Mar 15, 2008

Novels, superheroes, and Canuck sensibilities

I love superhero movies (I even willingly watched Ghost Rider), and eagerly await this summer's upcoming releases; Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and Hellboy II will undoubtedly kick all kinds of butt. Possibly also The Incredible Hulk, but I'm not getting that vibe from the less-than-incredible trailer. That, and I am of the opinion that Ang Lee's original Hulk is one of the finest (and unappreciated) examples of superhero movies ever, and substituting Lee with the director of Unleashed does not exactly fill me with hope. Kind of like when Brent Ratner was pegged to direct Red Dragon.

With that in mind, I've been perusing the landscape for some novels to help get me primed and ready. And since I'm nothing if not patriotic (is that derisive laughter I hear?), let's look at some Canadian literary examples of superhero mythology.


From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain
by Minister Faust

This is, on the surface, the most stereotypical entry, a slam-bang action-fest rife with physical improbabilities, invincible individuals, and dastardly evil goings-on. Like the recent American novel Soon I Will be Invincible by Austin Grossman (a terrific read, by the way), Faust both embraces the mythological stereotypes of the superhero genre, and playfully tweaks the reader's expectations through treating them as flawed human beings. The results are hysterical. De-mythologizing the superhero has been an accepted trend since Alan Moore revolutionized comic books and superhero teams with The Watchmen and Frank Miller pulled Batman back from the brink of self-parody with The Dark Knight Returns, and Faust's novel stands equal to such classics.

Dr. Brain is indeed from the notebooks of Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman, a psychoanalyst who specializes in the mysterious world of the specially-abled. She is the analyst of F*O*O*J* (Fantastic Order of Justice), a league of superheroes rendered dysfunctional and impotent after the legendary "Götterdämmerung" left most of the world's supervillains dead, and most of the world's superheroes out of a job. As she probes the minds of Omnipotent Man, The Flying Squirrel, Power Grrrl, Iron Lass, X-Man, and The Brotherfly, it turns out that dysfunction does not target only the normal.

Like the best comic books and graphic novels, Dr. Brain can be read as a kick-ass actioneer or, if you prefer, as a sly satire of our world. Faust is not exactly subtle with the metaphors; racism, paranoia, and xenophobia are all staples of the superhero subculture, and Dr. Brain follows this path fairly closely. What Faust brings to the party is intricately funny word-play, ingenious plot developments, and true love for his subject matter. And fun. Man, is this fun.

Grade - A-

All My Friends are Superheroes
by Andrew Kaufman

All My Friends is as far away conceptually from Dr. Brain as any superhero novel could be. Instead of the spectacular antics of Omnipotent Man and Iron Lass, Kaufman offers up The Frog-Kisser ("blessed with the ability to transform geeks into winners") and The Sloth (my personal favourite, an individual armed with "an amazing ability to say 'Fu@# it' and really, truly mean it"). Clearly, we are in a different realm of powers here.

Tom does not have superpowers, but his wife The Perfectionist does. She can will order with her mind. Unfortunately, he is invisible to her due to the jealous shenanigans of jilted superhero Hypno, and nothing Tom does can make her see him.

I've had a few people comment on All My Friends since I blogged that I was reading it. It turns out to have quite a rabid following, and it's easy to see why. Deft, amusing, endlessly quotable and charming as hell, Kaufman has crafted a love letter to love itself. It's a slight novella, but no less compelling for its brevity. It's light on the heroics, but near-perfect in execution.

Grade - A

Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask
by Jim Munroe


In a review of Shelf Monkey, one astute blogger labeled it as being written in "the Canadian Indie Style. Some of you may not be familiar with it (although if you've read Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask, or really anything else by Jim Munroe, you've definitely encountered it)...It's self-consciously casual to the point of seeming forced. The authors tend to have large vocabularies, but rarely use them effectively. Technique is virtually irrelevant, with plot and overt character development being nearly the only concerns. The narrators are self-deprecating, misunderstood, inwardly aggressive but outwardly meek. The women who serve as love interests for these characters are uniformly aggressive, beautiful, artistic, sporting an unusual name, and often (though not always) bisexual. Quirky isn't the word." I'd like to protest, as I believe Douglas Coupland began the Canadian quirk trend, but as I hadn't ever read Coupland until after I had finished my first draft, I suppose I'm guilty as charged. And I like aggressive women. But it doesn't change the fact that Flyboy Action Figure is a heck of a good time.

Flyboy takes the road between Dr. Brain and All My Friends, presenting the possibility of possessing true superpowers in a realistic setting, a precursor to more muted (but no less entertaining) examinations of superpowers such as M. Night Shyamalan's remarkable film Unbreakable and Jonathan Lethem's spectacular novel The Fortress of Solitude. In modern-day Toronto, Ryan (who can turn himself into a fly) and Cassandra (a waitress who can make things disappear - not reappear, mind you) take it upon themselves to challenge the tabloid newspapers (think a paper which rhymes with Bational Boast), as well as other bastions of conservative propaganda.

Flyboy is not exactly deep, nor subtle, but Munroe brings rich characterizations and skewed wit to what is admittedly a very strange genre. If Coupland is the godfather of Canadian quirk, then Munroe is that fun-loving uncle you wish would visit more often.

Grade - B+

Alright, I'm primed and ready. Bring on the genetically-superior beings!

2 comments:

Jeremy Barker said...

Great selection! I love Jim Munroe's work and have From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain on my to-read list, so I will have to search out All My Friends are Superheroes as well.

Court said...

Wow. I've never heard of any of these books, but am definitely going to be adding all three to my TBR list. Thanks for the great reviews. :)

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