The cover image that adorns Austin Grossman's debut novel scans deceptively triumphant. A pair of gloved hands holds aloft a winged helmet, as if preparing to place it atop a deserving head in some ancient ritual. Perhaps the head is even the bearer's own, given the book's defiant title: Soon I Will Be Invincible.
Readers of superhero comics will grin instinctively; they're accustomed to hearing villains hurl similarly grandiose taunts at the world. Individual chapter titles further the motif: 'At Last We Meet,â?� 'Welcome to My Island,â?� 'No Prison Can Hold Me.â?� Yes, Grossman's book is fully dependent on the comics idiom for its melodramatic themes; yet in format and approach, it's more in line with the warts-and-all self-exposure that's put Augusten Burroughs and Jonathan Franzen at the vanguard of our Barnes & Noble'ized culture.
A kind of dual confessional, the book interweaves monologues by two characters on opposite ends of the world-saving divide. One is Dr. Impossible, a brilliant but twisted scientist who received amazing powers of strength and speed in a long-ago lab accident. Having since attempted to conquer the planet some 12 times, he's confined to a maximum-security penitentiary when the novel begins, incubating plans for his next supercrime and reflecting on his lonely, alienated upbringing as he awaits a fresh chance at escape.
The other voice we hear is that of Fatale, a government operative-turned-costumed adventurer with a body full of mechanical parts and a head bereft of long-term memories. Herself the victim of a freak accident ' this one a grisly encounter with a rampaging dump truck ' she's allowed herself to be transformed into a state-of-the-art battle cyborg. But what she'd like most is to know who exactly she was before a mysterious agency scooped out almost half of her anatomy and replaced it with high-tech hardware.
The stories begin to intersect when Dr. Impossible gets his longed-for opportunity to break out, and Fatale is recruited by the superteam that traditionally thwarts his evil schemes. Discerning how these plot threads will converge is nominally the crux of Grossman's game, but a number of the major developments ring sadly predictable (and not just for reasons of homage). There's far more enjoyment in imbibing the pleasantly incongruous, grown-up ennui the author brings to his tale. Note the weary resignation that underlies Dr. Impossible's recounting of his own origin:
'I saw the misadjusted dials and the whirling gauges and the bubbling green fluid and the electricity arcing around,â?� he remembers, 'and a story laid out for me, my sorry self alchemically transmuted into power and robots and fortresses and orbital platforms and costumes and alien kings. I was going to declare war on the world, and I was going to lose.â?�
It's a standout moment in a book full of oppositions ' good versus evil, certainly, but also the contrast between the embittered Dr. Impossible's cynical outlook and Fatale's more wondering, context-deprived one. The key juxtaposition, though, is that of the fantastical with the mundane, as when our villain recalls an early encounter with another mechanically enhanced foe. That one's onboard circuitry, we're told, kept transmitting 'tinny voices and bursts of static, as if a cybernetic component in his chest were inadvertently picking up shortwave. It was vaguely embarrassing, like a fart.â?�
Grossman is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California who specializes in Romantic and Victorian literature. During a panel discussion at the March 2007 New York Comic-Con, he joked that penning a superhero story had not particularly endeared him to his academic peers. Sad to say, but they have a point. The growing cry for comics to be accepted as literature is too often an admission that one reads no actual literature, and therefore lacks a workable frame of reference. Why can't comics just be comics? Yet here is Invincible, grandly announcing itself as 'A Novelâ?� and thus inviting greater scrutiny than is usually visited upon the continuing adventures of, say, the X-Men.
Truth be told, Grossman's book doesn't even equal some of the better long-form comics. It lacks the sociopolitical depth of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen or the mythic grandeur of Mark Waid and Alex Ross' Kingdom Come. What it does have is a keen sense of how lingering immaturities define the superhero genre ' and, perhaps not coincidentally, our society itself. Dr. Impossible has figured out how to hold the moon hostage and how to hypnotize the President, but he can't get over the indignities he once suffered at a school for intellectually gifted youngsters, where some of his future enemies were the 'popular kids.â?� At an early age, he learned that the role one plays in life is largely arbitrary and nearly immutable, rooted as it is in good looks, money, an esteemed parentage and all of the other trivia we routinely confuse with respectability.
'Sometimes I wonder if there really are just two kinds of people in the world,â?� he muses, sounding like John Edwards in a helmet. There's only one main difference between his reality and ours. According to Dr. Impossible's calculations, the current tally of functioning superhumans stands at 678 decorated heroes and 441 despised scourges. In the real world, the ratio of lucky winners to preordained losers is nowhere near as equitable.