“Soon I Will be Invincible” by Austin Grossman (Week 10 – Book a Week)

The chapter titles and dialogue in “Soon I Will be Invincible” hit all the oldest and most beloved superhero clichés: “I will get you next time” or “We meet again.” Austin Grossman knows and loves the comic book world. He runs through its tropes, plot contrivances and double-crosses with all the majesty of a caped hero flying through the night sky. But what makes the story transcend, isn’t its note-for-note re-creation of comic book worlds with their Batman-type vigilantes and Thor’s Hammer power objects, it’s the world that goes on within the characters.

Much of “Soon I Will be Invincible” takes place in the heads of two characters, The Super Villain/Mad Genius who inspires the title, and an up-and-coming second tier superhero/vigilante cyborg. The villain, Dr. Impossible, has all the ambition, wacky weapons, and dastardly plans of a Dr. Doom or a Lex Luthor.  He also has an inferiority complex. To him the hero/villain clashes echo old popular kids vs. nerds feuds from school days.  People brave or weird enough to try unconventional acts are always cast out by society. In Impossible’s world, evil and genius just go together. Heroes are more likely to be good at gym than at science.

By putting the reader under the helmet of a super villain, Grossman exposes us to specific details of the interior life of an archetypal character. He gets laughs out of the character, not just because Dr. Impossible says, plans and does ridiculous things, (because, of course, he does them), but because we know why he’s doing it. We don’t want Impossible to take over the world, but we don’t want him to get hurt either. Sure he’s a deranged criminal mastermind but he’s also ambitious, and funny – it’s hard not to like him.

Our window into the hero’s world comes when an insecure cyborg with a shady past joins the preeminent super hero team. She is a half-woman half-robot struggling to make her way in a group of more established heroes with their own interests and goals, some of which involve saving the world, some of which involve getting even with stepmoms or showing up more super-powered beings.

The book is full of unexpected guffaws: “In later years we drifted apart, you can’t just take the same hostage every time.” But its most impressive feat is how much it makes us care about these ridiculous characters. Sure, they are endeavoring to save or destroy the world  but really we care about these people. We care about the slights, love triangles and Hammers of Ra because we care about the people involved.

The heroes resemble a clique. Sure, they smash super villains with mighty blows and go on patrol but they spend just as much time bickering and hooking up. The superheroes get to be popular. Sponsors, governments and corporations want use their images and influence.

The story speeds along toward the inevitable conflict between these two main characters,with the cyborg trying to fit in and to figure out Dr. Impossible’s evil plan. Dr. Impossible, meanwhile, gathers the necessary objects for his super machine.  Mysteries and fights keep the story crackling along. The story flashes back and tells character origins galore. The jumps in time can confuse but the background serves to enrich each of the characters.

Every superhero needs a good origin story.