03 January 2008

Still Looking for the Great American Superhero Novel

Perry Moore's Hero is a novel for teens set in a world of superheroes. I've written before about this genre of prose books inspired by comic books, but all the other published titles I've read are simple, semi-parodic, mass-market entertainment (not that there's anything wrong with that).

In portraying a world teeming with costumed crimefighters and villains, the heroes marketed and licensed, Hero is very like all those other books. But it alone has a complex story and thematic depth. It has rounded characters. It makes a statement.

In particular, Moore takes the standard superhero motifs of developing powers, secret identities, deadly enemies, and overdeveloped musculature, and finds new significance for them all. Hero is the story of one teenager--whose parents were heroes and who happens to be gaining unusual powers himself--coming out as gay.

Hero is a real novel. I just wish it were a really good novel instead of a fair first one. Unfortunately, Hero has a lot of holes and rough spots, mainly the result of much too much going on. And here I must warn of ***SPOILERS***.

Alongside his sexual awakening, narrator Thom Creed must deal with his demanding father, his father's controversial past as a hero, his epilepsy which develops into his healing power, his basketball team, his volunteer job, his part-time job, tryouts for the League of leading superheroes, his team of fellow League probationers and their problems, assorted minor supervillains, societal homophobia, the reappearance of his long-departed mother, and a threat to the entire planet.

A lot of things get lost along the way. We never see Thom's emotional response to passing the League tryouts. One quality that attracts him to another guy is how nicely that young man treats his little brother, but the little brother simply disappears by the book's end.

I felt I'd missed some important scenes. When a rival basketball player identifies Thom as "that gay guy" near the start of the book, does he know something--or is he just being nasty? At one of the book's important junctures, Thom decides to out himself in a most public manner, but we never see the other characters' immediate reactions.

Other things get repeated. Three times (pp. 84, 130, 283) Thom prepares to run away from home, and three times he halts and turns around, twice without an external impetus to change his mind. Two different characters put their fingers to their temples for dramatic effect (pp. 122, 162).

Most limiting, Hero depends on readers' knowledge of the major American superhero myths, particularly the DC continuity. There are roman à clef versions of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Captain America, and others. The League is obviously the analogue of DC's Justice League of America.

To follow the plot, readers have to assume that the nuances of the DC continuity apply in this world as well. In particular, we must accept that particles of an extraterrestrial superhero's destroyed home planet are the only things that hero is vulnerable to. After all, that's the way kryptonite works on Superman, right? But Hero never establishes that as a fact in its universe until it becomes crucial to the plot--on page 408 of a 428-page book.

No comments: