It's a Super World, After All

By Mat Johnson,
a professor of creative writing at the University of Houston and the author of "Drop," "Hunting in Harlem" and "The Great Negro Plot"
Thursday, July 26, 2007


By Austin Grossman

Pantheon. 287 pp. $22.95

Since the end of the golden age of comic books in the mid-1950s, the industry has continued to reinvent itself by exploring one simple question: What would a superhero world look like if it were real? This was the major impetus behind the rise of Marvel comics in the 1960s and '70s, as well as the darker, more sobering visions presented in the '80s with Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and Alan Moore's "The Watchmen," landmark works that gave birth to the modern era of adult-oriented superhero storytelling.

Within this tradition now comes a prose exploration, Austin Grossman's enjoyable debut, "Soon I Will Be Invincible," which takes the genre of the superheroic into the realm of literary fiction, where navel-gazing is an established art form.

When CoreFire -- Earth's supreme Ubermensch and "World's Mightiest Hero" -- goes missing, few in the costumed vigilante community doubt that his nemesis, Doctor Impossible, had something to do with it. From Doctor Impossible's perspective, his hatred of the superman is completely understandable: "He could fly, which was reason enough to resent him. 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 -- something about it suggested the rest of us had simply knuckled under to gravity."

To those who assume Doctor Impossible is guilty, it doesn't matter that he is locked behind bars and has been for a while; the penal system is a revolving door to the world's foremost evil genius. Doctor Impossible quickly proves this fact by breaking out and working to fulfill his evil potential.

On the trail of the CoreFire mystery and the escaped Doctor Impossible is Fatale, a cyborg whose history is unknown even to herself. Fatale accepts an invitation to join America's A-list superhero squad, the Champions, who reunite to deal with the disappearance of their former member. As Fatale grows accustomed to the Champions' moody ensemble of comic-book archetypes, she begins to discover the truth behind CoreFire's vanishing act and the dark secrets behind her own origin as well.

Told in chapters that jump back and forth between the often humorous, engaging first-person narratives of Doctor Impossible and Fatale, "Soon I Will Be Invincible" revels in the mundane reality behind the masks, the adult concerns that motivate these flawed superheroes to get out of bed each morning and put their capes back on.

It is Doctor Impossible, though, who gets all of the best lines -- the great villains always do. "In street clothes I'd just be a criminal. Which I am, of course, but in the costume I'm something more. I wear the flag of a country that never existed and the uniform of its glorious army, spreading forth the dominion of the invincible empire of me."

It's not surprising to see the superhero world invade the medium of literary fiction, considering the number of prose writers who have made their way across the border into the comic-book universe in the past decade. Michael Chabon didn't just write a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about comic-book artists, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," he also followed that up with an actual comic-book series, "The Escapist." And Jonathan Lethem used the superhero genre as a source of weighted metaphor in his story collection "Men and Cartoons." But Grossman is content to stay within the borders of this fantasy world, bringing it to life in all of its colorized, comic glory.

Much of the writing happening in mainstream comics at the moment is about pushing the limits of the superhero genre, but in Grossman's novel the genre is not pushed into new levels of bleak realism. Rather, this fabulist vision is meticulously captured so that it might be gleefully explored, nostalgically, within its traditional boundaries. "Soon I Will Be Invincible" is a superhero story re-created with the great pleasure of an adult too old to play with action figures but young enough to remember the feeling of that childhood joy and translate it into prose.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company