Wednesday, August 29, 2007

From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, Minister Faust

This review was originally published in Strange Horizons

In the terms we use to talk about the fantastic, comic books, especially superhero comics, have long been a genre unto themselves. They combine elements of fantasy (magical and mythic powers) and science fiction (mutants and alien invasions) with archetypal characters and violent conflict. While comic books and graphic novels in general have expanded far beyond these genre boundaries (see "Sandman," "Maus," et al) recently this sort of story has been moving into the world of the conventional novel. Minister Faust subtly used some of these conventions in his amazing debut, Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, and now approaches the heroic comic book genre head-on in the hilarious and pointed From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain.

Dr. Brain takes as its conceit that it is a self-help psychoanalysis book for superheroes titled UnMasked!: When Being a Superhero Can't Save You From Yourself. The "author" is Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman, and her other publications include Side-Kicked! When the Alpha-Hero Treats You Like Omega and Sacred Identity: Reclaiming the Demi-God in You. In the wake of the "Götterdämmerung," which saw the defeat of most of the world's supervillains, superheroes—the individuals, and the organisations they belong to—have been forced to redefine their place in the world. Indeed, the six biggest stars of the Fantastic Order of Justice (F*O*O*J) are so dysfunctional that they have been ordered to Dr. Brain's office for group therapy. Take all the soap operatics that you could imagine with dysfunctional superheroes, and that's our starting point. Every comics fan should read this book. Even those with only the most rudimentary knowledge of the field will enjoy a huge host of in-jokes. A cast of characters will give you a feel for the tone of the book:

Omnipotent Man (basically, Superman) is from planet Argon. Argonium is his one weakness, but that's because it's made into a drug that he's addicted to.

The Flying Squirrel (Batman, also Iron Man) is an arch-conservative industrialist whose megacompany Piltdown International gets massive defense contracts through the F*O*O*J. He's angling for the presidency of F*O*O*J to set the agenda for the post-Götterdämmerung world, and to secure his company's contracts well into the future.

Iron Lass (Wonder Woman, also Storm is a Norse/Germanic demi-goddess. She was the tactical genius behind the Götterdämmerung, and has a spectacularly dysfunctional family past.

X-Man (no immediate analog—which is part of the point) is a hero who came up through a Black Panther-type organization, the League of Angry Blackmen (L*A*B) before joining F*O*O*J. Like The Flying Squirrel, he seeks to become president of F*O*O*J, but he wants to shift its mission towards social justice issues. His power involves words and shadows (which is also part of the point).

Power Grrrl (think Paris Hilton with superpowers). Crime fighting is secondary to her world-wide self-branding efforts. Deeply narcissistic, she has staked out her turf as a lesbian power hero.

And last but not least is Superfly (Spider-man), a young black playa version of Peter Parker who tends to buzz around the margins of the group, and who is also a shout-out to blaxploitation films.

It is clear from this set-up that there is no end to the number of subjects that Faust can address, and he takes full advantage of his target-rich environment: capitalism, race relations, generational differences, politics, celebrity culture, psychology, post Cold War America, and the War on Terrorism, among others. To hit so many serious topics in a book that is frankly hilarious to read is a testament to Faust's incredible talent as a satirist. A lot of them are issues that pop up in fan discussions about comic books, but are rarely addressed directly in the comic books themselves, especially issues of race and class. That's not to say that comics are always shallow, but they often treat these issues tangentially; for instance in the X-Men movies a clear equivalence is drawn between the alienation experienced by those who are mutants, and those who are homosexual. Faust takes this huge package of concerns and makes the comic book connection explicit. Other books have appeared in the past few years that have used comic book devices to illuminate social issues, from the Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2001) by Michael Chabon (which explored the Jewish-American experience around WWII) to a recent small press release, Supervillainz (2007) by Alicia E. Goranson (which focuses on the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered experience). Jonathan Lethem has written a short essay titled "Top Five Depressed Superheroes" (more limited than Faust's set-up, obviously) and of course the novel The Fortress of Solitude (2003) (which, foreshadowing Faust, examines race relations through two young comics fans gifted with superpowers). Truly, superheroism seems to be in the air, and a particularly ripe target.

Like all the best satirists (Swift comes to mind), Faust is true to the literal reality of his scenario. This is especially important because it means that you don't have to agree with all his politics in order to enjoy the story. The superheroes perform true to their character types and archetypes, and there is a real plot with a real threat to F*O*O*J. The F*O*O*J was formed by an Egyptian deity known here as the Hawk King. After the Götterdämmerung, he had basically retired, but near the beginning of the book he is found dead. Was it natural causes? Assassination? How can a god die? As the characters try to investigate the death of their personal hero and role-model, and face off against each other, Dr. Brain (the sole first-person viewpoint and narrator) runs around trying to get all the superheroes to continue therapy and deal with their feelings, lending a surreal air to the entire narrative. She has a habit of using a metaphor or simile and taking it way over the top: "Directed to me by the winding country lanes of their own confusion, my patients arrived at my Hyper-Potentiality Clinic yoked to wagonloads of psychemotionally dysfunctional produce." This sort of running joke could easily become distracting, but Faust never lets it get out of hand.

One of the subtlest elements of the book is how the biases of Dr. Brain herself infect the text at an almost subconscious level. More than once the characters accuse her of being an unreliable narrator, so you can't say Faust is trying to sneak something by the reader. The way Brain marginalizes and pathologizes the concerns of X-Man are an indictment of the way psychology can privilege the standards of WASP society above those of other cultures. X-Man is justifiably concerned about the poor and black community he grew up in, and he's especially afraid that if the (barely closeted) racist The Flying Squirrel takes control of F*O*O*J the consequences will be dire. However, Dr. Brain repeatedly dismisses his rants and concerns as "Racialized Narcissistic Projection Neurosis." He claims that Hawk King's alter ego was a black professor named Dr. Jacob Rogers, but she never credits this claim in any way, always attributing it to his race politics.

"Whereas racial discrimination was once a daily fact of American life for many, legislation and social progress have ensured that what was only a dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial a few decades ago has become reality for all.
"Yet for many heroes of color, the collective memory of that discrimination—and the habits secreted into our culture around commemorating it—have produced a rabid, slavering Cerberus whose heads are Self-Defeat, Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, and Pervasive Expectation of Exclusion." (p. 149)

It's easy to be lulled by such reasoning, and one hears analogous comments all the time, usually made by various pundits. However, I think it's fair to say that Dr. King's dream has not been totally fulfilled, a point that Faust has X-Man make, and Dr. Brain disregard, many times. She constantly, if subtly, privileges the viewpoint of The Flying Squirrel, who spends more time campaigning (and caring for the ailing Iron Lass) than searching for answers. Not that X-Man is some sort of figure of purity and martyrdom. Superfly especially takes some glee in hoisting X-Man on his own petard, showing how he's violated his own standards of moral and racial purity.

"'All you self-righteous, sanctimonious negroes,' sing-songed Andre, 'accusing anybody you don' like, beatin em down, drawin up enemies lists almost longer than my dick—y'all buncha perfectest, holy rollin, no smoking, limp-dickin Thirty-Six-Chamber-havin, monkey-ass—'
'This ain'no kot-tam Wu Tang album,' snapped Ahmed." (p. 147)

This also points up generational conflicts: X-Man, a fighter from the civil rights era, has barely any common ground with Superfly, a hero from the post-civil rights hip-hop generation. Likewise Omnipotent Man, Iron Lass, and The Flying Squirrel (basically the "Greatest Generation") often find themselves in opposition to the younger X-Man, Superfly, Power Grrrl (the "Gen X" and "Gen Y") axis.

Another fascinating point (among many) is the contrast between Iron Lass and Power Grrrl. They illustrate the generational differences between the cold, ruthless women who had to play by men's rules to break through the glass ceiling, and the post-sexual revolution girls who can flaunt their way to the top, blatantly using their sexuality to sell themselves. As the current debate about feminism often shows, the older women who fought for feminism are often dismayed by the younger generation, while the younger folks take the basics for granted and wonder what the old-school feminists have to offer now. The critical analysis buried in the dynamics and interactions between these two characters, all the while remaining plausible (within the genre rules) and funny, again illustrates Faust's talent for this type of cutting commentary.

Faust isn't actually raising any issues here that haven't at some point in the past cropped up in the pages of the comic books, at least marginally. What he is doing is bringing them out into the open and exhaustively interrogating them. He can do this because he takes superhero stories seriously, even as he's laughing at them. There is nothing to stop a reader from approaching From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain as simply an action-adventure parody but, like comic books (and the fan discussions of them), there's a lot more to find if you read between the panels. In a way, Faust is asking all of us why we haven't been seeing these things in our comic stories all along, since they've always been there. And when we're done laughing and enjoying ourselves, his book might help us read comic books in a different way, from a new perspective. No matter how broad or pointed the humour, or how cheesy the cover, that is true art.