Del Rey, 2007, 390 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 0-345-46637-3
This, dear readers, is the decadent era of the superhero in pop culture. There are now so pervasive, such a part of the entertainment-retail complex that there is nowhere for them to go but down, preferably in a cloud of ridicule. The symptoms are clear, and clearer as I re-write this in September 2008: After HANCOCK, it’s clear that it’s a free-for-all in the superhero field, and notwithstanding oddities like BATMAN RETURNS, it’s clear that humor is one way of dealing with a now-overly familiar topic.
That’s tying Minister Faust’s From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain to a heavy conceptual framework, but it’s also true that Faust is perverting the comic-book superhero tradition in two ways in his second novel, one of which is obvious from the get-go, with the other becoming apparent only as the novel goes on and maintains a facade of false humor.
(Readers overly sensitive to spoilers may want to skip ahead to the last paragraph of this review.)
The first of Faust’s hacks on the superhero form is well-presented in the packaging of the novel. Written as if from the pen of “Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman”, psychologist to superheros, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain is re-titled Unmasked! When Being a Superhero Can’t Save You From Yourself and presented as a self-help book for the average hyper-hominid. If you’ve read any pop-psychology book before, this will feel instantly familiar, as Dr. Brain can’t help but structure her narrative around common super-heroic psychological issues, and pepper the narrative with a thick cloud of well-titled syndromes and cute acronyms.
It’s not your average self-help book though, because it does tell a story. As Dr. Brain is tasked with treating the dysfunctional relationship of the top members of the Fantastic Order Of Justice (FOOJ), some of whom are not meant to be riffs on existing superheroes. Who would associate Batman with pro-fascist The Flying Squirrel? Who could recognize Superman in the quasi-moronic Omnipotent Man? There isn’t any link at all between Wonder-Woman and Iron Lass! Well, oh, okay. (Other winks to superhero canon are peppered through the narrative, two of the earliest ones being “the city of Los Ditkos” and the “Crisis of Infinite Dearths.” )
But as Dr. Brain deals with her super-powered subjects, another external threat emerges, linked with the escape of super-villains, an upcoming election within the FOOJ and the death of one of the greatest superheroes of all times. What happens as the novel goes on become stranger and stranger, as one of the story’s most lucid character is systematically belittled by the narrator. The character’s racially-charged rhetoric may be overt, but it’s strange to see him marginalized, especially given Faust’s own minority-friendly first novel.
But nothing is an accident, and the unreliability of the narrator eventually becomes a window through which we understand that Faust’s building an entirely different critique of the superhero genre, one that obliquely discusses the nature and social ramification of the power fantasies implicit in the superhero genre. Brain herself may be either evil or clueless, but that doesn’t change anything to the way the novel says one thing and means another in its closing chapters. It does place readers in a curious position, though: After a fun start, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain becomes less and less amusing, until the smiles become bitter with resentment.
As a novel, it’s a clear step up from the occasionally-messy The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad. The style is snappy, the characters all have distinctive voices, the twists are striking and the entire novel seems far more controlled. It’s a mystery why Faust hasn’t received more attention for this unnerving, but worthwhile second novel. As a decadent take on the superhero genre, it’s about as good as it gets.