Monday, April 08, 2013

Superhero novels

Nobody Gets The Girl - James Maxey. Heard about this novel on NPR some time back. When I picked it up from the library, was a bit surprised to see it was from 2003.

The novel concerns a young man by the name of Richard Rogers. He has a good day job, a devoted wife, and a home. Yet, he's bored with it all, feels his work as a stand-up comic in the evenings is his true calling. He sees the world as being a joke. It's a world where scientists talk about enclosing cities in domes, where a 100 ft baby doll with a giant pistol for a head sows havoc and destruction in Seattle. He fantasizes about going on the road as a full-time comic, leaving his life behind. Be careful what you wish for.

He wakes up the next day, only his house has different furniture and an older couple lives there. What's worse, he finds that he's invisible and intangible to them.

Eventually, he falls in with Dr. Know, a wealthy mad scientist who thinks he created the universe and is bent on saving the world from Rex Monday, and Know's beautiful daughters: the Thrill who can fly and make people do as she wishes and Rail Blade, a woman with complete mastery over iron including seemingly building metallic rails to skate along and armor and weapons from trace elements around.

The main strength of the novel is it tells the story completely from the point of view of Rogers, now calling himself Nobody. His everyman status, with his small hopes, dreams and fears, given both the gift and curse of non-perceived ably portrayed and contrasts well against the larger craziness and absurdity of the world and a war he doesn't understand.

The other strength of the novel is its brevity. There's no excess padding, and moves at a quick pace with plenty of suspense and action.

This is a strength primarily because despite the claim to have read many comics, the story is that of "superhero as literature".  As many modern comics and other superhero novels, it seems to miss the actual point of superheroes. The modern take seems to be that for superheroes and their stories to be taken seriously they have to be about the ineffectiveness of superheroes. As Nobody, the narrator is often a voyeur, the Thrill uses her mind control abilities to make people give her things as opposed to paying for them, while Rail Blade has shut herself off from empathy and willing to kill. Meanwhile, Dr. Know follows the cliche and fate of other comic superheroes whose chief power is that of super-intelligence or "superhero as god" ie a step from insanity and ascribing to a super-morality that allows him to pursue his goals of the greater good despite the loss of life and collateral damage.

Despite all those comics the author supposedly read, the influence of Moore's "Watchmen" and Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan in particular loom large over the character of Dr. Know. For the literati of comicbook creators seem unable to truly envision geniuses that are truly smarter than their writers nor heroes as being nobler than ourselves (or that we should truly aspire to such concepts). He gets some kudos to recognize the true barrier of peace is that hate is so strong and indoctrinated when young. Take away the tanks and guns, and in places where hate and the divides are so strong, they'll just pick up rocks and sticks. I'm reminded of recent news of clashes between Buddhists and Muslims. Guns and bullets aren't needed. Despite that positive turn, it's still Dr. Know not being smart enough to recognize that himself and ultimately coming to the same conclusion and resolution that Ozymandias does, Peace not through uniting people in Hope, but in uniting them in Fear of an even worse Other out there than the one we know.

If superheroes originally were expressions of wish fulfillment of young men (many minorities) in time of War, crime, poverty and the Great Depression, Superheroes as Literature are more concerned with the fetishness of heroes and involved in their sex lives. I was reminded of  "Fort Freak", a Wild Cards novel edited by George R. R. Martin, where writers seemed more concerned having their characters act out fantasies of being with younger women and menage a trois relationships. Here, the narrator, a voyeur himself, serves as an avatar for the reader and manages to be the ideal sexual partner of the superhero babes (while the traditional relationship is portrayed as boring and dull, an ideal life for those that are content to be "nobodies" but not for those who aspire for more).

City of Heroes: The Freedom Phalanx: The late lamented City of Heroes game seemed to get superheroes better than the actual comics did. When comics were mocking heroes, especially with capes, the game embraced them. When it was first launched, capes weren't part of the costume package, reportedly through the difficulty in the animating of them across the board. However, it was one of the most requested features to be added! It just shows how far out of touch those that think superheroes need to be made fun of really are.

I've had "The Freedom Phalanx" book in my possession for awhile, but only recently got around to reading it, mainly because of going through withdrawal of playing the game. Reading the book was only partially successful in that once it was done, I missed the game more because I WANTED MORE! I want more books like this. I want more comics like this. I wanted to play the game again, to design my own heroes or revisiting some that I created like Mr. Muscles, The Horned Owl, and Captain Amazon.

The book is set in the past of the game, when the current legendary heroes of The Freedom Phalanx were a mixture of novices and established heroes who don't necessarily play well with each other. Novice heroes Positron and Synapse are seeing Paragon City crumbling under disillusionment and apathy. The original Freedom Phalanx has long disbanded, it's members dead or scattered. There are new heroes about, but none of the new ones have the clout and name recognition to truly rally the city. This pair wants and hopes to get some of the experienced heroes together to reform the old group in an attempt to turn the city around. However, there's also a criminal plot, their own arch-nemeses and their own concerns they have to face, and that it's somehow all tied to the Mayoral race.

Robin Laws is able to keep the heroes heroic and still come across as human with human wants and desires and real life concerns. Statesman is basically immortal and he's sidelined by watching his wife basically slowly die in old age from cancer and realizing that he will probably see this happen to everyone he loves, his daughter, his grand-daughter, his friends. The only constant in his life seems to be the fighting with his arch-enemy Lord Recluse, with neither gaining an upper hand for long. Synapse wants a regular life that his powers make impossible for him. Manticore, a cross between Batman and Green Arrow, is obsessive. He's obsessed with holding up the legacy of his father, the original Manticore. And, he's obsessed with bringing down his father's chief foe. Sister Psyche's mental powers are so strong that she basically shuts the world out and seems to slowly be spiraling into full blown depression. Despite this, the book doesn't come across depressing or mocking the heroes. It embraces superheroes and that their stories are ones of characters overcoming obstacles, both external and internal. And it recognizes that the genre is one of action and adventure as well as mystery. The plot of the super-villains is full on pulp/supevillain mastermind style but it all works and hangs together. It's the type of story you long for the days when the Justice League and Avengers comics were like this.

A fun read and a wonderful George Perez cover. And, sadly, no more.

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