college grad intent on a writing career, when airliners struck the World Trade Center and completely changed his life. At least temporarily.
Incensed by the attack, he applied to the CIA, which lead to a seven-year career as an undercover operations officer disrupting terrorist networks in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I was one of those post 9-11 people who just wanted to do something and joined up,” says King. “I started in 2002, because it took a year to get security clearance. I thought they’d make me an analyst, because I went to Columbia University as a philosophy major, but they made me an operations officer. I was one of the younger officers there.”
Today, he’s applying that background to a writing career about superheroes. At last weekend’s WonderCon in Los Angeles, DC Comics announced King will write Batman when it relaunches in June as part of the company’s line-wide DC Universe: Rebirth publishing initiative, which continues the expansion of the character mythology begun with the 2011 “New 52” revamp.
“Batman gets close to the insanity of Gotham, to the craziness, to what drives that city mad, and not be driven mad himself—or at least most of the time he isn’t,” says King. “That’s most like the mission of the CIA. We get into the heads of our enemies without becoming our enemy. I’ll use that experience to tackle this character.”
King, who had interned at DC Comics and its sister company, Vertigo, in college, reignited his writer dreams after leaving the agency in 2009 to focus on his growing family. While his wife worked as an attorney, King took care of their children by day and wrote at night. His first novel, A Once Crowded Sky, about superheroes stripped of their powers battling evil forces, landed at Simon & Schuster.
“When you tell your wife you want to be a writer, most sane wives are like, ‘That’s a horrible decision!’ because you should earn a living,” laughs King. “But when I said, ‘I want to be a writer and not get shot at,’ she was like, ‘Yeah, that’s it!'”
King reconnected to DC, where he wrote for Grayson, Omega Men, and Robin War, as well as with Vertigo, which plans to bundle King’s The Sheriff of Babylon series (also based on his war experiences) into a graphic novel this July.
Where Sheriff’s contents have to be cleared by the CIA, Batman will only borrow from his experiences in tone.
“I don’t want to do Batman vs. terrorists. It’s not the right metaphor,” says King. “But I do want to bring what it’s like to live a life of danger and try to fix something, and what it means to live in a grayish area.”
Two new superheroes he’s introducing to Batman—the naively well-intentioned Gotham and Gotham Girl—spring directly from his experiences.
“They’re raised outside of Gotham and come to fix it: ‘We see all the war and trouble, have incredible power, and will come to your city and show you how to get it done,'” he says. “That comes from when I went to Iraq. We felt like a superpower coming to fix a place and learning it’s a much more complicated situation than we realized. Batman, who’s been in those gutters for his whole career, encounters these bright eyed, bushy-tailed characters. That comes from my CIA stuff.”
Despite King’s new career, his thoughts are often with his old life. “When I talk about the CIA stuff, I feel guilt, because I left. I really believed in that job and my colleagues are still there,” he says. “But I have kids now. I spent my life overseas. The first two years of my marriage, I was barely with my wife. I could have stayed with the CIA and worked in an office, but to be a great agent, you have to work 15-hour days and go overseas. I just couldn’t be the father I wanted to be and the officer I wanted to be, so I chose the father.”
Which is its own kind of superhero.