July 25th, 2006

run the fuck away

Superfolks : A book review

"There's no place for heroes anymore. Nobody wants them. They never did, not really. Think back. They always liked me better than you. And you know why? Because at least I was human part of the time, while you were always invincible. And what did they call me behind my back? The Big Green Fruit! I know it. And they liked Batman better than both of us--because he was all human. It's human weakness they cherish, not strength. Look what they do to their own heroes. The Kennedys. King. Yes, even Wallce, he was a hero to some. They shoot them down, that's what. You go back, make a fool of yourself, you think you'll get sympathy? The hell you will. They'll laugh. They love to see the mighty fallen."
-- Superfolks, by Robert Mayer.

Grant Morrison, one of the Big Names in comic book writing wrote the foreward, which, in short, credits this book with modern comic books. I find that really interesting, considering, until I noticed the spine at Borders, I had never heard of it before. But he's right.

The book is written in the style I try to emulate, which is to say, I wish I wrote like this. The entire thing keeps a hallucinatory, unreal edge, facilitated by strange tropes- like the appearance of a variety of famous people in strange ways; Martin Van Buren is the head of the CIA, Marylin Monroe shows up as a nurse, and Joe Dimaggio is mentioned in passing as a limo driver. None of them are actually those famous people, but in the same way comic book artists will sneak real faces into their panels, these deceased pop culture references move the book out of reality. There's more to it though- word play. For example, our hero is an alien superman from the planet Cronk, which was destroyed. The meteorites from that planet, which are the hero's only weakness are called "Cronkite".

But there's an earnestness in the story, and understanding... a fleshing of all of the characters that brings a real concern to the story- it's not just absurdity. The absurdity moves you out of this world and into theirs, it ropes you in and holds you against the story.

Which brings us back to modern comic books, and the quote above, which really sums up the whole thing. Comics have become more self aware, in part because of increased cynicism overall. Heroes are passé, so to keep the characters alive, we need to move away from tights and capes and into angst and introspection. Tortured heroes. Flawed men and women in a decaying world has become the norm. This mode peaked in Alan Moore's The Watchmen (which will be massacred in film form sometime soon), which featured some pretty dysfunctional heroes in a world where superheroes were outlawed. Today, we see the same trend in Powers, which focuses on normal people living in the wake of superheroes, and deconstructionist adventures like Rising Stars.

So, in short, if you're a comic book fan, this is a great book. If you hate comic books, this is a fantastic book. If, like me, you can't help but get caught up in the metaphor of superheroes- the mythical aspect of it- well, this is pretty much the perfect book on the subject.