So this is my first book review of 2008. The year in which I am not torturing myself to read a book a week, and I have to say, I’m really enjoying reading again, mostly because I don’t feel so pressured, it’s also of note that I’m getting a lot more done that isn’t reading – so it’s good on all sides.
Adam lent me this book, Superfolks by Robert Mayer (which he has not read) thinking I might find it interesting, both because I love me some superheroes, and also because my novel (and my in-progress second and third novels – part of a trilogy) are basically about a superhero. I think he thought it would be helpful and constructive to read, and that I also might enjoy it. He’s not wrong. I did enjoy it. But it also totally enraged me, and in the end, despite the fact that I concede my rating may be a bit unfair considering that it was originally published in 1977, it only gets 2.0 stars. Here’s why.
The Good: It was enjoyable in a fluffy way. I can appreciate that Mayer was doing something innovative with superheroes for his time. It reads easily and the hero/superhero David Brinkley is likable enough (despite the misogynistic aspects) but he’s also not too sticky sweet and perfect, he seems very three-dimensional.
One of my favorite parts of the book was a little detail that if Brinkley used his powers of ex-ray vision for non-superhero reasons, like looking at an interns boobs through her tight sweater, then he became instantly clumsy, and that despite the consequences, he often abuses the power and as such is often running into things and falling down. It was a funny bit and an element that would make Superman as Clark Kent more believable in his civilian disguise.
I was very interested in the idea, that was unfortunately only touched on, of Brinkley’s inability to perform sexually as his superhero persona, and the other more psychological ideas about the realities of being a superhero that were explored, it was all very interesting, but unfortunately not really fleshed out thouroughly.
There was a brilliant (also pretty unexplored) idea about villains (powered or not) that all went to the same boarding school (The Winthrop School For Boys) to be trained to be villains – Lee Harvey Oswald being a current (though deceased) alumni and martyr – it was funny and creative and I wish it had tied more into the overall plot, rather than just being a wonderful little side note. The overall conspiracy/plot was also quite clever, though it made for the most dull reading in the book.
The Bad: The title is terrible. Who came up with this title? The title really does not pertain at all to the story. David Brinkley lives in a world with superheroes and supervillians, yes, but the story does not focus on other heroes at all – there are vague mentions of them – mostly in an effort to create a sense of the world that Brinkley lives in, and I think two super villains and one superhero (retired) make fairly brief appearances. The book is also not really about people with super powers in general or as a comment on society, or science, or the future, or anything, so I can’t figure out the reason for the title choice. The Incredibles, with its five minute newsreel footage at the beginning, which brilliantly sets the political and social stage for that world is more about “superfolks” and how that effects them and the world, than this entire 240 page book.
We never know our “hero’s” superhero name. It’s annoying. He is often referred to as Indigo, but later it is suggested that this is just a code name for him by respective governments. You never know for sure. I’m certain Mayer had a reason for doing this, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out the reason. It only served to frustrate me.
There are little tricks that Mayer uses, which I’m sure many readers like, but which left me a bit cold. Tricks such as using famous names for normal people and normal people names for famous people, for example, Jane Doe is a famous movie star and Gloria Steinem (one of our most powerful women in reality – so of course she must be “brought low”) is described as married with children and wearing a smelly housedress and an extra 30 distasteful pounds. There are a lot of name drops like this and initially I thought it was a bit clever, but it gets old fast.
It’s also not clear what stage he has really set for his world, it’s not the real world, or any other pre-established comic book world (i.e. Wonder Woman exists, as do Batman and Superman, but so does Snoopy the Flying Ace and The Lone Ranger), so but I can’t get a sense of what it’s supposed to be like with any accuracy.
People in Mayer’s book also behave in ways pretty contrary to the way we do in 2008, and I suspect contrary to the way people behaved in 1977, and QUITE often in a borderline pornographic way, but there is no set up for why that is acceptable in this society…did something go horribly wrong…or right…to make people act this way? It came up too often to be ignored but not often enough that I accepted it without reservations…especially with no “historical” explanation. The little in-jokes may have been inventive and inspiring or chuckle inducing in 1977, but in 2008 it left me kind of bored, and without a clear sense of the world in which the in-jokes existed I was left frustrated.
The Ugly: The 1977 publication date is hugely at issue in this review because there are many 2008 socially unacceptable things in the book that were probably the norm in 1977. The same way I bristled at the N-word being used occasionally in Matheson’s I Am Legend (fitting that Will Smith got the lead in 2007 – it’s nice when things come around like that) I bristled at the black/white separation here and the way it was handled. I know I cannot expect things like that not to exist in what is essentially a period piece but it’s also hard to just accept it. And this brings us to my major issue with the book, especially in the final pages…
Women are without a doubt second class citizens in this book.
They are sex objects and wives and mothers and that’s about it. They are certainly not superheroes, the best they can do, apparently, is be a hollow version of Superman’s ‘Lois Lane crack reporter’, in the form of Peggy Poole, who is really not as much a reporter as a vehicle for Brinkley to remember his youth and past sexual desire for her. Women can also be whores, as evidenced in the form of Brinkley’s ex-high school sweetheart Lorna Doone, who also operates simply as a vehicle for Brinkley to remember his youth and past sexual desire for her, though as a whore she is now sad looking and unappealing. Boy we women cannot win. What time period is this set in – the 1500’s? Jesus.
I understand it’s 1977, but really? I mean, Charlie’s Angels was on the air then (1976 – 1981)…I’m not saying that it was a groundbreaking show and the angels certainly used their looks to their advantage in every single frame and they were ultimately taking orders from not one, but two men (one of who lived inside a speaker phone no less) but at least they were the stars. They weren’t sidelined reporters and whores, and little housewives, they were private investigators, and spies, and models, and athletes, and they were smart. You know what else was out in 1977…a little show called Wonder Woman…oh yeah, and this show you may have heard of…it’s not like women weren’t on the rise…they were stepping up and were showing, especially during the late 1970’s, that they were NOT just the little wifey, the powerless sidekick, the whore, the sex object. And these shows weren’t even particularly innovative and revolutionary, but rather mainstream, so I have to say that ultimately Mayer’s book is buried in the opposite of innovation and forward thinking. It’s like he decided to do a superhero novel, which was super innovative for the time, and then decided that that was quite enough innovation and quit.
As if to add insult to injury, the end of the book is like a giant punch in the vagina of all women.
Seriously. In literally the last pages of the book, our “hero” allows his old flame Peggy to give him a blow job…he justifies the fact that he allows this to happen while his wife is literally in labor with their third child, by saying that “he didn’t ask for it or instigate it” and that he “deserves it” for saving the world (yet again). Whoo. What a hero. Someone hold me back from this awesome specimen…this golden example of man. Blech. It turns out that it is actually his apparently gay sort-of-one-time sidekick that is blowing him (his eyes were closed) and so he chases him out of the room when he realizes the mistake, and ‘hyuck-hyuck-hyuck’ we can all feel okay that he didn’t actually cheat on Pamela (his wife) with Peggy (his old flame) because it was really Peter (what’s up with the P names?) and he of course didn’t want that. So we are supposed to overlook the fact that our hero wanted it to happen and that he thought it was happening and allowed it to go on, but since it technically didn’t happen the way he wanted with the person he wanted then it doesn’t matter and all is well. Hahahaha! Isn’t life grand? Totally annoying.
And that’s not all – the WORST offense by far is that at the very end of the book Brinkley is basically losing his super powers (as he was in the beginning) and is lamenting the loss of them and of his lost heritage, but his wife has a baby BOY in the end, and SURPRISE, there are very strong hints (i.e. ridiculous hard to deny proof) that the son will have his father’s power. I guess those two little girls of his didn’t get anything. I mean what a surprise, why would they? Girls should pretty much be drowned like unwanted kittens at birth, or farmed out as strippers and whores, or maybe sold into the slavery of marriage, or oh, I know, they can be “crack reporters” that get captured all the time, so that heroes can have someone helpless to rescue.
I’m disappointed in my man Grant Morrison for writing the intro to this and praising this book so much. I’m angry at Stan Lee for saying, “You’ll never look at superheroes the same way again” – he’s right, I can’t. And I’m more disappointed than ever.