Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Best Book To Read If You Were A Kid Who Pretended To Be A Superhero.

You know, if you saw a guy my age -- 39 and 5/6 -- on the subway, watching "Spider-Man" on his iPod, you'd probably think nothing of it.

If you saw that same guy my age on the subway reading a Spider-Man comic, the odds are you would find that... questionable. Oh, heck, let's just say it: You'd think he's a loser.

Why is that? Why are comic books considered to be unacceptable for grown-ups but movies are considered to be okay? And what do you do if you're an adult and you like superheroes and comics but you don't want people to look down on you for always reading Groo the Wanderer?

You read Soon I Will Be Invincible, that's what you do. Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman is a book for people who loved and love comics but want to expand their horizons.

I grew up loving comic books; comic books were one of my introductions to the world of reading. As a young kid, I was given comic books by my uncles, who were only a little older than I was, and I read them and read them and read them, read virtually every comic book I could get my hands on. As I grew older, I continued reading comic books, expanding my reading to include indie comics and sci-fi comics and "serious" comics while still including old favorites like Blue Devil and Ambush Bug.

This worried my mom, who could see no good coming of it.

Then, one day, I stopped. I just stopped reading comics. In part, I stopped reading comics simply because I was too old; it felt a little weird, still reading comic books. Even now, when I occasionally go back and thumb through my comic collection and look at old favorites like the giant-sized issue where Superman and Spider-Man first fought and then teamed up to take on Doc Octopus and Lex Luthor, even now it feels a little strange, because I'm a grown-up and grown-ups aren't supposed to read comic books.

And I think, honestly, that that's right, that society has it right that grown-ups should not read comics, or at least not read all that many comics. Not because comics are juvenile -- plenty of stuff that's great to read is "juvenile," in the sense that it's fun to read and about things that kids tend to like. I read and loved the Harry Potter series, and that's juvenile. I read the His Dark Materials trilogy, and that's juvenile. Juvenile doesn't mean bad; it just means appealing to the kid in us.

No, I think that adults should minimize their comic reading for the real reason I stopped reading comics: It wasn't because I was too old to read them, but because being old meant that comics became limiting. Comic books, which are books and are therefore great, are also on the one hand a door opening into a vast world of reading for kids, and on the other hand, a narrow tunnel of literature for adults. Remember the scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where the hallway gets smaller and smaller and smaller? The door on that hallway is comic books. If you're a kid, you'll get through that door. If you're an adult, you'll wait outside.

As a kid, reading comics engages you in reading without thinking you're reading; the pictures and word balloons and quick stories help get your mind into reading without making it work so hard. Instead of this:

Green Lantern stared into Sinestro's eyes. His battered face pulled into a taut line and he grimaced as he spit out the words through teeth gritted against the pain: "Even rookies know a Green Lantern isn't without fear." With that, he swung his exhausted arm out, curling his fingers into a fist and pummeling Sinestro with what little strength he had left, pushing his archfoe through the wall of glass and cutting the enemy's face in a hundred tiny daggers of anger. "A Green Lantern overcomes fear," he howled, as he did so.

You get this:

See how that's easier for a kid? A kid who can't picture what a shattered wall of glass is easily, a kid who may not yet know the word pummeled, a kid whose imagination is just beginning to stretch out and flex its muscles, needs the assistance of comic book to help develop the imagination the way Forrest Gump needed the assistance of his leg braces to develop his speed.

But for an adult, comics work in just the opposite way. As you read the prose above (I wrote that myself after reading the comic page it's based on), what did you picture? Did it mirror what ended up on the page? And if it didn't, was yours better than what the artist came up with?

Comics are shortcuts; instead of giving us some pointers and descriptions and allowing us to build the imaginary world the author wants to help us create, comics serve as Cliff's Notes for the imagination. Green Lantern in the comics is always the Green Lantern the author wants you to see him. There's no room, when you're reading a comic, to picture a Green Lantern that's anything but (in my case) Hal Jordan.

In a comic book, Gollum always looks the way the author wants Gollum to look.

That is why comic books should generally not be adult reading: because adults have imaginations and backgrounds and the wherewithal to fully populate the imaginary world of a book. And all books, fiction or nonfiction, create an imaginary world. When I read Nothing Like It In The World, a fascinating, incredible book about the building of the transcontinental railroad, a book which if you don't read it in your lifetime your life will be the poorer for it -- I had to create the world of that time. I had to picture the salt flats, the workers with hammers, the mountains they dug through, the giant steam engines, creating all of that using nothing more than my imagination and the tools the author gave me.

That's what adults should do; that's what a lifetime of reading and thinking and imagining should do; it should equip you to read something and create that world in your mind. Comics, when you're a kid, help with that process. They give you a little assistance, a leg up. But comics, when you're an adult, hem you in.

I'm not saying that adults should never read comic books. Any reading is good; reading anything is better than not reading. If you want to read comics, go ahead. I still go re-read some of my old ones. I still read new comics if they promise to be good. I even read the comics in the morning paper. Comics are not bad; but they are not as good as a good book. Comics lie in the limbo between books and paintings, books and movies, books and TV: they use more of your imagination, more brainpower, than any of those other forms of entertainment, but they still serve to present just one vision, just one image, and therefore are more limited than the boundless world of books.

So read comics, sure, but expand out to read more things. That's where a problem arises, though. If you're a comic-book-loving, superhero-loving, kid-at-heart-still reader, like me, if you don't want every single thing you read to be about transcontinental railroads or guys who work lunch trucks in New Jersey, if you miss those old superheroes, what do you do?

Like I said, if that's the case, you read Soon I Will Be Invincible.

In Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman writes a comic book for grown-ups. The story is told from the perspectives of "actual" superheroes living in a comic book world that's a lot like our own but also a lot like a world that's not quite ours: a world where comic book physics rule and people can become superpowered through surgical intervention or the classic "experiment gone bad," where magic works and cyborgs are created by government agencies.

The book alternates perspectives, telling about half the story from the viewpoint of Doctor Impossible, the supervillain who begins the story imprisoned. The other half of the story is told by Fatale, a cyborg who became a superhero after an accident destroyed half her body. As the story progresses, [GROWN UP COMIC-STYLE LITERARY NOVEL SPOILER ALERT!] Fatale joins a superhero group that is searching for Doctor Impossible, and as they do that, and as they have the requisite fights with bad guys and internecine squabbles and love affairs, Austin Grossman's genius becomes more and more evident as he fleshes out, and allows the reader to further develop, this world.

The storyline is only half the fun in Soon I Will Be Invincible. The other half comes in making the superheroes realistic -- but in a cool way. These are not "real" superheroes in the lame, JLA-Knockoff way of the disappointing Watchmen (I just don't get the love of that comic. I found it trite and derivative.) These are "real" superheroes, and supervillains, in the sense that when one hero is interrogating Doctor Impossible, the scars and markings of the operation that gave the hero his powers can be seen; Fatale muses on the difficulty of being a cyborg given the extra weight all that metallic gear and computers adds to her body, and help the reader understand how the computer helps her fight. Doctor Impossible has to gather capital to pull off his schemes -- pointing out that armies and robots and lairs do not just build themselves.

Grossman also gives his heroes the backstories and hints of other stories to come; some of the heroes are children of other heroes, now retired. One is missing and the others are looking for him. There are the civilian girlfriends and captives and secret islands -- but it's all simultaneously realistic and comic-book-fun.

I don't know how he pulled it off; he did something that I don't think anybody else ever did before: he wrote a prose comic book, a comic book without the comics. I like to think that Grossman began by reading comics, and as he moved on, he decided that the fun of comics should continue when we're grown-ups, and should be even more fun, more interesting -- so he wrote a novel that managed to be a "comic book" without pictures, a comic book that has all the great things I, and others, loved about comics as a kid, but adds things to keep the adults interested, too -- takes the battles and outer space adventures and batarangs and then tacks on to them concerns about secret identities and hints of other worlds and ecological disasters and government and bits and pieces of what seems to be "real" science (and "real" magic, for that matter) and somehow did it all in prose so that the fully-developed adult imagination could take that framework, that story, and instead of being tied down by the pictures supplied by an artist, could create their own world with their own superheroes and make it all theirs, while still sharing that experience with everyone else who read it.

If you read-- when you read-- Soon I Will Be Invincible, picture your "Doctor Impossible" and your "Fatale." What do they look like? How tall are they? Is their hair long or short? Straight or curly? What color are their eyes? Is Fatale skinny? Curvaceous? That's all yours to decide, for the most part. The colors of the uniforms, the way Elphin's spear looks, how Feral stands. All up to you to decide, because while Grossman does a fantastic job of setting up his heroes and villains and the world they live in, he does it in words, the way books always do, and leaves it to your mind to create the images attached to those words.

When I was a very little kid, I read comic books all the time. When I took a break from reading comics, I would go play superheroes with my friends. We moved from reading and seeing the heroes and their adventures to imagining the heroes and their adventures ourselves, creating new stories and pictures and images for them. That's the natural progression of reading: from easy stories with lots of pictures to more challenging venues with greater rewards, as our minds and imaginations and creativity grow, develop, mature.

I can't pretend to be a superhero anymore; if I show up at my office with a towel tied around my neck and talking in a deeper voice, people will think I'm (more) ridiculous. Although it would be a great world if I could, instead of wearing a tie, wear a cape.

Soon I Will Be Invincible allows those kids who pretended to be superheroes when they were little to still feel that sense of wonder, to still use their imagination and picture fighting a giant robot or smashing through a street or running faster than anyone ever could, which is why it's The Best Book To Read If You Were A Kid Who Pretended To Be A Superhero -- and a great book to read for everyone, superhero-pretender or not.

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Thinking The Lions is the only website where you can find out why Velociraptors are fake, learn how to play "Cloverfield," and otherwise follow the hilarious adventures of a guy with a lot of kids, a lot of love of 70s music, a lot of time to watch Battlestar Galactica, and a very patient wife. Life, only funnier.

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