ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 9/10/09
As Republispouse, my wife, is fond of pointing out, I’m always thinking. It’s the way I make my horribly obvious OCD and other mental woes work for me. It’s not enough that I don’t like a particular kind of cheese, or that golf doesn’t appeal to me, no, that’d be too simple. I have to know *exactly* why I don’t like cheese, and why for some reason this particular kind doesn’t appeal to me when, in fact, several other similarly-related kinds do. I need to know exactly what it is about golf that makes me think about suicide as a viable alternative to playing it. I just keep going over it and over it and over it, until I know why. I have little choice in the matter.
The advantage to this is that I’m endlessly entertaining at parties, and in small doses I’m quite erudite and insightful, and, of course, it keeps me from endlessly washing my hands. The disadvantage is that I’m frequently an annoying pain in the ass as a result, and that things I can’t figure out bug the hell out of me forever. As such, I’m terribly indebted to Mr. Austin Grossman for helping me figure out one of those things, which has been bugging me since the mid-1970s, to wit: Why don’t I like superheroes, while everyone else thinks they’re cool?
Once upon a time, when I was six or seven, I loved ‘em, then I could not have been less bored by them up until my mid-20s when Republibot 2.0 forced me to read the “Crisis of Infinite Earths” More or-less in one sitting, and I kinda’ sorta’ connected with the concept, kinda’ sorta, maybe. Even then, though, I kept thinking “You know what would make this so much better? If there weren’t any damn superheroes in it.” Throwing the equivalent of greek gods in to a dramatic story just always seemed like cheating to me, and throwing greek gods in to a dramatic story, and then having them bitching and moaning about mundane issues like Marvel is reputed for just made it that much worse. I could never really take it seriously, though thanks to R2, it was not without its occasional charms for me.
Of course I really like comics - I love the comic format, I was a huge fan of 2000 AD back in the day, I love the art, all that stuff - but superheroes? Eh. If it’s the DCAU cartoons, I’m in, otherwise, I kinda’ don’t care much.
What Mr. Grossman has given us here is a superhero novel which, I’ll admit, is a concept I did not embrace with open arms. Why tell a superhero story without the one thing that makes them appealing - the art? It seemed like a pointless exercise. That said, from the first page, I was totally grabbed by the narrative, and I quickly warmed up to the format. Well, half of it, anyway.
The book is told in the first person narration of two characters, and we jump back and forth between them from chapter to chapter. Doctor Impossible - the antagonist - starts things off, then Fatale - the protagonist - takes off, then we jump back to Doctor Impossible, and so on.
Impossible is a marvel, just a fantastic character. He’s smart, he’s sarcastic, he’s insightful, he has unexpected moments of pathos, he has a very low frustration tolerance - which is always good for a laugh - he’s got no social skills, he’s very likely a virgin (and if he isn’t he’s rather unwillingly monogamous), he’s sniveling, snarling, condescending, arrogant, brilliant, and kind of an unreliable narrator as well. The “Unreliable Narrator” device is one that annoys a lot of people, but I like it a lot. I mean, it makes sense - our outlook shapes and colors our memories - and the particular form that his subjective warping of his own history tell us a lot more about the character himself than any level-headed, objective recounting of the events could. Personally, I kept hearing Rusty Venture’s voice in my head while reading the Doc Impossible half of the book, but your own mileage may vary on that front.
We learn his backstory, his obsessions, his one true love - which, in an interesting turn of events, isn’t his girlfriend, and his girlfriend isn’t his one true love. Yet even this is more complicated than it would suggest. We learn his friendship, the source of his seemingly limitless hate, and we learn that he’s really as confused by his motivations as everyone else is. Part of the hilarious and compelling quality of the character is that he, himself, doesn’t really understand why he wakes up in the morning wanting to blow up the world, or take over the moon, or run around in a cape. He just kinda’ does…, and sometimes it really bugs him. In one of the more inspired passages late in the book he realizes he’s not even entirely clear on what “Take over the world” really means in the first place. Does he have to tell everyone when to get up and when to brush their teeth? If he relies on minions to take over the world, does he still get the credit for it, since they did all the work? What the hell is he even going to *do* with the world, once he has it?
His plot is a fairly traditional cross between Flash Gordony super science, James Bond super villainy, and your traditional nebulously-defined comic bad guy with questionable motivation. The details don’t matter, it’s not how he does the things he does that makes him interesting, it’s why he does the things he does, even when they clearly give him no pleasure. Dr. Impossible is just a fantastic character who pops off the page and seems alive, pulsing away with the undirected, barely-bridled, ultimately irrational hate that only a seventeen year old kid - or an emotionally stunted middle aged genius - can really pull off. I have to confess I perhaps identified with him a little too much; more than I was comfortable with. I’m not a super genius, nor a super-villain, of course, but I can certainly identify with the frustration that arises from being able to effortlessly cite the internal historical contradictions of Flavius Josephus’ histories off the top of my head, but I can’t work the damn auto-dial on my cell phone. I can tell you everything worth knowing about the space programs of a half dozen countries, but I can not, for the life of me, hook up my stereo. Impossible is like that, only a zillionfold moreso.
One of the greatest challenges in literature is to write a sympathetic bad guy. I don’t mean some kind of stupid propagandistic “the Nazis were misunderstood peaceniks” kind of crap, I mean a level-headed warts-and-all portrayal of a bad guy that doesn’t flat out loose track of his/her/its humanity. ON this level, Grossman utterly, totally, completely, overwhelmingly succeeds. Dr. Impossible is such a mess, such an engagingly tortured soul, such a wreck of a human being, so completely oblivious to how he’s wearing his heart on his sleeve, making it an easier target for all that it’s hard not to pay attention to him. He’s the off-balance wheel we notice, while ignoring the other three wheels that run fine. He’s a man for whom the mysteries of the universe are easy pickin’s, but who doesn’t understand the first thing about himself. He’s so brutally broken up and ugly on the inside, so terribly, terribly unlovable that it becomes impossible not to love him.
The other half of the book, alas, doesn’t fare so well.
Told from the perspective of “Fatale,” a female version of Cyborg from the Teen Titans, she’s…well…she’s fine and all, there’s nothing she does that’s *bad* or inconsistent or what have you, but she’s just kind of…well…comic booky. If Impossible comes across as a three dimensional character, Fatale comes across as a stock barely-two-dimensional one. Mysterious origin - check, brooding and troubled - check, questionable sex drive - check, mad skills - check, plucky girl detective - check, boring Marvel Comics-style Angst(Lite) - check.
In a lesser book, with a lesser villain, this wouldn’t be a problem, but here it manages to leave Impossible without a counterpoint, and if fundamentally destabilizes the narrative to the point where some sections feel a bit like watching a man with only one shoe run a marathon - stride/limp/stride/limp/stride/limp.
The side of the angels just isn’t as interesting as the bad guys, which, of course, is a common failing of comics, and lowbrow pulp entertainment in general.
That said, the pastiche we’re given of the DC and Marvel universes combined is a pretty good and consistent one, and Grossman does manage to make it feel like a sprawling thing that’s been around for half a century or more, rather than a universe that is - as far as I know - confined to a mere 287 pages. Some of the gags and insights in to the characters are kind of wry fun, too - the Batman analogue is OCD and has high-functioning autism (Aspergers, obviously, but they never call it that in the book), the Robin character is bulimic, the Superman character is kind of a jerk, the Wolverine character is a jackass who’d go down in an instant in a fair fight, the Lois Lane character…actually “Lois” is one of the most interesting twists and turns in the novel, and I really enjoyed that arc, and had no idea where it was going.
For no particular reason, the book is subdivided in to three sections. True to the conventions of superhero movies, the first of these is far and away the most fun, the second one is just an intermezzo that doesn’t really add anything of note, and the third one is all smashy-smashy-boom-boom to resolve the threads from the first two. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it feels rather rote, and really none of the stuff Impossible does in the middle of the book matters much.
Grossman tries to overcome some of this, of course, but it kind of gets away from him. The heroes recounting their origins and talking about their feelings seems out of place, and kind of overshadows the big twist towards the end, the final dustup is a bit of a disappointment, and to say that the resolution of the central mystery of the novel (“What happened to Corefire?”) makes no logical sense is a wild understatement. The tags for a possible sequel, or more likely just to make the victory seem a bit more ambiguous are kind of pointless and annoying, and in the end, the status quo is restored.
Well, really, the status quo never actually got messed up. I mean, the plot didn’t really come off, so it amounts to yet another half-baked Roger Moore-era Villainous super scheme that looked like it was going to happen, but then, you know, didn’t. Meh.
Which *finally,* after more than thirty years, allowed me to figure out what it is I don’t like about Superhero comics: It’s their slavish devotion to the status quo.
All the tray tables must be locked, and the seatbacks returned to their upright positions by the end of the story, even when, in a case like this, there’s absolutely no reason for it. I mean, this universe is a one-shot, right? He can brake it, he can have the bad guy win, he can have the good guys go evil, he can do anything he wants, but in the end he falls prey to everything going back to the way it was originally. It’s every bit as disappointing as the superheroes picking out baby names at the end of “Kingdom Come.” It’s every bit as annoying as Bruce Wayne still alive in the bat cave at the end of “Dark Knight Returns.” And I think it might be the real reason why The Watchmen - for all its legions of flaws - continues to resonate as strongly as it does, even after all these years: the story is entirely about *breaking* the status quo, and though it’s a bit unclear if this new order is for good or for evil, or if they even got away with it in the end, the bottom line is that things will *never* be the same again in that universe.
But in this book, things will be the same again. And again. And again. And again. Ad infinitum. Much has been said about Star Trek’s obsession with always slavishly conforming to their format, how there are no lingering consequences to anything they do, and that’s all true, but as bad and as annoying as that is, it’s even worse in superhero comics, where a character’s emotional trauma or massive change of heart is generally symbolized by a new haircut, where people start out as neurotic kids with daddy issues, and end up as neurotic adults with daddy issues, where people hang around for fifty years and don’t age a day, and who’s politics and soul change with every election. And when something *does* change, however rarely - let’s take Peter David’s run on Aqua man as exemplar - it really only serves to emphasize how completely trapped in amber the rest of their imaginary universe is, an endlessly looped WWF wrestling match, only twice as pointless.
I thank Mr. Grossman for finally allowing me to nail that down, even though it’s kind of to his book’s detriment that he did.
So basically what we’ve got here is half a good novel, with one great character, but I do have to say that when he’s firing on all cylinders, Grossman is a good writer. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m saying there’s nothing of value here, because there is. This is a memorable debut novel, and half of it is brilliant, merely undercut by the mendacity of the other half. It came so close - so very close - to redefining the superhero genre, and thereby redeeming even the sub-par sections, but then it kind of lost it’s way and gave in to convention rather than its quest for its own artistic veritas, which is more ‘disappointing’ than it is ‘bad.’ Even so, I’d have to say that I’m looking forward to the next book by the guy. He’s an author worth continued attention.
BOOKS I’M CURRENTLY READING:
World War Z by Max Brooks
Your Trip in to Space by Poole
The Toynbee Convector by Bradbury
The Star Diaries by Lem
Something Wicked this way Comes by Bradbury
The Killer Angels by Shaara
Science Fiction Stories of Jack London by London
High Rise by Ballard