Novels about superheroes, or featuring comic books as a main plot device, seem to be a dime-a-dozen lately. The trend probably started somewhere around Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in 2000, then continued on in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude and his short story, “Super Goat Man”, which figured prominently in the aptly-titled short story collection, Men and Cartoons.
Somewhere in this mix is Andrew Kaufman’s All My Friends Are Superheroes, and, of course, Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman followed in 2007. With the publication of Captain Freedom by G. Xavier Robillard, one has to ask: is there room for yet another book about superheroes?
Robillard himself is debuting as a novelist with Captain Freedom, having served as a writer for a number of humor-related websites such as McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Comedy Central. His humor pedigree shows as his book is more a homage to the campy style of the ‘60s television version of Batman, and less about matching the grime of The Dark Knight.
Not to be confused with the Golden Age comic book superhero with the same name, Robillard’s creation is a down-on-his-luck hero who has been downsized out of a job by his employer at Gotham Comics, which uses the real world exploits of Captain Freedom to serve as comic book inspiration. (This is how our hero makes his money.) Rather than hit the bottle, Freedom turns to his life coach and comes up with the idea to write his memoirs.
Thus, we are recounted with the origin of Freedom: how he cheated on an exam in superhero school, how he became a side-kick, how he branched out on his own and acquired his own side-kick, how he searched for an archenemy that he could call his own, and how he quested to have both a Hollywood movie and children’s book produced about his exploits.
The book is seemingly one long joke mainly repeated over and over again: what would a superhero do if he were forced into early retirement? But the joke’s a pretty good one, and Robillard uses it as a launching pad to serve up all sorts of other supporting gags that come a mile a minute. For instance, when our hero confronts a librarian over how she got so good at understanding the nature of a certain dinosaur that he is entrusted to defeat, she gamely replies, “Monster.com”.
Some of the embedded satire is pretty biting as well, as Robillard points out how it is that there are no Jewish superheroes, even though some of the major earlier comic book authors were, in fact, Jewish. (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster of Superman fame ring a bell?)
Of course, some of the jokes fall flat, such as when Captain Freedom is interrupted from a tussle with a villain in the form of a visit from his mother early on in the book. Some of the humor is grossly over-exaggerated as well. (Freedom keeps dinosaurs in his inner sanctum as a means of having something to do for recreation.)
However, for every gag that fails, there are usually two or three jokes that will at least cause you to, perhaps, put a grin on your face. That’s really just the point of Captain Freedom: the author just fires one gag after another and hopes that something sticks. In fact, the novel reads as though it was all made up as Robillard was moving along.
Where Captain Freedom falls down a bit is in the novel’s last half, where our hero stops foiling your typical comic book fodder and he steps into putting an end to secret societies and evil fashion supermodels. Towards the end of the book, Captain Freedom even takes a shot at running for Californian governor and eventually joins the staff of Homeland Security.
Robillard is obviously out to poke fun at the cult of personality in making the tonal shift, and highlight how much of a fame-and-power seeking whore his creation really is (as in, he’ll do anything to turn a buck or earn some prestige). However, the book doesn’t seem to have the same zip-pow that it had in its earlier pages, when it was poking fun the usual conventions of the superhero genre – from finding arch-villains to coming up with a good origin story.
So is there room for another book about superheroes? The answer is mostly yes, although Captain Freedom doesn’t sit comfortably on the same shelf as the serious and somewhat dour Kavalier and Clay. It’s a mostly fun, breezy read that should satisfy the average comic book geek looking for something to read beyond the world of word balloons and splash pages.
Captain Freedom is simply entertainment – decent entertainment at that – that is pretty much forgotten about when you put it down. Robillard can be commended for writing something both fun and mostly funny, and there’s no crime committed by a villain of comic books in that.