Crossing mediums is tricky business. People always say, “the book was better than the movie,” which while often true does not take into account the extreme challenges involved in taking a written story and adapting it for a visual medium. You also get movies and shows adapted to books or comics, which, once upon a time, was the best you could hope for until the film eventually came out on VHS.
But what about a comic book that’s made into a novel? I don’t mean a graphic novel, I’m talking straight up black-and-white un-illustrated paperback.
That’s the challenge facing author Austin Grossman’s debut novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, which is as much superhero satire as it is actual superhero story. It’s a slightly more serious Mystery Men, if you will.
As the title somewhat implies, rather than avoid superhero and supervillain clichés, it embraces them, rationalizing them within this superhero universe and recognizing that they are in part what makes the genre what it is. The result is a very funny narrative that plays on the superhero genre, but never mocks it. In fact, it has a very strong psychological approach to its characters, dealing with issues of loneliness, ego, fame, greed, belonging, and even personal identity.
While the novel does create a new pantheon of heroes and villains, both in the present day and generations past, that pantheon is not wholly unique—nor is it meant to be. Creating a truly unique cast of characters takes time, and if the novel took that kind of time it would have simply been a series of origin stories tied together.
Instead, Grossman chooses to go the way of allegory. Analogies to characters and storylines from Marvel and DC universes are easily spotted, using various archetypes like the invincible flying super hero (complete with reporter girlfriend), the self-made hero using only athletic prowess and gadgets, heroes based in magic, heroes based in technology, heroes from the future sent back to prevent disasters, ancient heroes trapped in our time, and so on.
Since this story is meant to be taking place after the “glory days,” connecting these heroes to recognized tropes allows the author more time to focus on the story going on now and less on talking about the way things used to be.
The satirical element comes from looking at the mundane parts of their everyday lives and logical fallacies that are often ignored in comics, while providing explanations as to why things work the way they do. This is why this story works far better as a novel than it would as a comic—novels by their very nature are capable of conveying much more information in a way that, if applied to a comic, would slow things down immensely.
However, it’s not impossible. You can in fact compare this book to Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel Watchmen, which also looked at the ramifications of the existence of superheroes in a more realistic (and serious) light, and also dealt with the day-to-day existence of its characters. Both stories look back to the “golden age” where it all began (with a different generation of heroes in both cases), as well as the current generation’s own heyday before the problems they face in the present. Both stories base their characters on recognized superhero archetypes to similar effect.
Soon I Will Be Invincible alternates its point of view between two key characters—a replacement member of The New Champions superhero team (a cyborg named Fatale) and the supervillain antagonist, Dr. Impossible. Both are told from first person perspectives.
Fatale is your standard outsider perspective. Since she has lost her memory to events before the accident that resulted in her being turned into a cyborg, we get to learn about this world and its characters at the same time she does while she’s trying to fit in.
Dr. Impossible on the other hand is in many ways, well… he’s a sad sack. He’s brilliant, but suffering from “Malign Hypercognition Disorder”, a psychological condition which makes highly intelligent people use their advantages to commit evil. He’s a sympathetic villain, and even self-aware of what he is and his own failings. He knows the mistakes he’s made (he’s tried to take over the world twelve times before) and sees how he’s often doomed to fail right at the final moment. Deep down inside, he knows he’s going to lose. Yet he sees nobility in staying true to himself and his chosen path—while the heroes in his eyes are dishonest, taking the conformist path, and getting all the limelight.
Any fan of superhero comics should enjoy this novel. It is both familiar and unique, satirical and an homage, funny but exciting, silly yet does not shy from pathos. It is the best kind of send-up, one that honors the material it’s poking fun at, while at the same time managing to be a good story in its own right.
Originally Published in KODT #223