- Insert obligatory comics reference here: As you would expect about a book that uses the superhero genre as a background, there are a lot of references to Marvel and DC heroes and writers. The story is set in sunny Los Ditkos, a reference to Spider-Man and Dr. Strange co-creator Steve Ditko. A superhero restaurant, Soup ‘n’ Heroes, is run by Jan and “Stack” Leeby, who “still squabbled daily over who invented which soup and which sandwich” — a reference to Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. (I don’t know who S. Bruce Pippen, the restaurant’s eyepatched owner, is a reference to.)
My second favorite character names were the pioneering superheroes Gil Gamoid and the N-Kid. It took me almost 100 pages to realize they’re a play not on modern superheroes but heroes of an older mythology: Gilgamesh and his sidekick, Enkidu. My favorite was Arnold Drummond, the short, rich Black superhero. (Gary Coleman’s character on Diff’rent Strokes was Arnold Jackson, who was adopted by Mr. Drummond.)
Among the protagonists, you have Brotherfly (Andre Parker), a Black Spider-Man; Omnipotent Man (Wally W. Watchtower); and the Flying Squirrel (Festus Piltdown, who had a squabble with his sidekick, Chip Monk, years before). That’s a mixed bag, as far as the names go; Brotherfly is kinda clever, and Omnipotent Man is generic. But Flying Squirrel / Festus Piltdown seem almost like Faust is trying too hard; no one’s scared of a squirrel, even if they should be.
That being said, some of the throwaway villain names are great, just from a creative point of view: the Infinity Farmer and his Time Tractor, Robot-Stalin and his technopurges, Micro-Crip and his Nanogangstas, and L-Raunzenu.
- Dr. Brain is a horrible writer: And I mean horrible. Long, strained mental health metaphors are all over the place. It’s meant to be bad — self-help writers are not known as the greatest prose stylists on the planet — but that doesn’t make the book any easier to get through. Fortunately, the bad writing is mainly confined to the beginnings and ends of chapters.
- Getting there is …: For all the narrative and referential gimmickry, the conclusion is the important part. Mostly, it’s worth the trip, even the bits where readers have to climb past Dr. Brain’s arrogant and purple prose and all of the characters are laid too psychologically bare to be empathized with.
This isn’t just a romp or a style mashup; Faust has some very definite points to make, about African-Americans and superheroes. In retrospect, Faust highlights the inability of minority heroes to make their way into the pop culture zeitgeist, in part because of their status as second- (or third-) generation heroes, a point that has been debated repeatedly, but using completely original characters helps bring it to the fore.
I admit it: I was completely fooled by who the true villain of the piece was. I fell for Faust’s red herrings without hesitation, and the answer to the mystery was — mostly — fairly played. Kudos to you, sir. The revelation of who does it isn’t that as interesting as if another character had been the culprit, but it does do an excellent job highlighting the type of narrator Dr. Brain is. The thoughts flitting through Omnipotent Man’s head in his final battle are also amusing and appropriate; when you’re omnipotent, why not wonder if the Rockford Files is going to be on tonight? And why would you curse, when there’s nothing you can’t punish and overcome?
There are some parts that aren’t as satisfying. If I never read a book with September 11 subtext again, it will be too soon, and I didn’t need it here. I can never figure out whether superheroes should work in such a context, but either way, I don’t want to hear it. I also can’t tell whether the superheroes are supposed to have prevented a September 11 type event or created one or both … the architectural and body counts were lower in Dr. Brain, but it was similar enough I was supposed to notice. Also, the amount of intrusion into private citizens’ lives and “governmental” corruption isn’t changed before or after the attacks.
The character revelations for the female characters (other than Dr. Brain) also fall flat. Iron Lass and Flying Squirrel suffer the same main problem — unrequited love — but Iron Lass suffers worse and is buoyed higher than Flying Squirrel ever is when her problem is resolved. (Flying Squirrel’s problem isn’t resolved, but Faust / Brain’s characterization makes it clear he would never be that happy, even if it had been.) Omnipotent Man faces a similar resolution, but it comes after he’s solved his problems, not as part of the solution. It seems as if love really is all you need — if you’re a woman.
And even though Power Grrrl’s development is interesting, I was disappointed to learn it was all because of Mommy issues. All the best cowboys may have daddy issues, but Power Grrrl’s mini-Elektra complex isn’t that interesting.
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