BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Jacob Curtiss, 15-year-old orphan in a futuristic Melbourne (the last city on Earth), finds his way to the virtual world of Heropa. There he becomes Southern Cross, a Cape ready to live out his fantasies, but instead finds himself in a just-as-harsh world, where he has to track down the people responsible for the string of superhero murders.
PROS: Campy fun; over-the-top banter and superhero identities; a highly stylized retro-futuristic world; clever subversion of the heroic narrative; pop culture references galore
CONS: Pacing suffers throughout the book, resulting in initial disorientation; a heavy emphasis on bickering, which steals away the opportunity of deeper characterization and developing of the conceptual aspects in the world.
BOTTOM LINE: A light adventure with a bit of KAPOW and a heavy dose of sardonic sarcasm guaranteed to give you a case of the nostalgia for the good, old innocent days of comic books where things were neat, clean and proper.
With comic book icons jumping across the multiplex cinema screens, it’s hard not to be involved in the superhero hype, which has been successfully crossing over from colourful panels to novels and short fiction. With Adam Christopher’s Empire State, Seven Wonders and The Age Atomic as well as Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories edited by Claude Lalumière & Camille Alexa as most recent examples, it’s no wonder more people would examine the superhero narrative and myth, which leads us to Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa?, a novel by Australian author Andrez Bergen.
What differentiates Bergen’s novel from the works above is the fact that Heropa is a digital city where players create a superhero avatar for themselves and have the chance to brawl it amongst each other either as a hero or a villain. These people are the so-called Capes in a fake city, where each day everything is reset and the NPCs (Blandos), who usually get caught in the crossfire, live from day to day with no memories. It’s in this world that 15-year-old Jacob finds himself as muscled and chiseled adult superhero Jack a.k.a. Southern Cross.
He comes to Heropa to seek refuge from the unforgiving, authoritarian nightmare Melbourne has become and the only prospect for happiness is to switch one world for another reality. Jacob does this readily, pushed onwards by his love for comic book lore, but his ultimate fantasy slowly tilts off-center. Yes, he joins the Equalizers, the elite team of do-goers in Heropa, but instead of team spirit and heroics he meets jaded players – tired of the game, tired of staying in characters, tired with each other. Barbs and cynicism have substituted playful banter. Disinterest has substituted team work. The heroes are players and since they’re the only real people, the civilian’s live have lost all value.
That’s certainly not how everyone remembers superheroes and it’s the upbeat, clean and almost cheery prose that places all this in a very obvious contrast to Jacob’s naïve idealism. As Jacob explores Heropa further, the readers understand how the superhero world in the Golden and Silver Ages can never exist in its entirety. The creators have given all Capes strict rules, which regulate how one should conduct (no smoking, no drinking, no swearing). Breaking the rules results in penalty expulsion for a period. To keep the heroes and villains always equal, both groups have agreed to never seriously hurt or kill each other – a sentiment, not at all shared when it comes to Blandos. I can go as far as to say Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? serves as a tame attempt at the practice of superhero deconstruction; at least during the initial chapters when Jacob learns all the ropes and everything seems brand spanking new.
However, once the novel picks up on the main plotline, pays attention to the gruesome murders and the and the murder mystery becomes focus – the narrative loses focus and misses out on key worldbuilding elements, which could have elevated Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? to the status of a genre-defiant hallmark. Given the fact, the world as we know it has ended and a dystopian regiment has come to power, I thought the characters carried a lot less baggage and the experiences from outside could be brought into the fantasy. Bergen has a cast of likeable players and misses on the opportunity to bring out the pain and depth by relying too much on banter and barbs as the chief crutches for character interaction, which after a while felt insufficient to build a compelling character.
Another aspect I felt went underplayed was the fact that the Reset (the event that restored Heropa to an ideal state with the Blandos’ memories erased) does not affect all Blandos. Instead, you’ve got law enforcers, scientists and a civilian who decides to become Capes as well. I would have liked to see more pondering on whether or not these electronic programs have transcended their nature and whether or not human beings could in effect create life. This is an idea which is just touched upon rather than developed, mainly because Bergen relies on banter as the novel’s main hook – selling the attitude, the spirit. When used well, it does just that, but when it fails it drags the plot down.
Nevertheless, Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? remains an enjoyable read with pages filled with humour, absurd superhero names such as Pretty Amazonia, The Brick, Milkcrate Man and Prima Ballerina, to name a few. I recommend this to comic book fans, who have grown up on Golden and Silver Age comics, because the novel brims with awesome references, which add a whole new experience.