“You just keep going. You keep trying to take over the world.”

by
Soon I Will Be Invincible
By Austin Grossman
Pantheon – hardcover, $22.95

IN THE COMIC BOOK WORLD, we tend to think of trying to take over the world pretty literally. If someone has made the hero kneel before him and is having his throne installed in the White House, the Capital or the UN, that’s serious enough business on its own, right? Serious enough that we don’t often stop to think of taking over the world as a metaphor.

In the real world, of course, there are lots of worlds to conquer. We talk of people taking by storm the worlds of science, politics or celebrity stardom. For Soon I Will Be Invincible’s Austin Grossman, taking over the world is an extreme enough endeavor, both as a tangible and existential achievement, that it can serve as a metaphor for any kind of purpose through which people find self-definition. As arch-villain Dr. Impossible muses after one of the many captures that have marked his career, “What does it mean to conquer the world? Do you have to be the richest one, or the smartest one, or to beat everyone in a fight?… Does it mean you get the girl you really wanted? Did CoreFire [Impossible’s nemesis] already conquer the world a long time ago? Did I?”

Taking over the world, then, is any kind of endeavor that gives one a sense of meaning when accomplished, or fosters social withdrawal and obsession when failed. At least, as I said, metaphorically. Don’t be fooled by all this talk of themes; Dr. Impossible means it, and as the smartest man alive, he might be able to make it happen. He’s one of Soon I Will Be Invincible’s two narrators, who tell the story of his escape from his twelfth stint in prison and his subsequent thirteenth attempt to conquer the world in alternating chapters. The other is Fatale, a hero who gained special abilities after an accident destroyed much of her body and scientists from the now-defunct Protheon organization rebuilt her, making her strong, fast and deadly.

The two of them are case studies in why some people want to save the world, while others feel deeply alienated from it; Impossible was born with amazing gifts, but for reasons even he admits to not fully understanding, he wants to use them to the detriment of society. Fatale has every reason to feel as alienated as does Impossible after her accident leaves her only half flesh and blood, the rest replaced with metal and plastic, but she joins the good guys. Related to this is each character’s search for purpose, their own manner of conquering their world. Fatale doesn’t know what she was built for. Her teammate in the New Champions, Elfin, doesn’t know why she was left behind when the fairies left earth, given only some vague information about a mission that will become clear hundreds of years hence.

Of course, along with all the introspective moments, they all still find time to hit each other. If all you’re looking for is a ripping yarn, Soon I Will Be Invincible provides the requisite chase, series of fights, maniacal laughter and doomsday device. The reason I bring up its themes and subtext at the outset is that I’ve come across a few reviews that have painted Soon I Will Be Invincible as a standard superhero story like might be found in any of the dozens of hero comics that come out every month, different only in that it is a novel. It’s true that it is no deconstruction of the genre, but it’s hard to see the change in medium as trivial.

The superhero genre has built up such a wealth of visual shorthand and iconography over the years that having things like the characters’ costumes described rather than displayed forces a reevaluation of them. When a woman with wasp wings is simply drawn on the page, the area in question likely not depicted in photorealistic detail, it’s easy to simply accept it without lingering on it. The novelist’s task of making the same detail real without the benefit of a picture cannot help but draw attention to it, and will likely spark an opinion about it, as when Fatale describes Elphin’s fairie physiology: “I don’t like to look at the place where they join her back, where the insect anatomy joins the human, where the whole thing gets touched with horror.”

Details like that touch on the kind of description that is the specialty of novels: the terrain inside characters’ heads. It is somewhat sad to realize that comics, though the only medium to have a formalized method of depicting thought at the same time as speech and action, rarely puts it to any use beyond exposition or reactions to events happening at that moment (I appreciate what Brian Michael Bendis is attempting in Mighty Avengers, but his use of thought balloons generally acts as a supplement to whatever characters are saying at the same time). Very infrequent is the comic that suggests rich inner lives for any of its characters; Concrete is the only one that immediately springs to mind.

Ready access to protagonists’ thoughts also humanizes them far more deeply than the common Tarantino-style shortcut of characters discussing pop culture or fast food. In Soon I Will Be Invincible, humanization comes in the small details of everyday life and simple character moments like the pride that the heroes and even some of the villains take in their work, as in this exchange: Doctor Impossible: “I… I’ve always admired your work.” Baron Ether: “I appreciate that, Doctor Impossible. It’s nice to think of one’s work as admired.” When characters are snide with each other or make stupid mistakes, it doesn’t feel like a parody of the genre, as such incidents might be used in a superhero satire, but simply a human moment. When they are inconsistent in behavior or don’t fit comfortably as either a hero or villain, like the character of Lily, it isn’t necessarily foreshadowing of plot points to come so much as a depiction of someone who doesn’t quite know what she wants from life and behaves inconsistently, as do we all at times.

Many superhero stories fall back on genre familiarity as a shortcut to real world-building, but Grossman succeeds at creating a complete world around his characters. This is important, due to the adjustments already inherent in telling a superhero story in a medium that hasn’t often been used for them, as well as the fact that it will likely have a broader audience than most superhero comics. While there are a few recognizable analogues to popular characters in Soon I Will Be Invincible, Grossman has clearly given thought to the history and internal logic of his superhero universe, which, while vaguely recognizable to those familiar with the genre, is explained clearly within the story (the superhero index and stats in the back seem unnecessary and are one of the few places that the book betrays a compulsion toward the geekiest tendencies of the genre) and doesn’t match up exactly with any existing superhero universe.

Grossman also handles the balance between the action and introspection well, moving the plot along at a satisfying pace while sprinkling well-placed background details. The inter-related origins of Dr. Impossible and CoreFire and the fate of the woman they both love unravels almost as a parallel narrative, with new surprises popping up almost every chapter. Equally compelling is Fatale’s wrestling with the mystery of her own past, much of which was lost in her accident, and her attempt to recreate herself while comparing herself to the world’s greatest heroes, who are suddenly her teammates. The action and set pieces are appropriately grand without being too serious. Overall, it makes for absorbing pop literature. As far as depth goes, Soon I Will Be Invincible falls in roughly the same ballpark as a McSweeney’s genre pastiche: a good story with a little bit more under the surface. It even looks as hip as a McSweeney’s collection, with very cool design by Chip Kidd. Grossman has covered all the bases, creating both a satisfying superhero tale and complete, well-realized work of pop literary fiction.

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One Response to ““You just keep going. You keep trying to take over the world.””

  1. Barry Deutsch Says:

    Very infrequent is the comic that suggests rich inner lives for any of its characters; Concrete is the only one that immediately springs to mind.

    This sentence is such a vast overstatement, I think you must have intended to put the phrase “using thought balloons” between “characters” and the semi-colon.

    I’d say the comic that has been the most innovative in its use of thought balloons to depict inner life is Cerebus, which, despite its insurmountable flaws, is full of formal merits.

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