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Soon I Will Be Invincible A Novel Austin Grossman Pantheon: 288 pp., $22.95

June 17, 2007|Christine Smallwood | Christine Smallwood is assistant literary editor at the Nation and co-editor of the Crier.

MAYBE it's Adam Brody's fault. Or Tobey Maguire's. Or Christian Bale's or Alan Moore's or Michael Chabon's or Jonathan Lethem's. Whomever you want to hold responsible, comic books, once the province of extended adolescence, have become undeniably hip -- OK, less geeky than they used to be.

Now video-game-design consultant Austin Grossman has joined the club. Unlike literary creations featuring comics history or essays flavored with mentions of familiar childhood favorites, his first novel, "Soon I Will Be Invincible," is a full-on spoof that conjures a pantheon of cyborgs, aliens, fairies, magicians and zeta-beam-obsessed scientists.

The plot is standard. Dr. Impossible has broken out of jail (again), setting the stage for a showdown with CoreFire, his nemesis who hasn't been seen since the dissolution of the Champions, the superhero team broken by in-fighting and a messy divorce. (Damsel and Blackwolf -- it just wasn't meant to be. Or was it?) Now the New Champions have formed to combat Dr. Impossible and find CoreFire. Chapters alternate points-of-view between the doctor and Fatale, a rookie hero who can't remember anything of her life before she was flattened by a garbage truck in Sao Paulo and remade as a hulk of computerized metal.

Grossman plays with cliche: "Five superheroes walk into a bar in Green Bay, Wisconsin," reads a line. And it gets meta. Of villains, Impossible asks, "[W]hy do we rob banks rather than guard them? Why did I freeze the Supreme Court, impersonate the Pope, hold the Moon hostage?" (Superhero life has been getting self-referential lately: Civil war raged in the Marvel universe recently as characters clashed over whether to log their identities with the government.)

"It's surprisingly easy to cross over from being a prodigy to being a crank," the doctor muses. A lonely childhood, a few years at Harvard, an experiment gone wrong and next thing you know you're sewing a costume and muttering to yourself. Grossman, you see, enjoys the silliness of the genre. But like Moore famously did in "Watchmen," he makes psychology his subject. The narrative is really a collection of case histories strung together, a chain of neuroses and insecurities and anxieties -- the plot is moved by existential crises. "What," Impossible wonders, "does it mean to conquer the world?"

Grossman complicates good and evil by making a former bad girl, the invisible Lily, a New Champion. But Impossible knows he can't change his spots. "There are moments in life you can't take back," he says of the accident that gave him his powers. And despite all evidence to the contrary, he's confident that one day he'll come out on top. "I'm good at escapes," he tells himself. "Maybe into the sewers, like the old days. It doesn't matter. You keep going. You keep trying to take over the world." Like all villains worth their cackle, he possesses that most dastardly trait of all: tenacity. It's the stuff that sequels are made of.

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