Monday, May 25, 2009

Ex Libris: Austin Grossman's Soon I Will be Invincible

It's strange to read about the exploits of superheroes in prose. Having grown up reading comic books in all their paneled glory, I find reading about superheroes in text to be mildly disorienting with the action occurring in one's imagination instead of seeing it in the visual. That being said, it can be done but it has to be done well.

There are benefits to reading superhero fiction. More focus can be shown on the characters rather than the action or story as the form isn't limited to images. Maybe this is why most superhero fiction has a tendency to be more literary and postmodern. But unlike the deconstructive masterpieces of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, superhero fiction doesn't give away the obvious via the images the superhero comics convey in their panels.

A number of superhero fiction are mostly non-properties of mainstream comic publishing firms, e.g. DC and Marvel. These include Gladiator by Philip Wylie (the first superhero creation published, predating even the pulps), the groundbreaking Superfolks by Robert Mayer (about superheroes with mid-life crises), the noir-ish Those Who Walk in Darkness by John Ridley to even Michael Chabon's Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Usually, superhero fiction tries to analyze what makes these costumed super-powered beings (and Chabon's case, their creators) tick.

Likewise, Austin Grossman's work Soon I Will be Invincible turns the spotlight on the superhero counter-part and throws in a possible mid-life crisis for his protagonist supervillain. The narrative is told through the viewpoint of Doctor Impossible, a super-powered genius out to rule the world but constantly foiled again and again by his nemesis, Corefire. Currently billeted at a super-maximum prison, Doctor Impossible faces the eternal question that most comic readers never truly realize about supervillains: after trying to conquer the world for the umpteenth time, what do you do for an encore?

Grossman flavors Doctor Impossible's story with the quotidian details that supervillains have to deal with, ranging from his day-in, day-out constant attempts to conquer the world to what it means to be an unappreciated super-genius. For example, it's one thing for a supervillain to finance a Ultimate Death Ray machine with his stolen multi-millions. But after the square-jawed superhero comes in and wreaks the machine in one blow, it takes quite a long while before the supervillain can raise stolen funds again to finance and build his next machine.

Running parallel to Doctor Impossible's narrative is the story of Fatale, an upcoming superheroine struggling to make a heroic mark for herself in the world-- and at the same time earn a living. Fatale essentially serves as the newcomer's eyes as she joins the Champions, a group of superheroes with their superhuman (or maybe just very human) idiosyncracies. Though her story is interesting enough, her character doesn't serve as a linchpin in the story as is hinted throughout the book and is only regarded as necessary because of her perspective within the superhero group.

Despite the difference in form, the book is as exciting a reading as a comic book-- moreso since the imagination isn't limited by the visual. The only problem is the metafictional aspect of Doctor Impossible's narrative in that it's hard to take it in the same vein as other postmodern superhero fiction, i.e. what it means to be a superhero (or supervillain). That is, it's too serious to be funny and too funny to be serious: Doctor Impossible's all too-human realizations makes who he is an ill-fit to what he does. Maybe Grossman has done his job too well in making us like Doctor Impossible. Really, how do you sympathize with someone who dresses up in spandex, form-fitting body armor, a clunky helmet and even has a trademark 'bwahaha' evil laugh?

Despite this disadvantage, Grossman's protagonist makes some great insightful comments on what being a supervillain (and the reverse, a superhero) is all about. That is, it's all about high school all over again: you have the superheroes-- i.e. the 'beautiful' people, the jocks, the cheerleaders, the party people, etc.-- and you have the supervillains-- i.e. the 'uglies', the smart ones, the drifters, the jokers, the ones who know they're different, etc. A depressing thought, isn't it? That you can never really escape high school.

This book is perfect for those who never really outgrew their love for comic books but don't have the time nor the money to continue collecting. If you want an entertaining, light-hearted read for the summer, check this one out. (Rating: Three paws out four.)

*This book is available locally at Fully-Booked.


Pipe said...

I read this, Minister Faust's "Notebook of Dr. Brain" and David Schwartz's "Superpowers" while doing research for a prose super-powered novel and enjoyed each, but also found something lacking each time. With "Invincible" I think it was the fact that while Fatale's character/story progressed by the end, in the good Doctor's case, nothing much seemed to have changed--one of the worst kind of ways for a story to end as far as my personal preferences are concerned.

Still, with that caveat I did enjoy it immensely, and I liked both POVs equally, something of a rarity.

JP said...

This was a good, breezy read. A lot more fun than the grimy crises rocking the real picturebooks right now, for sure.

banzai cat said...

pipe: man, where did you get a copy of faust's book? 8-o

i'd agree with your assessment with doctor impossible's storyline. of course, maybe what got to me was the faint-tinge of self-mockery in the good doctor's narrative. with fatale, they should have had her as the focus of the whole book instead instead of relegating her to the background. i dunno know, maybe a better integration of the parallel stories instead?

jp: too true. though i gotta ask, which did you get here, the US or the UK cover? and which do you prefer?

Pipe said...

Just a serendipitous combination of Amazon and relatives coming home from the States ^_^

And I did enjoy the doctor's voice... I guess it's just that I was rooting for him there towards the end ^_^

JP said...

I got the cover with the comicbook art, not the one pictured with you review. It's a cool cover but in a way the one for your edition is more apropos, since, whoever succesful, this is a novelistic take on comic book tropes not just a comic book without pictures and the more subtle cover art conveys the right mix of pulpy and lit'ry.

banzai cat said...

pipe: me too. :-) btw, kudos on your metatropolis!

jp: i agree though now i wonder. since i felt the appropriate gravitas wasn't reached, maybe the more comicky book cover was better? i dunno.