Book review: Soon I will be invincible! by Austin Grossman

(The post formerly known as )

(Article was originally published on Toon Zone News, 2007.)

This affectionate deconstruction of comic books is narrated by supervillain Doctor Impossible (“smartest man alive, fourth most infamous”) and a rookie cyber-femme named Fatale (“I should’ve gone with Cybergirl, but I was on a lot of painkillers at the time”). Bring some popcorn and join Impossible’s Pinky and the Brain-styled quest to Try to Take Over the World, as Fatale and her super-friends solemnly try to stop him.

Impossible steals the show, naturally. As the doctor languishes in a prison he nicknames “Gilligan’s Island”—the guards won’t let him have dishes, a bed, or paper and pencil “lest I turn a coconut into a radio”—the smartest man in the world wonders whether he has done the smartest thing he could have done with his life. Clearly, Impossible needs to brush up on the list of Top 100 Things To Do If You’re an Evil Overlord, but on the whole, he’s survived. He has combat training courtesy of years in Metabrawl. He has bullet-proof skin. He has an island fortress. Now, the scourge of the Golden Age and supreme villain of the Silver Age must placate his Ben Stein-like therapist “Steve” and “shuffle in line with men who tried to pass bad checks.” It’s all too much for an Evil Genius—excuse me, a sufferer of “Malign Hypercognition Disorder”—and Impossible breaks free. In this he’s inadvertently aided by a Wolverine wannabe so inept it’s a pleasure to watch Impossible take him to school.

Part of what makes Doctor Impossible fun to watch is that he confides in us the things we always wanted to know. Why don’t supervillains have secret identities? “That’s a hero thing. Shows a lack of commitment. It wouldn’t mean as much if you could simply walk away.” What do supervillains think of superheroes? A bunch of Biff Tannens in leotards. Occasionally you meet one who can read or something, but you can’t plan your daily schemes around it. Why do so many super-geniuses become supervillains? Who the heck knows?

The other part of his charm is that Impossible’s schemes are half reasonably sound and half Wile E. Coyote loony. (How can you not love a villain with a Battle Blimp?) Why did he impersonate the pope, take over Chemical Bank, and hold the moon hostage? No law against it at the time, he protests. Those charges are totally grandfathered in! Seriously, house-to-house pacification is just too much work. Taking over the whole world is safer and easier. (Don’t bother with mind control, he adds. Making billions of people brush their teeth and get to work on time is such a headache.) Ask him what in the world would he do with the world if he finally got it? Answer: “I’d name some cities after me—Manhattan shall be The Impossible City—and a few for my mentors and friends. You’ll all choose fealty or death and hold a parade on my birthday. I might bring back the mammoths. Otherwise life will be much the same as before. It’s not like I’m going to be a jerk about it.” There’s just one problem: people don’t want to live beneath the red leather boot of a supervillain. It’s hero time, and it’s time to meet the heroes who would stop him.

The other narrator is Fatale, a female Victor “Cyborg” Stone who listens to police scanners and chases reward money to pay her bills. The “Iron Age” orphan gets recruited by a tarnished Silver Age” team called The Champions, and most of the deconstruction takes place through her eyes. (Fatale believes in only four ages: Golden, Silver, Iron, and Rust.)

Fatale is reasonably insightful and usually competent. She recorded all of Bruce Lee’s movies to have cool moves. (This surprises her enemies, who expect a 450-pound cyborg to move more like The Thing.) Otherwise, the character is refreshingly free of Mary Sue Self-Insert Disorder: she’s not pretty, funny, sexy, or popular. Her foes call her Tin Man. Other teammates see her as arrogant, and nobody falls in love with her. (Even the Champions’ lady-killer shuts her down, though he does cop a feel first.) Standing between the two worlds is Lily, a Mirage character trying to adjust to life as a good guy. She is a transparent woman, a time-traveler orphaned out of continuity, a former city-wrecker, the closest thing Fatale has to a friend—and she’s Impossible’s ex-girlfriend.

While the rest of the team is quick to accuse Lily of being Impossible’s eyes and ears, Fatale wonders if there is a different double agent in their team. The alleged product of some super-secret Super Soldier program, Fatale doesn’t actually know who built her or what she was meant to do. (“To tell the truth, it left me feeling rejected.”) When she finds a piece of technology in Impossible’s motel room that resembles her own implants, she flies into a giddy fantasy about whether she, The Next Generation of Warfare, was built by the Smartest Man Alive to be a spy or a bomb—or, horror of horrors, maybe he built her and threw her away as not measuring up to his high standards. It’s worse than being built by the lowest bidder! Of all the loose ends, this may be the most interesting, but the suggestion never really goes anywhere.

The novel’s B-plot traces Fatale’s attempts to help the team find a missing hero named CoreFire. Naturally, Impossible is blamed, what with them being arch-nemeses and all. But Fatale, the only Champion who never met CoreFire, wonders if she’s being given the run-around. Apparently Damsel and Blackwolf’s marriage got a little crowded after CoreFire’s reporter-girlfriend faded from the scene.

Characters of various types are well represented. Impossible goes for a Moriarty look. There’s an allusion to a famous Brothers Grimm character when a villain offers to let a hero out of a death trap if the hero can guess Impossible’s name. Fans of C. S. Lewis should watch for a chain-smoking Susan Pevensie as Damsel’s retired step-mother.

Marvel characters are modestly well represented here. Sue Storm’s powers are divided between two people; Human Torch is a petty thief; and Sabretooth is a hero. The DC-verse contributes most of the cameos. (Watch for the ditzy Captain Marvel villain who just can’t get anyone to take him seriously.) The Big Three—Damsel, the leader; Blackwolf, her ex-husband; and CoreFire, the (gasp) blonde—are plainly Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman with tweaked origins. The author is clearly a Batman fan (richest, fastest, sexiest, the only hero of whom Impossible is genuinely scared, etc.), but as sometimes happens in Batman stories, the Superman character suffers by comparison.

(Which brings up an editorial point: Damsel’s reference to Corefire as “an [f-word excised from this review] racist” is one of several questionable word choices which should prompt parents who would read aloud to read a few sentences ahead first. The novel also makes oblique reference to how the Golden Age was not golden for everyone. One half expects Steve the Therapist to inquire why Damsel slept with a boy like her dear old dad.)

If you’ve noticed by now that there’s a lot of trivia and not a lot of story, you’re right. The cameo-spotting should keep alumni of Comic Con University busy for days, but new readers will be wondering when we’ll see the fireworks. Almost all the whammo-blammo is told from Impossible’s point of view, leaving Fatale to do pre-game scouting reports or post-game analysis. Also, as a newbie, Fatale has to attend Superheroes 101 class, which means we have to attend too. (Lily earns some sympathy—not necessarily the kind the author intended—when she keeps interrupting the Exposition Expedition to ask, Are we there yet?) Finally, while Doctor Impossible wonders whether his life could have turned out differently, we rarely hear similar insights from the heroes. It’s the downside of borrowing from Waid/Ross’s Kingdom Come. Both stories are lush with cameos, and they’re deeply dedicated to conscience and duty, but the heroes are too intense to exhibit either wonder or joy.

This is the author’s first novel, and while it leaves room for a sequel, this episode could use a few red pencils. Descriptions can be repetitive, and many characters are developed who don’t actually contribute to the current story. A nice touch is that chapter titles are all stock hero/villain phrases (like “Those meddling kids!”) but do not always clearly mark a shift in narration. Get the audiobook if you can. Boehmer chews the scenery with enthusiasm—the narrator is a Star Trek: Voyager alumnus—nicely capturing the doctor’s hubris, ennui, geek passions, jealousy, and a hidden loneliness. Marlo, though a more experienced audiobook narrator, shoulders a disadvantage in that her character has a naturally more flattened affect; plus, she narrates the bulk of the murder-mystery (which turns out to be about looking for the wrong person). Marlo scores some points back by also voicing Lily, giving the character a languid, jaded air of someone who has burned too many bridges and knows it.

While Soon I Will Be Invincible has its flaws, it’s still a pleasant diversion and a charming visit to Cape-and-Cowl Land.

Soon I Will Be Invincible: a Novel by Austin Grossman, 288 pages, Pantheon Publishing, c2007. Audiobook narrators, J. Paul Boehmer and Coleen Marlo, ca. 10 hours. HighBridge Audio by arrangement with Pantheon/Random House, c2007.


Author: The_Old_Maid_of_Potluck

Author of Potluck2point0: The resource formerly known as (a.k.a. My humongous [technical term] study of "What's behind 'Left Behind'").