We’ve survived a sea change, and the geeks have won. In 2007, Austin Grossman published Soon I Will Be Invincible, which I reviewed for this site. Five years later, we’re knee-deep in superhero miscellany. Studios that once shied away from displaying the full glory of men in spandex on an IMAX screen without a heavy costume re-design (complete with tough-making leather) are now considering a Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Even as a fan, I wonder whether the world is ready for Rocket Raccoon. More to the point, my mother is now current with the Avengers line-up. ‘Nuff said.
Following Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in 2001 and Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude in 2003, Grossman’s novel represented what I thought would be the first shaky step into a new subgenre: the literary adaptation of a serialised visual art, one in which the super-hero trope did not function as an extended metaphor held as a backdrop to real-world stories but inspired an actual comic book told in words.
Heretofore, we’d seen the expansive whittled down to the abridged. Most literary classics have enjoyed both the comic book and movie treatment several times over, and pieces of art have inspired countless poems, but the visually static has rarely been given the depth and consideration of a novel. I honestly can’t think of an example. Comic book characters are often called “iconic”, but what we mean is that they’re described in shorthand. The comics style is evolving, but it’s long rewarded the sprint over the marathon.
Enter Prepare to Die! by Paul Tobin, who subscribes to the belief that comic books belong to a realm of adolescence that has not been outgrown. Subtitled “A Novel of Superheroes, Sex and Secret Origins”, the book sports its angst and pimples proudly. It tells of Steve Clarke, a.k.a. Reaver: super strong, super tough, and boasting a punch that literally shaves time off his victims’ lives. We meet him in the last days of the super-hero age, with champions martyring themselves, going mad, or switching sides. We piece this together from a first-person narration that roams freely through time.
Reaver, least heroic of heroes, is the last champion standing, and he’s about to give up. Ambushed, outnumbered, and out of options, he finds himself down for the count. This is it. There are no more last-minute saves. He’s done. Octagon, his archenemy, screams out, “Prepare to die!” Mask off, our hero answers, “All right, give me a month.” Octagon gives him two weeks to get his things in order, and so our narrator begins his memoir creating a list of the things he wants to get done.
We, as readers, want to know how our hero was brought to this place. We’re curious about a world that hosts characters with powers like these. Reaver is not the sharpest tool in the shed. His power is blunt, and we realise this has been his greatest bane. How do you justify your place in the word and be sure of your actions when you can bring a victim one year closer to death with a well-placed punch? And how do you live with yourself after those times you’ve lost your temper and just couldn’t stop hitting something?
Tobin picks up these threads and largely drops them. Reaver doesn’t really have the vocabulary or the distance to pursue such inquiries. He’s more concerned with finding Adele, his first love, the girl he was dating before a fateful accident forced him to disappear and resurface as a superhero. He heads back to his hometown because, of course, only he’s changed and no one else has left. This is both a character flaw and lazy writing. Tobin at least acknowledges the contrivance as Reaver admits before setting out on his trip, “I should have called.”
The rest of the novel is told through flashbacks highlighting Reaver’s career and sexual exploits until they fold into each other at the end of his two-week journey with number 8 on his to-do list: fight. On the subject of lists, the first name on the acknowledgements page is Jack Kirby “for carrying mythic traditions into a new and vibrantly illustrated age.” The line is interesting, because I don’t see us as any more or less illustrated than any other time. The author’s description of Octagon, evil genius extraordinaire, is more apt testament to Kirby’s oeuvre: “Perhaps he’s lost in drama. Villains are like that. Although, truth be told, villains are only like that because villains are people, and everyone gets caught up in drama.”
Adolescents get lost in drama. Kirby was instrumental in ushering in a larger-than-life style of stark contrasts: bright, primary lights for the iconic heroes and black shadows for their tortuous nemeses. Over time, we’ve started to leach some of the vibrancy from these colours, keeping to the overall shapes and mixing more grey into the pallet. Comics and their spinoff novels are better for remembering there can be drama in nuance, and Prepare to Die! is a heroic attempt at letting this new genre unfold. However, Tobin, an obvious student of The Dark Knight (2008) and Watchmen (2009), hews a little too closely to their spectacle and doesn’t let his characters flourish into the space a novel provides. The geeks need to grow up.