Pantheon, 2007, 287 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-375-42486-1
Superhero revisionism is in. Which is in keeping with the times, really: Following the success of the first X-Men movie in 2001, superheroes jumped from the comics page to mass pop-culture consciousness, leaving open the door for reinterpretations of the concept from the execrable MY EX-SUPERHERO GIRLFRIEND to the instant-classic THE INCREDIBLES. But true superhero revisionism waits for no movies, going back to Allan Moore’s Watchmen and Robert Meyer’s Superfolks, if not earlier to DC’s own self-parodies. Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible is the newest brick in that particular wall.
I’m not going to go over the plot: Once you know that it’s going to be a superhero novel, you can guess that this will boil down to the classical ur-plot about a madman taking over the world.
But what Grossman tries to do here is to meld the sensibilities of hip mainstream fiction with the kind of overblown plotting we usually in superhero comics. Alternating between the viewpoints of super-villain Doctor Impossible (he’s not evil, just deranged) and super-heroine Fatale (she’s not just cannon-fodder, honest), Soon I Will Be Invincible takes the superhero world as given and then tries to make it sound credible.
Which isn’t the same thing as parody. In fact, one of the novel’s best feature is how it works both as a pastiche and a homage, depending on the baggage you bring to the book. Those who already find superhero comics to be the dumbest sub-genre on the face of the planet will find plenty of ammunition for their disdain here; others with a forty-dollar-a-week habit at the local comic book store will just enjoy the book as a prose version of their favourite stories. Everyone in-between will be able to find some satisfaction in Grossman’s work.
Certainly, the prose style is amusing enough to make this book a fast read. Both characters are an excellent excuse to explain the super-hero world in all of its unsavoury details. Being a super-villain isn’t as much fun as one would assume, and being converted from an ordinary woman to a super-powered cyborg carries along its slice of psychological trauma.
For comic-book fans, part of the fun is in finding where Grossman’s mythology is meant to intersect with existing superhero canon. Superman, Batman and Wonder-Woman are predictably easy to spot, but don’t think that this is just a JLA story under a new name: Grossman’s modified mythology allows him to have more fun that could have had if he had set out to write a straight parody. Doctor Impossible’s biography is crammed with the kind of eventful memories that can only result from a monthly publication schedule, but trying to map a specific Marvel/DC super-villain to his past isn’t helpful: He’s an archetype for all super-villains, including the usual grandiose plots and unnerving escape abilities.
Fatale, on the other hand, is a far more specific superhero, a superhuman cyborg with a shady past that too-conveniently turns out to be related to the matter at hand. Her role isn’t as active as Doctor Impossible, and it’s partly because she doesn’t work alone: Through her viewpoint, we get to learn all about “The Champions”, the team of superheros trying to track down and stop Doctor Impossible before he does take over the world. It’s a lively bunch, especially when past squabbles keep bubbling to the surface.
Unfortunately, Grossman’s approach carries along it own problems. The structural decision to go back and forth between Doctor Impossible and Fatale is often problematic, especially at the end of the book where a more sweeping perspective on the climax would have been more helpful. Instead, Grossman has to cut his chapters more closely, which results in a conclusion where we almost miss what’s happening. Another problem is that Doctor Impossible’s viewpoint is generally more interesting than Fatale’s characters, which doesn’t sustain the pacing of the novel very well. On the other hand, Doctor Impossible often sounds annoyingly emo, in a whiny “I was beaten up in school; I will take over the world” fashion. Through a powerful message against bullying, it does smack of an easy rationale for turning irremediably evil.
(On the other hand, Grossman’s integration of technological, noir and fantastical elements reminded me that comic-book superheroes may have been the first and dominant form of slipstream, or genre fusion, for decades now. Now that’s an insight I wasn’t expecting from a comic super-hero romp.)
But little of that matters in the novel itself, which is fun and hugely enjoyable to read. It may not be as good as it could have been, but it’s still a terrific piece of entertainment for anyone with any awareness whatsoever of the rules of super-hero stories. Which, given the resurgence of such movies, may very well be all of us by now.