A few months ago, I read a comic news item about a novel called Superfolks by a guy named Robert Mayer. About Comics was reprinting the long out-of-print book in a new limited edition of 2000 copies. The reason why the news item caught my eye was that the book was recommended by Kurt Busiek, who wrote an introduction for the new edition and stated that Astro City probably wouldn't have existed if not for this book.
Good enough for me.
Superfolks centers around David Brinkley, last survivor of the planet Cronk and former superhero. He has retired to the suburbs after he slowly lost his powers for some inexplicable reason, and has settled into a boring existence with a wife and two kids.
When a strange series of riots breaks out in the city, he returns to investigate. The winding path he travels will ultimately lead him back to his old superheroing ways, but that seems to be exactly what the shadowy conspiracy in the background wants.
To reveal any more would be completely unfair. What makes this book remarkable isn't necessarily its plot, its incredibly black humor, its terrible puns, or its use of the language. All of them are terrific (except perhaps the terrible puns -- if Cronk is David Brinkley's Krypton, then what's his one weakness?). What makes this book truly remarkable is that it was first published in 1977.
Nearly a decade before the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Only a few years after Denny O'Neil, Steve Englehart, and the rest of Batman creative teams rescued the grim, dark avenger of the night from being Adam West for the rest of his publishing career. At a time when the American superhero comic was only taking the tiniest baby steps toward more mature sensibilities, this book took all the classic plot elements of the superhero, jumbled them together, and produced something the world had never seen before and wouldn't see again for another 10 to 20 years.
According to the introduction, there's a disturbing number of prominent comics writers today who read this book back in the 70's and cite it as a primary influence on their work. In addition to Busiek, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Mark Waid are all avowed Superfolks fans. Read this book, and you'll find out where Moore swiped more than a few of his ideas for Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, Miracleman, and Watchmen. You'll see where Grant Morrison got his gleeful irreverence towards the genre and his willingness to embrace the absurd with complete deadpan seriousness. You'll see where Kurt Busiek and Mark Waid got their sense of wonder at the superhero and their ability to take ideas in play for decades and get mileage out of obvious places where nobody was looking before.
Mostly, though, you'll get a book that is simultaneously a loving homage to the superhero comic and one of the keenest, funniest, most wicked parodies of it as well, while being just a flat-out terrific superhero comic book story without the pictures. Although other modern writers may have lifted stuff from this book, reading it in the original is like discovering the Beatles after only listening to suburban cover bands.
About Comics' Superfolks page links to a sample chapter from the book (note to the underage or those with more tender sensibilities: the sample includes naughty words and a scene involving two rather naked people, so I'm trusting you not to click if you ought not to be there), and the novel is currently being solicited amongst the rest of the May pre-orders. Check the book section of this month's Previews. You can land a 30% discount if you pre-order from the Discount Comic Book Service.
Find the $20 to buy it before it vanishes again, and then find a weekend to read it. It's worth your time.
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