The young adult and superhero genres have been coming together for a while. The structures have much in common; the Hero’s Journey, on its most basic level, is about growing up: becoming aware of one’s power and being part of a world. People in their teens and early twenties also often wind up isolated, alienated, and with more power and choices than they know what to do with, and that’s been part of our literature ever since J. D. Salinger. Like the sci-fi Western, the combo of young adult/superhero is neither brand new nor has it been exhausted, and Mike Vago makes a worthy and personal contribution to it with his debut novel Selfdestructible. (Disclaimer: Vago is a
staff freelance writer at the AV Club, one of the last clinging to the burning, sinking wreckage. Him also well-known and -loved commenter who occasionally appear here. Me wish him well!)
After a quick prologue in New York, the action of Selfdestructible takes place upstate in present-day Buffalo. Ree (birth name Marie, media name Rehab, not her idea) is in her early twenties but already a veteran superheroine, the child of two legends, invulnerable and able to fly, mixed-race, with a drinking problem (“Alcohol attaches to brain cells and stops them working for a while. Which is a good thing, because my brain is indestructible. If it killed brain cells, it wouldn’t work on me”) and a series of usually ill-advised hookups. Her chapters alternate with those of eleventh-grader Charles, who’s just discovering his own powers, basically the Human Torch. (Superpowers are genetic here, but neither of Charles’ parents have them. Hmmm.) The plot also gathers in Ree’s police handler, a girl, Amberly, who possesses incredible powers that she can’t control, a diverse group of other superhero types, a series of revelations that I won’t spoil, all leading to a climactic all-hands-on-board MCU-style battle.
If the form of this story, calling up references from the Fantastic Four to Danger: Diabolik, is fairly generic (not necessarily a bad thing for a first novel), the feel of it calls up one of the best and most underrated of superhero movies, the first X-Men: a melancholic character study, occasionally interrupted by the burdens of history and spectacle, about people who are different from everyone else in the world, and not by choice. (Like X-Men, too, Selfdestructible tracks the bureaucratic and political structures that develop to contain superheroes.) What’s present in both works is that the isolation never goes away: it can’t be ignored or defeated, only handled, well or badly. Drinking heavily is one way to deal with it; so is nearly random sex; so is seeking out others like yourself, but none of them are cures. That isolation is the real burden of heroism, and it’s where you can find a good story, something beyond the Snyderian victory-through-superior-violence spectacles that have been all too prevalent in our superhero narratives recently.
Vago gets good texture out of the contrast between his main characters and how they cope. Ree’s closest literary ancestor is Watchmen’s Laurie Jupiter (née Juspeczyk), flinty, almost angry, someone who inherited heroism from her parents and isn’t comfortable with that legacy and with some substance abuse issues. (There are also traces of Katniss Everdeen in her; both of them are heroes who’d rather be left alone.) By making Ree biracial, though, and making her an actual superhero, Vago pulls her into a more specific and interesting characterization; her concern with the everyday inequality of the world is another detail that makes her part of our world. Charles comes from the genealogy of Barry Allen/Johnny Storm/Peter Parker, less bitter, more openly funny, more of a classic teenager. (He names himself Mr. Burns, which is in character, a good joke, and a reminder that Vago is of the last generation of writers to know a world before The Simpsons.) Ree is the more interesting character, but that may be a feature rather than a bug; Charles doesn’t have Ree’s history (or he may not be aware of it) that would give him the same complexity.
Charles and Ree are Heroes at different stages of the Journey, and that extends to many of the characters here. We get several flashbacks to Ree’s parents, the ones who have finished the journey and come to terms with who they are; we also get the Maestro, a Hancock-like figure, the grumbling Protector of Buffalo, someone who never got to the acceptance Ree’s parents did. By an unwritten (it may actually be a written) law of superheroes, since Charles can create fire, there must also be Chloe, who can create ice. The array of heroes, scattered all over in terms of age, emotion, and powers makes another connection to X-Men, as does the Charles Xavier-like figure of the Doc.
Further and valuable texture comes from Vago’s rendering of Buffalo, a place with as much history as the cast. Without ever getting insistent about it, he presents a community in the decay of the free market: factories closed up, empty and rotting buildings, money in flight to the suburbs, and the lack of social purpose that comes with all of that, perhaps the most contemporary aspect of Selfdestructible:
The city’s got a potent combination of entrenched poverty, high crime, and loads of abandoned buildings. In the past few years, the city has beefed up its arson unit while also tearing down empty buildings at a pretty good clip. So, arson has dropped dramatically, and there’s still one a day, give or take. Mostly houses in bad neighborhoods that probably would have collapsed under their own weight given enough time.
(Those buildings play into the plot at several points.) One virtue of the young-adult genre has been that it doesn’t just portray people entering our world, it also teaches them about it; and Vago’s Buffalo is both its own place and example of something going on all over the country, not the dystopia of The Hunger Games, but on the way there.
Character shadings and well-done settings won’t do much if the basics of the story aren’t there, though, and Vago has carefully plotted this story. (Genre and young adult fiction both have the virtue of not awarding points for style or literary devices.) One thing he gets that far too many superhero creators don’t is that characters have to be defined by their weakness, not their strength, and he’s thought this out on multiple levels. Ree’s alcoholism and isolation, Amberly’s lack of control aren’t just there for show, they drive the action. Ree has to deal with how to get away from a hookup en route to a burning building, and later how to deal with Amberly as she goes on a rampage. Vago also uses weakness and limitations as a way to explore the ever-popular geek questions of “how did [superhero] manage to do [everyday thing]?” (Fireproof clothes are important!) In Selfdestructible, this comes up by giving each character only a few powers: Ree can fly and is indestructible, sure, but she doesn’t have the corresponding strength, so getting trapped is a constant annoyance for her, and pretty funny for us.
Although Selfdestructible often feels cinematic–action described quickly and always visually–Vago knows how to create effects specific to writing, especially first-person narratives, casually withholding enough key pieces of information to allow for reveals all the way through to the end. None of these are cheats, simply things Ree nor Charles either wouldn’t know or have any need to describe. The biggest reveal comes in the third act, a big chunk of backstory about this world and how superheroes came to be in it, comparable to the end of Fringe’s first season. It’s a daring move by Vago, potentially investing the story with more depth than he’s earned. He makes it work by always keeping the story about his characters and their challenges, and keeping the action constantly moving. Continuing the analogy with Watchmen, Selfdestructible sometimes feels like reading one of its stories isolated from the rest of the series: without resolving anything, Vago suggests just enough of his particular universe and its coherence to make me curious about it–and that’s something X-Men did too. (Revisiting that universe quickly produced diminishing returns.) If he wants to come back to this in another book, I’m in.