Having been a comic and sci-fi geek for much of my life I can confidently say that, for the most part, superheroes are often one-dimensional and simplistic. While there are notable exceptions to this rule, the good guys and gals in tights are a fairly uninteresting bunch once you get past their powers and super abilities. Heroes fight the good fight for things like “responsibility”, “vengeance”, and “justice”. Their motivations are as basic as the colors in their garish costumes; most often reds, whites, and you guessed it, blues. So while the costumed champions of freedom may offer little substantive faire for a serious character-oriented reader, the darker and more conflicted folks at the other end of the super-powered spectrum are inevitably more interesting.
As anyone who has ever read an issue of the Fantastic Four can tell you, super villains are far more intriguing figures then their do-gooder counterparts. Austin Grossman capitalizes on this fascinating side of the superhero mythos in his new novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible. In this fun and smart book the antagonist and protagonist are one as evil genius and mad scientist Dr. Impossible attempts to smite his enemies, achieve ultimate power, and make the world bow to his merciless and all-encompassing will…you know the usual stuff.
Soon I Will Be Invincible begins with Dr. Impossible, arguably the world’s greatest super villain, locked behind bars after numerous defeats at the hands of his nemesis, Corefire, and the superhero team, The Champions. Although he is the author of devious plots and the architect of devilish devices, Dr. Impossible has been unable to achieve his goals of conquering the world. Yet his time in prison has not been idle. While he patiently waited for an opportunity to escape, he secretly worked on a plan more daring and brilliant then his past exploits.
This time he had a scheme that would bring his enemies to their knees and force the world into submission. While the particulars of said plot, are kept from the readers initially and dolled out in tiny morsels throughout the rest of the book, one can’t help but get the feeling that this time the villain is going to succeed. Dr. Impossible breaks out of his heavily fortified cell and sets about collecting the pieces for his new doomsday machine.
While the evil doctor is about his villainous business, the story jumps to the perspective to a character named Fatale. A newly added member of the superhero team, The Champions, Fatale acts as the counterpoint to Dr. Impossible’s narration, keeping the reader appraised of the good guys reaction to his escape and their attempts to track him down. Fatale, a cyborg with a mysterious past, is forced to fit into the strange social dynamics that dominate the world’s greatest superhero team (A group in which many members are clearly based on notable DC heroes).
While the narrative is shared with Fatale, Dr. Impossible is clearly the driving force behind the story. While he himself is portrayed in his interactions with the superheroes in a fairly cliched and typical super-villain role with a lot of cheesy one-liners and traditional bad guy banter, his internal world is rich with depth. The story routinely has flashbacks to Dr. Impossible’s youth as an alienated genius that was forced to interact with those less competent then him. Dr. Impossible, despite his insane ambitions and amoral behavior, comes off as instantly likeable and fun. While he is (surprise!) ultimately defeated in the end, one can’t help but root for the nerd and his plans to “Show them all!”
While both aspects of the story are interesting, the book’s dual narrative comes off as strange and unwieldy when all is said and done. While Dr. Impossible’s plot line is straightforward and has a clear direction, Fatale’s is awkward and needs more attention then the author chooses to give it. As she works towards acceptance on the team, back-stories and subplots are jammed in and left without any real resolution. When Fatale learns that Dr. Impossible was secretly involved in her creation as a superhuman cyborg, the reader keeps waiting for this to become a significant part of the plot, which it never does.
As the reader attempts to follow the strange events behind Corefire’s apparent demise that is somehow tied with the shared part of many of the characters, they are left unsure of what they were supposed to get out of the conclusion. It’s almost as if Grossman’s original version of the book was much longer, and his editors were forced to cut it down, or it was much shorter, and he added a bunch of weak plot lines to beef up the pages. At the end, the dual narration is almost like reading to parallel, but ultimately separate books.
Despite these issues there are more things weighing in this book’s favor then against. For starters Grossman clearly capitalizes on the superhero mythology as being uniquely ideal for telling fascinating and compelling morality plays. He toys with the lines that divide the good guys from the bad guys and shows that just because a person wants to conquer the world, they can still have feelings, and that just because a person saves the world from the aforementioned bad guy, doesn’t mean that they aren’t a morally-bankrupt petty little jerk. Furthermore, comic fans in particular will enjoy Grossman’s takes on Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. They will also enjoy the little explorations into the social dramas that must inevitably unfold when personalities of that magnitude are forced to interact.
While this book jumps around and has multiple thematic directions, the one thing that validates it in my humble estimation above all other things, is the recurring admonition from Dr. Impossible to never give up. While it is often the responsibility of the superhero to be the example that one should emulate, this book reverses the roles. I was surprised at how many times I find myself actually inspired by Dr. Impossible’s never-wavering faith in his own abilities, and his constant belief that he will inevitably succeed in his goals. While a super villain’s objectives may not be the same as everyone else’s, readers will be delightfully surprised to find that at the heart of this book is an inspiring tale of how to cope with repeated failure while still struggling to overcome adversity; that as long as you believe in yourself nothing is impossible.
Some readers may not enjoy Soon I Will Be Impossible as much as I did. Perhaps my previous experiences with superhero mythology made me appreciate the nuances of Grossman’s story more then a reader who hasn’t read as many comic books. But even without that nerdy background, if you like good characters you will like this book. And while there may have been a few deficiencies in execution, Grossman made me believe in Dr. Impossible. While he may have been defeated and sent back to prison in the end, he is no doubt cooking up another plan even more fiendish and brilliant then the last…and this time, he will succeed.