St. Martin's Griffin ($12.95)
by Rudi Dornemann
The concept of the revisionist superhero carried a significant amount of shock value when Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns appeared in the mid-'80s. These days, however, the idea of puncturing the superhero mystique by placing a flawed, multidimensional person behind the hero's mask, or by dropping a square-jawed hero into the midst of a complex, non-primary-color world, has become so commonplace that it's even made it to the big screen in Brad Bird's Pixar film, The Incredibles.
Robert Mayer's 1977 novel Superfolks arguably anticipated the whole revisionist superhero trend—the first chapter will make this clear, even if you miss the back cover blurbs or Grant Morrison's introduction to this reissue—but it's more than just an interesting historical artifact. Mayer may be using comic book source material, but his book succeeds by being a novel; the space and detail that a novel affords allows him to construct a narrative that's both a real-person-in-a-comic-book story and a superhero-in-the-real-world story.
The main character, David Brinkley, is a Superman-type hero who hung up his cape eight years ago and settled down in the suburbs to have a family. Although the book begins with Brinkley in his unheroic suburban life—taking the superhero-in-the-real-world approach—events (and various villains, super and otherwise) soon conspire to bring him back to his old vocation. By the time the more comic-book elements come to the fore, however, the polarity has shifted; in making Brinkley into a well-rounded character, Mayer encourages us to read Superfolks as a real-person-thrown-into-a-superhero-world story.
Even though Watchmen aspired to be as complex as a novel, and Dark Knight appropriated film and television techniques, Moore and Miller had to write comics that worked as comics. Similarly, Superfolks needs to work as a novel no matter how much Mayer plays with and against superhero conventions. It succeeds admirably, mostly because Mayer keeps the plot moving forward and periodically grounds the character (both literally and figuratively). Not that there isn't a strong element of satire throughout Superfolks—Mayer is as interested in mocking superhero conventions as he is in discovering the consequences of taking those same conventions seriously. And comic books aren't Mayer's only target—the book is laced with '70s references (such as Brinkley's next-door neighbor Kojak, or cab driver Bella Abzug) that add another layer of unreality to the proceedings. No matter how serious the novel may get, it's hard to forget that Brinkley hails from the planet Cronk, and therefore must avoid the debilitating effects of the element Cronkite.
In the end, it's the way Superfolks mixes humor and poignancy, and punctuates its tongue-in-cheek cynicism with moments of genuine emotion, that makes the novel distinctive—even now, when its once radical central conceit has become familiar.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005