27 February 2011

Mascot Beyond Rescue

The number of novels inspired by the death of the second Jason Todd (the Robin of the late 1980s) is very small. Peter David’s Mascot to the Rescue! is almost certainly the best of the batch. Which is not to say it’s a good novel, or even a good “chapter book” for young readers.

The premise of Mascot to the Rescue! is that a boy named Josh Miller has become convinced that his life parallels that of Mascot, the kid sidekick in his favorite comic book. When that magazine’s publisher announces that it will kill off Mascot because fans have voted against his old-fashioned chirpiness, Josh and his new friend Kelsey set out to convince the publisher or auteur to keep him alive.

Josh periodically goes into a mental zone where he pretends to be Mascot, which comes in handy when he must fight off paint-ballers, rabid dogs, and other obstacles that pop up to provide an action sequence. The book has occasional line drawings of these scenes from Colleen Doran, who’s drawn for Teen Titans, among others.

David is a fine comic-book writer, with particular experience writing Jason Todd’s successor as Robin in the Young Justice series. But many storytelling techniques that work on the comics page don’t work so well in a prose novel.

Mascot to the Rescue!‘s narrative point of view jumps around, particularly from Josh to Kelsey and back, often within scenes. The narration frequently tells us what different characters are thinking. That approach is out of favor with most modern prose novelists, and even by the standards of other times the result seems clunky. In a comic or movie script, it’s often useful for writers to spell out what characters are thinking, but in prose subtlety works better.

David’s plot relies heavily on coincidences. For example, there’s a holy fool in the form of a mentally disabled man who works for the comic-book publisher; he appears at just the right moment to take Josh and Kelsey to visit Stan Kirby, the creator of Mascot.

But many of the plot’s coincidences just don’t add up. Josh’s mother keeps him from spending any time on the internet, yet she maintains a daily blog about being a single mother. Stan Kirby refuses to send his work electronically and doesn’t event check his email, but he turns out to read Ms. Miller’s blog regularly.

Josh’s elementary-school principal and a social worker from child protection services are the book’s two cardboard baddies. As I’ve written before, it makes no sense for authors to create child-hating villains from people who’ve gone into professions where they have to work with children.

We know from nearly the start that Josh’s mom and Kelsey’s dad are supposed to get together. Their pairing is apparently so imperative that David gives the two characters few scenes together, so we never see the attraction. Similarly, Josh and Kelsey are paired off, each of the good guys gets his heroic moment, and modern comic-book publishing is saved.

But the biggest problem at the start of the book is that Josh really does seem troubled and delusional. His character is probably the novel’s biggest weakness. While many young superhero fans might be attracted to the idea of a real-life adventure that crosses into comic-book publishing, Josh’s character may be too close to what they don’t want to be like. He’s more pathetic than sympathetic.

Through the character of Stan Kirby, an acknowledged homage to his predecessors, David gets to voice some of comics creators’ big recent complaints about the business:

  • “Fan” sites on the internet are relentlessly negative.
  • Sales reward gore over heroism.
  • There are no comics appropriate for kids.
Ironically, it was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creation of the Fantastic Four that introduced antiheroes into superhero comics and started the genre toward more complex, mature, and eventually dark storytelling.

That portrayal of comics fandom, however, doesn’t accurately reflect the history of the Jason Todd vote. There have been fans who dislike the cheerful young mascot type, going all the way back to the 1940s. (See Feiffer, Jules.) But the second Jason became unpopular because he didn’t fit that mold. Readers might be discomfited by Josh Miller, but a lot more of them would like to be Mascot.

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