“I’m the smartest man in the world. Once I wore a cape in public, and fought battles against men who could fly, who had metal skin, who could kill you with their eyes. I fought CoreFire to a standstill, and the Super Squadron, and the Champions. Now I have to shuffle through a cafeteria line with men who tried to pass bad checks. Now I have to wonder if there will be chocolate milk in the dispenser. And whether the smartest man in the world has done the smartest thing he could do with his life.”
No, he hasn’t. And thanks to Malign Hypercognition Syndrome, Doctor Impossible won’t. Probably can’t. When his old foe CoreFire vanishes, CoreFire’s old teammates don’t take long to decide that even though Doctor Impossible is in prison, he is the logical suspect.
The mistake (or at least a mistake) the authorities make is to send two younger and less experienced masks to interrogate the Doctor. These two guys are testosterone-poisoned idiots, as is typical of 1990s comics. What should have been a simple civil-liberties-violating beat-down and mind-rape of Doctor Impossible turns instead into yet another prison break for the experienced villain.
Out in the world again, Doctor Impossible is free to commit the usual string of felonies to clear his name of the one crime he didn’t commit. And that might be fun. But what would be a lot more fun than clearing his name would be to conquer the world!
Doctor Impossible has tried and failed at this, twelve times … but Plan Thirteen, lucky thirteen, is sure to succeed! This time, this time, the Doctor is certain he has all the angles covered.
2007 was a year rich in competently written, gloomy, hair-shirt fiction. I remember Andrew Wheeler commenting on it at the time. A couple of years later Kathryn Cramer, at the time co-editor of one of the annual Best SF anthologies (then filled with a rich gumbo of dreary) commented :
So, to answer his question, Does SF have to be so gloomy? I guess my answer is that for now it does because it is in touch with the world we inhabit right now.
2007 was also the year that the owners of Bookspan began a decade long experiment with staffing: how many experienced staff must be fired before the company stops functioning effectively? It was the year where I set a personal record for number of friends who died that year. Austin Grossman’s comic superhero novel was very well timed  as a pick-me-up.
The book is told from two points of view: Doctor Impossible, who clings to every imagined slight and grudge, and Fatale, an amnesiac cyborg who is in pretty much every possible way the Doctor’s mirror image. Fatale gives us the hero’s-eye view of the hunt for the villain. She also provides a pretty good look at what being one of the good superhumans is like, which (I am sad to say) isn’t as much fun as the stacks of Silver Age comics I assume Grossman read at some point would have one believe. Most enhanced abilities come with a cost, whether it’s potentially life-threatening medical conditions or supernatural geases.
Speaking of the stacks of Silver Age comics I assume Grossman read at some point, I am pretty sure most of those were DC comics, not Marvel. There’s a real Justice Society, Justice League, Teen Titans vibe to his world … although there’s enough of a Narnia vibe there that I suspect that both Grossman brothers, Lev and Austin, read C. S. Lewis as children.
Speaking of Austin’s brother Lev, the big difference I can see between Austin and Lev is that while both of them appear to draw on their childhood reading material for inspiration, I spent most of The Magicians and The Magician King wanting to kick protagonist Quentin Coldwater and most of his snotty, privileged jerk pals into shapeless jelly. Austin managed to make Doctor Impossible a sympathetic and likable character, even though he is a self-sabotaging, self-deluding, oblivious megalomaniac whose plans could well kill everyone on Earth . Which would be bad.
Perhaps to balance Doctor Impossible out, the heroes don’t seem especially burdened with competence where their chosen field is concerned, aside from being able to deal out and deal with damage. The whole reason Doctor Impossible is in a position to launch Brilliant Plan Thirteen is because the white hats jump to the conclusion he had to have something to do with CoreFire’s disappearance, despite the minor detail that he was in prison at the time.
The current re-read didn’t have the context it did back in 2007 (gleam of humour in an otherwise glum novel lineup; frankly, since I started my own review site, the ratio of good stuff to crap has greatly improved ), but Grossman’s playful little superhero novel is still a lot of fun. I don’t mind having set aside an evening to reread a novel I had already read; I will no doubt reread it again at some point.
1: I originally copied this comment from an essay posted on tor.com some time in July 2009, IIRC. The comment is preserved on my LJ, but I cannot now find the essay in the site’s archives. You just have to trust me. Honest.
2: It was well-timed for me at least. I had planned on giving a copy of this to the exgf’s bf for his birthday but annoyingly the book (which I had already read as an ARC) wasn’t out commercially. No problem, I thought, I will just give it to him for Christmas 2007.
3: Doctor Impossible is actually pretty good about avoiding civilian casualties when he’s street fighting with masks. It’s only large numbers of people en masse, mere abstractions, whom he is willing to endanger.
4: For example, I have not had to read a Kevin J. Anderson book in over a year.