If you’ve missed the buzz surrounding the hit NBC TV series Heroes, then you’ve probably been living in another dimension for the last twelve months. Having provided the network with one of America’s most-viewed TV series last year, it then proceeded to take over the BBC and hijack practically every conversation this side of Christmas. With superheroes still foremost in everybody’s thoughts, the timing couldn’t be better for Austin Grossman’s debut novel, a nuclear-powered crime-fighting story that puts comic books firmly back on the literary map.
While there are surface similarities between Soon I Will Be Invincible and that TV show, however, the tone of the novel quickly shifts towards the more fantastical end of the spectrum. Grossman makes no attempt to explain the world that he describes – a world where superheroes, and supervillians, exist as a widely accepted everyday reality – but instead he takes this death-defying, spandex-wearing ball and runs with it. His is a world of mask-wearing villains, magical weapons and scientific experiments that went wrong, not theories of human evolution and genetic anomalies. And there’s hardly a cheerleader in sight.
The novel opens with supervillain Doctor Impossible breaking out of his maximum security prison, as he attempts to conquer the world (again) with a potent mixture of cutting-edge science, diabolical schemes and a rather big cloak. He’s a surprisingly charismatic creation, waxing lyrical about his troubled childhood and wondering why it is that true geniuses always want to be evil, and as he attempts to rebuild his global empire from a grimy motel room he provides more than a few moments of bathetic humour.
While he goes about his diabolical scheme the Champions – a superhero collective along the lines of the Fantastic Four – are undergoing a crisis of their own. One of their number, the seemingly indestructible CoreFire, has vanished from the face of the Earth, and the escaped Doctor Impossible is the prime suspect. Without CoreFire the Champions’ powers are severely depleted, and they have to resort to recruiting new members if they’re to stand any chance of defeating the Doctor. This brings Fatale into the story, a part-human-part-cyborg who was created, and then rejected, by a top secret defence program. She shares narrating duties with Doctor Impossible, taking us inside the headquarters of the Champions as she attempts to piece together what remains of her life.
The cast of characters expands far beyond this pair, however, as Impossible’s plan unravels and we gradually discover what happened to CoreFire. There’s Damsel, the offspring of superhero legend Stormcloud and an alien princess; Elphin, a fairy warrior charged by her queen to remain on earth; Rainbow Triumph, an augmented teenager who comes across like a Manga character brought to life – and these barely scratch the surface. There are supervillians aplenty too, from the slightly ridiculous Pharaoh and his rather tacky outfit to Baron Ether, the eastern European godfather of all supervillians, currently under house arrest.
Much of the novel’s appeal undoubtedly lies in the world that Grossman has created, from the witty asides on the clichés of the superhero genre to the intricacies of the creation stories that surround each hero and villain. This DC and Marvel-influenced atmosphere can only sustain the narrative for so long, however, and the first half stretches it to breaking point. By halfway through we’re willing something to happen, even if it means Doctor Impossible taking over the world and subjecting us all to another ice age. There’s plenty of character building and literary dry ice, but not much action.
Thankfully this changes as the novel hits its stride, and the second half rockets along at a breakneck pace that even Superman would struggle to keep up with. There are heroic battles between the Champions and Doctor Impossible, more twists than Jack Bauer manages to squeeze into a season of 24, and CoreFire’s fate is finally revealed in the Doctor’s island lair. It’s a little late in coming, but it’s more than worth the wait, and Grossman handles his supercharged cast with wit and imagination.
As for how it compares with a certain superheroic TV series, Soon I Will Be Invincible more or less holds its own. Both falter at the start; both build up to an edge-of-your-seat climax; both boast an ensemble cast whose powers and secrets gradually unravel before our eyes. Grossman’s debut owes a greater debt to the likes of Superman and Spidey, however, and as an amusing take on the comic book genre it pretty much hits all its targets. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t have a cheerleader to save too.