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Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

Nick DiChario finds out what it’s like to be the bad guy.

What is the nature of good and evil? This question has vexed philosophers throughout the ages. But philosophers aren’t the only ones to have grappled with it. Comic books have pitted good against evil since the 1930s, when they first appeared. In fact, the superhero form of this age-old battle seems more popular than ever, recently conquering the silver screen: The Dark Knight and all three Spider-Man movies are among the top 20 grossing films of all-time. Watchmen, one of the most anticipated films of 2009, based on Alan Moore’s comic book, pulled in 70 million dollars during its opening weekend. X-Men Origins: Wolverine just came out, with more planned. Some might argue that people are attracted to the special effects, or maybe just the spectacle; but being a writer myself I prefer to think that the story has something to do with it.

Enter Austin Grossman and his debut novel Soon I Will Be Invincible (2008). The plot is pretty standard comic book fare. Soon after the superteam the Champions breaks up, their big-time hero CoreFire unexpectedly disappears. The team decides to reform to find out what happened to him. Prime suspect in CoreFire’s disappearance? The team’s arch-nemesis, Dr Impossible, who has suddenly escaped from prison. The Champions will spend most of the novel searching for Dr Impossible while trying to learn what happened to CoreFire. Dr Impossible, who is actually innocent concerning CoreFire’s disappearance, will spend most of the novel evading capture while trying to find CoreFire so that he can kill him…

But Grossman, a video-game designer and a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of California, Berkeley, is a clever writer. He approaches this work with a keen eye for human nature and a shrewd kind of playfulness. He takes the traditional comic book contest of good versus evil and turns it on its ear by telling most of the tale from the point of view of the uncompromisingly bad supervillain, Dr Impossible. There is a second voice in the novel, the superheroine, Fatale, a woman of steel with a digitized brain, and she is integral to the plot; but it’s Dr Impossible who drives the action, and he’s the character we long to hang out with, narratively speaking. Grossman succeeds in teasing the reader into first not hating the evil doctor, then sympathizing with him, and finally going so far as to actually cheer for the guy. The author seems to grasp that our fascination with the ancient battle of right and wrong is not so much with the good guys, with whom we naturally relate, as with the bad guys, whom we yearn to understand. What makes villains tick? Why are they so rotten? Must they be vanquished, or can they be saved? Grossman invites us to take our curiosity one step further. Be the evil character for a while, he seems to be saying. See what it feels like from the inside: isn’t it fun? And yes – as a matter of fact, it is.

Dr Impossible is not self-delusional. He knows that he’s a bad guy (as opposed to just misunderstood). In true existentialist fashion, he embraces who he is and takes responsibility for his actions. He reflects on his childhood, his university days and, with a refreshing clarity, the moments he chose evil over good. As the Roman poet Juvenal once said, “No one becomes depraved all at once.” Grossman writes these self-reflective passages with a healthy dose of dark humor, making Dr Impossible almost charming, even if he is rotten to the core. Although he sometimes feels sorry for himself, Dr Impossible mostly just wishes that he could have been better at being bad:

“How do you take over the world? I’ve tried everything. Doomsday devices of every kind, nuclear, thermonuclear, nanotechnological, gadgets that fit in a shoe box and that were visible from space. I’ve tried mass mind control; I’ve stolen the gold reserves in Fort Knox, only to lose them again. I’ve traveled backward in time to change history, forward in time to escape it; I’ve stopped time altogether to live in a world of statues. I’ve commanded robot armies, insect armies, and dinosaur armies… Each time, it ended the same way. I’ve been in jail twelve times.”

In the philosophical universe, the road to understanding good and evil is fraught with danger and complexity. Susan Neiman in her book Evil in Modern Thought (2002) writes, “One could easily spend a lifetime studying the problem of evil and be no better for it.” In fact, Neiman refuses to so much as attempt to define what evil is, instead laying out her case that it might just be the one philosophical concept from which all other philosophical concepts are born. The world of comic books is not quite so convoluted, and maybe this, ultimately, is what appeals to us. Sociologist Irving Sarnoff’s brilliantly simple definition is worth noting: “Evil,” he says, “is knowing better but doing worse.”

For better or worse, Soon I Will Be Invincible gives us a chance to live on the dark side for a while. We are the Joker, the Red Skull, Lex Luthor, Magneto, the Green Goblin. We are Dr Impossible. Whether you’re a fan of comics or literature, there is plenty here to enjoy. And there’s plenty for fans of philosophy, too. I highly recommend this book.

© Nick DiChario 2009

Nick DiChario was nominated for the Hugo and World Fantasy awards. His novels A Small and Remarkable Life (2006) and Valley of Day-Glo (2008) are published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside.

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, Pantheon Books, 304 pgs, 2008, ISBN: 0718152913

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