There's something ugly at the heart of this story of superheroics, something that utterly conflicts with the book's sometimes better nature.
The Regional Office Is Under AttackPublisher: Riverhead
Length: 416 pages
Author: Manuel Gonzales
Publication date: 2016-04
Manuel Gonzales’ The Regional Office Is Under Attack is a quiet drama suffering from the mistaken belief that it's actually a superhero adventure. Tangled amongst all the spectacle of the titular assault on the titular Regional Office -- an agency that trains young women with superpowers and then sends them out to fight The Amassing Forces of Darkness -- is a much more measured investigation of the lives of the super powered assassins Rose and Sarah, and the way they attempt to define themselves in a world where their agency seems forever co-opted. Sarah, who has a mechanical hand, is an employee of the Regional Office.
Rose’s backstory is a well-observed portrait of a frustrated, bored young woman languishing in poverty. A late chapter showcasing the time her estranged father kidnapped her for a drunken day at the beach could stand excellently as a short-story observing how the million little defeats and alienations of a broken family create a particularly squalid kind of hell. As part of the larger narrative it makes Rose’s desperate hope for a normal life, even as her past mistakes are literally killing her, absolutely heartbreaking.
Mr. Niles -- one of the co-founders of the Regional Office and Sarah’s father figure -- is dead before we learn more of his history and character. Still, there are retrospective moments about him that are deeply revealing. These moments carry a great deal of regret such that their posthumous placing actually lends his story the very same tragic dimension Gonazles can only elsewhere grope after. There's no denying how keenly attuned his eye is when he turns it fully on his characters.
If only he would afford all of them the same focus, or simply stop to linger much longer on Rose and Sarah. But the book’s odd structure -- with its constant switch in focus from Rose to Sarah to a faux academic essay chronicling the history of the Regional Office -- does not allow for this. No sooner has Rose had her time in the light than the story leaves her for over 100 pages to focus on Sarah’s perspective. Even then, the narration can barely devote five pages to a contemporary scene before it jumps back to some past event, which itself only lasts two or three pages. This may have seemed an interesting decision early on, a chance to really lend context to the assault while charting the mirrored paths of Rose and Sarah, but in reality it does little except slow the pace to a punishing crawl.
The chapters set in the middle of the attack feel like issues of a particularly action packed comic, all breathless action and pithy one-liners and harrowing cliffhangers. They demand momentum and the zippy dialogue and breathless sentences provide it.
The flashback chapters, however, immediately squander it. Switching from a knuckleduster between a magic slinging businessman and a super-powered teen assassin to extended scenes of trailer-park ennui might provide contrast and establish character, but it also sabotages the pace of both scenes. There’s little grace in these transitions beyond a few clever bits of echoing, such as a present day Rose remarking that she’s missed her turn, while in the past Rose reminds Henry that he’s just missed a turn. The past and present don't make way for one another so much as stumble into each other, tripping up the whole production.
Gonzales seems to recognize this and tries to control it by keeping the style uniform throughout, but he doesn't seem to realize that frantic is not a proper register for sustained meditation, or that there exists sentences somewhere between snippy one-liners and breathless page-long sprints consisting entirely of actions joined by conjunctions. No matter who is talking, no matter whom the narrator is following, the language is a frustrating mix of snappy redundancies and hip snark. It’s not enough that the author describe a day as good: he must remind us, “Today was a good day. Today was the first good day, the first good day he’d had.” Or that a “feeling was a fleeting feeling.” Or that “Now she was part of the team. She was an integral part of the team. She knew fuck-all about what they were going to be doing as a team, but... she didn’t care about that now that she was a piece of a... girl-team.”
There's something song-like about this tic that borders on charming early on. There's also something about this kind of repetition that allows Gonzales to build emotion and pacing by emphasis. But the author relies on it until it becomes ingratiating, then grating, then, finally, it devolves to smarmy and self-satisfied. At those moments when the novel needs to be most sincere it is instead putting on a hip performance, telling us that just because this story is sad does not mean it has to feel sad.
In Rose’s case, this works. Her story is small and deeply personal and so it makes sense that Gonzales investigates it with a cynical, defensive voice indistinguishable from her own. In fact, it heightens the inherent tragedy of the character.
However, it's a limited timber, hardly suited for delivering an academic thesis and absolutely hostile to the kind of sustained sensitivity required for Sarah’s story. Sarah may be a teenage girl pulled somewhat unwillingly, like Rose, into the world of high-stakes super heroics, but unlike her hot-headed amateur counterpart she is a calm and collected and calculating veteran with years of experience under her belt. If not perfectly emotionally adjusted -- it’s shown again and again that her harsh exterior protects a brittle self -- she's still not the type to quip, “Oh, good, about time” in response to broken lights when only seconds before she was a sobbing mess, utterly broken by torture. Nor is she the type to face down a major betrayal bitching about how she should have known it would be “the fucking intern”.
There’s an especially botched moment later in the novel when a group of the office workers at the Regional Office describe a fire-breathing dragon that Sarah finds so frightening, so hateful that she would actually hang up their phone in the middle of closing a major business deal for no reason other than to exercise her authority. As cold as Sarah has been -- there's little doubt such a perfectionist would not be the most pleasant boss to have hovering around -- she has never demonstrated anything so callous, so petty, so unreservedly hateful. If intended as an attempt to broaden understanding of Sarah or to recast what is already known, it fails. The image is so utterly without precedent that it upsets everything we have seen of Sarah while simultaneously sabotaging our confidence in Gonzales, who now seems unable to pin her character down.
On some levels this kind of uncertainty may be intentional. Sarah’s life has been so completely engineered by Mr. Niles, her mentor Henry and Oyemi, the founder of the Regional Office, that she absolutely collapses when this is revealed to be a lie. The only time she honestly feels her “life has begun” is when the mechanical arm she’s so long been so proud of (itself a symbol of her allegiance to the Office) replaces her flesh so completely with nanobots that she's not even sure if she's still the same Sarah.
Rose faces similar problems of uncertainty and yet possesses a voice that is distinctly, appropriately her own. Her character acts in accordance with a consistent self. The problem isn't simply that Gonzales doesn't understand Sarah’s character. He is guilty, after all, of saddling everybody with the same internal voice. Gonzales’ problem is that he does not fully understand the idiom he is writing in.
Like most academic sorts, he has uncritically bought the now cliché assertion that superheroes are the myths of the modern age. It’s little accident that the novel’s opening epigraph is attributed to Pythia, Appolo’s oracle, or that there's a recurring trio of precognitive psychics known only as The Oracles, and that the essay detailing the downfall of the Office functions as a kind of Greek chorus. Said Office’s doom even springs directly from its own attempts to prevent the fulfillment of a certain prophecy of a betrayal. It’s all predictably tragic.
It is, just as predictably, devoid of the very elemental power that still draws us to myths and which superhero stories have lacked for decades. Because what gives myths their distinctive power is not simply their fantastical elements, but the very distinct form of their telling, a form that superhero stories have long ago jettisoned in favor of a peculiar style that robs them of whatever mythic resonance they once had.
Myths are by nature simple. The strokes are broad, the stories uncomplicated, the characters free of the curse of modern conscience and all the nuance that comes with that. Conflicts are less motivated by conflicting and mutually exclusive desires than the need to illustrate some larger, more elemental human concern, one often wholly amoral.
When Odysseus blinds Polyphemus there's no time wasted wondering if this act of violence was unconscionable, if maybe there was more motivating the cyclops than a monstrous hunger and if Odysseus’ single-minded desire to return home is worth the deaths of his men and everybody unfortunate enough to cross his path. When Gilgamesh confronts the inevitability of his own death it's with a furious, desperate yawp; his anger is representative not merely of his own feelings, but of some essential human pride that gives way to terror when it realizes that death’s arrogant insistence is in fact entirely justified. To modern sensibilities this often seems a disadvantage, but the truth is that myths persist so powerfully because of this simplicity. How else could one appear larger than life than by transcending its every petty complication to focus on the grand concerns?
By contrast, superhero stories are a tangle. Stan Lee may have been a self-aggrandizing and self-promoting ham when he once described a comic he wrote about an awkward dinner between Aunt May, Spider Man and Dr. Octopus as something out of a Russian novel, but he was not entirely wrong. Whatever the difference in quality, the wordy, self-absorbed thought-bubbles dribbling up from Peter Parker’s frazzled teenage brain to crowd thousands of pages worth of panels resemble much more the endless spiral of internal dialogue that plague an Ivan Karamazov or an underground man than the epic, anguished speeches of an Oedipus Rex or a mourning Achilles. The formers’ personal concerns are thoroughly modern, a labyrinth of neurotic troubles that only seems to grow the more they are worried over, and then only ever inward in a series of self-referencing, crisscrossing loops.
If the prevailing theme of Spider-Man’s decades long run has been that “with great power comes great responsibility”, the unspoken-but-decades old theme of the Marvel universe at large has been “with great power comes great mental instability”. It's an inescapable part not only of the brand’s storytelling style but also of superhero stories as a whole. This is the very reason that Jonathan Hickman’s latest runs on The Avengers and New Avengers began as a grandiose story about the inevitability of death (with, for epic flair, Captain America identified with “life” and Iron Man with “death”) only to waste itself on an endless series of debates between its core characters that carried with them all the passion and conviction and dramatic force of a speech-and-debate tournament between teenagers arguing about the Patriot Act, while simultaneously trying to stave off a growing fear that the other was sleeping with his girlfriend. Likewise, it's no coincidence that the abhorrent Batman v. Superman spends only minutes to lip service explaining its epic theme about “man versus gods” but hours and hours probing the dreary interior life and the haggard countenance of a boorishly tortured Bruce Wayne.
What these writers fail to recognize is that these two elements are inherently at cross purposes. The quotidian is only diminished by its comparison to what is grand and cosmic, while the epic in turn is muddied and reduced by the ubiquitous presence of the pedestrian. None of this is to say that tragedy as a whole is incompatible with the mundane. Or that Gonzales should jettison these elements to focus exclusively on superheroics. It's painfully clear he has a real skill for the former and no great affinity nor love for the latter. Every mention of the larger world context -- every reference made to the “mystical” talents of the core cast of superheroines, of The Amassing Forces of Darkness That Threaten at Every Turn to Destroy the World, of the various warlocks and “interdimensional” threats that the Agents of the Regional Office have to combat -- sounds utterly unnatural.
It’s like listening to a man whose sole exposure to comics was reruns of Challenge of the Superfriends and discarded copies of Silver Age back-issues he hasn’t seen in 40 years, trying to explain their tone and content to a half-interested child. When was the last time a super hero comic featured anything like a warlock “setting loose a swarm of bees to conquer Kansas?” Or a geneticist-turned-werewolf working on a plot to turn the rest of Cuba into lycanthropes? What possible use would a team of dimension-hopping superwomen capable of throwing cars and taking gunshots to the face get out of a “Danger Room” full only of paintball guns, tackling dummies and padded mallets? The world-building recalls The Venture Brothers and its clashing superpowered bureaucracies populated by broken parodies of jet-age pulp heroes, but it lacks the wit and the pathos of that series. More importantly, it lacks its contemporary’s loving understanding of the source material. Where Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick see a world, Gonzales sees wallpaper.
Nothing deep would be lost if these elements were dropped from The Regional Office Is Under Attack. The “Amassing Forces of Darkness that Threaten at Every Turn to Destroy the World” must still be busy amassing, given that they’re mentioned all of four times in the novel. The interdimensional hijinks that serve as a plot device early on and later work to develop Rose’s character could just as easily be replaced by dangers more realistic. Like, say, a sniper she didn't see and was only barely saved from at the last minute. Certainly this would fit much more with the true aesthetic of the story.
There's much made of cyborgs and “magicks” and ancient artifacts of mystical power, but in all honesty the story hews much closer to The Minority Report or the Bourne movies than it does to any major comic book story arc. Its focus is on spurned secret agents working to destroy the system that betrayed them in an ironic twist of fate: what room is there in this for “the Fortress of the Living Flame” and lightning-shooting gloves made from a warlock’s hand? What is it about these fantastical elements that are so thematically or aesthetically appropriate that one could not simply substitute a high-tech military base or a new piece of technology in their place? The answer is nothing. Gonzales may have a real talent for writing grounded characters but, as was the case with Sarah, it's sabotaged again and again by a kitchen-sink approach to storytelling and a tonal flippancy that trivializes everything.
Greatest of all of these missteps is the novel’s impossibly ugly mid-book section. Opening with an entirely pointless execution (what reason do hired mercenaries have to ruthlessly murder a compliant and unarmed office worker unaware of the true nature of the Regional Office?) and continuing on to showcase 30 pages of senseless slaughter, this interlude presents itself as a ground-level perspective meant to showcase what this super powered feud must look like to the office grunts unlucky enough to be caught in the middle. In reality it seems to exist only to showcase Gonzales’ disdain for these unfortunate souls. All of them are, without exception, boobs and clowns of the lowest order. There’s Action Jackson, a former minor league baseball player foolish enough to think he can take out a trained mercenary with a paperweight. There's William, the kind of self-important loser who fancies himself a born leader when in reality he can barely tie his own shoes. Then there's the narrator, the most despicable of them all, a self-obsessed moron who considers finding a few stale doughnuts in the copy room a “coup” and whose only reaction to the brutal murder of the intern is to say, “Fuck that guy. And fuck whoever was in charge of hiring the fucking interns.” (Everybody gets at least one moment to say “fuck the interns.”)
There's some lip-service paid to the idea that this is all supposed to be deeply tragic -- the wise-ass narrator has a few moments to think about how he’s squandered his life on frivolous pursuits and how the marvels of the Regional Office make “a world...(he) felt might be full of nothing more than reality singing competitions and Donald Trumps and Kardashians...worth saving” -- but the overall tenor of the passage is so unpleasant and the social commentary so cheap that his musings lack any of the thematic weight Gonzales so dearly wants them to have. Part of the problem is that his voice is the same snarky spit Rose, Sarah and everybody else in the book share. How hard it is to consider his grievances legitimate when he presents them as the sulky complaints of a spoiled teenager.
The larger part of it is that the author has gone out of his way to make these poor bastards as odious, as venal as humanly possible; it's difficult not to agree fully with Sarah when later she contemptuously refers to them as “sheep”. Gonzales seems to think that by making his characters so small he in turn makes their tragedy that much greater. But he does not. What is already minuscule is not thrown into starker contrast by what is gargantuan, but is instead reduced to total insignificance. And so there's no horror to feel at the unfairness of it all when these innocent office workers are gunned down, no sense that a scene this ugly should not exist in the same world as the “wonders” of the Regional Office.
These wonders are hardly that at all, so poorly realized is the world of the Regional Office. So nebulous they can provide only scope -- a sense of a larger world, but never scale -- an idea of where heroes are in relation too all of this. All such supposed marvels do is provide a confusing backdrop that turns the characters’ oh-so-clever dialogue tinny and snide and foolish. All they serve to do is render these stories pathetic where they should instead seem tragic.
That this is an element of a superhero story should not be surprising. After all, this is the same genre that eventually morphed into spiteful trash like Mark Miller's Wanted and Garth Ennis' The Boys. What's surprising is how utterly it sabotages Gonzales’ better nature. And to what end? The story would miss little of its superhero trappings. With a few well-placed alternations the author could replace that baffling idiom with one more grounded, replace the single obnoxious voice with a plenitude of registers more fitting to each character.
Gonzales is a writer most comfortably himself when devoted to his characters, not their world. It's difficult to believe his greatest interests lie with the pseudo-mythical, harder still to believe that the unconvincing misanthropy that informs the section devoted to office workers is his real world view. This is the same man who writes so loving of Rose’s heartbreaking childhood, after all, the same author who captures with deep sympathy the baffling way Mr. Nile’s duty, morality and love all exists in a state of constant tension and yet cooperation. To see him waste a real talent for tragedy in pursuit of cheap shock would be a tragedy onto itself.