In recent years, a whole bunch of novels (not graphic novels, just plain-ol' text-style novels) featuring superheroes have appeared. These include Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman (2007); Supervillainz by Alicia Goranson (2006); Karma Girl by Jennifer Estep (2007); and the incomparable, hilarious, satiric From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain by Minister Faust (2007). Now Superpowers by David J. Schwartz joins the movement. I enjoy these novels; in fact, I appreciate them enough that I wrote a 3,000 word article on them last spring. However, I did not like Superpowers as much as I'd hoped. I found it easy to put down and harder than average to pick back up. I've been a bit hard-pressed to express just why this is; it's not a bad book by any means, but it lacks something, or perhaps lacks a little in several areas.
Let's start with the plot. Two sentences suffice to cover the basics: five college students in Madison, Wisconsin acquire superpowers as a result of drinking a batch of home-brewed beer. Each of them deals with it in their own way, and they try to integrate these surprising abilities into their lives. The powers are all basically standard ones: super strength, super speed, invisibility, telepathy, and flight. They have the same obvious advantages and hidden drawbacks as portrayed in any number of comic books.
In fact, when the students learn they have these powers, they quickly turn to the only cultural model available: comic books. The most studious of them launches an exhaustive research project into superhero behavior. They put together costumes, become the "Madison All-Stars," aim for anonymity, and try to fit crime-fighting in around classes and jobs (most of the book happens during the summer of 2001). They run into the usual problems: public opinion is with them as long as things go smoothly; when they mess up, it easily swings the other way. Most of the cops approve of what they're doing, yet have a duty to prevent vigilantism. However, the book focuses on the students' internal issues, not on the problems of superhero PR in the "real world."
That's fine, but the focus of the book is refracted in too many directions to give the characters their proper due. Each character comes with a full set of family and personal dramas (as do so many college students). Caroline (who can now fly) has a flaky single mother and some issues with her own (sometimes inconveniently hyperactive) sexuality. Jack (with superspeed) has recently lost his father to cancer; he's worried that his family might lose/sell the family farm but can't do much to stop it. Harriet (invisibility) is the daughter of divorced parents and was once date-raped by a still-popular football player. While she's been making her own way since then, she hasn't yet dealt with all the repercussions. Mary-Beth is a good girl, a grind student. She's trying to live up to her own expectations to go pre-med, but between the superpowers thing and discovering an unexpected talent for literature, she's having doubts. Poor Charlie doesn't have time for too much drama of his own; he's established as a genial slacker but then gets quickly flung into the brain-pounding, identity-confusing trauma that comes with developing telepathy. Throw in friends, extra family members, a snooping freelance reporter, an advancing TV reporter, the cops, and 9/11 at the end of the story, and that's a lot of ground to cover in a mere 376 pages with comfortably large font and margins.
There are a few different things that I could expect from a novel like this. For instance, given the other novels in this subgenre, I've been trained to expect satire and satirical humor. That's not really a feature of this book. There are humorous moments, as one would expect of a novel dealing with college kids, but they're not dominant. This is a shame, because so far the best novels in this subgenre (and here I'll also reach back to 1992 and throw in Count Geiger's Blues by Michael Bishop) are pointedly satirical and often funny. I think this was one of the things that made the book easy to put down—I kept expecting the author to exploit the situations for some good comedy or satire, but that rarely happened.
Or I might expect to see sharp political commentary; that's another common feature. Minister Faust's book hits almost every political topic under the sun in ways both hilarious and insightful (although sometimes heavy-handedly); Count Geiger and Supervillainz also have their political components. After realizing that 9/11 was part of this story, I was particularly surprised not to find much in the way of politics; the only other story to deal with 9/11 is Faust's, the most political of the bunch. This lack may be a function of Faust's Canadian citizenship vs. Schwartz's American outlook—I think 9/11 is still so powerful that (non-politician) Americans are reluctant to explicitly politicize it. (Or that may be wishful thinking on my part.)
One thing that novels have that graphic novels do not is plenty of room for introspection (one can fit many more words on a page than in a narrator's box or thought bubble). Given the fundamental normalcy of these characters, I might have expected some in-depth examination of how their superpowers changed their lives. This is where the lack of narrative focus most damages the novel; there's never time enough to give any one character the thorough examination they deserve. You get a passage or two that contains some genuinely insightful details into one character or another, but the story never returns to or follows up on that lead. In the end (and this is also a problem for the similarly character-focused Soon I Will Be Invincible) the characterization and how-does-having-super-powers-change-you aspect of the novel doesn't add anything to the hundreds of issues of X-Men, Superman, Hulk, et al. that cover the same territory.
Ultimately, the book that Superpowers shares the most with is one written in 1930. Gladiator by Philip Wylie is a book that predates superhero comic books; in fact, the creators of Superman cite it as an inspiration. The key link between Gladiator and Superpowers is the lack of super villains. In Gladiator the hero is the product of a one-off biological experiment performed by his father. He exists as a unique freak in the otherwise normal world. He passes for normal when he can, but his self-control occasionally falters. He tries to help his country during WWI, but what could one man, even Superman, do in a war involving millions of troops over thousands of square miles? His story ultimately illustrates the futility of being a superhuman idealized person. After reading it I was surprised that Gladiator was connected to Superman; Superman is so incredibly positive and effective, it's hard to see how he could stem from such a tortured protagonist.
The answer is that in the comic book Superman has super villains to fight. He protects hoi polloi from the bad guys only he can defeat. He needn't worry about saving us from ourselves, which is patently impossible. Instead, he can spend most of his time saving us from antagonists who are in one way or another his equal in extraordinariness. In contrast, the protagonists of Superpowers rediscover Gladiator's futility. While they make inroads against the criminal population of Madison, Wisconsin, they are as taken by surprise by 9/11 as the rest of us. They can't be everywhere, and even if they could no one wants a bunch of kids running around trying to save us from ourselves. (This may also be intended to function as commentary on the ineffectualness of America's "sole superpower" status after the Cold War, but here I choose to heed the narrator's injunction about looking for allegory and go no further.)
In the end, Superpowers is a book about normal folks. Even when extraordinary things happen to them, the Madison All-Stars remain normal college kids. They do their best with their new-found powers, but they're not perfect and they've got a lot to deal with. Getting hit upside the head with the real world is tough under the best of circumstances; it's even harder if the only role models that exist for your situation come from comic books. I suspect that Schwartz's novel is very close to what would happen if real college students really stumbled upon these sorts of powers. However, having read so many other similar books recently, I was conditioned to expect a lot of things from this book that it didn't deliver. A reader who reads it on its own may find it more satisfying.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She lives in Long Beach, CA, and blogs at the Spiral Galaxy Reviewing Laboratory. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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