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If the cape fits

February 22, 2008

MANILA, Philippines—If anyone out there has ever been bitten by a radioactive arachnid or rocketed to Earth from a doomed planet, then consider “Soon I Will Be Invincible” by Austin Grossman (Michael Joseph, London, 2007, 287 pages) required reading. The debut novel from video game brain Grossman, the book’s first person narrative alternates between two characters, a villain and a heroine, depicting what happens on both sides of the super-powered line. The villain is the world’s smartest man, Doctor Impossible. The heroine is the cyborg Fatale, an edgier Bionic Woman.

Embracing secret lairs, doomsday devices and robot henchmen, Grossman deftly demonstrates how even villains have workaday concerns, concerns which are a little different: “Once you get past a certain threshold, everyone’s problems are the same: fortifying your island and hiding the heat signature from your fusion reactor.” On the other gloved hand, Fatale discovers that the heroes themselves do not get along: “It’s an uncomfortable silence. Too many heroes in the room, and too much history.” Together, the two agile narratives slide into place, showing that being a villain isn’t all that bad, and that being a hero isn’t as easy as you think: “There’s a fine line between a superpower and a chronic medical condition.”

While Impossible puts together his master plan for world domination for the nth time after escaping prison, Fatale struggles to fit in when she is chosen the newest member for the top super team The Champions. Everyone’s life is thrown into disarray when the powerful and popular hero CoreFire goes missing.

Grossman’s prose projects the inner monologues for both Impossible and Fatale, allowing readers to witness the workings of a criminal and a heroic mind. In a comic book, such a feat would be translated into page after page of thought balloons and little else. As it is, “Invincible” gets readers up close and personal with metahumans in a realistic manner, reading like a friendlier update of Roger Zelazny’s seminal “Lord of Light.”

In a plot crowded with mutant red herrings, it turns out Impossible suffers from Malign Hypercognition Disorder or MHD, a condition that creates evil geniuses and mad scientists. But “Invincible” shows that, despite the megalomania, he’s actually quite the sympathetic figure, tortured by peers as a teen and misunderstood. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. You keep going. You keep trying to take over the world.” Fatale turns out to be quite vulnerable, a relatively young iron woman with doubts and questions.

It is to the book’s advantage that readers will just have to imagine what everybody looks like, so it’s almost counter-productive that this British edition showcases glossy illustrations by top comic artist Bryan Hitch (“The Ultimates”). Hitch’s art is beautiful but ultimately unnecessary. “Invincible” materializes somewhere between Michael Chabon’s buoyant “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” where superheroes are fictional, and Alan More’s dystopian “Watchmen,” where superheroes are all too real. There is an alter-ego twist unmasked near the end of “Invincible” that will either be loved or loathed.

Yet the power source of “Invincible” is also its Kyptonite. Though well-written and engaging, it is unapologetically about superheroes, so readers who do not enjoy tales of men and women in tights will find nothing for them here. “Invincible” is accomplished and polished, but nothing new, apparent from the fact that CoreFire, Damsel and Blackwolf are clearly analogues for Superman, Wonder Woman and The Batman, respectively.

Ironically, “Invincible” is surprisingly tame in terms of violence, especially when one considers the gratuitousness in comic books today. A playful nostalgia for four-color adventures long gone palpably pervades “Soon I Will Be Invincible,” with Austin Grossman channeling, celebrating and deconstructing superheroes, all at once, a superhuman feat in itself.

Available in paperback from Fully Booked.

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