Monday, December 17, 2007

Fools! I'll Destroy Them All!

from volume 1, issue 1, mid-October 2007

Soon I Will Be Invincible
Written by Austin Grossman

I doubt that normal, non-picture book reviews will be a regular feature ‘round these parts, but this one warrants some discussion.
If this were a comic book, it might be a fairly interesting, almost Astro City-ish homage to (or, depending on your point of view, parody of) mainstream superhero mythology. But as a novel, as far as I know, this is unique. I mean, of course there’s a myriad of crappy licensed novels starring DC and Marvel characters hiding in the Science Fiction aisle of every Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million—heck, I think I’ve still got a Generation X novel from middle school still kicking around my parents’ house—but there aren’t many… actually there aren’t any, at least as far as I know, other completely original superhero novels out there. Well, I might be overstating it by saying “completely original”, but judge for yourself:

The book claims to have two protagonists, but I think I’d have to disagree. It has a protagonist and a distraction from the protagonist. First we meet Doctor Impossible— the definition of the evil genius, a more pure distillation of the stereotype than if you put Doctor Doom, Lex Luthor and Brainiac in a blender (but in a good way). He’s in jail, naturally, after another failed attempt to take over the world—putting him at an even dozen, I believe. But if you read comics, you know that jail for a supervillain is just like calling for a five-minute breather in the middle of an intense kickball game. He’s soon out and up to no good. But it’s a sympathetic kind of no good. He’s the quiet kid who got picked last for every game at recess (I had to be real careful there not to just make a reference to kickball twice in a row). He’s the kid who raised his hand every time the teacher asked for the solution to the math problem on the chalkboard. Only, due to years of being shunned by his classmates and a couple of highly improbable accidents with experimental technology, he didn’t go on to be another web page designer. Around the age of twenty-six, he decided that world domination was more his thing. Haven’t you ever wished you could major in that?

Enter Fatale, a cyborg superheroine who’s a—wait, Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize “cyborg” as a word? Jeez… anyway, Fatale is new to the superhero world after finishing a three-year stint as a 1990s Image character (for those of you who were mercifully spared the pathetic abortions that were Wetworks, Youngblood and WildCats, that means a sexy, cybernetic anti-hero with a mysterious past who works for a Black Ops faction of some government body or another). She’s actually a fairly likeable character in her own right—after a near-fatal accident, she was rebuilt to be a super-soldier; she has no memory of her old life, she has a computer lodged in her head and half of her organs are made of high-tech polymers, but at the end of the day she really just wishes she could still lay out on her couch in pajamas, watch some old movies and eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s without having to go out and kill some gangsters because her right ear is tuned to the police band.
As Fatale is inducted into the newest incarnation of the Champions (totally not the Justice League or Avengers), Doc Impossible is hunting for the components he needs to build his newest Doomsday Device. The Champions are an interesting bunch—Blackwolf (not-Batman) and Damsel (not-Wonder Woman) used to be married and have a very on-again-off-again relationship, not to mention power dynamic, now that CoreFire (not-Superman), former frontman for the Champions is missing and there’s a leadership void to be filled. In flashbacks, CoreFire is depicted by Impossible as an indestructible football player with no imagination, no personality and no weaknesses—if you hate Superman for being a “Boy Scout”, CoreFire will be a gratifying addition to Impossible’s past. Rainbow Triumph is a super-strong teenybopper with a wealthy family and a good agent who “isn’t used to fighting without cameras around”—I’d like to have seen more of her; imagine Lindsey Lohan with superpowers (actually, don’t—these days that’d be a rather horrifying concept). There are a few others, the most notable of which is Lily. No code name. She used to “play for the other team”—not as a lesbian, as a villainess—and was the closest thing Doctor Impossible ever had to a partner. She claims to be from the future, changed by time travel into a near-invisible living diamond (think Emma Frost mixed with Invisible Woman and Black Widow and you’ve about got it). She’s kind of a major player; I probably should have mentioned her earlier but, as you might’ve noticed, I’m drunk.

Anyway, the Doc is more of a loner, so besides a brief meeting at a makeshift villains’ bar in an abandoned mall in rural Pennsylvania, we don’t see many of his colleagues in evil. Now that I mention it, Grossman makes a great, noble, and mostly successful effort to make superheroes and their requisite dark halves not just a phenomenon of New York and California, but a nationwide, ubiquitous aspect of life. Impossible spends a handful of weeks after breaking out of prison staying in various ignominious motels across America, paying in cash, too afraid of being found out to venture out to his secret lair yet. Besides the Doctor himself, the most interesting villain by far (unless you count Lily) is Baron Ether—the original Bad Guy. “He started out robbing railroads,” as Impossible says at one point. He’s the mustache-twirling, cane-brandishing Mephistophelian writ large, who terrorized every hero on the planet from the days of Queen Victoria to those of Jimmy Carter. I wish we had someone like him in Marvel or DC. Instead we’ve got Vandal Savage and… who? Did the Golden-Age Marvel characters fight anyone besides Hitler? (By the way, did you ever notice how if you only looked at the covers of every Captain America comic from 1943 to 1946 it’d just like he’d been fighting Hitler one-on-one for the entire length of the war? What the heck? Did Hitler keep throwing down smoke-bombs and running away?)
Anyway, Doctor Impossible is all the villain you need. Really, he’s all the hero you need, too. My hypothesis is that Grossman included Fatale because a) he really wanted to make a Rob Liefeld character sympathetic, and b) if the only character whose point of view we read from was Doctor Impossible, we’d be let down way too much if he lost (I’m not saying whether he does or not… I’m just saying). Fatale’s not bad, it’s just… I think most of us remember pulling for the villain at least once in our lives. For Magneto or Doctor Doom. For Darth Vader (before the Attack of the Prequels). You’re going to end up pulling for Doctor Impossible, but Fatale is there to ground you back in the world where the Good Guys win. Actually, I just had an interesting thought—a big part of Impossible’s story are all of his flashbacks and reminiscences of the days before he knew he was destined to take over the world, when he was just the nerd that even all the other nerds ignored. Fatale doesn’t remember her past, making Impossible that much more likeable. For all of us who always wondered, why is Magneto threatening to destroy the world? Y’know, where he lives? Impossible answers—every other world domination scenario is too fraught with details and administrative problems and other annoyances. The best thing to do is just let them know that you have an army of mutant bees, or a portable black hole, and demand the world’s leaders pay tribute to you in exchange for you not killing them all. Let them do all the hard stuff. As Impossible says about his newest scheme, “…things won’t have to be all that different. A few parades, maybe. New York will be Impossible City. Or Impossibleopolis. Maybe a few Ethergrads here and there. And I can always swing the Earth’s orbit in for the occasional sunny day. It’s not like I’m going to be a jerk about it.”
I’ve given away too much already. But if a certain part of you has always pulled for Vader and Von Doom, you’ll enjoy Austin Grossman’s paean to villainy.

Rating: Four Whiskey Sours.