Sunday, August 17, 2008

Review in a Box: Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask

I once met Jim Munroe at Word on the Street and shot my stupid mouth off about what a big fan of his book I was, and gave him the impression that I had reviewed it on this site when I really hadn't. (Although I do make a point of recommending it whenever the subject of superhero fiction comes up.) Better late than never!

I don't know how regularly I'm going to review superhero books on here. There are lots of 'em and I'm not going to do them all. But there are a few more that I could find something interesting to say about. The ' a Box' concept is totally stolen from Bill James.

Title: Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask

Published: 1998 HarperFlamingoCanada... but see below!

# pages: 248

Availability: Available for free as a download from

Written By: Jim Munroe

Who Is: In addition to being a fantasy/science fiction author, Munroe is a publish-it-yourself advocate. He's self-published all of his subsequent novels (which I don't like as well as I like this one, but I know I'm going to read Angry Young Spaceman at least once more), and offered this one for free as a download. His most recent work is Therefore Repent!, a graphic novel about life after the Rapture, done with Salgood Sam.

What It's About: It's about two young people who try to use their superpowers to do good. In the end, they do, a little. Sort of. Probably.

What It's Really About: It's about, like so many other superhero novels are, what it would be like in the real world if superheroes existed. What would it be like for them? How would they operate? What sorts of things would they realistically do? It's also, partly, about the student/hipster/indie/zine culture (I imagine there's a better term but I don't know it) of late-'90s downtown Toronto.

What It Has to Say About Superheroes: For Ryan and Cassandra, superheroism is a form of activism. In a world that doesn't have supervillains or giant monsters or anything, it's a sensible enough approach to take for those who want to do good. Still, it makes for some unusual situations. In normal superhero stories, the heroes are reactive: a menace threatens, and the heroes deal with it. In this story, they're active: they try to think up ways in which they can help out. (The same could be said of the threeboot Legion, who are trying to change society as much as they were trying to defend it.) As Peter Coogan pointed out in his book Superhero: Secret Origin of a Genre, this is more characteristic of a supervillain. And the actions they take are easy to describe as villainous: vandalism, destruction of property, destroying policemen's guns, breaking prisoners out of police custody, even murder. Ryan and Cass have to make some tough choices, and deal with some issues that are too complicated for the traditional superheroic mindset to process. In the end, they handle things as best they can and are resolved to continue.

It's possible that Munroe actually intends us to see Ryan and Cass as villains, or at least as misguided, but I can't bring myself to do it. Maybe it's just because I like superheroes unironically. But they're so earnest and so doubting about whether they're doing the right thing that it's hard to do anything but be on their side, no matter how problematic that is. I think they are arguably doing the right things, but it's probably at least part of Munroe's point that you just can't translate superheroism directly into the real world. Which a) is fine, because that's not why we like it, and b) is also one of the lessons of Watchmen, only presented to us in a much friendlier way.

Featured Superheroes:

SSJ (Superheroes for Social Justice):
Flyboy (Ryan Slint)--can shapeshift into the form of a fly
Ms. Place (Cassandra ???)--can make objects disappear
Alien Girl (Jess ???)--can draw pictures of lost objects and their current surroundings

Superheroic Influences: Primarily Sailor Moon. Nothing else directly that I can think of.

How's the Writing: Somebody (I don't know who and I'm not interested) described this book as 'impossibilist fiction'. Gimme a break, man. Impossibilist fiction, my aunt's second best feather duster. It's a freaking superhero story, a science fiction novel. Or fantasy if you're scientifically rigorous about your definition of sf. You can take 'impossibilist fiction', roll it into a cone, and shove it up your magic realism.

My most common complaint about superhero novels is that they're underwritten. The way I figure it, superhero stories are so strongly associated with comic books that it's difficult to tell them without the visual help that comics provide. So a lot of the detail that would otherwise come across in the art of the comics ends up being summed up too quickly, or glossed over entirely, in the prose of the novel. Of course, if the author is good enough, if he or she has conceived the story as a novel in the first place, and has grounded the action in enough detail and verisimilitude, then it won't be a problem.

Flyboy Action Figure is one of the ones where it's not a problem. Munroe knows that he's primarily telling a story about a student and a waitress. They have lives and problems and friends and priorities, and their superpowers don't necessarily help with all of that. There's no way this story can be boiled down to skimpy transcribed-comic-book semiprose. Of all the superhero novels I've read, it's the best-written.

Here's an example of what I mean. Phil is one of Ryan's best friends. He seems like a decent guy. He's funny. Ryan obviously likes him too. But the way Munroe handles him, we can never be quite comfortable around him, and we're always aware of the one-sided tension between him and Ryan. Ryan's secret identity will always come between them to some extent. And Munroe doesn't let us catch him doing any of this at all.

Munroe is adept with his symbols. I never noticed until I was writing this, but Ryan and Cassandra scatter flies and disappearances around themselves all through the story, both with their powers and without.

Can I just say how much I like it that the book is set in Toronto?

One minor objection. I know of a couple of other books, at least, in which the somewhat nerdy hero ends up with an impossibly hot bisexual girlfriend. It always seems like the author is trying to pander to his audience with this stuff. I mean, I like Cass, but I would have liked her just as well if she was straight and less hot.

Recently there's been a lot of praise for Soon I Will Be Invincible. And it was fine. But this book is a lot better. If you have to choose between the two, read this instead.