04 November 2010

Homer Price in Capes?

Last week and month I had an intriguing online exchange with author Gail Gauthier about the notion of “Homer Price in space.”

Was it possible, I questioned, to replicate the tone of Robert McCloskey’s books in an environment that wasn’t familiar to the point of quaintness. Homer’s adventures depend on ordinary things—ragweed, balls of twine, visting movie stars, tunes that get in your head—being just a little bit off. But if we readers don’t have a deep sense of where the “on” setting should be, how can we be sure what’s off? To repeat the analogy I used in Gail’s comments section, maybe all donut machines work that way in zero gravity.

After signing off, I realized that I’d just read a book that contained a lot of what I enjoy about the Homer Price novels, yet set in a rather wild supernatural environment. That book was G-Man: Cape Crisis, by Chris Giarrusso. It’s in comics form, and stars several young superheroes with a somewhat addled wizard mentor. The kids are generally eager and well-meaning, and the adults generally too bothered to get a clue or do useful work.

That story gets its grounding, I think, in the clichés and givens of superhero tales. Mikey’s magic cape lets him fly, be super-strong, and super-tough. (Not invulnerable, as other kids point out at the start.) Those powers make sense because we’re used to seeing superheroes with them. Mikey’s circle of young heroes contains three who can fly and blast things in different ways, one who’s superfast, and one who can turn different colors—easily portrayed on the brightly tinted pages.

But Giarrusso doesn’t try to incorporate rarer, less easy to understand powers, such as controlling one’s body density (the Vision), tactile telekinesis (the second Superboy), or shape-changing within certain rather arbitrary parameters (Beast Boy). Depicting those powers might raise more questions about what’s ordinary in this world, and what’s off.

Lots of the humor (and there is a lot of it, in forms that made me laugh out loud) grows from our expectations: the boys questioning the science behind holding a buttercup under your chin, the fact that broomsticks can fly but clearly aren’t designed to be ridden, the hope that if you foil a bank robbery you’ll get some of the money as a reward. Some of those expectations reflect everyday life, but others simply reflect experience with fantasy adventures.

So a “Homer Price in space” could work, I guess, as long as it’s grounded in our received understandings of what space is like, and doesn’t drift too far into novelty or scientific exactitude. Maybe it’s even worked already; I haven’t read the Danny Dunn books in decades.

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