01/01/2009. Contributed by Sue Stewart
pub: Del Rey/Ballantine Books. 390 page enlarged paperback. Price: $13.95 (US), $17.95 (CAN). ISBN: 0-345-46637-2.
check out website: www.delreybooks.com
What are super-heroes supposed to do once all the bad guys have been beaten? When they realise that their services are no longer required? Well, it seems that they do much the same as anyone else. They bicker and argue. They go to pieces, becoming obnoxious and self-destructive. After being forced into it by their nearest and dearest (or the Administrative Council of the Fantastic Order Of Justice, in this case) they get some help. Sort of. They attend group therapy.
This book is presented as a combination of self-help manual and a memoir of the group therapy sessions in question. It's narrated by psychoanalyst Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman, the 'Dr Brain' of the title, who throughout addresses the reader as another super-hero (or rather, hyper-hominid) in need of help. It's a great touch that actually makes sense. What other reason could there be to read a book subtitled, 'Unmasked! When Being A Superhero Can't Save You From Yourself'?
Just reading the back cover had me giggling. The introduction, graced with plaudits like 'Were I still at my psychiatric practice and had I not begun my career of mental butchery that led to my incarceration, I would unreservedly recommend this fine volume to all my still living patients." - Menton The Destroyer' took me from giggling to laughing.
So hopefully you can see why I was prepared to love this book.
The book begins with an introduction to the six leading super-heroes who've been forced into analysis with Dr. Brain. They've only agreed to attend because they are under threat of expulsion from the Fantastic Order of Justice if they don't. Naturally they form a kaleidoscope of seething resentments and fragile alliances and at first divide into two obvious sub-groups.
In one, there is the old guard. Omnipotent Man aka Wally W. Watchtower, 'seventy-one year-old refugee from the destroyed planet Argon and Earth's mightiest man' lines up alongside Flying Squirrel aka Festus Piltdown III, 'seventy year-old billionaire industrialist and scourge of the criminal underworld' and Iron Lass aka Hnossi Icegaard, 'immortal Norse warrior-goddess and the planet's leading martial strategist'.
In opposition to them stand the newer, younger heroes. Brotherfly aka Andre 'P-Fly' Parker, 'twenty-six year-old wall-crawling, wisecracking, bluebottled ladies' man'; Power Grrrl Syndi Tycho, 'the nineteen year-old dynamic diva and pop music sensation' and X-Man aka Philip Kareem Edgerton, 'thirty-four year-old detective supreme and militant rabble-rouser from the ghettos of Los Ditkos'.
There are other divides, however, than those between old and young, sanctimonious and shallow, self-sacrificing and self-promoting. X-Man and The Flying Squirrel are perpetually at war over which of them should be the next leader of the Fantastic Order Of Justice. Iron Lass and Power Grrrl are constantly bickering about what it means to be a powerful, independent woman. Brother and X-Man disagree about how their experiences as black men have impacted on their roles within the F*O*O*J and what it means for the future. Old-timers The Flying Squirrel and Omnipotent Man can't agree about anything.
Each of them will have to overcome their lack of self-knowledge, aversion for the others and loss of identity in a world that no longer needs them. Not to mention overcoming Dr Brain's verbosity and psychobabble. She takes every opportunity to promote herself and her products, self-help manuals like 'Seven Habits of Highly Defective Teams' and 'Side-Kicked! When The Alpha Hero Treats You Like Omega'; inventions such as the Mind Whistle(tm) and the Id-Smasher(r). They're touted shamelessly and to devastating comic effect. She also remarks - with disarming candour, unshakeable complacency and a self-analytical blind spot the size of Freud's - that 'with great power there must also come great psychoanalysis'. There's an unknown assailant on the loose, too, who seems to be trying to kill them all.
It's quite a task but Minister Faust keeps this plot on track. He does it with an acerbic tongue and an absolutely straight face, but beneath the jokes and the send-ups there is a scalpel-sharp dissection of the nature of manipulation and self-justification, the use and abuse of power. It's clever stuff.
Occasionally, I got the sense that there were in-jokes that I wasn't getting, but it wasn't a major problem. That can still happen to a Brit, even one accustomed to reading American novels. The tropes and conventions of comicbooks and graphic novels are guaranteed to get fans nodding knowingly, too, but don't let that put you off. This isn't a book that sets out to flaunt its knowledge at the reader's expense. It's a social commentary that happens to use comicbook conventions more than a comicbook critique. If you get all the references, it's a bonus. If you don't, it doesn't spoil it.
Yet in spite of that, I couldn't love it. I loved parts of it, especially the way that the characters were inflated only to be deflated by a sharp slice of observation and its harsh judgements weren't the problem. Satire has a hard edge, especially when it's done well and this is done very well. I admired the book a lot, but that's not love.
Part of the problem was simply that it worked a little too hard. This is a satirical novel about comicbook characters. Graphic novels and comics are, by definition, low on dialogue and description. I don't require soundbytes and short paragraphs, but capturing the terrifically po-faced delivery of super-heroes taking everything seriously seemed to take a superabundance of words. The frothy, self-involved burbling of pop parodies taking nothing seriously did, too. And ironically, the greatest success of 'From The Notebooks Of Dr Brain' may be its greatest detriment - its narrator.
Absolutely true to character, she constantly said things like, 'My patients arrived at my Hyper-Potentiality Clinic yoked to wagonloads of psychemotionally dysfunctional produce' and 'I just wanted you...to break out of your testosterone-enflamed id-escalation'. It's funny but it did eventually result in mental indigestion, so that I ended up tackling the book in small bites. It's set out in series of sub-sections so it seems to be written with that in mind, but it isn't my preferred way of reading. As funny as it was, Dr. Brain's delivery was sometimes too much like hard work.
Another slight frustration was that the action takes place after the action. That is, after the war and subsequent imprisonment of all the super-villains - the Götterdammerüng. It is referred to so often that I longed for some of the baddies to put in an appearance, particularly the Specially Relative Einstein Baboons. With a name like that, who wouldn't? I felt a bit cheated. There were so many fabulously named characters that I never got to see. It's quite likely that there simply wasn't room for all of them, but I felt like I'd missed something anyway.
There are plenty of developments in the plot and I was both pleased and saddened to see that my reading of a couple of the characters and their ultimate fates was right and for a couple I was wrong. Unfortunately, I can't tell you why without giving too much away but there is so much insight and invention packed within the covers of this book that I'm still thinking about it. It may not have been love, but it's a partnership that I'm glad to have had.
Finally, just in case there are any film producers out there with huge budgets burning holes in their pockets, I have to say that this book cries out to be made into a film. Minister Faust has a superb eye; he's sharp, wry, witty and very funny. He also has a lot of heart, so that I even found myself warming to some of the characters, which isn't an easy thing to achieve in a satire. It's unlikely to be a Hollywood blockbuster but for an independent film producer with the bravery to tell it straight and without fudging the issues, it would be brilliant.
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Stephen Hunt's novels - USA