I was kind of excited about Superpowers when I first added it to my to-read list, way back in the day. When I borrowed it from the library, that ardour of anticipation had cooled, and I braced myself for apathy or outright dislike. Superhero fiction just seems like a disappointing genre for the novel these days. It’s not that the superhero novels I’ve been reading are bad. No, it’s worse—they are bland. Soon I Will Be Invincible had an exciting premise and perspective but fizzled; although Empire State had a tighter plot but still struggled with its characterization. And that’s what it comes down to, it seems. So much of this superhero fiction seems to stumble after the superpowered part of the story.
So I’m happy to report that David J. Schwartz avoids this pitfall with Superpowers. Though I have plenty to critique, I really enjoyed the characters in this one. They are complex; they change; and they are more than just their superpowers. As I was reading, I could feel my scepticism melting away and my cynicism slowly lifting. I began to permit myself to enjoy the book for what it was. In addition to these success, Schwartz attempts to probe some of the deeper and more meaningful implications of superheroes within our society. He includes a predictable—and therefore reassuring—narrative structure to achieve this.
Each chapter has a date. The first chapter is “Sunday, May 19, 2001.” The book does not stop at the end of August. From the beginning, Schwartz signals a deliberate choice to set this book around a major, terrible event in recent world history. After every few chapters, we get a short commentary from the book’s “editor”, a conspiracy-theory–prone student who knows the five superpowered main characters (dubbed the “All Stars” by the media) and eventually unearths their secret. He presents Superpowers as a fictionalized recounting, based on interviews with one of the members of the team, of the All Stars’ formation and decline. Though Hatch occasionally reminds us of his agenda, he largely remains an uninvolved narrator/editor.
I understand but don’t share the dissatisfaction that some might feel over Schwartz’s choice of time period. The other significant factor in any is the place: Superpowers takes place in Madison, Wisconsin—not New York. Had Schwartz set it in the latter city, this would have been a very different book; the All Stars would have been more directly involved in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. By setting it farther from the scenes of the destruction, Schwartz is able to distance his superheroes—who remain aggressively local and “small-time” throughout the novel—from the specifics of the event even as he hitches his star to the mood it creates. In so doing, he can examine the paradoxes of society’s attitude towards superheroes as well as the psychological effect of their powers and heroics on the characters themselves.
It’s possible to do all that without reference to September 11, of course. However, that event offers a touchstone that will be familiar to most readers. It will forever be a part of our discourse about superheroes—what does it mean to be a superhero, an American superhero, in the post-9/11 world? How has this changed the American attitude towards superheroes like Superman? And if you were one of five college students who suddenly found themselves with powers, and 9/11 happened, how would that affect your nascent self-image as a superhero?
Through his ensemble cast, Schwartz looks at different aspects of the way superpowers alter his characters’ identities. Harriet, the reporter, the interviewer, can be come invisible. Caroline, after years of supporting herself because of an irresponsible mother, feels the freedom of flight. Mary Beth, whose parents died in an automobile accident, is super-strong and invulnerable. Jason finds his super-speed invigorating. Charlie is cursed with the ability to read minds, but he manages eventually to make the best of it. (I’m just summarizing here. It gets deeper than this, but I don’t want to bog down by digressing and analyzing each character.)
The All Stars confine themselves to fighting crime within Madison, making waves with the local police and media but not really achieving a national profile. At first the police engage in some sabre-rattling, but for the most part they don’t pursue the All Stars’ identity with anything approaching diligence. The only cop remotely interested in unmasking them happens to be Harriet’s father. Later, after 9/11 as well as an unrelated incident in which the All Stars created some collateral human damage, Harriet’s father feels the pressure from his superiors to crack the case. Schwartz both creates a good amount of tension but also allows the plot to develop and advance, so it never gets stale.
Superpowers lacks one of the major defining traits of superhero fiction: a supervillain. The fictitious editor of the book acknowledges this. And it makes sense given what it seems what Schwartz is trying to do. The emphasis on the internal conflicts that result from these superpowers—and, to some extent, conflicts among the group or with family members—would be overshadowed by an external nemesis. However, the lack of a supervillain means that Schwartz has to work harder to provide our heroes with actionable threats—instead of just more angst. In this respect, I’m not as convinced he succeeds.
I was really getting into the book by the time it hit September 11. As I said above, I liked their reactions to it. Unfortunately, the book starts to fizzle from there. The various members of the All Stars start to go their separate ways. Caroline is searching for her mother in New York following the destruction of the Twin Towers. Jack is dealing with the adverse effects of his superspeed. Charlie has another breakdown. I’m extremely disappointed by the handling of Mary Beth’s conflict. Earlier in the book, just prior to the September 11 attacks, Schwartz shoehorns in a Muslim character like some kind of afterthought. It’s clumsy and contrived. All this happens at once, but with no sense of direction and no satisfying conclusion, the climax and denouement are both quite disappointing.
The choice of title is a curious one as well. Superpowers isn’t really about the superpowers these people receive. Schwartz provides no explanation, no origin story beyond “we all got drunk at a ragin’ party and woke up with powers”, and then he throws that lack of an explanation in our faces like a challenge. The origin story is a pivotal moment in every superhero’s life. We get no explanation for why these people are special. This undermines the extensive attempts to use their superpowers to talk about their psychology and their identity (which is a shame, because I quite liked that aspect of the book!).
Schwartz takes the “ordinary people suddenly have abilities” story and dresses it up in fancy new clothes. He sets it during an interesting period of recent history, and he does a good job using this preparation to explore how superpowers change people. Despite its problems, I still enjoyed Superpowers. However, it has plenty of rough edges that I suspect would make those less charitable groan and gripe.