June 21, 2007

Book review: "Soon I Will Be Invincible," by Austin Grossman

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Soon I Will Be Invincible
By Austin Grossman
Pantheon Books / ISBN: 978-0-375-42486-1

"This morning on planet Earth, there are 1,686 enhanced, gifted, or otherwise superpowered persons. 678 use their powers to fight crime, while 441 use their powers to commit them. 44 are currently confined in Special Containment Facilities for enhanced criminals. Of these last, it is interesting to note that an unusually high proportion have IQs of 300 or more -- eighteen to be exact. Including me. You really have to wonder why we all end up in jail."

Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman

Well, when a novel starts like this, how in a million years could I possibly pass it up? And indeed, just about everything at first about Bay-area author Austin Grossman's debut novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, seemingly screams out "I am for you" to the random overeducated comics-loving geek who comes across it; the Chip Kidd cover, Grossman's nerdy credentials as a videogame consultant and PhD candidate in Victorian literature, Invincible's storyline concerning weary postmodern superheroes. But there's a big problem regarding reviewing this novel, in that there are two very different interpretations one can have as to what Grossman's point is, and that my feelings regarding the book change profoundly depending on which interpretation you adopt: of whether this is a light deconstructionist comedy about freaks in tights and what makes them do what they do; or maybe if this is instead an unironic gritty "Dark Age" drama about superheroism itself.

What to do, what to do? So I'm trying something unusual today; I'm writing two mini-reviews of Invincible instead, tackling my thoughts when it comes to each of these interpretations, since it's almost impossible to know which one Grossman meant for us to have unless directly asking him. If you end up reading the novel yourself, I'll be interested to see which of the two takes you adopt, and encourage you to leave a comment at the end sharing your own thoughts on the matter.

A. Soon I Will Be Invincible as deconstructionist superhero comedy. For those who don't know, there's a rising subgenre of superhero stories out there now for those who enjoy such things, which is the ironic self-aware superhero story; where the heroes and villains in question understand just how ridiculous their entire situation is, and end up winking at the audience the entire time they're performing their heroic or villainous stunts. Think of the most well-known example of the subgenre, the 1999 Ben Stiller comedy Mystery Men -- how the superheroes in that movie live and die by their corporate sponsorships and celebrity endorsements, how most of the superheroes in question turn out to be nerdy losers once the masks come off.

And indeed, there's a lot of the same kind of humor going on in Invincible, and it's undeniable that Grossman has a natural talent for these kinds of observational jokes, such as when the main villain (a Lex Luthor stand-in) starts ranting about the flying abilities of his superhero nemesis (clearly a blonde Superman): "He didn't even have the decency to work for it, to flap a pair of wings or at least glow a little. He seemed to do it purely out of a sense of entitlement." But there's a weakness that comes with this part of the book as well, or should I say two symbiotic weaknesses: that a lot of the novelty concerning this kind of humor has worn off by now, ten years after it first started becoming popular, and that Grossman ends up directly ripping off the concepts and jokes of a whole lot of other projects that have come before his, projects that are frankly better and funnier than his.

Perhaps he can get away with this in novel form, and in a project that's being marketed towards more traditional lit lovers who might not be up on their postmodern superhero comedies. But for anyone who can recite lines from the 2000 cult hit The Specials (or God help your nerdy soul, the '80s cult hit The Tick), the humor and concepts on display in Invincible are unfortunately going to be all too readily apparent. For all of you, this book will be disappointing; for the rest of you, be ready to laugh a lot.

B. Soon I Will Be Invincible as gritty Dark Age unironic drama. Are you familiar with the "Dark Age" of comics? It's a play on the "Golden Age" (1920s to '40s) and "Silver Age" (1950's and '60s) of that genre, and is used both as a compliment and insult; an age that supposedly started with the twin '80s projects The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Watchmen by Alan Moore, which were so successful and influential that soon you couldn't get away from the dark, violent, angst-ridden superheroes, sitting around with their vices and their endless naval-gazing about their profession. And again, in a way you can see Invincible in the same terms; that plotwise, the story wouldn't be out of place in an actual comic, and legitimately does have the kind of pathos, action and surprises that make it a decent dramatic meditation on superheroism itself.

For example, we've all thought about the special prisons that would need to be constructed for supervillains; but have you ever thought about how you'd get them there? Or how to temporarily restrain them between the point the superhero has caught them and the point they're actually behind bars? What happens to the secret evil fortress that villain now leaves behind? Is it sold off at police auction? Turned into condos and coffeehouses? Why do superheroes get origin stories but supervillains don't? In various crafty ways throughout the novel, Grossman does a fantastic job at envisioning a world like ours but where people really did start developing superpowers in the 1950s and beyond; a world where military-sponsored bionic surgery, radioactive lab disasters, and visits from alternative universes really have happened, where maybe only half of these people actually choose to dress up in tights and run around solving or committing crime, the rest simply being normal citizens who happen to be really, really, really good at their jobs. What makes half these people put on masks and give themselves ridiculous names and the other half not? And what makes them decide to be either good or evil in the first place?

Unfortunately, though, much like the comedy interpretation of the book, the flipside is that Grossman ends up visiting territory that a lot of Dark Age stories have already covered; between the multiple references to Watchmen and Warren Ellis' The Authority, I think both men actually have a decent argument for a plagiarism suit on their hands. For example, if you're intrigued by the idea of comparing two different supergroups from such an alternative reality like described, one from the innocent '50s and one from the ironic '80s, and the various ways that they both fed off each other and clashed in this alternative history where superheroes actually exist, then by all means you're going to love Invincible; if the first thing you say to yourself, though, is "Hey, that's just like original Night Owl versus the new Night Owl," then you're going to grow impatient with Invincible rather quickly.

So when all is said and done, I suppose my opinion of Invincible is actually the same no matter which interpretation you take; that it is definitely humorous, gripping, and extremely well-written, but unfortunately visits mostly well-known ground for those who are already comics lovers. If you didn't recognize a single reference made above, then I say dive into this novel with both feet first; those who are already fans of the projects mentioned, though, might want to take a pass.

Out of 10:
Story: 4.3
Characters: 5.0
Style: 9.4
Overall: 7.0

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:21 PM, June 21, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |