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Review: Superfolks

by James Seidler

“There were no more heroes.”

That’s the opening sentence of Superfolks, a funny, irreverent novel by Robert Mayer which twists the conventions of superheroics to poke fun at our own concerns about celebrity and mid-life crises. As the book sets its stage, things look grim—Batman and Robin have died, “killed when the Batcar slammed into a bus carrying black children to school in the suburbs.” The Lone Ranger was “found with an arrow in his back after Tonto returned from a Red Power conference at Wounded Knee.” The only hero left is a Superman knockoff named Indigo, and he’s vanished from sight, having settled into life in the suburbs as his powers seemingly deserted him.

When we first see him, he’s watching Monday Night Football in the guise of his alter-ego, reporter Douglas Brinkely, hoping that the Raiders will pull off a last-minute touchdown to cover the spread. The game is interrupted, however, with a broadcast that speaks ominously of a wave of muggings in New York City. A high official makes the comment that “it’s almost as if the whole thing was organized,” Brinkley receives a call from his former editor asking him to try to contact Indigo, and as his concerns (and boredom) get the better of him, the old costume is pulled from the closet.

Unfortunately, his powers don’t work as well as they used to, the CIA is gunning for him as part of an Arm’s Control Treaty with the Russians, and with his wife nine months pregnant, he’s running the risk of burning out his “gamma-eye vision.” Which only furthers his problems, since whenever he uses it “improperly”, it punishes him by sending him careening into the nearest solid object.

Sex jokes do make up a fair part of the humor here, and if you’re a reader who doesn’t find male concerns with getting off to be funny, this may not be your kind of book. But the sex jokes, while crude, are generally funny as well. Lorna Doone, Indigo’s Lana Lang homologue from “Littletown,” resurfaces as a stripper named Bermuda Triangle, “groupie to the superheroes.” As an overeager bartender tells Brinkley, “You should hear the stories she tells. Makin’ it with Superman while he’s pumping so fast he’s invisible…And Wonder Woman! Ask her about Wonder Woman.” There’s also a scene where brother-sister duo Billy and Mary Button, locked naked in a room with collapsing walls and gagged to prevent them from uttering their power word, attempt to free themselves by rubbing their gags on each other’s bodies, only to end up registering “the first original sin since Adam.”

Still, while sex in its various forms is a significant factor in the book’s humor, Mayer also has fun with the celebration of the ludicrous, much as Douglas Adams does in his Hitchhiker series. Celebrities are inserted throughout to heighten the surrealism of the surroundings—Mario Puzo and Gay Talese are spotted slumming in the supervillain bar, and Holden Caulfield is recognized on the subway as “a famous proctologist…the one all the socialites used.” Even better is the CIA-sponsored school for loners, where students study at right-wing or left-wing libraries, “but never both,” to allow flexibility in assassins “depending on the target and the public opinion at the moment.”

Superfolks does have its flaws. It was written in 1977 and can occasionally feel stuck in its time period, as some of the names dropped may fall to the ground with an unrecognized thud. Also, the central theme of exploring middle-age through capes and masks may feel familiar to viewers of The Incredibles. But Superfolks is where this theme originated, and rarely has it been explored with such a tossed-off, biting humor.

 

© 2005 James Seidler, All Rights Reserved.