If you had superpowers, what would you be — the good guy, or the bad guy? Most of us like to hope we'd be the hero, but there's a heck of a lot of us who'd be the villain, really.
Now in paperback, Austin Grossman's first novel Soon I Will Be Invincible is an affectionate take on the superhero genre. Grossman writes in a very straightforward fashion, not quite parodying or deconstructing superheroes, but giving his tale a realistic sheen.
Invincible switches back and forth between the stories of Doctor Impossible – evil genius who never quite succeeds in his goals, who's just escaped from prison and has his grandest plan yet for world domination, and Fatale, a cyborg superheroine who's getting a shot to move up to the big leagues by joining the team The Champions. Naturally, Fatale's heroes come into conflict with Doctor Impossible in the end.
In comics, bad guys are often a lot more interesting than the heroes. Impossible's a bad guy you want to root for (which begs the question, how bad is he really?). Narrating much of the book, he often reflects on the poor choices he makes and the nasty habit he has of having his plans fail again and again despite his genius intellect and superpowers. (Amusingly, Grossman at one point notes he has a condition diagnosed as “Malign Hypercognition Disorder.") Impossible genuinely believes in his own righteousness: "I wasn't going to stop and I wasn't going to pay any damages and I wasn't going to say sorry, because I wouldn't have to do what anyone else said, ever again."
Over on the good side, the Champions are all analogues for the Justice League, somewhat above it all and remote. Grossman throws in lots of little realist details – Batman homage Blackwolf and Wonder Woman clone Damsel are a squabbling divorced couple, for instance. The fairly rookie Fatale offers a good outsider's perspective on this band of heroes (or "gang of weirdos" as she comes to see them). However, her story is generally a bit less interesting than Doctor Impossible's self-loathing monologues. It does have a nice twist at the end as everything comes together, though.
The main failing of Soon I Will Be Invincible, I think, is that it doesn't quite rise up to the next level of exploring heroics. Even in the comics medium, the stories of Alan Moore or Grant Morrison have advanced the heroic stereotype into intriguing new realms. Grossman seems content to stick closer to the surface, unlike recent novels by Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon that also dig into comic books as inspiration. You can imagine it as a perfectly enjoyable comic book by John Byrne and Chris Claremont back in the '80s, but not quite as a masterpiece of the medium.
As a first novel, however, it's quite promising and filled with a cheerful sense of momentum. I'd dig reading a sequel, just to see how close Doctor Impossible can come to ruling time and space. "What does it mean to take over the world," he muses at one point. "Is there really a way to do it?" I'm not sure myself, but I wouldn't mind finding out, either.