Monday, May 25, 2009

Readings 2K9: Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible
by Austin Grossman

One of the charming and exasperating features of the comics field, and especially of the super-hero comics field, is the weird intertwining of both wildly inflated claims of value and self-loathing put-downs. So comics are both an outlaw medium that is the bane of the censor, and also just trash not worth keeping or re-reading. Comics are a neglected art-form with its own geniuses, and also the lowest rung of the pop-cultural ladder, schlock cynically ladled out to kids who don’t know any better. You can make a case for either set of arguments; what’s always impressed me about people in comics is how they can go from one set to another within a single paragraph. 

One could argue that this is a fundamentally adolescent mixture of arrogance and angst, reflecting both the young age of the medium and the target audience of its most commercial forms. I wouldn’t necessarily be convinced of this argument, but I can see it being made. I mention it because it seems relevant to Austin Grossman’s super-hero novel, set in his own world with his own characters, a daring imaginative enterprise that refuses to take itself seriously. Or, more precisely, refuses to wholly believe in itself; refuses to engage with its own imagination, falling back on unconvincing irony and affectless characters.

I should note, despite the above comment, that this isn’t a bad book. It’s the story of a super-villain, Doctor Impossible, and his attempt to get revenge on his arch-enemy, CoreFire, and, yes, to become invincible (though one suspects, based on the book, Grossman's mixed up the definitions of "invincible" and "invulnerable"). Alternating with Impossible’s point of view is that of new super-hero Fatale, recently recruited to the world’s premier super-team, which has dedicated itself to hunting down Impossible and bringing him to justice for the murder of CoreFire — for, to Impossible’s chagrin, it appears somebody else has killed off his nemesis. The story unfolds neatly, though Fatale’s point-of-view proves somewhat unnecessary, and the plot strands, loose throughout the book, don’t quite dovetail strongly enough. The ending generally is something of a problem, with a dea ex machina and expository anti-climax slipping into easy parody. Still, Grossman clearly knows his genre tropes.

It’s with the exploration of those tropes that the book disappoints. For Grossman, the experience of adolescence is the key to the genre; specifically, the super-hero story becomes a parody of high school, with heroes as jocks beating up nerdy villains. Questions of good and evil are secondary; this is not a book particularly interested in morality. Or in the cosmic sublime. Its sensibility is mundane, for all that it plays with superficially imaginative elements.

The problem, though, isn’t its quotidian and reductive approach to super-heroes; it’s the flatness of its metaphorical high school. That is, the problem isn’t the prevalence of adolescence, it’s the lack of credit Grossman implicitly gives adolescents. There’s no depth to these characters; no sense of real issues, real problems, of the process of growth and maturation. One of the female heroes is bulimic, which is a nice touch, but nothing's done with it. You don't have to spend a lot of time around actual teenagers, or in an actual school setting, to realise how much is lacking in this book.

That issue aside, certain problems of believability arise in Grossman's book. Is Doctor Impossible genuinely brilliant? He doesn’t sound like it, or behave like it. If he is hyper-intelligent, why does he act so foolishly? He’s physically humiliated by another villain after going to a villain hang-out; it’s impossible to imagine a major villain in an actual super-hero comic (Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom) suffering so, in part because they’d be intelligent enough — have enough common sense — to prepare. If you’re going to a location filled with physically dangerous villains, ensure you can deal with it. Basic logic, right? But if Doctor Impossible thought things through, Grossman wouldn’t get the scene he wanted. 

Now, Impossible ends up beaten up by the other villain, not killed. And in general, there’s a notable absence of death or substantive destruction in the book. This not only makes it difficult to take seriously, it goes against the grain of almost every super-hero comic for the past forty years. For at least that long — and arguably since the advent of Marvel Comics in 1961 — super-hero books have been about the illusion of realism, convincing the reader that the events in the book are grittier, more emotionally true, more adult and less kid stuff, than anything before. Of course most of the time this isn’t true, and wouldn’t necessarily be any good if it were; the point is that the genre is at its most adolescent in its striving to be taken seriously, and in the way that striving manifests. Had Grossman realised it, his book might have had a greater sense of depth; in any event, he doesn’t seem to have noticed this, and the book rattles along, slipping into parody and out of it again.

Generally, there’s a problem here with the fundamental ordinariness of sensibility on display in the book. We’re told several times how one of the heroes, Elphin, is a hero out of legend; we don’t get that sense from anything she says or does. Her dialogue is, if anything, notably uninteresting. It’s true that super-heroes are a pop phenomenon, but still at their best they transcend the mundane, and capture something imaginative. That never happens here. The book never touches the freewheeling imagination you need to mimic the best Marvel and DC books. Lacking any operatic emotions, any real sense of heroism or villainy, that lack of imagination is a killer.

Again, this isn’t to say that the book is unskillful. The prose is very slick, and within its limited tonal range it modulates itself quite nicely. And Grossman clearly has thought about his heroes and their nature, the key importance of their physical bodies in their powers and origins. He works thankfully unobtrusive Freudian touches into their stories — with parents absent, surrogate figures from an earlier generation of heroes are given mythic airs. It’s a clever, and convincing, bit of analysis.

The book is interesting, no doubt. But I can’t say that it becomes anything more than that. It’s not one of the best prose super-hero books I’ve read — not as good as Elliot S! Maggin’s Superman books, not as good as the best of the George R.R. Martin-edited Wild Cards anthologies, not as good as the surprising short fiction anthology Who Will Save Us Now? But it’s not a bad book. It does what it wants to do, and does it well. I just can’t help but feel that its sights were set too low; that there was a failure of sensibility, a failure of conception, somewhere along the line. Had it been more parodic, its failure to grasp what is most powerful in super-hero books would have been more acceptable. As it is, I can only say: it’s all right, if you like that sort of thing.

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