BY ARTHUR McCULLOCH
Author: Austin Grossman
2008, Vintage Books
In Soon I Will Be Invincible, the world’s greatest villain, Dr. Impossible, has once again escaped from prison and the diabolical genius is about to embark on his latest scheme to take over the world. As usual, standing in his way is a league of superheroes, in this case the Champions. Nothing terribly original so far, right? Wrong.
Austin Grossman does nothing short of re-invigorate the superhero story and takes great strides in legitimizing the comics genre as a subject worthy of literary pursuit. Grossman greatest achievement is adding depth and richness to his characters in an arena where characters are usually reduced to superficial props that set a stage for epic battles and the showcasing of ludicrous powers. As is evident in the title of the book, and the chapter titles within, such as “Riddle Me This,” “Welcome to My Island”, and “But Before I Kill You”, there is a good deal of playfulness and send-up at work, but Grossman’s use of comic book clichés is more an act of celebration rather than of subversion.
The story alternates between two first person perspectives, one from an agent of good, Fatale, and the other from an agent of evil, Dr. Impossible.
Fatale is a cyborg whose implants and prosthetics are so advanced they could be futuristic (perhaps even invented by Dr. Impossible himself). From her perspective we get a behind-the-scenes look at a superhero squad, and it isn’t very glamorous. There are in-fighting and leadership issues, a failed romance, and a mysterious love triangle. The entire group is out of practice when it comes to confronting such a formidable foe as Dr. Impossible and the Champions suffer from an inferiority complex when they are compared to the now-retired, original gang of world-saving superheroes, the Super Squadron.
Not only is their most powerful hero missing and unlikely to return, the heroes are forced to work with a former super-villain who has somewhat suspiciously (she’s had a long-term relationship with Dr. Impossible) decided to change sides. The Champions certainly seem to be up against it, especially having to invite a newcomer to the group to replace the greatest android of all time, Galatea, who had to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the heroes and the world from an alien horde.
Grossman does an admirable job of humanizing Fatale and grants her a depth we are not accustomed to seeing in the portrayal of superheroes. Despite her confidence in her own abilities, she did black-ops for the NSA prior to her hero invitation, she is insecure about how she will be received by a league of such awesome power and renown. Fatale also grapples with how her cybernetic implants affect her humanity, her femininity, her sexuality, a mysterious past, and, ultimately, her identity.
Despite his accomplishments in creating a complicated superhero, Grossman’s novel really shines in his portrayal of Dr. Impossible. Not only does he provide a unique perspective to the superhero world by telling a story from the point of view of an arch-villain, he invests Dr. Impossible with depth. A self-proclaimed genius of unimaginable reach suffers from what is playfully described as Malign Hypercognition Disorder. We quickly follow him through his awkward youth and the years he spent at a school for the gifted, the breeding ground for many of the world’s future heroes. A disastrously failed experiment in college not only turns him into an outcast, it creates CoreFire, his arch-nemesis. Grossman also humanizes Dr. Impossible by introducing two failed opportunities for love, one with a college classmate, and the other with a remarkably similar woman, an arch-villain known as Lily.
From the beginning of the novel, Dr. Impossible’s life is characterized by hardship and thwarted dreams. He exhausts himself to escape a seemingly inescapable prison; he struggles to regain his confidence as he discovers his aging and diminished physical skills are now pitted against younger and stronger heroes. Since his latest imprisonment he has fallen from power in the criminal underworld and has difficulty finding a reliable ally in his struggle to regain both stature and the resources needed to once again try to take over the world. Grossman’s rendering of the villain’s plight and struggles soon aligns the reader to his cause and even though this temptation is tempered by the counter-story of the heroine Fatale, by the end, one can’t help but want Dr. Impossible to finally overcome the odds and realize his dastardly vision, if at least fleetingly.
One of Grossman’s most entertaining moments comes when Dr. Impossible first confronts the Champions. As told from the perspective of the villain we get a sympathetic account of his frustration and exasperation with having to do battle against creatures of unimaginable power and limitless strength. While Dr. Impossible is imbued with some superhuman properties that make him tougher and stronger than the average human, his powers are no match for those of the heroes. Some of the heroes simply cannot be hurt, and the ones that can be hurt never seem to die; and he is always outnumbered. He must rely on cunning, intelligence, the wild weapons he is able to invent, and healthy dose of luck.
While a casual first person narrative delivered by both perspectives makes for an easy read and fits with the language typical of the genre, it was troublesome that for two such widely different characters their language would be so similar. Dr. Impossible, an incredible genius, seems to think and communicate in rather simple, mundane language. Granted, choosing to create a unique first person voice that aptly captures the musings and calculations of a mad genius could possibly create a rather confusing narrative, it seems that Grossman could have put greater effort into distinguishing Dr. Impossible from Fatale. Such a difference, short of choosing to deliver one of the stories in third person, would further embellish the effect he is trying to create in adding depth to what are typically shallow characters. Instead, having two similar voices for two dissimilar characters only reinforces the notion that these types of characters are in fact shallow.
One other flaw with the language in the stories is that Grossman sometimes becomes repetitive, with story elements recurring in the text almost verbatim. Again, this repetition, even when it is only a partial re-telling works against the concept of creating depth to these characters and their worlds and pushes the story back towards the shallow cliché that Grossman is trying to deepen.
Regardless of this stylistic critique, the language Grossman employs does provide for a brisk and entertaining read. The author has done a superb job in bringing depth and character to an otherwise shallow and exhausted subject. Any reader with a passing interest in comics to the most zealot fanatic will appreciate the inventiveness Grossman attaches to the comic book world while successfully maintaining and working within all of its celebrate clichés.
Similar Book: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon